Metro Weekly

Meet the Incredible LGBTQ Cosplayers of Awesome Con 2021

As Awesome Con makes an epic return to D.C. this weekend, so do its thousands of cosplayers, many of them LGBTQ

awesome con, cosplay, cosplayers, lgbtq
Lily Thomas

“Cosplay is my way of waving my nerd/geek flag as high as I can,” says Jay Stilipec. “I like to stand out in a crowd, and to inspire others to embrace their passions.”

The 46-year-old Marylander will be one of thousands of cosplayers enjoying this weekend’s Awesome Con, which is making an eagerly-anticipated return to D.C.’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center after a long pandemic-imposed hiatus. “I’m excited to be back in the thick of things and to see my cosplay family and vendor friends again,” says Silipec, whose cosplay characters include Zero Suit Samus, Dark Phoenix, Catwoman, and Spider-Man.

Produced by LeftField Media, Awesome Con is a massive event, bursting with everything you’d expect from a well-oiled comic con, including panels and autograph signing booths with major celebrities, this year including Star Trek‘s George Takei and William Shatner, Back to the Future‘s Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, Christina Ricci from The Addams Family, and Giancarlo Esposito, most recently seen as the corporately corrupt Mr. Edgar in The Boys. The convention floor is filled with artists of all stripes and includes a specific region for LGBTQ artists called Pride Alley, produced by Geeks Out. (Metro Weekly is a sponsor of the 2021 Pride Alley.)

Among this year’s LGBTQ-oriented Pride Alley panels is one with Dan Parent, creator of the character of Kevin Keller, who made history in 2010 as Archie Comics’ first gay character. Parent will speak on Saturday, August 21, at 11 a.m. in Room 102AB of Pride Alley.

One of the defining aspects of Awesome Con — and really, any comic con — is its community of cosplayers. As you stroll the floor, you’ll run into plenty of Lokis, Wonder Women, and Harley Quinns — but also virtually any character you can think of from comics, video games, TV, popular culture, and manga. The creativity and ingenuity on display is nothing short of astonishing.

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Mikal Mosley

“When I go to a convention dressed in costume with a bunch of other people who look like me, at the same time that it gives me a chance to escape the real world, it gives me the opportunity to be my true self amongst people who will not judge because they are in the same boat as I am,” says Mikal Mosley, a legend in the cosplay field who designs pieces for private clients as well as for the WWE.

“They’re the same fans of the same things as I am, whether it be the TV show Supernatural to manga to comic books to a cartoon — it doesn’t matter. We’re a bunch of people celebrating this nerdy culture in a place where it’s all inclusive, where we’re able to speak these things to each other without fear of ridicule. When I put on these costumes, it gives me a sense of freedom, a sense of being able to be at home, no matter what the convention. The convention name changes, but the love and the people remain the same.”

Mosley, who is not LGBTQ but considers himself “one hundred percent an ally,” will appear all three days at the event. “I sign autographs. I host panels. I host the costume contest,” he says. “I do anything they need me to do because my belief in life is to meet as many people as you can, spread as much love as you can, and have as many conversations as you can.”

Mosley prides himself on never appearing in the same costume twice, and for Awesome Con has devised three new personas: John Walker from The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Cobra Commander, and the psychotic superhero Homelander from The Boys.

“I’m hoping to spark conversation with Homelander,” he says. “Let’s talk about why he is horrible. Let’s have this conversation and talk about what he actually represents and have these conversations. I’m really excited to do that one. I believe that there’s conversation that can come from it.”

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D’Manda Martini

For those interested in getting into cosplay, D’Manda Martini, a 39-year-old Maryland native who frequently suits up as Dazzler from the X-Men, has some very specific advice.

“Find a character that you love and do it,” she says. “Cosplay is for everyone. Every skill level. Every age. Every body type. Don’t wait until you think it’s ‘perfect’ — every cosplay is a work in progress — we’re always tweaking, or retooling, or revamping a look. The only way to get better at something, or gain confidence in it — is to just do it. Cosplay should be fun, and showing love for whatever fandom you love.”

“Cosplay can really be anything,” says 19-year-old Lily Thomas of Maryland. “The characters we dress as become a reflection of ourselves depending on how we portray them, and can be used to discover and engage in our individual identities.”

