‘We was cross-dressing ‘afore you were born!’ Or, how sf fans invented virtual community – Helen Merrick

Helen Merrick notes that the term ‘virtual’ has become associated almost exclusively with contemporary technologies. However, Merrick suggests that ‘offline’ fan communities in the 1950s were “practicing similar forms of many-to-many communication” as their later online counterparts. Earlier forms of fandom were still able to connect members with a common interest, despite their geographical separation.

The Internet is recapitulating science fiction fandom.[1]

In good fannish manner, I want to begin this paper with a story.

Once upon a time there was a virtual community, formed of people who were geographically dispersed, brought together by a common interest, who forged their own language, shorthand and in-jokes in a way that distinguished this subcultural community from their members’ ‘everyday’ geographical and social contexts. One of the most prolific and popular members of the community was a woman called Joan. Joan was one of three female co-editors behind a women-only publication, which inadvertently stimulated the growth of a proto-feminist subcommunity. After two years, however, it was discovered that Joan was actually a man – Sandy Sanderson. The community survived, but the fanzine didn’t.

There are many stories of such virtual cross-dressings and the ramifications of their discovery. What makes my story interesting is when it happened: the community I describe was a group of British Science Fiction (SF) fans in the 1950s. Whilst it may be somewhat disingenuous, this story does, I hope, signify some important and neglected continuities in the ‘spaces’ fandom has existed in, occupied, (and even colonised), in its canny appropriation of media and communication technologies.

Online Communities: ‘Virtually Unique’?

I am not the first to note similarities between fandom and online communities. SF author Greg Benford, and more recently, Henry Jenkins, have commented on such connections: “’Fandoms’ were virtual communities, ‘imagined’ and ‘imaging communities, long before the introduction of networked computers” (Jenkins 2002: 158). A familiarity with histories of fandom clearly reveals the cultural and historical precedents for the kinds of social interaction and communication that many critics attribute to computer-enabled virtual community. In addition, fan communities indicate that ‘virtual’ is not necessarily synonymous with ‘life behind the screen’. The condition of ‘virtuality’ defined as ‘connection without proximity’ (in Benford’s words) is not dependent on contemporary Information and Communication technologies (ICTs) (Benford 1996: 43).

Unlike Benford, Jenkins’ descriptions of online fandom as the epitome of ‘new knowledge communities’, and his argument that ‘cyberspace is fandom writ large’ is based primarily on ‘media’ fandom. Considering Jenkin’s points about the ways in which computer-mediated communication (CMC) has impacted — sometimes detrimentally — on fandom, I suggest it is timely to consider both fandom and its online expression within the broader context of fannish histories. This paper will provide a brief background to the social formations and communicative interactions of literary SF fandom, in relation to current theoretical notions of ‘virtual communities’ with particular reference to issues of gender, representation and language. The notion of narrative ‘cross-dressing’ provides a useful point of comparison; from the current concern with ‘gender deception’ on the net, to earlier fan traditions of gender-bending ‘hoaxes’. Such comparative studies provide valuable lessons for our critical understandings of fandom, ‘community’ and cultures in both ‘online’ and ‘offline’ spaces.

My understanding of sf fandoms as ‘community’ derives from a number of sources, not least the fans’ own understanding of themselves as a ‘community’. I also draw on Benedikt Anderson’s notion of ‘imagined communities’, and in particular his stress on ‘the style in which [communities] are imagined’ (Anderson 1983). A further influence is Bahktin’s observations that over time, communities evolve unique ‘group specific meanings’ and new forms of speech or genres.[2]
In the ongoing debate over whether online forums should be termed ‘communities’ the issues of a lack of shared proximity, geophysical connections and the limitations of ‘single-interest’ based communities have been called upon to demonstrate the failings of on-line groups.[3] I would argue, however, that sf fandom has often operated under similar constraints, yet this has not undermined the ‘authenticity’ or vitality of their communities. What the example of sf fandom thus suggests is that some of the difficulties surrounding contemporary definitions of community are not unique to new technologies, and furthermore, that it is not necessarily the technologies per se which have ‘produced’ new forms of community.

