My friend Robin Scott, a nerdy trans woman, recently told me about a night out. As she sat down to dinner with nine other trans women, an older British woman at the next table asked, "Hello, do you mind if I take a picture of you? You're just so unusual."
"We said, 'No, we wouldn't be comfortable with that,'" Robin recalled. "And for the rest of the night we were like, that's some offensive bullshit. None of us wanted that. That's traumatic to some folks. But you go to a [comics] convention in costume and you get exactly that script, but that's considered polite there. [Cosplay] gives you a little bit of freedom to experiment and do what you want."
The intersection between cosplay and gender identity has long fascinated me. As a cis woman, I have cosplayed as a male character and have intentions to cosplay as another very soon. I was interested to learn more about the trans experience of cosplay. With gender experimentation so common, could cosplay itself be just a little bit queer?
Ellen Kirkpatrick, a PhD student at Kingston University in London, is doing her dissertation on identity, cosplay, and superheroes, and in her MPhil, she specifically focused upon trans identities.
"I was actually looking at the same sort of issues," said Kirkpatrick, "How cosplayers played with the model of identity; how, in the superhero genre, there's this passing backward and forward between superhero and alter ego and superhero again. The same ideas come up in trans identities, superhero identities, and cosplay identities: visuality of the body, changing identities, and people's practices—they change names, locations, they change the way they look, the way they talk, the way their body moves."
Cosplay may act as an environment in which trans people can interrogate the boundaries of gender, or experiment with a new name and a new look that differs from their current presentation. To my mind, cosplay seemed like a potential opportunity for an individual to test the waters before they come out.
LGBT author and activist J. Skyler isn't so sure.
Skyler is a transgender woman of color and about as nerdy as they come. She writes the column "LGBT Visibility" for Comicosity and has recently published two articles on ComicsAlliance about transphobia and gender non-conformity in comics. Skyler revealed that, while she hoped to cosplay as Storm one day, she didn't know a single trans woman, either in person or online, who had cosplayed before.
"I've only known two other trans woman personally—as in those I've actually met face-to-face. To my knowledge, neither of them were into comic books or any other medium connected to cosplay. Of those I interact with online, plenty are heavily invested in comics and other fandoms but I've never seen any of them discuss cosplay specifically.
"A lot of people like to assume cosplay is a friendly all-inclusive environment but those of us who are a part of one or more marginalized groups know better. Women of all backgrounds endure all sorts of harassment and both men and women of color often get ridiculed for cosplaying characters outside of their race. I've witnessed children with disabilities in cosplay being mocked by adult men. I can only imagine the kind of hostility trans women would face for daring to cosplay," Skyler told VICE.
This isn't an uncommon experience when it comes to cosplay. While more and more cons are beginning to create policies that protect cosplayers from harassment, that's only the first step in what's really a cultural problem. As a black cosplayer, I go to cons ready for a fight and typically expect that I will get less positive feedback for my cosplay any time that I choose a character outside of my race. Even though I'm comfortable enough to risk that kind of experience, there are many other black fans who aren't.
Skyler pointed out that it has taken an enormous effort to get cons to consider the safety and concerns of cis women. She's skeptical that transgender issues are ever considered in developing con policy and generally feels that the nerd community is far, far behind compared to the mainstream. She cited the awful comments section on her articles as examples.
"Usually, the only way to avoid criticism," said Skyler, "is if your costuming is on the level of Yaya Han and most people just aren't that invested. For most, cosplay is a temporary escapism to indulge in sporadically—and even then it takes a degree of time, planning and cost. It's not an easily accessible activity for all, least of all trans women."
While the existence of the Cosplaying While Trans Tumblr suggests there are in fact trans people in the cosplaying community, it was difficult to find a trans person who had cosplayed since coming out. Then there was Robin.
Robin Scott is a white New York City artist by day and a nerd by night. I met her a few years ago through a mutual friend and was invited to her Saturday morning screenings of Young Justice and Green Lantern: The Animated Series. Though she hasn't cosplayed since coming out, she has every intention of doing so in the near future.
"I'm going to FlameCon—New York's first LGBT con—in June," said Robin. "I backed the Kickstarter and reserved an Artist's Table, so theoretically I'm going to be presenting my tarot cards and giving free readings. But I'm definitely planning to do a Yeoman Rand costume for [the con]."
For those of you who aren't up on your Star Trek, Yeoman Janice Rand is one of the primary characters from Star Trek: The Original Series. For Robin, Star Trek and cosplay played a key role in her coming out and transitioning process.