“One of the things I love about cosplay is that it is a radically inclusive community,” adds Kelly Carnes, who operates the website www.trovecostumes.com, a service that allows cosplayers to rent their prized creations to others. “There is an overwhelming culture in cosplay when it comes to LGBTQ people, all genders, and the disability community. Everyone can cosplay, and that’s beautiful.”

We wanted to find out what makes cosplay so special to its participants. So we posed a series of questions to the local LGBTQ cosplay community. What follows is an edited selection of their responses.

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Michael Suh

What first sparked your interest in cosplay? What was your very first character?

Mellissa Braus, 36, Va., Bisexual, Lady Alcina Dimitrescu (Resident Evil Village): I saw so many cosplayers when I went to my first convention, Katsucon, in 2004. The costumes and the excitement of seeing characters brought to life inspired me to try it myself. My first ever cosplay was Yomiko Readman from an OVA named Read or Die. She’s an agent who can manipulate paper, and is obsessed with books. As I am a bibliophile, she resonated with me.

Kelly Carnes, 36, Md., Straight: I didn’t really know what cosplay was until I went to my first DragonCon. I instantly recognized my people and new passion, so much so that seven years later I launched my own ecommerce platform, Trove, that allows users to rent and sell their old cosplays to each other. My first cosplay, Poison Ivy, is available for rent on Trove!

Ireth Felagund, 32, Md., Bisexual, Magnus Burnsides (The Adventure Zone): I loved the creativity and freedom that cosplay gives a person. You can express yourself in a way that you might find you cannot do in your day to day. If you make a cosplay for yourself, you have a sense of pride that you can show off something you made and have others admire your work. My first cosplay was Yuki Nagato from the Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi in 2009 for Otakon.

Nikki Jones, 24, Pa., Transgender, Harley Chandler (a mashup of Harley Quinn from DC Comics and Heather Chandler from Heathers the Musical): A small con was going on and I wanted to go in a costume. I started researching costuming, watched Spirited Away by Studio Ghibli and then saw Adam Savage’s “Love Letter to Cosplay” Ted Talk. That inspired my first cosplay: No Face from Spirited Away.

Katherine Larson, 21, Va., Pansexual/Grey ace, Rey Skywalker (Star Wars): My interest in cosplay stemmed from Disney bounding. The first few times I attended a convention, I was in Disneybound. I started posting them on Instagram and connecting with other cosplayers, which eventually turned into full-fledged cosplay.

D’Manda Martini, 39, Md., Gay, Dazzler (X-Men): I have been reading comics since about 1991, and have always been drawn to the strong female characters, especially in the X-Men. My first official cosplay was in 2013 when I first did Dazzler in her blue suit from the Outback era of the X-Men of the mid-80s.

Shannon McFly, 30, Ore., Queer, Marty McFly (Back to the Future): When I was introduced to the concept of cosplay, I was instantly hooked: you can be your favorite character and it’s a year-round hobby thanks to events and conventions. My very first cosplay in 2004 was King Dedede from the Kirby franchise. With the help of my mom, the cosplay was cobbled together with a red satin robe, felt, a massacred Santa hat, and rubber yellow kitchen gloves. I wore it to my very first cosplay event at Uwajimaya, an Asian grocery store chain. As I wandered the candy aisle to the bewilderment of innocent shoppers, I thought to myself: “Hey, I can keep doing this!” Seventeen years later I still am.

Jessi Pascal, 36, Va., Biromantic/Demisexual, Shoujo-A-Go-Go: I’ve always loved the idea that cosplay combines so many different forms of crafting and making and creative problem-solving. Bringing characters or ideas we love to life is a fun challenge, and each person’s processes and concepts are unique. The first character I ever cosplayed was Gaara from Naruto.

Karina Perez Molina, 26, Va., Bisexual, Wonder Woman (DC Comics): I wanted to build confidence in myself through characters with whom I identified. Cosplay actually helped me move past an abusive relationship by helping me rebuild my confidence.

Liz Scott, 30, Md., Non-Binary, Two-Face (DC Comics): I can’t say what really started it. I’ve always loved costumes and dressing up but when I went to my first con my sister insisted we had to dress up, so my mom bought me my first cosplay — Riza Hawkeye from Fullmetal Alchemist.

