Four years ago, the idea of a comic book convention tailored to the LGBTQ community was a new concept. Flame Con, as it was called, was an optimistic little affair held in Brooklyn at the flamboyant Grand Prospect Hall. This month saw the fifth annual installment of it, in a larger venue in the Sheraton Times Square to accommodate the thousands of attendees.
The stereotypical horny, heterosexual, cisgender male nerd is still a significant part of most pop culture cons. However, geek media has had openly LGBTQ characters for decades, and fans who grew up with those characters are now working in the business, creating characters that represent themselves.
In previous years, Flame Con had panels that discussed gay and trans characters as well as the then-rare contributions of openly LGBTQ creators, but this year there was a focus on how a new generation of queer young fans can get into the industry.
Gay City News spoke with Maya Bishop, Flame Con’s department lead for programming, who said, “We put a specific focus on providing content for professional development... We find that a lot of queer folk don’t have a lot of opportunities to receive mentorship or receive advice that a lot of other people do have.”
A new feature at this year’s Flame Con was “micro mentoring.” which Bishop described as mentors from various fields in the entertainment industry “giving 15-minute, small compact mentoring sessions... that give [Flame Con attendees] the opportunity to speak one-on-one with a creator or professional that’s within their field of interest. It gives people a chance to ask questions that they might not get in a panel, and to have a little bit of personal time to focus on their work specifically.”
Flame Con attracts nerds from all fandoms — comic books, anime, video games, tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, as well as the ubiquitous TV and movie adaptations thereof. Voice actors are celebrated as geek celebrities at cons. Fans will wait in line to meet the people behind the voices of their favorite cartoon characters, and one of the speakers at this year’s con was Jesse Nowack, a transgender actor who recently began transitioning from female to male. His transition is a very public one, and is reflected in his vocal work.
Nowack told Gay City News that since he began using testosterone in January, he has been “...trying to relearn my range. It’s like playing a piano and pressing a key and all of a sudden everything is hooked up to different notes... it’s frustrating, but it’s also very rewarding.”
Nowack also pointed out that male to female transgender voice actresses are relatively common, but there are only a few trans male voice actors.
“I needed me when I was a kid,” Nowack said. “I needed someone like me existing here. A lot of trans kids who come up to me are like, ‘I didn’t think I could be a voice actor until I saw you succeeding at it,’ and that means the world to me and I’m going to keep doing it.”
The cosplay community has been a place for people to explore their identity for many years. Experimentation with gender and sexuality is more tolerated by society if it’s perceived as a costume. It’s no surprise that costume contests were held both days of Flame Con. Many cons have strict requirements to enter their contests, often requiring people to sign up weeks in advance, but at Flame Con, anyone could line up on the spur of the moment to participate.
One of the judges at Saturday’s cosplay contest was Chris Calfa aka Princess Chris. He described his own style of cosplay as “guy versions of Disney princesses.”
Princess Chris was dressed as a male version of Rapunzel as he discussed his distinct style with Gay City News.
“I like to take them and make them suitable for what I identify as,” he said. “I was born male and I still very much identify as male. I like to creatively challenge myself and think what these princesses might look like as men.”
When asked about Flame Con’s cosplay community, Calfa explained it has “more fluidity. And more people being honest with who they are. There’s a lot more pride shown. It is like Gay Pride. Everyone is wearing whatever the hell they want because it’s how they feel that day.”
In the early ‘90s, DC Comics used the slogan “More Than Superheroes (But We’ve Got them Too).” At Flame Con, the original focus might have been the LGBTQ community, but there is a commitment to be welcoming to everyone, including ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and disabled nerds. Flame Con’s advertising has a team of (literally) flaming superheroes; each year new faces and body types are added to the team. New to the roster is a heroic canine sidekick wearing a service dog harness. A braille program was readily available at the front desk, and panel discussions also had a live captioning system for hearing-impaired attendees this year.
“It’s an open space,” Calfa said after the costume contest. “A more comfortable space. Sometimes people don’t feel comfortable [at other conventions]. Everyone here feels really comfortable and it makes me happy to see that.”