July 6, 2020

Queer and Trans Cosplayers: “We’re Here, We Exist”

by joeyphoenix

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by Joey Phoenix
Image: Brandon the Shapeshifter (Left), Lee Clever (Right)

Content Warning: Sexual Harassment, Transphobia, Homophobia
Click here for a list of North Shore LGBTQIA+ Resources

The world of Cosplay is one that allows you to temporarily become someone else. Individuals can don costumes, put on fanciful makeup, and embody characters from all branches of culture, be it popular or not. But for Queer and Transgender Cosplayers, Cosplay can often become a way for people to feel fully themselves. 

Unfortunately, even with the freedom the hobby (read: lifestyle) can provide, Transphobia and Homophobia runs rampant in many communities, and the Cosplay community isn’t excluded from that. While many people find their social homes at Cosplay Conventions or “Cons,” and herald the inclusivity of that space, things are easier for some than for others. And it’s not just issues attached to Gender Identity, Non able-bodied cosplayers have had their share of difficulties, and older and plus-sized cosplayers have faced similar gatekeeping challenges.

While cons have been working to make their spaces more inclusive and accessible to all genders, there is still a long way to go, especially when globally recognized icons aren’t speaking inclusively themselves. 

Becoming Mr. Clever

One of us needs to control this head. We’re too well-balanced.” – Mr. Clever, Doctor Who 

Lee Clever (he/they) had never fully considered being a Cosplayer until he started watching the reboot of Doctor Who, and even then, it wasn’t until the 11th doctor Matt Smith portrayed the Cyber Doctor Mr. Clever in Nightmare in Silver that everything finally clicked in his head. 

“I tried cosplaying as ‘Town Called Mercy‘ 11. I tried the ‘Let’s Kill Hitler‘ green coat. I tried the standard purple coat sans Cybernetics. Eh. Wasn’t for me. I didn’t like it. Like all the other costumes before, I just didn’t get the appeal. I couldn’t understand why ‘those people dressed up’. Try as I might, I couldn’t be a Malfoy,” Lee said in a blog post on his website.”

But when Mr. Clever appeared onscreen in “Nightmare in Silver,” he just knew that’s what he wanted to Cosplay. 

“I just thought, oh my god, this is my character. This is like the greatest character I’ve ever seen,” Lee said. 

Photo by Vignette Lammot Portraits

But when Lee had this realization, he hadn’t yet come out publicly as Transgender. For him, it wasn’t really the point, at least not yet. At the time, the focus was more on how to create the costume well – something he had never done before. 

One of the biggest challenges of putting it together was deciding how to incorporate the cybertech face piece using materials that Lee wasn’t allergic to, as most prosthetics have latex or silicone. 

“I realized that I had to make something that was mostly edible,” he said. “I sat in my kitchen and felt like I was a kid making playdough, and it worked. Although at the time I thought it was something I was going to do once.” 

Lee Clever debuted Mr. Clever at Arisia in 2014, which, being the fiftieth anniversary of the popular series, was a Dr. Who-Centric year at the con. 

“People kept saying they had never seen anyone cosplay Mr. Clever before, and [that weekend] I was bombarded with people. I’ve never experienced anything like that,” he recalled. “And then, my friend took a photo of me, and that picture ended up going viral.” 

Cosplay and Gender Identity

“But the only measure that [Sauron] knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts,” – Gandalf

Jude (He/Him), a North Shore-based Trans cosplayer, was attending an all women’s liberal arts college in Raleigh, North Carolina five years ago when he realized he didn’t identify with the gender he was assigned at birth. With the support of friends “and a lot of help from Tumblr,” he was able to come out as Nonbinary and begin exploring different gender identities. 

Jude as First Age Sauron

His whole life, from growing up in Kansas where transgender identities just “weren’t really a thing,” to going to college, he had never been traditionally femme. “I was always a tomboy as a kid running around playing in the mud getting dirty,” Jude remembered. “I played with Hot Wheels, I had action figures, a lot of my toys were things that girls traditionally weren’t supposed to like or play with.”

