I can still vividly recall my first real attempt at cosplay, way back at the 2006 San Diego Comic Con. I was ostensibly there to cover the convention for the little website I was writing for at the time, but it wasn’t going to pass up the chance to have the full con experience. Because it was the biggest thing in the world to me at the time and I was supposed to be some kind of a journalist, I decided to do a couple days dressed up as Transmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem. I went full Method on it, shaving of every hair from my body from the waist up because I was too good for a bald cap. Okay, maybe not full Method, I drew the tattoos on with body paint, but I was fully committed to the outfit until I found myself sitting on a toilet stall in the second floor washroom minutes before the con floor opened for the day. The full realization that I was about to spend the day basically shirtless dawned on me. It probably took less than five minutes to screw up enough courage to leave that stall, but it felt like at least twice that at the time.
Every muscle in my upper body was tensed until I made it to the escalator and someone down below shouted “Spider!” up at me. My shoulders instantly settled back to where they were supposed to be and I felt the beginnings of a cocky grin spread across my face. The basic fact of the matter is that pretty much no matter who you are, it takes a lot of guts to cosplay, especially when most of the characters we love enough to want to dress up as are depicted with completely unattainable physiques. One of the reasons I haven’t done much of any cosplay since then is that about five years later I came out publicly as a trans woman. I’m much happier these days for a lot of reasons, but the prospect of compounding a whole new layer of anxieties over top of the ones I overcame in that toilet stall nine years ago has kept me away from a performance as Emma Frost, my dream cosplay.
There are many, many people who identify as transgender, non binary, genderqueer, or intersex who muscle past those anxieties to rush onto convention floors across the country every year. A recent documentary, My Other Me outlined just how transformative these experiences can be, as several of the subjects it followed came to seriously question their gender identity through the opportunities cosplay can present to break taboos surrounding crossdressing (typically referred to as crossplay in cosplay circles). It might not seem like it to people outside the scene, but cosplay can actually be an ideal venue for people to explore their performance of gender in ways they wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in their day-to-day lives.
Conventions do have the potential to be liminal spaces where the norms that govern social constructs like gender can be temporarily suspended. From a sociological standpoint, liminal spaces are typically presented as being rites of passage like Spring Break that are designed to let people blow off steam before going back to their everyday lives and returning to society’s normal rules, but conventions both big and small can have a very similar effect.
After that first shout of “Spider!” floated up to me, it became apparent to me that I wasn’t just a dude dressed up as him any more. I was being called on to basically be him for the day, which got pretty surreal when I made eye contact with a guy leaving a panel I was walking into dressed up as Hunter S Thompson. Shouts went up all over the room and suddenly we were the center of attention. It was a huge rush at the time, but the question that gnaws at me now is what are the chances that anything that fun and affirming would happen again if I caught up with a group of other X-Men cosplayers while in costume as Emma Frost?
Facing any new situation while being transgender frequently results in steeling yourself for the worst and forgetting to hope for the best. Whether or not you find yourself facing resistance and outright prejudice in your personal and professional life, the free floating reminders of how bad things can get that appear all over social media — anything from an oddball celebrity spewing hatred towards Caitlyn Jenner to news of the latest murdered trans woman of color — can do a lot to dampen your enthusiasm for new people and new places.
So what surprised me most as I began sorting through the experiences shared with me by transgender, genderqueer, and non-binary cosplayers is that the participants in My Other Me weren’t a lucky few outliers. While they still face significant challenges in being able to participate as fully and openly as their cisgender peers, the cosplayers I talked to are passionately engaged in what they do and won’t let anything hold them back.
Several of them began cosplaying before they came out and were able to use it as means of exploring their gender identity before they were sure of it. Aren, who’s mostly stuck to simpler cosplays like Karkat from MSPaint Adventures’ (better known as “Homestuck”), told me their experiences cosplaying male characters as an AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) person went a long way towards building their confidence in asserting their gender identity openly.
