One thing the entire LGBTQ+ spectrum agrees on is how amazing it feels to be able to match your outside appearance to what you feel on the inside. And one great place to start is through character cosplay.
Gender is performed in its most conscious, geeky way at genre conventions all around the world in the form of cosplay, a portmanteau of “costume play” that features attendees dressing up as and adopting the signature mannerisms of their favorite characters. That makes it sound simple, but cosplay is much more than finding the perfect tunic for your Star Trek costume. For its participants, it’s a chance to explore their gender expression in an outsized way that doesn’t feel safe or practical in their day-to-day lives. This is especially true for cosplayers who identify as queer.
Denver-based cosplayer Gage Gerardi said he was bullied a lot in school as he was trying to figure out his gender identify. When he was in late middle school and early high school, a friend first got him hooked on the anime series Naruto, then convinced him to dress up and go to a convention with him.
“He said I’d be the odd one out if I didn’t dress up.” Gerardi said, “So I thought, sure, why not?”
Gerardi pulled together a Kiba Inuzuka costume from pieces he found at Goodwill and entered a world that accepted him for who he wanted to be. The genderfluid, transmasculine cosplayer has been obsessed ever since.
“I personally love it, especially as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, because I get to actually physically be who I see myself as,” he said.
Throughout the 1940s, cosplaying gained steam and participants as the conventions themselves became more open to demographics (like women) who had previously been scarce. The next decades saw formalization of cosplay group activities like masked balls and costume contests, which solidified cosplay’s legitimacy as official convention events and traditions.
When tabletop, role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons swept the scene in the 1970s, participants found a new level of engagement. It became common to not only dress like your favorite characters, but to create your own and embody them fully. The rapid growth of mass media like comic books, television, and movies gave cosplayers fuller ideas of what their favorite characters looked and acted like, thereby giving them more to play with.
The actual term “cosplay” wasn’t coined until 1984. Japanese writer and director Nobuyuki Takahashi used it to describe the dressed-up fans he saw at that year’s WorldCon in New York. The term stuck and spread across the fandom world.
Within Denver, Starfest has been a standout event since it was first staged in 1977. Co-founder and current event coordinator for the con KathE Walker started the event with her sister after going to a Star Trek convention in New York the previous year. The cosplay aspect was something built into their own fandoms, and they made that an integral aspect of StarFest from the beginning. Walker said in her forty years of experience, the science fiction scene has always been very accepting.
“Over the years, I’ve found that people have become more comfortable with who they are, no matter what their preference,” she said.
Although the beginnings of cosplay were decisively heteronormative, its history shows that it’s always made space for those who aren’t. There’s even a specific term for those whose cosplay involves dressing up as the opposite of the gender they present: crossplay.
According to a Duke University study by Rachel Leng on gender, sexuality, and cosplay, crossplay has experienced rapid growth since Western audiences started viewing anime from Japan in the 1960s and 70s. This has been especially noticeable in the rise of male-to-female crossplayers who use their cosplay to perform feats of hyperfemininity in otherwise masculine, heterosexual lives.
Through case studies of live and online examples, Leng found crossplay used as a deliberate way to exaggerate gender roles as comments on both fandom and society, much like drag performances. However, unlike drag, crossplay is exclusive to a performer’s fandom life and is not meant to comment on their self-identity outside their favorite characters. Leng sees this as another way cosplay helps fans express themselves in ways that would otherwise be closed off to them.
The cosplay community itself has gained a reputation of radical acceptance and safety for anyone who wants to join, and after incidents of harassment or trouble, cosplayers rush to protect their own through immediate actions like the “Cosplay is Not Consent: Colorado” petition that started after the incident at this year’s StarFest.
Katz said she never really felt the need to officially come out about her queerness because she felt like it was obvious enough. Her discovery of cosplay coincided with her budding sense of queerness, and the two naturally complimented each other as she gained more experienced with both. And to Katz, the chance to show how much she enjoys certain science fiction and fantasy stories puts her in the middle of people who love story and character just as much as she does.
“I figured out that I don’t want to date people who are not nerds,” she said. “What goes on in your head if you’re not constantly obsessing over a character?”