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Geeking Out on Inclusion

Flame Con grows as it redefines LGBTQ culture

Audience and judge favorites from the August 18 costume contest.
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During the weekend of August 18 and 19, subway riders in New York might have noticed that costumed nerds were flooding the city. International Cosplay Day took place in Central Park, Liberty City Anime Con at the New York Marriott Marquis, and, at the Sheraton Times Square, there was Flame Con. Billed as “The World’s Largest Queer Comic Con,” this was the event’s fourth year, and its third change of venue (previous installments took place in Brooklyn). Flame Con continues to grow in attendance and scope.

At a quick glance, it looks like any other con: There are excited fans lined up to hear celebrities speak, a hall of vendors selling art and indie comics, and an abundance of cosplayers dressed up like their favorite characters. Upon a closer look, attendees will see some distinct details: Most of the people at Flame Con are wearing badges with their preferred gender pronouns (free stickers were placed on tables throughout the con, featuring the options He, She, They, and Ask Me). All of the bathrooms are gender-neutral. Rainbows and unicorns adorn nearly everyone, and none of the cosplayers is carrying replica firearms.

The “No Firearms” policy is rare at cons. Phoenix Comic Fest enacted a similar policy last year after a man with real guns tried to enter that convention, and Flame Con’s policy was implemented two years ago, after the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando.

Kevin Gilligan, a Flame Con organizer, explained, “We want Flame Con to be a welcoming experience for all, and we don’t want anyone to feel unsafe. In order to do that, we have challenged our cosplayers to either come up with cosplay that doesn’t require weaponry or find clever alternatives. If your cosplay can’t be defined without a weapon, then maybe you should re-look at your cosplay.”

The attendees lived up to the challenge, sporting outfits that rivaled what is seen at much larger cons.

Another thing that separates cosplay at Flame Con from other cons is the “Come All” attitude in the contests. Many cons have strict application processes for people who want to be in their cosplay contests. Hopefuls have to apply months ahead of time, and even then only a small portion are worthy of walking the stage. Flame Con has a more welcoming attitude: A contest is held each day and anyone can join, even jumping into the line on the spur of the moment.

Asked what judges look for in the winners, one of them, Flame Con’s cosplay co-chair, who goes by the name Tea Berry-Blue, said, “Costumes that, to us, embody the spirit of Flame Con and the spirit of joy, diversity, and inclusion.”

A guest judge this year, Trungles, explained that the judges look for “someone who’s really enthusiastic about their community and character, and who put a lot of dedication and love into their costume.”

Although gay and straight geeks are enthusiastic about the same things, the LGBTQ community has taken a particular liking to the “Steven Universe” cartoons. It’s an adventure show with a sweet sensibility and an exceptionally diverse cast. The cute animation is child-like, but it often addresses social themes that adults can appreciate as much as kids can.

Trungles explained that “Steven Universe” is “a property that we can share with the younger members of our community. Some people latch onto this as a reclamation of a childhood where we can be open and embracing of our queerness, while also sharing it with the rest of our community. The show does a really good job of crossing those generational bridges.”

Flame Con attendee Victor explained, “I knew ‘Steven Universe’ for the first time when I knew that Jinkx Monsoon, winner of ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Season 5, was doing the voice of Emerald. I was gagging by the fact that a drag queen was participating in such a project. I was thinking, this is gonna be so controversial, because ‘Steven Universe’ looks like a toon for kids. So that’s how I got interested in the show. I really admire how LGBTQ culture is becoming part of the society, where we are just another person in it, not freaks anymore.”

Among the other unique finds at Flame Con were a performance by an LGBTQ cheerleading team, a panel on using corsetry and breast binding for cross-dressing cosplayers, and no less than three musical theater performances inspired by shows like “Star Trek” and “Firefly.”

Flame Con explores LGBTQ identity from many angles. Among the panels this year was one moderated by writer Ali Abbas, which looked at how gay Muslims are depicted in TV and film. Muslim characters have recently appeared in projects like “X-Files,” “The Punisher,” “The Bold Type,” and “Person of Interest” — and many of these characters are gay or trans. In a light-hearted discussion, Abbas pointed out that some media depictions of Muslims and trans people are quite similar. He said both groups are “highly visible in the media and the news, but the people who are representing us on television and in art, they’re not trans and they’re not brown.”

Abbas cited how beards and hijabs are easy ways to make characters look Muslim, or how trans characters refer to their transition in dialogue — but that the portrayals are often inaccurate.

“There’s a high visual demand for [trans and Muslim characters] now,” Abbas said, “but the people filling that demand don’t have a horse in the race. So they don’t have to care about how they’re representing these people.”

When asked if one can be both a devout Muslim and gay, Abbas explained, “It’s very nuanced. I can only talk about it by region. You have Lebanon, which has had free HIV healthcare since the ’80s. It’s still illegal to be gay on the books, but they have gay bar culture… It depends: Muslim by Muslim, region by region, country by country. The problem is convoluting it all so that they’re all just brown.”

As Abbas spoke to this reporter, a cosplayer approached and complimented Abbas on his rainbow sneakers. Deep discussions on global politics, theology, gender identity, and fabulous shoes. That’s Flame Con in a nutshell. The event has been confirmed to return in 2019. For more info, visit flamecon.org and geeksout.org.

Posted 2:37 pm, August 30, 2018
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