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Ireth Felagund

Hazel-Lovely Saunders, 26, Va., Bisexual, Superboy (DC Comics): I actually went to Awesome Con back in 2017 to buy comic books and saw people cosplaying, so I took a chance at a fall convention and I loved it. The environment, the way people can get creative and cosplay their favorite fandoms. My first year of cosplaying was 2018 and my first character was Nightwing.

Justin Sparks, 29, Va., Transgender, Castiel (Supernatural): My initial interest sparked during high school in my “anime phase.” As an adult, I finally got to go to my first con and seeing people dressed up as their favorite characters made me realize I really could too. My first cosplay was Castiel from Supernatural.

Parker Stenberg, 35, Md., Straight, MMPR Megazord (Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers): I worked as a theater tech in high school and I’ve always enjoyed building props. I’m not so great with sewing, so I mainly do robots or armored characters. The first character was Ash Williams from Evil Dead. Over the years I’ve redone it several times. I’m on my third chainsaw. It’s got moving parts and sound.

Jay Stilipec, 46, Md., AMAB/Transgender/Nonbinary/Femizenter/Gynesexual/Graysexual, Zero Suit Samus (Metroid): I saw cosplayers at conventions and though it might be fun. I also saw it as a way to practice having a feminine appearance in a safe public space. I was first looking at doing a female Spider-Man, but then I saw an advertisement for Zero Suit Samus Aran, and I was all in. I bought the suit, a wig, and a specialized weapon holster. I modified a NERF gun using craft foam and dyed a pair of six-inch heels, both of which I’d never done before. I have since purchased an improved Zero Suit and three other designs by Brandon Gilbert.

Michael Suh, 34, D.C., Gay, Jubilee (X-Men): I have always been into superheroes and video games and had been attending conventions for a few years. I thought I would give it a shot in 2016. It was the summer that Pokémon Go came out, and given that I grew up with the franchise as a child, doing an Ash Ketchum cosplay was a no-brainer.

Lily Thomas, 19, Md., Bisexual, Esmé Squalor (A Series of Unfortunate Events): My interest in cosplay grew from my family’s love of elaborate Halloween costumes since I was a baby! Hearing of Awesome Con at age 12 inspired me to try my first non-Halloween costume, which was Valka from How to Train Your Dragon 2.

Lena Volkova, 38, Va., Bisexual, Lady Loki (Marvel Comics): I initially got into cosplay because of a love of dressing up for Halloween. Every year I’d make bigger and bolder plans to do something memorable for that one night. During college, I found out from a friend that not only could you do that at a comic/fan convention, but it was encouraged. My first “real” cosplay was Lady Katrana Prestor from World of Warcraft, which I debuted at Blizzcon 2010.

Hanna X, Va., Nonbinary/Queer, Neopolitan (RWBY): My interest in cosplay started in middle school. A group of friends and I wanted to cosplay a group of Naruto characters, but we didn’t have the money for badges, let alone costumes. I only started cosplaying fairly recently with 2016’s Suicide Squad Harley Quinn. The commercially available items from Hot Topic were surprisingly affordable and high quality, so I did a bunch of research about “screen accuracy.” I had custom-made shoes created to look like the Jeremy Scott Adidas heels Margot Robbie wore. Unfortunately they’re way too tall.

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Shannon McFly

How does cosplay make you feel? Does it differ between characters, if you do multiples?

Mellissa Braus: Cosplay makes me feel more confident than I usually am normally. I’m very much an introvert and tend to recharge by myself, but when I’m in cosplay a switch flips and I become outgoing and try my best to embody the character I’m portraying.

Kelly Carnes: Cosplay lets me access my playful and creative side. I think what is unique to cosplay, rather than just wearing a costume, is that cosplaying usually involves getting a bit into character. Whether it’s posing like your character does, or quoting their best lines, you bring a costume and a character to life when you play it. That certainly makes every character feel intimate and different every time.

Ireth Felagund: I love the anonymity cosplay can give you. You have a chance to be someone different and what your take on the character is. I’ve cosplayed lots of characters and each one gives me a different feeling. As Daenerys Targaryen, I feel powerful yet graceful. As Tifa Lockhart, I feel strong and like I can take on the world.