A history lesson: science fiction fandom

Since the 1920s and 1930s, SF fan communities have utilised available technology to facilitate ‘virtual’ forms of communication. In the process, they have developed an identifiable cultural and social identity, produced through unique narratives, lore, specialised language and iconography, expressed through a diverse range of texts, media, exchanges and rituals. As Jenkins also acknowledges, many of the forms and practices considered unique to, or produced by, online communication have long existed (and were arguably, initiated) in the sub-culture of (literary) sf fandom (Jenkins 2002: 158). Many of the elements considered to be both a unique by-product of CMC, and evidence of the development of online forums into ‘communities’ have precursors in sf fandom, such as the development of emoticons, acronyms and shorthand language use; the use of ‘nicknames’ often requiring insider knowledge to decode; and the development of special terms to describe user activity – i.e. newbie, lurker, flaming.

SF fandom has a 70-year history of communication amongst fans all over the world through a variety of text-based formats. Arising from the letter columns in pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories, which printed readers’ addresses to enable communication between them, fan clubs such as the Science Correspondence Club were formed, and began producing amateur publications (first known as ‘fanmags’ now ‘fanzines’) such as The Planet (1930).
The most basic point of comparison between sf fandom and online communities is the reliance on a variety of text-based forums of communication, and fans’ ingenious use of technology to enable one-to-many and many-to-many communication amongst geographically dispersed members. Employing a variety of technologies from mimeographs, duplicators and typed carbon copies (some even hand-written) to photocopiers, fans have written and edited tens of thousands of fanzines, copied and mailed them out. There are now as many types of fanzines as there are sub-interest groups in fandom (including types such as the ‘personalzine’ – similar to a group letter, and the ‘genzine’ – general-interest zine; both of these may spend very little time, if any, discussing science fiction). Generally fanzines include articles, book reviews and – the lifeblood of fanzines – locs (letters of comment). It is in the loc sections of fanzines (in addition to letters to sf magazines) that dialogues and debates amongst fans were carried out. Many fanzines operated on a ‘gift economy’ basis, with copies available mainly for trade (of another person’s fanzine), or in return for submission of an article or loc (few actually operate by charging for an issue).
A related — and even more interactive — form used by fans are the APAs – amateur publishing associations. Originating in the late nineteenth century, the form was adopted and developed by fans. The definition provided by the Fancyclopedia states:

APA Amateur Press Association. A group of people who publish fanzines and, instead of mailing them individually, send them to an official editor, who makes up a bundle periodically (although these mailings have sometimes not been temporally regular) and distributes one to each member. Such apazines are contributed to the bundle by their publishers without charge, being considered exchanges for the other members’ fanzines. The procedure saves time, work, and postage for the publishers; and since the mailing bundles are identical and all members may be assumed to know their contents, comments on them lead to lively discussions (Eney and Speer 1959).

APAs also maintain more control over the content and membership of the discussion. Many have restricted membership lists and may be invitation or nomination only, and are thus similar in format to moderated electronic lists and newsgroups. Obvious parallels can be drawn between the forms of communication carried out in fanzines and APAzines with electronic forms: the sorts of communication and dialogue inherent to electronic lists, newsgroups, and bulletin boards characterise apazines and some fanzines, whilst one can also see connections between the older ‘personalzine’ and blogs.

Narratives and Language: fanac, fiawol & faandom

In addition to the medium of communication, fandom exhibits many of the styles, narratives and unique uses of language often considered to be specifically associated with the development of online community. Benford — one of the few to observe this connection — notes that ‘[M]ost of the Net’s “emoticons” … had appeared in fanzines by the 1950s’ (Benford 1996).

