When Lisa Olson was hired to work at Source Comics and Games, she considered it to be a dream job. She had been fascinated by comic books from a young age, and had shopped at the Falcon Heights store for years.
During her job interview, however, a comment made by store owner Bob Brynildson gave her pause. She says he told her jokingly that he hoped she “wouldn’t sue them for sexual harassment someday.”
At first, she thought this meant that they were aware of what she says was a reputation of not being inclusive of women. Later, she would wonder if he meant “that they were fine with the casual sexism amongst the employees,” she says.
“I expected a certain amount of nerd-bro ambiance,” she says. Sometimes people would make questionable jokes and comments that were inappropriate, but she decided not to dwell on it. "You get used to it,” she says.
However, after she was given additional managing responsibilities, some other issues with male employees cropped up.
Eventually, she spoke to her bosses about one specific employee who blatantly disregarded her direction. One day, after she had already stayed at work an hour after she was supposed to have left, she asked a part-time staff member to finish making calls to customers to tell them their orders were in. She had asked one particular staff member this same request on several occasions, and realized he had been blowing it off.
“I went to the manager and said, 'I get the impression that nobody regards me with any authority and they don’t want to listen to me,'” she recalls. “The store owner said, ‘Yeah, he’s never going to take instruction from you because you’re a woman.’ I was waiting for the other half of the sentence, but there was none. It’s just, ‘He’s sexist and we’re fine with that.’”
Olson had other professional disagreements during her time at the Source. When she found out Goldie Vance, a comic book series about a black queer teenage detective, had been pulled from the children’s section, she was incensed.
The owner told her he didn’t want to make a political statement with the series. “I said, ‘Removing it is a political statement,’” she says. “I was so angry I could barely function.”
During her employment, Olson says, a store manager made multiple transphobic comments, including deadnaming a customer (using a trans person’s former name from before they transitioned). There were also inordinate delays in starting a women’s gaming/comic group because there were concerns that it excluded men.
“I had to tell them what Gamergate was because they didn’t know,” Olson says. (Gamergate is a harassment campaign that started in 2014 -- and is still going on today -- where women in the gaming industry, especially ones who have spoken out against sexism, have been doxxed and have received rape and death threats to the point where some have had to go into hiding.)
After four years, Olson quit. She decided to go public with her experiences after she saw that a friend of hers was soliciting advice on what employees can do when they’re being stalked by a customer and the manager does nothing about it.
While Olson was never stalked at work, the overall sexism of her friend’s experience spoke to her. “She was very upset,” Olson says. “I thought, ‘Dammit, you are not going to quit for the same reasons that I just quit.’ So I angrily made my post.”
Olson’s public Facebook post on the Twin Cities Geek group went viral, garnering over 1,000 likes on Facebook.
Meanwhile, the Source has sought to remedy the situation.
“[The Source] has always strived to provide a safe and welcoming environment [to its visitors},” states Patrick Brynildson, one of the store managers and son of owner Bob Brynildson, in a statement sent to City Pages, and later posted on their Facebook page. “Recently, we failed to provide that atmosphere, and we apologize from the depths of our geeky hearts... We want to do better for our community from this day forward, and hope you will all join us as we improve ourselves and our store.”
One change outlined in the statement is that there will be a new section, called Diverse Perspectives, which will showcase works from LGBTQ and POCI authors and creators. They also plan to work toward ensuring a more diverse hiring process and “mandatory sensitivity and bias training for all employees, including management.”
Olson was heartened by the many positive messages and words of encouragement she received, including responses from her former co-workers, who said that her post opened their eyes. Olson has since started working with comics publisher Uncivilized, and has joined a planning committee for Convergence, an annual three-day sci-fi and fantasy convention.
Beyond the Source
Olson’s post has sparked conversation about the need for inclusivity throughout the nerd community in the Twin Cities. As disappointing as the news about Olson’s experience was, “it shows exactly how pervasive those attitudes and gatekeeping are in the community,” says Gregory Parks, a local performer and self-proclaimed black nerd.
“It seems a lot easier to identify with an alien than somebody of a different gender or skin color,”
As a person of color, Parks has experienced dismissals of his experiences in the community.
“You have people who are unaware of, or who dismiss how even seemingly innocuous actions add up to gatekeeping culture or marginalizing,” Parks says. “Colorblind is no longer enough. Genderblind is no longer enough. When those are championed, what happens is you get a reinforcement of ignorance, rather than the ability to see.”
H. Jonathan Goltz -- who is trans, uses “they/them” pronouns, and is known as “Gerbil” -- believes the geek community in the Twin Cities needs to keep an open mind about other peoples’ experiences.
“As geeks, we've all been outcasts,” Goltz says. “And there's a danger of reverting to that hurt little kid we've all been, getting defensive and closing ourselves off, when we're told by someone, no, that isn’t how I see the world.”
Goltz believes that there’s lots of places in the Twin Cities that offer respite for queer geeks. “We're all over the place,” they say, listing FallCon, the Autoptic zine festival, Anime Fusion, weekly Geek Partnership Society functions, Crafty Geek, and Geek Physique as just a few examples.
Calli Oliverius, a non-binary game producer for Fantasy Flight Games based in Roseville, says the community has become more inclusive in the 10 years they’ve been in the business.
“The marginalized groups have always been there,” Oliverius says. “But there’s been more acceptance from the community as a whole. Our voices -- those of us who are queer, women, people of color -- have gotten more accepted in the community as a whole.”
As a game creator, Oliverius has also seen this play out at Fantasy Flight Games, as businesses release more card, board, and digital games featuring characters with marginalized identities. They are also moving away from using “he” as a fallback pronoun.
Oliverius believes that the more people speak out, as Olson did, the more the industry can correct the problems.
“The more we address the issue, the better the situation is going to be for us,” Oliverius says.