Katherine Larson: I really think it’s dependent on how the character acts in the film. I feel a lot more carefree in my Harley Quinn cosplays because that’s her character. When I’m cosplaying as Rey, I’m a bit more reserved and quiet.

D’Manda Martini: Cosplay just makes me feel empowered. As I am also a drag performer, most of my drag is cosplay. So similarly, cosplay makes me feel more confident, more assertive, and more outgoing. As an extrovert, it puts me in the mood to perform.

Shannon McFly: In my everyday life I’m a reserved and introverted individual. It’s through cosplay that I find myself being more outgoing and adventurous.

Jessi Pascal: I feel confident and beautiful whenever I cosplay. I want to share that so everyone can feel the same way about themselves.

Karina Perez Molina: Cosplay makes me feel happy. It allows me to explore sides of myself without a lot of social expectations.

Liz Scott: I love the way people see you in cosplay and the only thing they know about you in the moment is that you are that character and not much else matters.

Hazel-Lovely Saunders: I’ve grown as a person because of cosplay and content creating. I enjoy making cosplays of my favorite characters in different fandoms. Wearing each cosplay gives me self-confidence. I feel badass. I love the attention, too.

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Karina Perez

Justin Sparks: It makes me feel like I’m a part of a community that loves something as much as I do. I feel like I can bond with complete strangers over something we both feel passionately about. I can engage in different ways depending on who I’m cosplaying as. For example, as Castiel, I am a little more reserved, but when I’m as my genderbent Ezio, I feel more regal, and the interactions reflect that.

Parker Stenberg: I love the reactions I get from people. I’m taller, and do a lot of “larger than life” characters, so it’s always kind of fun getting noticed. I feel like it’s more fun for me when I’m doing a character that’s less common but still recognizable.

Michael Suh: Cosplay makes me feel confident, excited, and sometimes even less anxious. I like embodying a character and “becoming” them temporarily, as it allows me to forget about the “real world,” so to speak. While I’m in character, Michael’s thoughts kind of disappear and I replace them with thoughts that my character would have.

Lily Thomas: Transforming myself into a different character sparks an insane amount of creativity that I have never experienced anywhere else. It allows me to connect with a beloved character and really bring the art I love to life. Being a cosplayer has connected me with other members of a fan base through the internet and in person. No matter how intense the process that goes into making new costumes is, the satisfaction of holding and wearing your own creation is next level.

Lena Volkova: I get to take a short break from being me and worrying about the things going on in my life. I tend to choose characters that are morally ambiguous that resonate with me, so even if I’m portraying a character that is a villain or an anti-hero, I still feel like an empowered version of myself.

Hanna X: Cosplay makes me feel all put together, especially in a time where there’s a cultural relaxation around professional appearances. I love putting on heavy makeup and lots of costume items. My two main characters are so different. Harley Quinn is very loud and talkative and extroverted. Neopolitan on the other hand is canonically mute, but she’s still very devious and sassy. Both are villains who will do anything for the person they love. Harley is special to me because she’s canonically bisexual, whereas Neopolitan can be considered genderfluid because she can change her appearance at will, including into other genders.

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Jay Stilipec, MaryAnn Walker

Tell us about your most positive interaction while in cosplay?

Mellissa Braus: My most recent cosplay has been Lady Alcina Dimitrescu from the Resident Evil: Village video game. She has, so far, been my most successful cosplay. I get tons of compliments and really positive energy when I embody her.

Nikki Jones: No single interaction takes number one because they are all unique — no two are the same. But one of the most memorable would be a charity event at a local children’s hospital. I was invited along with other cosplayers to a toy drive where toys were donated to youth cancer patients. Seeing their eyes light up meeting their favorite heroes really made me realize the impact cosplay has on others and how it plays a part in bringing joy to others.

Shannon McFly: Michael J. Fox asking if he could sign my Marty McFly vest. With an elegant swoop of a Sharpie, he wrote, “To Shannon, love Michael J. Fox.”

Jessi Pascal: My most positive reactions are usually with kiddos and their parents — kids see this literal human cupcake and instantly gravitate to that. One time at a library show, a mom and her son chatted with me. He was starting to find himself in the same way a lot of us do when we’re young and queer, and his mom was super supportive and trying to find the best way to help him. We swapped stories, shared some laughs and hugs — not everyone in the community is lucky enough to have that support system.