Sam, a trans man, took it a step further: “I think cosplay is especially important to people struggling with their gender identity because you can literally cosplay any character regardless or your gender, race, etc. And for trans folks who can’t dress comfortably on a daily basis due to safety reasons, it’s one of the best things “
Jun, a trans woman, describes her experiences as empowering. “Being able to ‘practice’ presenting as a different gender through cosplay can not only be good for personal growth but can be very empowering, particularly if you cosplay very popular characters,” Jun says. “I find that when people tell me if they like my costumes it feels much more genuine than if someone compliments me in daily life.”
But not everyone shares that perspective. Frediryk, a cosplayer of nine years experience who identifies as agender, sees the potential in experimenting with clothes and makeup, but prefers to take their personal identity out of the equation and approach cosplay like a conventional acting gig.
“Cosplay is something that people do to represent a character that they definitively are not — it’s a nerdy hobby based around costuming,” Frediryk says. “At the end of the day, you are completely aware that you didn’t see Batman, but a guy in a suit. And since this is an interest that is predominantly enjoyed by cis people, there is still an unreasonable amount of gender policing. When I was younger, I realized that I would get misgendered in cosplay at comic conventions more than anywhere else. Even when I would play a very masculine character, I’d still be referred to with female pronouns since I was more clearly AFAB back then. Because of how common ‘crossplay’ is among [cisgender] congoers, the thought that mode of dressing was related to gender presentation doesn’t parse at all. Even nowadays, as Cobra Commander, every event I go to I have people question whether it’s a ‘man or a woman’ in the suit — it gets old.”
The experiences, and the receptiveness of convention attendees is both the biggest variable and the biggest challenge for non-cis cosplayers. Everyone I talked to reported varying degrees of being misgendered or attracting unwanted attention, but one of the most difficult challenges can be bathroom access. A.J., one of the Arizona based cosplayers I spoke to described that frustration for me in detail:
“I’ve felt very comfortable at every con I have been at. People seem to see past your gender and focus on the costume and the character that you are playing. I was very impressed with Phoenix Comicon because of their diversity lounge. the only problem I had was using the restroom. I am an andro female body type, so in my every day life I use the women’s restroom, usually with some issues from other women there, but at the con I was in a Gambit costume with a men’s chest and package and using the women’s restroom was a problem for other women who said I didn’t belong. I couldn’t use the men’s restroom because my voice is too feminine and there weren’t enough stalls. I always have issues with restrooms, so I am use to most stares or comments but this was even worse. I found one family restroom at the convention center and would only use that one but it was in a very inconvenient area.”
Harassment can, and does, still happen at just about any place in a convention. While most of the people I talked to have said that the situation is getting better in general, Frediryk in particular highlighted the continuing reality of what non-cis cosplayers can face:
“It’s gotten better, but there’s still a lot of people who think it’s completely okay to say extremely hurtful things, or physically handle cosplayers. I’ve personally had people grab me, yell homophobic/transphobic remarks, and on one occasion got chased by a group of guys who wanted to rip my pants off. It’d be a huge overstatement to say it is a hobby that is safe all of the time.”
Arizona is a particularly challenging environment in that regard, with the LBGTQIA community having had to fight the state legislature on two potentially disastrous bills. The first, which has been shelved for the time being, was a bathroom bill could have made it a crime to use a public washroom without being able to produce a birth certificate matching the gender of the picture on the door. The second, SB1062, would have allowed businesses to legally refuse service to LBGTQIA customers. After weathering both storms, Xander McDonald, a trans man with multiple disabilities and Phoenix Comicon volunteer, made a breakthrough by establishing a Diversity Lounge in 2014 to give people a safe and quiet space to take time out from the convention. The need that prompted the lounge, in his view, is fairly simple:
“People get worn out quicker. There can be too much input, too much noise, a stray comment or a chance encounter with an ex can send someone spiraling. Sometimes, a home base is needed, a safe space to center, unwind, catch your breath, where you know you will be greeted warmly from the moment you walk in the door. We try to be that place.”
