Michi Trota can’t remember the exact moment she became a nerd, probably because it wasn’t an exact moment. From childhood, she inherited a passion for comics and sci-fi/fantasy series from her parents. Her mother encouraged her to look up to the strong female characters in the series they loved together; not “girly-girls,” but rather self-assured women, even if such women were fictional.
Growing up, Trota was given a great deal of parental responsibility to care for her little brother because of her mother’s worsening multiple sclerosis. When she was 12, her mother died, and her father remarried in her teens. Once he remarried, their father-daughter relationship was strained — he wanted her to surrender the autonomy she was given as a girl.
Yet there was one thing that brought Trota and her father together despite their power struggle.
“A lot of the ways that my father and I remained connected was through a mutual love of those fandoms….loving anime…loving science fiction,” Trota said.
Trota, now 36, has carried this love of fandom far beyond her adolescent years. She’s a board member of the Chicago Nerd Social Club (CNSC) and has been for about a year, a speaker, a blogger and, as her “official” job, the managing editor of a magazine for a professional association in the city. Although she has a plate full of obligations, Trota does not feel overwhelmed. Her work with CNSC, her speaking, and her blogging keep her involved with convention, or “con,” culture – where her heart is.
She’s been going to cons since she was 14 or 15 years old, before they became formal, administrated events. There were no panels of speakers, no signings, no special appearances. She simply went to the con venue, usually a hotel, with a list of comics she looked to purchase. Perhaps some suggested readings from peers.
Trota had a similar process when she went to her favorite comic book store as a teenager. It was a “sanctuary” for her, since she didn’t fit in with her high school peers. She could socialize with people who understood her interests at the comic store. But her first entrance into the place wasn’t exactly flattering.
When she walked into the store, one of the male employees approached her, saying, “If you’re looking for manga, we have manga in the back.”
“Uh no, I’m here for ‘X-Men,’” Trota quickly retorted. Manga are Japanese comic books. The employee at the comic book store assumed that Trota was an Asian girl looking for the comics of “her people.” Trota is in fact Asian (Filipina), but that was beside the point. He made an assumption about her based on her appearance alone. He then began to ask her what she knew about the “X-Men” series. After proving her expertise, he proceeded to direct her to the latest “X-Men” titles.
She was not only treated differently because of her race, but because of her gender as well.
“It was the automatic assumption that I didn’t know what was going on,” she said. “He didn’t wait for me to ask.”
Despite the occasional backhanded comment, Trota found solace as a teen in that comic book store. As she grew into young adulthood, she found another nerd home near her college, Boston University. “A lot of my college friendships were based around going to the same comic book shop every Wednesday for ‘New Comic Book Wednesday.’
“We went there for so many years in a row….for my birthday one year a bunch of my friends bought me the ‘Princess Mononoke’ movie poster that they had hanging in the store, and the owners and the regular shop workers there all signed the poster for me as a birthday present. I have it framed hanging in my apartment.”
Trota has made many meaningful connections with other nerds through con culture, but perhaps none more meaningful than meeting her husband. They met at his housewarming party and discovered they had similar geeky interests. One of their first dates was not a candlelit dinner, but a trip to a Boston Comic-Con.
It was through her husband that Trota landed a seat on the board of CNSC. Her husband was part of a Dungeons and Dragons club, along with the founder of CNSC. Trota’s husband put in a good word for her, she expressed interest in being a part of team, and Trota got the position.
Anne Petersen, 34, fellow board member of CNSC and friend of Trota, remembers the first time she met her in Trota’s first board meeting. She said in an email, “She was excited and ready to pitch in, which was great since she’d only just gotten involved. There was no sitting back for her – she dove right in.”
As a part of CNSC, Trota advocates for marginalized groups within the culture, most often women, people of color, and homosexuals. She mostly participates in panels at comic book conventions or other events related to con culture, wherein she presents her observations and solutions for the problems prevalent within it. CNSC connects nerd groups and organizations together that have similar interests, while its members promote ideas of acceptance within the nerd world.
Trota’s experiences as a woman of color in the geek culture have fueled her desire to improve it through CNSC. There was a time when Trota and her husband planned to go to a science fiction meet-up and then go out to dinner together afterwards. He had been going to the meet-ups alone for a while, but on this night Trota was able to go with him. Trota decided to wear something “nice and girly because we were going out on a date.” She wore summery pants, a flowy t-shirt, fixer her hair up nice and put on a little more makeup.
“I walked in and immediately noticed that people were paying more attention to my husband than me and I was being treated as kind of like an accessory,” she said. While mingling at the gathering, both men and women were surprised about how much she knew about “X-Men” and “Lord of the Rings.” “The problem was because I walked in dressed ‘fem.’”
Kate Lansky, 33, member of CNSC, said via email that the two of them have bonded over the struggles they both faced in the nerd community as women. Lansky remembers one con in particular where Trota sat in the audience of an all-male panel. Her attention was held, but she felt she was not being spoken to as a woman. At that moment, Trota decided that she would no longer remain silent like a good “geek girl.”
“Most people would have gone home and complained to their friends about what they’d seen and why it frustrated or infuriated them,” she said in an email. “Michi has never been most people.”
After that testosterone-heavy convention Trota figured out how to assemble her own panel, to discuss issues of con culture that more directly affect her and others like her.
Something else she loves about being involved in con culture is being able to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with names in the nerd world and discussing its problematic elements. Most notably she had the honor of speaking in the same panel as DC Comics writer Scott Snyder ar C2E2 2014. A website called Comic Book Resources, after disabling comments on the site’s content, allowed users to comment on the write-up of Trota and Snyder’s panel. One user, after watching the video of the panel on YouTube, shared his thoughts on the panel in the comments.
He said that he once ran a World of Warcraft gaming guild online. After a relentless use of the word “rape” during gameplay by users, he decided to ban the use of the word on his site and threatened to kick people out of the guild if they continued to use it. Almost immediately, he got multiple private messages from female users thanking him for banning the word. The commenter said that he had never considered how using “rape” in a gaming context could make female users uncomfortable.
But Trota’s panel caused him to think about it more. This is what Petersen believes Trota does best as part of CNSC.
“She connects people and helps them see things from points of view they otherwise wouldn’t otherwise have considered.” ]]
What Trota loves most about going to cons is knowing that when she arrives, she’s with family. She’s going to socialize with friends, meet new ones, marvel at amazing costumes, and collaborate with other “professionals” about making con culture better.
Trota’s greatest pleasure is changing the way people who attend her panels or read her blogs think about gender, race, and sexuality in fandom. “I would not be talking about the problems that we see in con culture if I didn’t love it so much
“There really is a sense of wonderful community, and I want that sense of wonderful community to be extended to everybody, not just straight white dudes.”