For Halloween when he was 7 or 8, he asked his mom if he could dress up as Harry Potter. She said no, and Jude, seeing no other option, dressed like Hermione instead. 

“When I started going through puberty, I was cursed by a very large chest size,” he said. “So I’ve always been very unhappy with that part of me specifically, and I was always really unhappy when my ‘time in the month’ came around, because it just made me feel disgusting, which is something a lot of Trans people I know have experienced.”

Originally, cosplay was a way for him to start exploring the boundaries of gender. Some favorite cosplays have included First Age Sauron from Lord of the Rings, Michael Langdon from American Horror Story, and the Crow. He doesn’t consider himself to be a “con cosplayer,” mainly because cost and timing has always prevented him from attending larger events.

Jude as Michael Langdon from American Horror Story

When he moved to Boston for grad school in 2017, the first time fully away from his parents, he started experimenting more with gender and realized that he was male. 

“I’ve been living socially as a guy for three years now. I’ve been out in Salem [for that time], but I didn’t really come out to my parents until February,” he said. “I still haven’t told them that I’m on hormones.” 

Jude made the decision to transition this year thanks to the help of a friend who, after seeing some negative posts Jude made on social media, decided to intervene. 

“They said ‘You don’t live in the south anymore. Let me take you to Boston, to Fenway Health.’” Jude said. “And they did. They showed up and brought me to Fenway. It took me another month after that initial appointment to actually get the prescription. But without them, I don’t know if I would have been able to ‘man up,’” he said, pun intended. 

An American LGBTQIA+ Horror Story

“Once again…welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.” –  Bram Stoker, Dracula

Brandon the Shapeshifter (He/Him) is a Black, queer, cisgender male cosplayer who has become a well-known face not just on the North Shore but in Cosplay across the Eastern seaboard. His wildly creative costumes have ranged from traditional horror like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Stephen King’s It to supernatural creatures from his own novels. 

The Master of Time and Space

Many of his costumes can be classified as high-femme, with intensely detailed pieces he made himself. 

“Cosplay allowed me to find an oasis of creativity,” he said when asked about queer inclusivity in the cosplay community, “[Creative people] try to find safe havens so that we’re not having constant hate being directed towards us.” 

He said that while the broader world may not be so accepting of Queer identities, he’s been lucky to have found the connections he has through Cosplay, because his experience so far has been mainly positive. 

“A lot of people have their toxic moments and their really not so great moments,” he said. “But  I’ve just had positive reinforcement up until now.” 

Brandon came out to his parents as gay when he was 18, which they were ultimately indifferent to. To this day, part of him wishes he hadn’t done it. 

“I hate the fact that you can go up to a person and say ‘This is who I am, I hope you can accept me. And then they have the power to say ‘No I don’t,’” he explained. “In sharing something so personal you’re giving them the power to just shut you down. It’s not fair.” 

One of the biggest issues Brandon has come up against in Cosplay is that he’s been forced to create a lot of original characters (OC) because there just isn’t a lot of LGBTQIA+ representation, especially Black representation, in pop-culture. And in the horror genre, there is hardly any. 

“I want to change that,” he said. “It’s something that needs to change in mainstream media like yesterday, like last year, and I’m going to be part of what changes that. I’m working on a book right now, it’s called Memoirs of an Immortal Witch” It’s the fifth installment in his Dark Mysteries of the Paranormal series, which you can read in ebook form.

Other ways for this to change is for not just Cosplay communities, but also Pride organizations, and Social Justice organizations to become more inclusive of their BIPOC Queer community. 

“It’s important because the country is on fire right now with the whole Black Lives Matter movement. And I feel like Black people won’t like me saying this, but I’m Black, so I’m talking about members of my community,” he said. “They love to shout and scream Black Lives Matter, except for when it comes to black people of the LGBTQ community.