Liz Scott: I have always said the highest compliment for me as a cosplayer is when little kids interact with you as if you are the real deal. At one of the last cons I was able to attend before the pandemic lockdown, I was dressed as Captain America and this small child dressed as the Hulk walked up to me and saluted.

Justin Sparks: I’ve had plenty, but my favorite had to be at Awesome Con. I had a VIP pass to see Stephen Amell and I was cosplaying as Doctor Strange. He was incredibly engaging and commented on how amazing the cosplay looked. A very rewarding moment for me.

Parker Stenberg: Pretty much every reaction has been positive — it’s one of the main reasons I cosplay. The most fun is when I wear the Megazord cosplay. You get every Power Rangers fan and cosplayer asking for photos. A particularly memorable one was a couple where the wife was totally blind. I allowed her to hold the sword, and was very careful to announce where I was standing during the picture.

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Nikki Jones

Jay Stilipec: I started doing panels with LGBT HQ after my first year of cosplay, and I’ve been fortunate to inspire and encourage many people. Some have come back to me and said they started cosplaying, quit their job to get a better one, or started their own transgender journey after meeting me.

One of the best ones was a mother who contacted me via Instagram after one of my panels. She said that her daughter had wanted to get into cosplay, but as a boy character. She had been hesitant until she saw my panel. She saw how awesome I looked in cosplay and how confident I was, so she committed herself to doing the cosplay she loved no matter what anyone thought.

Michael Suh: Any time someone asks for a photo with me is a positive experience. It’s always exciting to see someone else cosplaying the same character and see our different takes on it, whether it’s a different version or a unique mashup. But my most positive specific experience was at Flame Con in 2018 when I met writer Sina Grace and he signed a comic of mine with a nice note about my Jubilee cosplay.

Lily Thomas: After a long day at a con I went to wind down at a nearby Starbucks still in full Catra cosplay with ears and tail and everything. It had been extremely cold that day and the skintight suit and artfully ripped holes had made the walk down unpleasant. As I was waiting in line for my long-awaited hot coffee a little girl in the shop spotted me, pointed, and shouted “KITTY!”

Lena Volkova: I had a fan reach out to me saying that my cosplay and my posts on social media are a bright spot in their life. I’m really open about my struggles with mental health and life struggles, and this fan was able to relate. They had reached a very dark spot and said that my work not only helped them seek the professional help they needed, but it gave them something to look forward to each day and helped them pull through their dark time. It really put things into perspective and helped me realize that we affect people in more ways than we’ll ever really know or would consider.

Hanna X: This was at Katsucon 2019. I’d left the con to get some water from a nearby CVS. I was dressed as Neopolitan from RWBY in her Volume 3 outfit. As I was walking back to the con, a guy starts singing her theme song behind me.

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Parker Stenberg

Have you ever had a negative interaction while in cosplay?

Mellissa Braus: I have had some side eye looks in other cosplays, as I am a plus-size cosplayer. Lots of people can be cruel towards those who try their best, and maybe they don’t quite look like the exact copy of the character they are portraying. Cosplay is for everyone and anyone, and I always celebrate those who do their best and are having fun. Cosplay has no room for that kind of negativity.

Kelly Carnes: Every once in a while you meet a cosplayer who has forgotten that “Cosplay” is the combination of the words “costume” and “play.” When they take themselves too seriously, act as if they are the only ones who can inhabit that particular character, or gatekeep others who want to participate, they ruin things for everyone around them. I’m fortunate in that 99.9% of the other cosplayers I meet are wonderful and welcoming people, who understand that this is a place to play.

Ireth Felagund: Negative interactions are always the toughest to recall because of how uncomfortable they have been. The worst of them is when people think cosplay means consent, which is never okay. As different characters, I’ve been hugged, grabbed, or told inappropriate things. My only request is that people continue to learn and grow to be respectful of others’ boundaries because you are still interacting with a person. No means no.

Katherine Larson: There is a very obvious bias in the cosplay community, a bias that negatively affects cosplayers who don’t fit the “cosplay beauty standard.” I’m talking about cosplayers of color, who often face racism and discrimination, or plus size cosplayers who are body shamed, or disabled cosplayers who are the targets of ableism, and so on.