Over its long history, fandom has also developed and employed numerous acronyms, invented terms and nicknames. Some of the acronyms made popular in APAs were, as is the case in online communication, mostly functional, enabling simpler and easier communication. For example: IMO: in my opinion; IMHO: in my humble opinion; RYCT: re your comment to. Other acronyms and terms function more to indicate cultural competency and in-depth knowledge of the fan community. Typically, fandom has its own name for these forms: Initialese.
The Fancyclopedia defines ‘Initialese’ as:

Words compounded from the first letter(s) of each word of a phrase. It became popular in fandom from the government of the New Deal period. Initialese expressions may be contractions of names; bynames; simple or complex catchphrases; etc. Fan clubs are so commonly referred to by their initialese designations that we have used the latter for making entries in this lexicon.

Besides ekenames of other sorts, some fans and pros have initialese monikers properly so called: EKB Earle K Bergey; de Dave English; V2 A E van Vogt; 3E, E Everett Evans; RAP Raymond A Palmer; FTL Francis Towner Laney.

Some Initialese contractions or catchphrases, like Gafia and Mafia, are words in their own right, now (Eney and Speer 1959).

Among those lasting ‘initialese’ words that have passed into common parlance in fandom are: Fiawol – ‘fandom is a way of life’; Gafia: ‘getting away from it all’ – signaling the need to reduce fan activity for a while (this has also spawned a verb: ‘to gafiate’); and Fafia – ‘forced away from it all’ –signaling that something other than personal decision has ‘forced’ a fan to escape fanac for a time.
Another unique category are ‘demolishisms’ (although they are rarely referred to as such in more recent fandom, despite the fact that they are still used):

DEMOLISHISMS Alfred Bester treated telepathy with imagination and talent in The Demolished Man, but its primary effect on us was in provoking Demolishisms. Actually the practice — the use of figures for their phonetic equivalents in puns and names — traces back to Ackermanese (Eney and Speer 1959).

Examples include ‘Vin¢’ (for Vincent) and 4e (Forrey / Forrest Ackerman). Many other terms are inventions that passed into fan lore, their usage marking a fan’s familiarity with, and status in fandom; interestingly whilst some are still used, others are not and can help date the ‘era’ of fandom being examined. Examples include: fanac, actifandom, egoboo, slans, and ‘bheer’. Additionally, in a fanzine of the 1930s and 40s, Voice of the imagination, there was a concerted attempt to develop a new, phonic-based language – associated with ‘demolishism’, called ‘Ackermanese ‘ – from early sf fan Forrest J. Ackerman. Another marker of fan communities bearing similarities to online forums is the conscious chronicling of fan history, practices and mores, through fancyclopedias, indexes of fanzines and fan-written histories (corresponding to the unofficial guidelines and FAQs of online communities).

‘We was cross dressing afore you were born…’

A striking point of comparison between the ‘virtual communities’ of sf fandom and online forums is the potential for ‘cross-dressing’ – constructing an identity of the opposite gender. Examples from the history of sf fandom challenge two common assumptions in virtual community literature. Firstly, that such identity-play on the net is unprecedented in its scope and ubiquity, implying that it is somehow intrinsic to the particular socio-technological conditions of the Internet. Secondly, that the anonymity and potential for deception in online forums limit or negate the development of ‘authentic’ community on the net.
There are many infamous examples of false identities and narrative cross-dressing in the history of fandom, which form part of fandom’s much-loved tradition of fan ‘hoaxes’. The popularity and success of hoaxes, whilst based on deception, and relying to a certain extent on the ‘anonymity’ allowed by primarily text-based communication, were intimately bound up with the construction and reinforcement of fan communities. Carrying off a successful hoax reinforced the fan’s status, demonstrating their intimate knowledge of the community, their intelligence and sense of humour. Reception of hoaxes functioned in a similar way: certain hoaxes passed into fan lore, becoming an integral part of community knowledge as ‘in-jokes’ comprehensible only to those ‘in the know’.