"Cosplay was an initial route, in a way, toward figuring out what I wanted to do with my gender. There was a party last February where I wore a skant. Do you know what a skant is?" I didn't.
She explained, "On Star Trek: The Next Generation, they did this thing that I thought was really cool. They said, 'Well, we're going to have these women wearing these short little skirt uniforms, but if we're in the glorious 24th century, totally non-sexist future, then we're going to have the men sometimes wear them too.' So, [before transitioning], I thought, OK, cool, I can wear sort of a skirt thing and still be a guy while it still being sort of a genderqueer space. And that was kind of like a first step for me."
Robin also shared that, for a month or two, she even identified her gender as skant before moving on to identifying as female. She still has the skant and appreciates it, but said that she wouldn't wear it now "because it's kind of masculine, right?" Robin described, in the past, cosplaying as Tony Stark and initially planning to dress as Captain Kirk, but ultimately balking when she found that there was something about it that bothered her.
"In retrospect, it made me kind of feel dysphoric. It helped me figure it out enough to say that it wasn't what I wanted."
I asked her about feeling safe as a trans woman when cosplaying. She agreed that, while her own small nerd community is great, she doesn't know any trans women who would feel comfortable enough to be out and in costume. In her support group, there is one other nerdy trans woman who used to cosplay as the Tenth Doctor from Doctor Who and even did a fan video while in costume. But, according to Robin, this woman said that she could not imagine doing that cosplay now.
"I mean, I'm kind of weird. I don't care," said Robin. "I have nothing to lose ultimately. My life is not endangered by being out, which is a privilege. But the same cannot be said for most other trans women. The fact that I have the privilege, that I can be out, that I can talk to people about being out, that I can be proud and honest—that and just being at a convention are the most activist things I can do. If I go to anything other than FlameCon, just cosplaying as a woman, that's kind of big."
When I show up to cosplay Superboy with my natural, curly, black hair—that's a political act. When Robin rolls up to FlameCon in her Star Trek cosplay, in my mind, that's a political act too.
I contacted Janet Bruesselbach, who is currently working on a project called Daughters of Mercury. It's a Kickstarter-funded endeavor in which she does full-length oil paintings of trans women. I hoped that Janet might have encountered a cosplaying woman of color through her project and she put me in contact with Veronica Sanderson-Smith. She's a trans woman studying programming at Borough of Manhattan Community College. Though she hasn't cosplayed at a mainstream convention since coming out, Veronica has still done a lot of cosplay among family and friends.
"Before coming out," she said, "I would stick to black characters since they were underrepresented at cons—Luke Cage, Blade, Falcon, John Stewart. Since coming out, I have been a bit more creative with my ideas and less [concerned about] what people think, so I do black versions of popular female heroes. It ruffles the feathers of the hardcore comic nerd crowd, but I don't care."
Though she says cosplay did not play a role in her coming out process, it was certainly involved in her finding her true gender identity.
Considering the lengths I had to go to find trans cosplayers—and considering how much support marginalized groups can get from networking—I wondered what a trans cosplay community might look like. As J. Skyler mentioned, issues of safety still loom for trans people at conventions.
"I can't say that I feel safe now," Veronica agreed. "I'm perceived more as a sex object than a person. I see what goes on and it needs to stop. No one should be harassed when they are just trying to have fun."
Veronica was enthusiastic about the idea of a trans cosplay network of sorts and said that she would love to be a part of it. Robin, however, is less eager to make too much of it. She's interested in the idea of having meet-ups at different conventions, but thinks that most trans people just want to be cosplayers rather than being called out as trans cosplayers.
"If I wanted anything at a convention as Yeoman Rand," Robin said, "It'd be, 'Damn, look at that hot Yeoman Rand.' Not, 'damn, that trans woman is playing Yeoman Rand and she almost looks female.' That's kind of scarring. I don't want anyone to clock me. Not if I can help it."
Just like there is no single way to cosplay, there is no single way to be trans. Veronica is happy to smash the limits of gender and race in cosplay, while Robin remains focused on celebrating her womanhood through her cosplay. Still, the two agree: before anything, cosplay has to be fun.
Veronica told me, "I'm there to have a good time and I pretty much don't care what people have to say about my cosplay."
"Getting to be female is a celebration for me," said Robin. "Having to be male is a punishment. I wouldn't do it. If I'm going to cosplay, I'm going to cosplay something that makes me feel good."
Follow J. A. Micheline on Twitter.