D’Manda Martini: When you are a femme presenting person in general, but then add cosplay on top of that, certain types of fanboys will try to question you or think you’re being a “fake nerd girl” when cosplaying.

I once had someone stop me as I was barely coming off an elevator at a con to question me about who I was cosplaying. I was wearing my X-Men Training Uniform from the ’90s and was doing a Dr. Moira MacTaggert look. This man asked who I was. When I told him, he said, “She’s never worn that.” I proceeded to tell him, “Actually, she helped develop these suits, and this iteration was what she wore as a part of the Muir Island X-Men.” He stared and said, “Well, I didn’t know that.” To which I replied “Well, I did. Which is why I wore it.

Shannon McFly: The negative reactions have mainly been online. I’ve been called LGBTQ slurs, had people force feminization on my cosplay based on how they perceive me, and had individuals attempt to make themselves feel superior by putting down my cosplay. Though nowadays I have a pretty decent reply: I just open my vest showing Michael J. Fox’s personalized signature and say, “Huh, well Marty McFly himself thinks I do a pretty good job!”

Jessi Pascal: I personally haven’t, but there are too many people who do. Body-shaming, blatant racism, sexism — usually behind a keyboard. I feel like it boils down to jealousy, like how dare you do these things and feel good or free to do it. The best thing to do is to keep living authentically by doing what you love. You can’t control their feelings, but you can control how you live.

Liz Scott: I’ve been fortunate enough not to. However I did have an incident where a person photoshopped me out of a group photoshoot and that hurt. I go out of my way to try and make sure I never make someone feel that way.

Hazel-Lovely Saunders: I have. It was because I cosplayed Cyclops. There’s so many fanboys who hate the character and will either make fun or tell me I can’t cosplay him because I’m a woman.

Parker Stenberg: Mostly people saying that my cosplay is not “accurate enough.” I’ve also dealt with “You can’t make a cosplay with hot glue.” Guess what? All my costumes are made out of floor mats and hot glue. I’m not very fancy when it comes to materials. Mostly, because I can’t afford it.

Jay Stilipec: While walking around a convention in my Zero Suit cosplay, a gentleman came up and asked if he could get a photo with me. I nodded and he handed his phone off to a stranger to get the photo. He then stepped up and asked if he could put his hand around my waist. I said “Sure, no problem.” He stopped and said “What?” And I told him it was okay to put his hand around my waist. He stepped back, grabbed his phone, and literally ran away. You see, I don’t affect a particularly feminine voice, so I think it was that moment that he realized I was [Assigned Male At Birth].

Michael Suh: Aside from “cosplay emergencies” such as Sharpie marker rubbing off from parts of my costume or a floppy cape collar, I haven’t had any negative experiences. I make an effort to attend events where inclusivity is valued.

Lily Thomas: Riding the Metro in full costume is interesting every time. Most often you get long stares and “secret” picture taking. One time I was returning home from a contest in Maleficent cosplay when a couple of young men took notice and thought it would be funny to circle me and poke at my horns. I don’t need to explain to any seasoned cosplayer the struggle of having your costume touched without your permission, but being surrounded and prodded in such a dubious location, while wearing a particularly restrictive costume, made the experience especially unpleasant.

Lena Volkova: I was groped at a con. An attendee thought that touching my breast during a photo was acceptable behavior. It was not. I immediately called them out on it and they moved their hand. Dude did not apologize, and I’m still angry about it.

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Lena Volkova

How accepting is the cosplay community of LGBTQ people?

Kelly Carnes: One of the things I love about cosplay is that it is a radically inclusive community. There is such an overwhelming culture when it comes to LGBTQia people, all genders, and the disability community. Everyone can cosplay, and that’s beautiful.

Ireth Felagund: Yes and no. People still like to use same sex relationships as a novelty or a taboo subject because they think they’re edgy or “quirky.” As individuals, we are accepting, but we still have a long way to go to normalize us and the relationships we have.

Nikki Jones: It really depends on where the event is. Some places are not at all accepting. But from the events and cons I’ve attended, they’re very accepting and try to make it a safe place for all.