One of the earliest and renowned – if inadvertent – hoaxes involving cross-dressing was LeeH. Lee Hoffman was probably the best-known and most active femmefan of the 1950s, and one of the first women to win the accolade of ‘BNF’ (Big Name Fan). However, LeeH was presumed to be male when she first entered fandom and produced her fanzine Quandry. As she used her nickname ‘Lee’ (her given name was Shirley), according to rich brown ‘most fans just “naturally” assumed that Lee Hoffman was male’:

This assumption went unchallenged despite attempts by LeeH to tell her best fan friends the truth in a subtle way: She sent [Walt] Willis a Valentine’s Day card (Walt just thought ‘he’ was a little eccentric) and asked both Max Keasler and Shelby Vick not to betray her secret when she engaged in a round-robin wire correspondence with them (she assumed her voice would give her away; they assumed ‘he’ was a young fan whose voice hadn’t changed yet and thus were left scratching their heads, wondering what ‘secret’ they were not supposed to reveal) (brown 1994: 91).

This ‘hoax’ was ended when Hoffman attended the 1951 World Con, Nolacon, but by then her popularity was already established. As in many other fannish ‘hoaxes’, mistaken or deliberate play with identity did not diminish either the status of the fa
n, or the community itself, and indeed often strengthened fan culture.


A lesser known, but fascinating fan hoax was the creation of Joan W. Carr, referred to in my opening ‘story’. Carr’s role in editing the all-female fanzine Femizine and ‘her’ impact on fifties British fandom provides an intriguing case study. The editorial of the first Femizine, in Summer 1954 declared:
In various groups and clubs in the U.K., the femme fan is in the minority. ‘FEMIZINE’ is designed to unite these minorities in order that they can get a better hearing in the fan world.

With one exception, all the material used will be written by femme-fans – but we hope men will still subscribe. The exception will be our letter section – ‘MAIL AND FEMALE’ … We are looking forward to receiving, and printing, comments from the males (Carr 1954:2).

The editorial was signed by the main editor, ‘Joan W. Carr’ ‘on behalf of all femme fans’ (and co-editors Frances Evans and Ethel Lindsay). Joan Carr was a ‘hoax’, a fictional person created by male fan Sandy Sanderson. While Frances Evans was aware of Carr’s ‘real’ identity, Lindsay was not initially, and the hoax was not revealed to U.K. fandom and the readers of Femizine until May 1956. The persona of Joan Carr was originally conceived as way of stirring up the Manchester fan group to which Sanderson belonged, which had only one female member, Frances Evans. With the creation of Femizine and an increasingly widespread correspondence, ‘Carr’ grew beyond Sanderson’s early conception to become a well-known figure in British fandom generally. The success of this hoax is evident in fan historian Harry Warner Jr.’s claim that Carr (along with another ‘hoax’ fan Carl Brandon) ‘remain[s] more vivid in the memories of fans who remember the 1950’s than many real, less colorful fans of the same period’ (Warner 1977:88).[4]

In May 1956, Carr’s true identity was revealed in the ninth issue of Femizine – the ‘hoax issue’ – which contained extended commentaries and reminiscences from those involved. Frances Evans and Ethel Lindsay, the two co-conspirators, wrote of their role in the hoax, and detailed their increasing misgivings about Joan’s role in Femizine. Their discomfort was caused by the whole-hearted acceptance not just of this ‘fake female’, but of Femizine itself, which was so ‘wildly successful that it drew up to 100 locs [letters of comment] per issue’ (Warner 1977: 90). When, for example, the second issue drew an unfavourable review, Lindsay recalled that

the other femme fans rallied to our side, and defended us stoutly. They did all they could to help, and began to take a real pride in FEZ. That was when my troubles really started. I had been thinking of Joan as a separate personality … However, I began to wake up to the fact that I could not expect the rest of fandom to feel the same way. I began to worry what they would say when the news came out. At the same time so did Frances, who asked me if I ever woke up in a cold sweat thinking about it. I did (Lindsay 1956: 10).