“They do this all the time. They seek to end racism and then turn around and say [that they] hate gay people or that we have mental illnesses or that we choose to be gay. It wasn’t a choice for me, and they are being willfully ignorant,” he added. 

For him, it starts with representation. If people don’t see Black Queer Werewolves in their stories, or Black Queer Trans Womxn in their Pride parades, their world can remain heteronormative and white-centric. 

“I can’t stress this enough,” he said. “It’s important for us to have Pride, to be visible in our communities. We’re saying ‘Like, Hello! We’re here, We exist. You can’t ignore us.’” 

The Importance of Allyship in Cosplay Communities 

“For my ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we… not this crude matter. You must feel the Force around you.” – Yoda, Star Wars

While Cosplay communities on the whole tend to be more inclusive of people in general, problematic behaviors can arise when transphobic, homophobic, racist, fatphobic, ageist, and ableist voices find a platform for their views. 

After Lee Clever’s Mr. Clever cosplay went viral after Arisia in 2014, another photographer put a photo of Lee’s Mr. Clever on Reddit, which wasn’t received well at all. Not only did people harshly criticize Lee’s choice of cosplay with Mr. Clever, a character not particularly well-loved in the Whovian fandom, but the comment section was also rife with transphobic threats and sexual harassment. 

“One person told me if they ever saw me at a con they would key my car. Another person threatened to ‘spit on me.’ Another said they would take me in an alleyway,” He said. 

Since then he has been kicked out of a couple of public cosplay groups, which he believes was not only because he was Trans, but also because of his speaking out against gender binaries in general. “It wasn’t just about me, it was about non-binary people and my other Trans friends too.” 

He also has noticed a general trend in regards to non-inclusivity in cosplay communities towards Trans individuals. 

“If I use the hashtag #transcosplayers, I will get half the interactions [on social media]. It’s really frustrating to know that someone can just look at you and have no problems with you, but when [they realize] that you’re trans, they want no part of you,” he said. 

A Misti-Con-troversy

Cat Benjamin (she/her), a cisgender female cosplayer and cast member of Intramersive Media, LLC who identifies as Queer/Bisexual, has witnessed some of the effects Transphobia can have on cosplay communities she’s been a part of.

For example, J.K Rowling has been all over the news recently for the Transphobic comments she’s made in personal blog posts, public interviews, and on Twitter. While the reactions to these comments are currently trending, they’re not new to her or to some of her fans. 

Misti-Con, the region’s largest Harry Potter convention held in New Hampshire every other odd year, dealt with controversy in 2015 when a notable Cosplayer in the community started making their own Transphobic comments. 

Cat, a self-identified Griffindor who frequently cosplays Luna Lovegood, specifically Christmas Party Luna, remembers how the events played out. 

Photo by Cassandra Murkison

“They quickly became very aggressively Transphobic online and in conversations with certain people,” Cat recalled. “And there was a big kind of divide in the community of Misti-Con because there was a huge backlash, and a movement to try to ban this person from attending the con, which was successful.” 

The person in question hasn’t been able to attend Misti-Con since 2015, and while this is a triumph for the LGBTQIA+ community and a testament to the staff’s ability to make inclusive choices that promote the safety of guests at the convention, the event continues to be divisive for a number or reasons.

“There was a contingent of people from the con who sided with this transphobic person,” Cat went on to say. “And that created a weird divide within the con because those people have been staples of Misti-Con for a while as well. It was weird to see this kind of fissure within the community that I’d felt really safe and comfortable in before.” 

For Cat, Cosplay has always been a mostly inclusive community where LGBTQIA+ community members can find their footing and experiment with gender expression in a fun way. It’s also part of the reason she’s been drawn to the Sailor Moon franchise, which famously boasted one of Anime’s first queer-positive couples, and to Miyazaki films, which feature a lineup of strong female protagonists. 

Photo by Nate Buchman
Photo by Nate Buchman

“There’s something about the con environment that does feel really welcoming,” she said. “It’s a weird combination of people being themselves but also we’re all dressed up like somebody else, but we feel really comfortable. It’s a way for us to be authentically ourselves.” 

