Justice Geeks: Inside the World of "Cosplayers"

By: Rick Andreoli

Mention a comic book or science fiction convention, and many mainstream Americans envision nerdy, overweight men walking around in Star Trek costumes. That may have been the case at one time, but as super hero and SciFi movies have grown in popularity these conventions started welcoming in many more diverse attendees; from jocks and skaters to awkward school girls, muscle queens and baby dykes, everyone started embracing their inner geek. And rather than mock the guys and gals in costumes, many of these new visitors embraced their otherness. They started evolving this fantasy fashion, visually expressing themselves in new and interesting ways, and creating a style now known as “cosplay.”

The term “cosplay” began popping up at Japanese animation (a.k.a. anime) events about 15 years ago. “Cosplay is short for ‘costume play,’ and my understanding is the term came out of Japan,” said Dany Slone, a cosplayer from San Francisco, in an interview from the Comic-Con International Update magazine. He explained that the most common belief is that SF/fantasy/anime/videogame fans in Japan adopted the hobby after observing American attendees at Star Trek conventions donning Starfleet uniforms. They in turn began dressing up as their favorite anime and video game characters, calling it “cosplay,” and this “new” hobby eventually traveled back to the United States via anime fan groups. “That’s probably why a lot of people connect the term to anime,” Slone observed.

So what, exactly, is the appeal behind cosplay? And why are so many gays and lesbians attracted to it?


COMICCON_0405 copy Cosplayers tend to walk like celebrities at these conventions, with mainstream (a.k.a. mundane) attendees eagerly snapping their pictures. There’s also the escapist element. “I could just go to a convention and walk around and it would be fine, but having the chance to put together a costume and be [someone else] for a day is different,” Slone said. “For me, that’s exciting.”

Maxwell Jones, a gay college student from Austin, agrees. “I got into it in high school and it was totally liberating. I could ignore all the crap going on at school and pose like this character and have people I didn’t know think I was cool.” Jones laughs, adding, “It’s ironic because when I was hanging out with my cosplay friends, pretending to be an anime character, I felt like I was being more true to myself then when I was at school.”

Donning an alternate persona doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with this hobby; this element of cosplaying essentially depends on the person’s own taste or sensibility. Costumes can be simple and homemade or incredibly complex; there is no governing board of what is good or bad, and as long as you dress up and have fun you're welcomed into the party. Likewise, fans stress that they are not live-action role players but really costumers at heart, and while some cosplayers adamantly believe that the term should only be applied to people dressing in costumes inspired by anime or Japanese videogames, this appears to be the extent of the discrimination in this world.

That liberal sensibility is one of the chief draws for gays and lesbian attendees. “My friend Kurt knew how to sew and do makeup, and loved making these beautiful, elaborate costumes,” says Danielle McLaughlin, a self-proclaimed “sexually fluid” student living in New York. “It was his way of expressing his art and people adored it. He eventually gave up cosplay but now he’s in school for fashion design.” As for the women, “Anime has a lot ofCOMICCON2_0069 copy strong female characters,” McLaughlin says. “I loved being this powerful, kick-ass chick. It was like embracing this side of myself that I knew existed but couldn’t share without being labeled a dyke.”

For Jones it was a bit simpler. “They accepted me for who I was,” he says. “It’s hard for a bunch of social outcasts to judge you for being gay, so when I came out it was no big deal. Some of the girls who had crushes on me seemed sad, but at the end of the day these guys all rallied around me.” He pauses, adding, “If it wasn’t for cosplay, I don’t know how I would’ve survived high school.”

Press "Play" on the slide show below to see more images from the 2010 Comic-Con International: San Diego.

All images: Mari Provencher