Katherine Larson: I feel that the cosplay community is very accepting of LGBTQ+ individuals, with a very small amount of outliers. While I have had run-ins with people who have homophobic attitudes, I personally don’t feel uncomfortable or unsafe expressing my sexuality to other cosplayers.

D’Manda Martini: At cons in particular it’s great. There’s a huge popularity in cosplay amongst LGBTQ+ folx. With younger generations becoming more and more queer and queer accepting, it’s only natural.

Social media is different. Every so often you get the certain type of “fan” who thinks you’re not canon, or says something homo/transphobic. I try not to let that get me down, because of the overwhelming support you get — especially when we can all be at cons together.

Shannon McFly: While you’ll run into close-minded people no matter the community, I generally feel as though the cosplay community is a pretty safe space for LGBTQ people and expression. I’d say personally that 90 percent of my cosplay friends are LGBTQ. I think that’s largely due to how cosplay can be a powerful vehicle in exploring your gender identity and sexuality. Through cosplay you have the freedom to present yourself however you want, and experiment outside the gender constraints of society. Conventions can be a safe space to test out different names and pronouns. My friends in the cosplay community were the first I asked to try using they/them pronouns when addressing me so I could find out if that was something I liked.

Liz Scott: In my experience it’s been my safest place to express who I am. I actually found out what nonbinary and what “aro ace” were because of my interactions with other cosplayers.

Hazel-Lovely Saunders: Cosplay is a form of drag, I believe. We all dress up as different characters whether it’s a woman, man, sea creature, or alien. We all crossplay, genderbend and we don’t judge others. We’re all weird, different and we have fun. As someone who’s a proud LGBTQ cosplayer, this community is very accepting, supporting and loving.

Justin Sparks: I’m a trans man, who has previously done panels at Awesome Con about crossplay — cosplaying as the opposite gender — and how to do so safely. I have never felt alienated in the community.

Jay Stilipec: I have found the cosplay community to be very accepting of LGBTQ folx. It was the warmth and appreciation I felt at conventions that convinced me to start crossplaying in the first place. I figured if men with beards and hairy legs could dress up as Sailor Moon, then I could dress up as Zero Suit Samus. I find there is a major crossover in the geek/nerd, gaming, anime, and LGBTQ communities.

Michael Suh: I see a lot of parallels between cosplay and drag, where we get to make our childhood fantasies a reality. And there are many ways you can do your own spin on a character. Want to do a male Rogue from X-Men? Sure! Or a female Tony Stark? Why not? As LGBTQ people, I think we are more accepting of breaking norms and performing gender and different roles. And so many pop culture icons today are LGBTQ-identified, so it’s not hard to get interested in characters.

Lena Volkova: In my experience, the cosplay community is one of the most accepting and welcoming of the LGBTQ community. Considering how cosplay revolves around self-expression and as a means of finding yourself through costuming, it’s not surprising that not only would the cosplay community be accepting, but also has a large percentage of members who identify as LGBTQ.

It’s also not uncommon to find cosplayers explore their own gender identities, as well as play with gender norms. I know quite a few people who identify as transgender who have used cosplay as a means to really find themselves, or for some, as a means to start their transition. The people I know that are the most considerate of people and their struggles all happen to be cosplayers.

Hanna X: Honestly, most of the people I know who cosplay are on the LGBTQ spectrum. This is just my personal view of it, but I think cosplay is another form of Pride for us. I started watching She-Ra and the Princesses of Power with my partner, a show designed for a child audience. However, every single person I know who watches it is both LGBTQ and a cosplayer. Who do they cosplay? She-Ra/Adora, Catra, and Double Trouble. All LGBTQ+ characters.

awesome con
Hazel-Lovely Saunders — Photo: GCF Photography. Edit by Null Fotografia

What would you say to someone who is thinking of trying cosplay for the first time?

Mellissa Braus: Please do! Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Get involved in your local cosplay or convention groups. Tons of veterans would be happy to answer questions or help you out. I research my characters before I start my process of building/putting my cosplay together, but every cosplayer has their own techniques and ways of doing things. You can also find groups that make props for cosplay and join them to also see if they can help you. The biggest thing to remember is: Have fun! You don’t have to be a master crafter to enjoy cosplay. As long as you’re having fun, that’s all that matters.