Editor’s Note – you can catch Cat reading the Hobbit on Tuesday afternoons on Creative North Shore. 

Speaking up for Inclusivity

“There are things that you cannot solve by jumping in an X-wing and blowing something up.” – General Leia Organa

Arielle Kaplan (she/her), known as Inevitable Betrayal Cosplay, is a Jewish cisgender woman professional cosplayer who identifies as Bisexual, and like Cat, is also a cast member with Intramersive Media, LLC.

She was recently named the Diversity and Inclusion Officer both for Alderaan Base, part of the New England contingent of The Rebel Legion, and 501st New England, the “bad guy” counterpart to the Rebel Legion, an elite charitable Star-Wars costuming organization. She’s also part of Pride Squadron, an LGBTQIA+ component of that community. 

At first, she wasn’t sure she would be the best fit as Diversity and Inclusion Officer. “I felt a little weird about it because as someone who is [bisexual] and has experienced a lot of  bi-erasure throughout the years,” Arielle said.

Vex’ahlia from Critical Role
Image by Nerd Caliber

“I had the fleeting feeling that I wasn’t gay enough presenting to be taking on this role. And he said, ‘Well, if you don’t do it, no one else is going to accept,’ so I did.” 

For her, despite rampant bi-erasure in pop-culture and in many LGBTQIA+ circles, cosplay has always been accepting and welcoming. Some of her favorite cosplays have been either historical in nature or gender bends of famous characters like Mal from Firefly and King George III from Hamilton. 

Arielle as King George III from Hamilton

“More and more characters and actors have been coming out [as queer] and not adhering to a binary, which I think is really positive for everybody that falls under the LGBT umbrella,” she said.  “I find that the cosplay world also opens up so much creativity as far as what type of character you want to present and what version of that character you want to present.” 

For her, because she’s white, straight-passing, and very visible in the cosplay community, it’s very important that she uses her privilege to speak up for community members who don’t necessarily have the ability to do that safely for themselves. 

Arielle as Femme Mal from Firefly

“Over the past few weeks I’ve lost some followers on Instagram, which is where I do most of my cosplay stuff, because I’ve been moving the conversation off of myself and into the people who need their voices amplified within the Black Lives Matter movement, the Trans Cosplayers movement, and the Trans Pride movements. 

“And I know I wouldn’t be able to [use my platform] without the work of everyone who came before. People forget that cosplay, especially in the queer community, is such a communal act.” 

The Cosplay community has a long way to go before it can truly call itself inclusive and diverse, but it’s making strides in that direction. Conventions like Anime Boston, Misti-Con, and Arisia have incorporated elements like better accessibility, gender-neutral bathrooms, and security and staff that pay attention to the concerns of attendees. 

But many Cosplayers argue that things like normalization of pronoun uses on badges, panels dedicated to issues of inclusivity, and specified LGBTQIA+ safe spaces would be also helpful additions to cons all over the country. 

“We need to have safe spaces, we need to be able to use the bathroom safely, and we need to have security take us seriously when we’re being harassed,” Lee said. 

Author’s Note: For me, Cosplay became my door to exploring my gender identity. When working with a Princess Party company in 2018, I got a chance to work at a children’s birthday party as Peter Pan, a character I had idolized since I was a child. Getting into character, embodying the mischievous pixie teenage boy, felt like the most natural thing. For one of the first times in my adult life, I felt fully, completely myself. And it shocked me. 

Not long after that I came out publicly, and here we are. I’m a very out non-binary faerie (Peter Pandrogynous) willing to offer my allyship to those in the Cosplay community who aren’t yet given the inclusivity they rightfully deserve. 

I also recognize that in this article I’m gonna get it wrong, I’m still learning. So if you notice anything problematic, feel free to reach out and let me know at joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com 

Joey Phoenix is a nonbinary, queer performer and cosplayer who wants to talk to you about your experiences. Send them a message at joeyphoenix@creativecollectivema.com