By 1955, as Hansen notes, ‘Evans and Lindsay were becoming increasingly uneasy about the lie at the heart of Femizine, that a fanzine that had become a rallying point for Britain’s female fans was secretly edited by a man’. They decided to try and alleviate the situation by suggesting that Femizine be opened to male contributors, and discussed this with other female fans at the 1955 national convention (‘Cytricon’ held in Kettering, from then on held over Easter) But, as Lindsay recalled:

It was no good. They turned the idea down cold, wanted us to stick to women alone. After they had gone Frances and I sat and looked at each other in dismay. ‘I feel sick,’ she said. ‘I think we’d better emigrate,’ I replied. We got hold of Sandy as soon as we could and told him firmly that, in one way or another, this monster Joan was going to have to be killed off (Lindsay 1956: 10-11).

By this stage, the trepidation felt by Evans and Lindsay, ‘caused by the whole-hearted acceptance of Fez by the femmes, by their pride in this “all female” venture’, had overcome their amusement (Evans 1956: 11). So, as Sanderson reflected, ‘it was decided to make Fez a really all-female fanzine by having Joan withdraw from it completely and ask Pamela Bulmer to take over the reins’ (Sanderson 1956: 8). [5] However, Sanderson could not carry through his original plan to avoid confrontation by slowly ‘retiring’ Carr from the fan scene, as too many people were aware of Carr’s real identity, so issue 9 was rushed together to prevent someone else from revealing the hoax. The cover was emblazoned with the word ‘Hoax’ over a cartoon of a woman (in uniform, with a fan ‘propeller beanie’ on) lying on an Egyptian-style platform, with the title ’Joan is now a mummy and it’s all Sandy’s fault!’

Ultimately, fannish reaction to the revelation of the hoax was not the catastrophe Evans and Lindsay feared. According to Hansen, ‘[p]eople had been so completely taken in that they were stunned by the revelation and immediate reactions to it were muted’ (Hansen 1994).[6] Vin¢ Clarke recalled that for many fans, it was as if a friend had died, producing ‘a sense of loss rather than laughter, or anger or anything like that’.[7] Many of the fan’s responses printed in Femizine and elsewhere expressed genuine regret at the ‘passing’ of this fan – suggesting the welcoming and open climate of the British fandom, which could come to respect, admire and feel so much friendship for a female fan whom they had come to know through correspondence alone.[8]

Fandom as virtual community

There are of course differences between fandom and computer-mediated communities; yet both are interactive forms of communication, primarily text-based, amongst geographically (and socio-culturally) dispersed people, based initially on a single-interest issue rather than geographic, cultural, social or peer-based ties. SF fandom is a community. What interests me is that, in contrast to pronouncements about similar formations on the net, this is a very uncomplicated and obvious statement, which begs the question, why?

Like virtual communities, fandom is primarily a ‘discursive’ community – its primary function is to provide a forum for discussion and debate, through a wide range of activities, that require various amounts of production, activity and commitment – but the same could be said for web authors, listmasters and moderators. A final similarity deserving of mention reflects on the critical concern over the separation of ‘online’ and ‘offline’ life; i.e. the fear that the ‘fantasy life’ of net communities are somehow separate from, and destructive of the ‘everyday’ ‘real world’ life.

A similar divide exists and is much discussed in fandom. There are some fans who manage to turn fandom into their life – and indeed some make a profession out of it. For the ‘average’ fan, fandom is often seen as a welcome ‘haven’ from the everyday. And of course, fans being fans, they have a word for it – the everyday world and lives outside of fandom is termed ‘the mundane’, and non-fans ‘mundanes’. As is typical of fandom, this term is complex and multi-layered; it can be viewed (and intended) as an expression of sub-cultural elitism and contempt for ‘mundane’ life. But primarily it functions as a humorous, self-reflexive commentary on the condition of fanhood. They know that fandom is not an existence which can be ‘lived’ in all of the time- for most fans there is a balance between their ‘workaday