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Fandom's Final Frontier: Homoerotic Literature


Like so many things, it began with "Star Trek." When Gene Roddenberry's sci-fi adventure debuted to tepid reviews in 1966, no one had any inkling of the forces it would unleash. By dragging the world of sci-fi into the popular culture, the show created a whole new and wildly devoted fan base with an insatiable appetite for all things Trekkie.

Not content with just watching the show, fans began writing their own episodes, which they compiled and distributed in homemade "fanzines." Given human nature, it was only a matter of time before certain fans began wondering what would happen if Capt. Kirk and Mr. Spock took their powerful friendship a step or two further. Highly romantic, detail-rich and usually pornographic, this sub-genre of plot lines began to boldly go where no scriptwriter had gone before.

To warn their more Puritan brethren, these writers, most of them women, would mark their homoerotic tales with the characters' initials separated by a slash--K/S--and thus "slash" fiction was born. From "Star Trek," slash spread to buddy-cop shows--"Starsky and Hutch" and "Emergency!" were among early favorites--and other sci-fi offerings. As copying became cheaper, fanzines, including those devoted to slash fiction, proliferated; Kinko's remains the patron saint of fandom. But then along came the Internet and slash was never the same again.

Hundreds of slash sites litter the Internet, some with art, graphic and otherwise, most of them with archives full of stories. Hundreds of stories. Thousands of stories. Stories that describe cooings and couplings of the most extraordinary nature. Nothing is sacred, everything is slashed. Wonder what it would be like if Hawkeye and Trapper ever got together? Luke and Han Solo? Mulder and Skinner? The cast of "Homicide: Life on the Street?" Easy to find out, in novellas that range from the sweetly romantic to the eye-poppingly hard-core--most sites open with an explanation of what they are, inviting those who might be offended to "leave now."

While there remains an obvious leaning to sci-fi and fantasy--lots of slash deals with characters from "Highlander," "The Sentinel," "The Pretender," "Babylon 5" and even "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"--if it has fans, it has been slashed. "The Lord of the Rings" (Sam and Frodo, Pippin and Merry), "The A-Team," "Sports Night," "Ally McBeal," "ER," even "Harry Potter" (although these stories all carry an explanation that the characters are now in their late teens.)

At a slash convention attended by 150 people earlier this year in Santa Barbara, "West Wing" was the topic of one panel discussion. The two most likely couples? Sam Seaborn and Josh Lyman--already there are several very well-written stories dealing with their romance--and the president and Leo McGarry.

"Although you have to take into consideration that the president is married, and seems happily married, so you wouldn't want to disrespect that," says one longtime slash writer. "There are rules, after all."

And there are rules. And conferences. And much introspection and dialogue between the growing legion of slash writers, who often spend six hours a day working on their hobby. There are even several scholars who now claim slash as an area of expertise.

Constance Penley, a professor in the department of film studies at UC Santa Barbara, has been studying slash for more than 20 years. Her 1997 book "NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America" (Verso) ends with several chapters on the phenomenon of slash. She stumbled across it while researching themes of gender in science fiction. As a feminist, she was drawn by the startling fact that most of this male-centered, homoerotic fiction is written by women. Straight women. Many of whom say that while they certainly enjoy the sexually explicit nature of the genre, they are more drawn to the emotional intensity of pairing two strong male characters.

"It's a place for writing that is comfortable for women," Penley says. "It's not a big-time writing workshop, it can be done anonymously, there's a support group aspect that makes it very attractive."

There is a small but growing genre of lesbian slash--focused around such shows as "Xena: Warrior Princess," and "ER," but the vast majority of slash remains devoted to men. Many of the story lines are reminiscent of romance novels--forbidden love, with obstacles both external and internal--with a striking difference. The main characters are truly equal. And the fact that women must turn to gay male relationships to find this equality says much about the way women are portrayed on TV and in the movies.

"There are nowhere near the number of interesting women characters on television," says one slash fan. "So if you want to get two powerful people together and see what happens, it has to be men."

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