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Trans, Genderqueer, and Genderfluid Cosplayers On Finding Their Safe Space In Conventions

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Geek spaces have always felt precious to me. Places like comic book shops and conventions are often where I feel most comfortable, thus that’s where I fear sexism and homophobia the most. What is worse than a violation of your safe space, the place where you don’t feel ridiculous for talking about the things you love?

I’m lucky in that my fears have mostly gone unfounded. My regular comic book shop, Alley Cat Comics, has an amazing staff that has always made me feel welcome and never made me feel dumb for asking questions. I’ve been to a dozen conventions, yet I’ve never been called a fake geek girl or had to take down a sexist jerk. Even more incredible is that I’m not alone; while the assholes are out there, many geek spaces are populated by super rad, open-minded people who just want to talk nerd.

We need to both celebrate and examine the geek spaces that are welcoming to the LGBTQIA+ crowd (with heavy emphasis on the BTQIA+) and show the world that this is what our communities – geeky or not – can look like. With this in mind, I put out a call asking transgender, genderqueer and/or genderfluid identified individuals to share their experiences of finding community and safe space through cosplay. Seven people responded: Dany Ashby, Ashley, Sarah, Charles Battersby, Patrick, Lyn, and Pantydragon. After hearing their stories I’ve picked out a few commonalities that I believe make cons and cosplay spaces unique and safe environments.

While I hope that this article will contribute to a wider conversation about how we can both protect and improve our safe spaces, reading these cosplayers’ full stories – and engaging in a messier, more candid conversation – was an amazing experience. I don’t want those conversations to end here, so I’m launching Queer Geek Spaces: a very creatively named tumblr dedicated toward letting queer and transgender geeks share their positive and negative experiences with geek spaces. You can read the full stories of some of the cosplayers who contributed to this article at the tumblr, and I encourage you to share your own stories!

Visibility

“I didn’t have the vocabulary to interpret my experiences — I had never come into contact with the language of gender.” – Lyn

There is an enormous need for more visible and positive portrayals of transgender characters in the media. Geek activists are not so much calling for this as we are screaming and yelling, and people are starting to listen (thanks, Image and Marvel Comics!) However, cosplay has provided several fans with the opportunity not just to demand the representation we need and crave, but also to make it happen.

For several of the people I spoke with, seeing transgender or gender non-conforming cosplayers helped them break down their internalized transphobia. Sarah, for example, recalled that when she first saw crossplayers she was “so in the closet that I tried to stay away from them, just to keep people from thinking that I so wanted to join them. I went to that convention for another three years with my friends, and as I got more and more comfortable with the crossplayers I started to think more about trans issues and transitioning.” (Crossplay, for the unfamiliar, describes the act of dressing up as a character whose gender is different than that of the cosplayer.) Pantydragon had a similar experience, and prior to attending conventions,

thought that a) if I enthusiastically did only ‘female things’ I would eventually get over my gender confusion, and b) if I cosplayed male characters people would somehow know that I was having a gender identity crisis and judge me for it. It took a few years to get over that fear: a few years of going to conventions and seeing male-bodied people in skirts and female-bodied people with their chests bound. I realized that amongst these people, challenging gender boundaries was allowed, even encouraged, and I finally jumped in.

Conventions have not always been kind to gender non-conforming cosplayers. Charles Battersby has been cosplaying and defying gender norms since the early nineties, and we owe him a debt of thanks for working to make conventions havens of transgender visibility. Charles painted me a picture of what it was like to crossplay back then:

In the nineties there wasn’t a cosplay community. Seeing another cosplayer at all was rare at conventions, and I was about the only one who crossplayed regularly… I was actually thrown out of a convention for cosplaying as Catwoman in 1993, and the story made some waves at the time. Society was quite hostile to transgender people in those years, and the geek scene was no better. Artists and writers were very accepting – but convention organizers, fans, and the companies themselves were generally not.

Charles credits a larger, societal shift in attitudes toward transgender people for this change in cosplay culture. However, he also notes that social media has allowed transgender cosplayers and crossplayers to build community outside of conventions. This raises an interesting question: what about the people themselves? What role do a convention’s attendees play in creating a safe and welcoming environment?

Open-Minded Geeks

“Not only did I not receive scrutiny or negativity, but I was far more openly encouraged… for perhaps the absolute first time since I started dressing, I felt fully comfortable.” – Patrick

Before we can discuss the effect that convention-goers have on a convention’s atmosphere, we must ask: who even goes to these things? Fortunately, this question has an easy answer: geeks!

I attended my first convention at eight years old, and I have vivid memories of impressing (or perhaps shocking) adults with my knowledge of Monty Python songs. Conventions are the place where I have always fit in. When I started going to anime conventions in my teens, I saw my friends experiencing for the first time what I had felt as a grade school-aged kid: this was space to be your full, authentic self.

Pantydragon picked up this theme and identified it as a unique, geeky capacity for empathy, explaining that, “people come to conventions and events with the understanding that their interest, tastes and habits are perhaps not exactly typical. Many geeks know what it’s like to be ridiculed, and therefore are generally less likely to ridicule others.”

Patrick’s experience cosplaying for the first time at PAXEast highlights the impact that open-minded geeks have on the convention environment. Patrick prepared mentally for the experience: “I even started to rehearse what I would say on the train to the convention center. Somebody would call me out and I would go through my little index cards and throw them a premade insult… imagine my surprise when people kept asking me for photos, asking how to credit me in their articles or my Twitter handle. Practically nowhere did I find those experiences where someone ‘called me out.’” Lyn also commented on the positive responses she received on her costume, but did note that “where the response was not so positive (‘What a freak!’ and such), I had the comfort of being in the presence of friends who would comfort me.” Conventions are not jerk-free, but it’s wonderful that Lyn was able to find support from her own geek community.

