Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Scott and Liz Varley attend Salt Lake Comic Con 2015 in Salt Lake City, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015.

Ryan Glitch is Jedi master — of matchmaking.

As a huge “Star Wars” fan hailing from upstate New York, Glitch is the first to admit that fandom has had a tremendous impact on his life. Now, Glitch and a group of friends have spent the past five years using fandom to bring people together through Sci-Fi Speed Dating — a business that travels the country each year at 45 comic cons and fan conventions each year whose motto is “Matches made in fandom.”

Dressed in an elaborate Jedi knight costume complete with light saber and richly detailed leather belt bearing the emblem of “Star Wars” resistance fighters, Glitch can’t hide his pride at how well his endeavor has done — 64 marriages so far, and that’s just what’s been reported to Glitch on the speed dating Facebook page.

In the pre-Internet era, the fandom world would be an isolating one. “I don’t mean to mislabel anyone, but we’re all geeks, we’re all fans and it’s hard to meet people with the same passions in the real world,” Glitch said.

But now, comic conventions, online communities and niche services like Glitch’s offer fans of all sorts of connection and support that can enrich and change lives for the better — in all kinds of ways.

“At the end of the day, people are going to say, ‘You dress up like a Jedi? That’s so weird.’ But at the same time, these are the people who think painting yourself blue and standing outside when it’s 3 below to cheer on the Bills is normal,” Glitch said. “This works because you’re stuck in a room with 50 other like-minded people who are all passionate about the same thing. Right now stuff like this is exploding and the geeks shall inherit the earth.”

Togetherness

Fandom brings people together, but it can also help relationships thrive, often in unexpected ways. Just ask patient care advocate and avid video-gamer Katie Burton.

Burton and her husband Aaron run a podcast called Geek Therapist, a show that explores, answers questions and raises awareness about various mental health issues. Their relationship partially blossomed over a mutual love of Dungeons and Dragons and “Silent Hill,” a famous horror video game.

“The clincher for our relationship was when we had all the lights off and we were playing ‘Silent Hill’ and there was a point where we both jumped and screamed and jumped right into each other’s arms,” Burton said.

Glitch says that while the misconception is that “geeky” activities like playing video games can be highly isolating, using conventions or the Internet to seek out other fans can help people realize they’re not as unusual as they think.

Glitch said he once met a woman in a speed dating session who came to a tremendous realization about herself at a convention.

“We were getting ready to start and she waved me over and said, ‘I’m gay and if I step out, everyone will know why and I really don’t want to out myself,’” Glitch said.

Glitch offered to distract the crowd with jokes while she slipped out, but she chose to stick it out for the rest of the session. Afterward, she told Glitch she had an amazing time.

“I said, ‘I’m glad, but I’m sorry I wasted your time,’” Glitch recalled. “She said, ‘Actually, I’m not sure I’m gay anymore.’”

Glitch said the woman told him that she felt a connection with some of the men she’d met during the session that she’d never felt before — connections she didn’t necessarily know were possible. She’s now happily married, Glitch says, with two children.

“It’s not like I’m saying, ‘We turn people straight or anything,’” Glitch said. “But I have no doubt there are plenty of people out there in relationships that are wrong for them. We were able to help her out in some way and it might not have happened otherwise.”

Self improvement

Fandom doesn’t just help people make romantic connections, it can also help people learn to accept themselves by making friends and finding support in other fans.

“Normal people — people who have never been to a comic con — think it’s all about a lot of fat, ugly, desperate, unemployed, neck-beard basement dwellers, and I’ll be honest, we do get some of those,” Glitch said. “But we also get beautiful, wonderful people, and jack-asses and terrible people. Every session is a slice of life.”

For film director, producer and behavioral therapist Ashley Turner, being a fan of comics as a kid wasn’t just escapism — it taught her a lot about herself. Growing up as a girl in a minority household, Turner said the expectations for women were extremely low.

“It was always taught that you would be submissive to a male and your goal was only to have babies and get married,” Turner said. “Not to further yourself, not to get an education, not to go anywhere and you would be chastised if you didn’t go there.”

Turner said that she was heavily influenced by female comic book characters and began adopting certain attributes that encouraged her to pursue higher education and her career.

“It was what I needed to see at that moment. I learned inner strength and confidence,” Turner said. “They were fighting barriers in themselves and expectations in the world. They showed me that they were doing what they need to do and that’s not bad.”

For Salt Lake City comedian Shayne Smith, comic books were first an inspiration to join the military, but fandom was a soothing community when he came back with PTSD. As a kid, Smith and his brothers endured poverty and the ordeal of his mother’s remarriage to a man Smith described as a murderer.

“Power was always something that I craved and people in comic books had it,” Smith said. “The only way I thought I could be like them was to be a hero. Fun fact: Being in the military is not what it’s like to be a hero in a comic."

After leaving the military, Smith said his psychological struggle led to scrapes with the law and eventually, a choice: Go back to the Middle East as a private mercenary, or pursue comedy. Smith said finding fellow fans helped him feel that he had the support to follow his dream of being a comedian.

“I started to feed back into nerd culture and all those happy feelings, basically everything that fandom gives you — not just escapism, but the immediacy of enjoying something with someone else,” Smith said. “I realized nerdiness isn’t being happy alone, it’s about being happy with other people. Nerdiness saved me from myself.”

Turner said that although she’s always been a fan of comics, she didn’t fully understand fan culture until she saw it in action at a convention.

"Then I realized that this is a family and this is people connecting about something they love who never might have otherwise met. It’s so exciting,” Turner said. “I understood that this might be the one day out of the year that somebody feels that way — at a convention, with other people like them.”

1 comment on this story

The unity fandom offers is something Glitch hopes outsiders will focus on when they look at events like comic cons — rather than the stereotypes associated with fandom.

“The bottom line is, everybody deserves to be happy. So if you sneer at this, it kind of makes you a terrible person,” Glitch said. “I’ve put up with five years of people making nasty comments about this. I just look at them and say, ‘What have you done?’ They have no idea how much guts it takes to be who you are.”

Email: chjohnson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: ChandraMJohnson