The lounge included coloring book pages and art supplies for children, as well as charging stations for phones and water for service dogs, but the opportunity to help educate and inspire on LBGTQIA and disability related issues was also a significant motive behind creating the space.
“We have a lot of focus on LGBTQIA and disability because of who has attended so far, but the main idea is that everyone is part of diversity,“ says McDonald. "The challenge is how we express diversity with limited funding. It’s made us become creative, which is a good thing. We thought we should liven up the brown walls of the room, so we went with a street art theme. My daughter and I had spent a day in the Mission District of San Francisco a few months earlier and we had loved the street art we saw there. We printed out inspirational or educational memes from Alan Turing, Harvey Milk, Maya Angelou, Dr. Seuss, Bruce Lee, and others. We bought crayons and colored pencils and paper from dollar stores. We printed out diversity coloring pages.”
There are still remaining issues to address, such as the single available gender neutral washroom on site, but with traffic for the Diversity Lounge doubling in it’s second year, there’s real potential for the lounge to inspire further change through the educational opportunities it presents.
Another avenue for significant progress in making it easier for non-cisgender attendees to have the best time possible are smaller LBGTQIA focused conventions that may prove to be models for progress across the board. One of these upstarts, Brooklyn based Flame Con opened it’s doors for the first time this June after a year and a half of work by Geeks OUT. A representative of Geeks OUT was able to confirm for me that in addition to encouraging drag and non gender conforming cosplay and providing stickers for attendees to identify their pronouns, all of the washrooms in the event space were marked gender neutral. Going even further in seeking create a positive atmosphere for everyone, the best practices outlined in an e-mail sent to all press attending the event included the request to ask attendees what pronouns they use and to never assume. Flame Con is certainly an outlier and a newcomer to the convention circuit, but it provides the clearest and most promising template for how to respond to the needs of non-cisgender attendees, whether they’re cosplaying or not.
As McDonald points out “Any comic con is going to be full of bright, creative people — that’s obvious. Giving them tools and watching them create, it’s beautiful, it’s contagious, it sparks an energy that fills the room.” Cosplayers are a huge and highly visible part of that creativity, from people who create closet cosplay looks through the inventive use of street wear to evoke their favorite characters to the professional level hobbyists who spend hours building armor and props. Creating an environment that allows cosplayers to break taboos around gender freely opens up vast constellations of opportunities to not just see interesting costuming, but perhaps re-evaluate the way we look at the characters being portrayed.
Several of the cosplayers I spoke with actively incorporate their gender identity into their approach to cosplay. Jun in particular specializes in portraying femme versions of male characters. Beyond the artistry involved, cosplay is an opportunity to bring out the qualities we admire and draw strength from in a way that, for many people, cannot be matched outside of cosplay.
Aren fully embraces that perspective: “Most of the time when I choose a character it’s a chance to model them, or live out a part of who I am that I don’t always feel like I have a chance to express. With Karkat I got to be the awkward grumpy over-thinking self-analyzing semi-dissociative person I normally feel like. It felt like… being in that character’s body people will see me for who I actually feel like in some way. Which is really kinda nice.”
Nine years later I can still recall being stopped within seconds of hitting the convention floor in my Spider Jerusalem get up by a woman telling me that Transmetropolitan co-creator Darrick Robertson heard I was there and wanted to see me right away. While I never got a copy, someone, somewhere has a photo of me standing on one leg while he had my other foot pinched between his knees to make it look like I was kneeing him in the groin. Not everyone gets that lucky, but it’s the kind of magical moment that can only happen at conventions when everyone is there to have fun and bring out the best in each other. It’s the kind of experience I should still be able to have now as a trans woman, and there’s a lot of people working hard to make that happen.
For more cosplay, check out Pamela Horton’s superior cosplay skills
Emma Houxbois is a fiercely queer trans woman last spotted in the Pacific Northwest. She’s been writing about comics for the web since 2005 and is currently the Comics Editor at The Rainbow Hub.