Outside Cultural Norms

“There is already a different sense of normalcy in the fan community.” – Pantydragon

To describe the unique environment of a convention, many of the cosplayers used the same comparison: Halloween. Sarah explained it best: “You would be pretty hard pressed to find a day [other than Halloween] where more people are doing things outside of cultural norms. Suddenly a guy in a skirt just can’t compete with the creepy body pillows, the furries, the people who think that strategically placed cotton balls count as clothes, and people who completely forgot to put on clothes that day.”

Think about it: Halloween, but inside an overly air-conditioned hotel, and instead of mean prankster kids running around everyone is just as geeky as Sam, Neil and Bill from Freaks and Geeks. (Shout out to Bill for crossplaying in that episode!) On Halloween, your expectations of how others will dress and present themselves are broken down, and because everyone is in costume you feel pushed to accept what you see. At a convention, surrounded by those open-minded geeks, that feeling is often heightened.

This atmosphere of acceptance is what Lyn experienced when she cosplayed at her first convention, and “noticed the shame, anxiety, and guilt that I faced when I didn’t pass. This is, I’m sure, a universal experience among people with gender trouble. However, I was surprised when almost everybody who clocked me was supportive. Mostly it was ‘Dude, you’re awesome!’ or ‘I wish I had the balls to do that!'” Other cosplayers also discussed having anxiety over passing lessened by those around them. Patrick, for example, noted that when cosplaying Miranda from Mass Effect, “I was far more openly encouraged. No one brought up that awkward question, “Are you a boy or a girl?” No one “outed” me.

While the convention-goers themselves do contribute a great deal to creating a space that is outside cultural norms, there is another important factor to consider: the costumes!

Control and Identity

“Costumes are only fun when you are choosing to wear them.” – Dany

Geeks are not strangers to the idea that costumes help us puzzle out our identities. We’ve seen Bruce Wayne find (and question) his purpose by donning a bat-eared cowl, Tony Stark grow a moral code behind an iron mask, and Kamala Khan learn to embrace her brown-skinned, Pakstani, and Muslim self by donning the uniform of Ms. Marvel. We know that costumes are magical, and that they allow us to ask ourselves questions about who we are. Pantydragon, for example, was able to use cosplay, “to explore my self-expression in a temporary way, under the guise of casual play-acting, and without explaining myself or my choices to anyone. It was incredibly freeing, incredibly comforting, and something I never would have been able to do outside the cosplay community.”

Dany also had a profound cosplay experience, but hers was during a Steampunk costume drag show:

I had been really looking forward to [the Steampunk show], but when the moment finally came that I was on stage, I realized that I didn’t belong there at all; that I wasn’t a man in a female costume, I was a girl finally being herself on a stage surrounded by men in female costumes. I felt lost and sick to my stomach. It was mortifying at the time, but afterwards it provided me with [an] undeniable feeling of who I was, which was a very comforting relief to the lifelong confusion I’d always felt. The confusion could be fun, and I still cosplay some male characters, but now I can play with gender while really knowing who I am underneath the costume.

Dany and Pantydragon were able to have these experiences partly because being in costume gives the wearer a greater sense of control over their identity. Ashley described gaining this sense of control through Steampunk cosplay:

I learned about creating my own character [and] I was able to gain confidence in myself as a woman and break through my internalized barriers. I didn’t have to be burdened with getting the costume perfect because it was my own, and I didn’t have to worry about sewing. I could go to the Salvation Army, find clothing that seemed Victorian enough, modify it, and play.  Through the costuming/cosplay process I ended up winning a crossplay competition at an anime convention which gave me a whole new set of friends, support networks, and the confidence to start transitioning.

Patrick also credited the power of costumes for allowing him a sense of control over his identity: “Walking around in costume, people saw that first. They didn’t see my hair or my makeup, they saw my costume. It was like being on stage in character again, able to slide on someone else’s skin for a while… except it felt more real; more me. Instead of an assigned role, I was playing my own role; one that I picked out for myself to display to the world.”

Moving Forward

As many of the cosplayers have noted, conventions have made good progress toward being more welcoming for transgender cosplayers and attendees. Pantydragon mentioned seeing gender-neutral bathrooms at a recent convention, and has seen panels that address the relationship between gender and cosplay. Ashley has also written several articles on this topic, including this interview with gender non-conformist cosplay group Phoenix Quartet, and this article detailing various ways in which Anime Boston has come to feel like an inclusive space for transgender cosplayers.

Many conventions do deserve praise for making these strides, but it is crucial that conventions continue to consciously work to make their events open and inclusive. As Dany points out, “experimenting at home is only the very first step to discovering yourself, but you have to be able to go outside to live your life and truly be yourself. Conventions are far safer than the general public, so they can be a great place. The real world can be terrifying [and] is often dangerous.” This holds especially true for transwomen who face incredibly high rates of violence, rates that terrifyingly increase for transwomen of color. We must not only keep our geek spaces safe, but also use them to show the world how other spaces can become trans inclusive.

(image via Questionable Content)

An enormous debt of gratitude goes to Morgan M, without whom this article would not have been possible. Thank you, Morgan!

Alenka Figa is a queer, feminist, wannabe-educator who is over traditional education. She spends her days reading comics at her toy store day job, watching Adventure Time, and writing book and comic reviews at her Tumblr blog League of Shadows.

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