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I learned how to be gay on AO3

On Sunday, I found out that the Archive of Our Own, affectionately known as AO3 to fans, had just been awarded the Hugo award for Best Related Work. For the uninitiated, AO3 is an archive of fanwork like fanfiction and fanart that is owned and run by fans, hence the name. And the Hugo awards are a huge deal within the science fiction and fantasy community — they are more famously known for awarding the best sci-fi and fantasy works every year, though there are other categories like the Best Related Work category.

My heart is bursting with so many feelings — joy, pride, and a profound sense of gratitude towards fandom in general. As a fanfic writer on the site, I want to shout it on the rooftops and tell everyone I know.

But I can’t.

Because I am gay, I write gay fanfiction, and I am not out in real life to many people in my extended family.

AO3 played a key role during a very sensitive time in my life. During my mid-twenties, fresh out of a bout of career burnout, I had a revelation — or, as I learned from works on AO3, ‘gay panic’.

I grew up middle class in a conservative Asian society, and I was a straight-A student who wanted to check every box. I threw my whole self into my studies and subsequently, my career. In the first few years after graduation, I’d always felt like I was one mistake away from financial ruin, and I had neither time nor care for romantic relationships. But after months of working past midnight and wondering if that was all my life was going to be, I realised that I wanted a relationship. And I didn’t want a relationship with a man.

I was horrified. I was in my mid-twenties, how could I not know this before? What was I supposed to do now? I had no one around me that I could talk to.

But stories — books, television, movies — have always helped me make sense of life. I found Alex Danvers’ coming out story. Alex is Supergirl’s adopted sister, and in season two of the TV show, when she was in her late twenties, she realised that she was gay. Her coming out story resonated with me so much that I must have watched those scenes a hundred times (literally, I kid you not. Thank you YouTube).

Still, I couldn’t get enough of it. There was so much about being gay that I didn’t know, and I didn’t know where to start. Googling for a list of LGBTQ resources to go through felt overwhelming and impersonal. Thus, I turned to fanfiction, where I could find more stories through characters that are already familiar to me. I had been reading fanfiction since I was fourteen, even though prior to my gay panic I had stopped reading them for years (striving to keep myself from financial ruin, remember?).

AO3 was the site I turned to, and the community of creators and readers I found there blew my mind. They were a lifeline for me during those first few months when my world was turned upside down. It wasn’t just the fact that there are amazingly good writers who tell great stories, but that so many of them are educational and inspiring.

There are stories about Alex coming out, about her learning gay culture and lingo — and I learned right alongside her. I learned about gay panics and u-hauling, meekly added ‘The L Word’ and ‘Carol’ to my playlist, and blushed at my laptop as I read erotic or ‘smut’ scenes — the latter served more or less as confirmation that I am, indeed, gay. I had never enjoyed sex scenes between a male and a female before, but reading about two women making love made my heart race, and made me think that sex might actually be beautiful.

But beyond the lingo and the facts, those stories and writers have taught me so much more. Things like what heteronormativity is, and how it was fine to figure things out later in life. Alex’s girlfriend in the show, Detective Maggie Sawyer, was often Alex’s guide, and Maggie herself is an inspirational figure. She was kicked out of her own home at fourteen after her parents found out that she was gay, and I found out to my horror that this is actually quite a common story in reality. An estimated 40% of homeless youth identified as LGBTQ. And as embarrassed as I am that I didn’t realise this about myself until later in life, part of me realised how lucky I was to discover this at a time when I could be relatively financially independent.

I learned about how chosen family is a big thing within the queer community. When I came out to my parents months later and they did not take the news well, it still hurt like hell, but I could at least take solace in the fact that I was not alone. It made me open up more quickly as I seek out a queer community of my own, instead of being held back by the shame that my own family had been horrified by who I turned out to be.

Some writers showed all these via their stories. Some shared extensive author notes about safe sex or where to find more resources, or offered encouragement that things would get better. Some even took requests of specific scenarios that readers sent in, and wrote them their happy endings.

Those writers and their stories offered much more than simple entertainment. They offered education and comfort and hope, and reading their stories had often made my day.

And you know what’s more amazing? They are not paid to do all these.

I am not exaggerating when I say they offered me a lifeline — what would I have done without such a gentle, supportive community to guide me in those early, tumultuous days?

Inspired by both what I had received and by the power of stories, I started writing my own fanfiction again too. I had written some in my teens, but for the first time I made my main characters queer. And what a difference it made — the stories felt more true to me than ever, and I stuck to it longer than I had with any other fic I started in my teens.

It was cathartic. I wrote coming out scenes that mirrored my own, coming out scenes that I wished I had, and my characters grappled with the tension between staying true to who they are and not disappointing the people they love.

The responses I received from readers were beyond my expectations. Not in terms of number of readers, but in how deeply they connected with the characters. It reminded me of why I had wanted to be a storyteller in the first place — because you could touch someone half a world a way and make them feel seen.

AO3 provided that platform for me. Through its community of creators and users I learned how to be gay, and I learned what it feels like to be seen.

So yes, I am over the moon that AO3 had won a Hugo. I can’t shout this from the rooftops or any virtual rooftops where I’m using my real name, because I’m still in the closet in many parts of my life (thankfully not all). But I would really like to share how much it means to me.

Thank you to all the founders and volunteers, and all the fellow creators and readers of AO3. The formal economy may not have the tools to articulate or measure the value you bring, but know that you have saved and invigorated many souls out there.

This is what I have always known art to be, and I believe this is what Picasso alluded to when he said, ‘Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life’.

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