Walking through the exhibit hall at Flame Con in New York City this past weekend, there was no mistaking this for any other comic convention. Billed as the "world's largest queer comic convention," the third year of this wide-ranging gathering featured transgressive panels and a floor full of convention goers in fabulous takes on iconic comic book, anime, and animated characters.
Stalls sold homoerotic renditions of internet boyfriend Oscar Isaac and indie books about queer lady knights. Cosplay-wise, there was a beefy, S&M take on Ursula from The Little Mermaid, several versions of the protagonist of the ultra-popular anime series Yuri!!! on Ice, a number of recreations of characters from Adventure Time, and even a sexy riff on Gen-2 Pokémon favorite, Espeon.
At first glance, the cosplay on offer at Flame Con didn't diverge wildly from the elaborate getups you see at San Diego Comic Con, Emerald City Comic Con, or any other major US conventions. But, with its penchant for gender-bending and its affinity for welcoming any and all kinds of cosplay, Flame Con stands out for celebrating what is all too often reduced to a mere footnote at other conventions.
In addition to hosting a workshop titled "Cosplay is for EveryBODY: A Round Table about Confidence in Cosplay," Flame Con hosted two panels ("Race, Gender, and Other Challenges in Cosplay" and "Cosplay and Consent") that probed the broader implications of cosplaying as a minority.
Speaking to me the day after she talked at length during the "Race, Gender" panel, cosplayer Jay Justice dived deeper into the way building her costumes and wearing them at cons has helped her navigate her budding bisexuality. She remembered, for example, how unconcerned she initially was about the gender of the characters she portrayed, as eager to take on Colossus ("a beefy Russian white dude") as she was to relish dressing up as Wonder Woman (a character she says she's repeatedly been told by angry, retrograde fanboys she's disgracing, given her dark skin).
"It wasn't until later on," she said, "when I was like, 'Am I choosing male characters and setting up photo shoots with female cosplayers to explore my sexuality or just because I like this male character and have a good time?'" Not that they need be mutually exclusive. But stepping into those same-sex scenarios allowed her to explore aspects of her own identity that she'd perhaps not quite allowed herself to imagine.
That kind of self-fashioning is a common story in the queer cosplay community. Shaping one's body into a character unlike yourself can be a safe way to examine aspects of your own identity, and that anecdotal truism among the cosplay community has begun attracting some academic attention, too. Just this past year, Tiffany M. Hutabarat-Nelson earned her doctoral degree at the University of Louisville's Department of Humanities by submitting a dissertation titled "Fantastical body narratives: cosplay, performance, and gender diversity."
The cosplay community is "generally comfortable with accepting and even celebrating crossplay [cross-gender cosplay] and gender bending cosplay," said Hutabarat-Nelson. "Participants have the freedom to be whomever and whatever they wish with the expectation that they'll be treated like any other person at the convention, regardless of whether one wears and performs a character that aligns with the traditional norms of their gender, sex and sexuality or not."
That's something Justice has witnessed firsthand. "Cosplay is a way to try that [kind of gender play] out," she said. "I have a friend—actually, a couple friends—who's trans, who have said that they were able to explore using makeup and tapping into the feminine form by cosplaying their preferred gender in a way that could be more acceptable." That safe space that Hutabarat-Nelson describes allows for the kind of experimentation that can make all the difference for those seeking to change or disrupt the gender they'd been enacting in their day-to-day lives.
Flame Con panelists like filmmaker Theo Tiedemann (sporting a dashing Tony Stark look), comedian Hannah Simpson (as Joy from Inside Out), and writer Jay Edidin (rocking a pair of red Cyclops sunnies) all spoke candidly about the way cosplaying helped them try out different gender presentations. "I was LARPing for 28 straight years as a cishet boy," Simpson joked during the "Race, Gender" panel. "And despite how terrible I was, nobody told me to stop!"
In a story echoed in spirit by both Tiedemann and Edidin in the "Cosplay and Consent" panel the next day, Simpson recounted how she first used instances like Halloween to give Hannah a test drive before transitioning. The "safety" those instances provided her made it easier to don heels and wear skirts, even if they sometimes came with painful reminders of our culture's rigid sense of gender normativity. She said, for example, that it was her choice to wear a Starfleet red dress to medical school one day that led a professor to out her to the class. It's that inability to escape society's larger ingrained notions of gender that makes spaces like Flame Con, which put inclusivity front and center, incredibly essential.
As Justice put it, "Flame Con is by and for marginalized people who haven't always felt safe." And it follows that cosplay's most transgressive and nurturing elements would come center stage at a queer convention. After all, it's the queer community that understands all too well the performative aspect not just of donning a costume but of wearing one's identity in our daily lives.