Kelly Carnes: It’s one of the reasons I built Trove! You can rent something to try it out before committing to a specific character, or shelling out serious dough for potentially a single-use piece you then are stuck storing. Our platform creates greater access to high quality cosplay, for a fraction of the price, so that anyone who is cosplay curious can dip their toe in the water and see where their passion lies.

Ireth Felagund: You have nothing to lose and people are going to love the effort you put into your costume. You are going to have the uptight/mean girl types, but that will be with any hobby you get into. If you are getting into cosplay for you and are enjoying yourself, who cares if it is not professional level? You have to start somewhere!

Katherine Larson: Don’t let elitism discourage you. Not everyone has access to state-of-the-art resources for their cosplays and that’s okay. If your cosplay comes from a bag at party city, that’s a valid cosplay. If you spent a year making your cosplay and sank hundreds of dollars into it, that’s a valid cosplay. What matters is the fact that you’re cosplaying. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Shannon McFly: The best advice I can give is to cosplay for yourself. Cosplay a character that you love, and that you are excited to bring to life. You’ll find yourself feeling happier if you cosplay on your own terms. I think that’s a big reason why I’ve been able to stay interested in this hobby for 17 years.

You don’t need to have a new cosplay for each con, nor do you have to have a closet full of characters to be valid as a cosplayer. With social media it’s all too easy to compare yourself to cosplayers who have thousands of views, or have been working on a character for years when you might just be starting out. Don’t compare your year one to someone’s year ten. We all start somewhere. All you have to do is be brave enough to start.

Jessi Pascal: Do it. It doesn’t have to be expensive, either. I love getting stuff from the Dollar Store to make something crazy or experimenting with new materials and techniques. You never know what’s going to work until you try it. Also, the Internet is your friend — there’s so many resources at your disposal that are absolutely free. So get to creating!

Liz Scott: Have fun with it. Don’t worry about being the biggest or the best right out the gate. Also, there is no shame in buying a cosplay. I have bought quite a few because while I can sew, I still have my limits.

Hazel-Lovely Saunders: When people ask me this question I always ask them who is your favorite cartoon or fandom character? And whoever pops up into their mind is who you should cosplay first!

Justin Sparks: Whether it’s handmade or store bought, just enjoy yourself. Be whoever you want to be for an hour or a day, and just know there will be someone out there who will love it and you.

Parker Stenberg: Do not be intimidated. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how to do something. We’ve all been there, and we’re always willing to share our experiences.

Jay Stilipec: I would remind a first time cosplayer that it doesn’t have to be “screen perfect.” It doesn’t matter what you look like if you want to cosplay a character you enjoy. Cosplay what you love and love what you cosplay. Start with something simple like a color palette cosplay, which is wearing normal clothes that give the impression of a character. Red and blue for Captain America, Blue and Red for Mystique.

Michael Suh: Don’t be afraid of “not looking good enough.” I’ve found that the cosplay world generally welcomes all skill levels and all kinds of cosplay, whether it’s something more casual or something elaborate. A good first place to start is to purchase a “base” costume/prop from a creator on Etsy or costume website. This way you don’t have to create the whole thing from scratch and you are free to add your embellishments onto it. Cosplay is a very iterative process. After you wear a costume once you may find a new way to improve on it to wear it for next time.

Lily Thomas: Don’t listen to anyone who tells you there is a “right” way to do cosplay! No makeup skills? That’s okay! Only have the budget for closet cosplay? Go for it! The quality of your cosplay is not what will connect you most with the community. It is the pure enjoyment of becoming a character that you enjoy and using the cosplay space to find other enthusiastic individuals that will make cosplay the most positive experience it can be for you.

Lena Volkova: Stop talking yourself out of it and just do it. A convention is a great place to start and there are numerous communities, both online and local, that are willing to support you in your journey. The best people I’ve had in my life, I’ve met through cosplay, and I do not regret taking that plunge.

Awesome Con 2021 runs Friday, Aug. 20 to Sunday, Aug. 21. For hours and full details of all events and panels, visit www.awesome-con.com.

Awesome Con will be following strict COVID safety measures, including mandatory masks and temperature checks. The complete guidelines can be found at www.awesome-con.com/covid-19.

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