Queersplay Cosplay Creates Safe Spaces at Cons

If you have never attended a convention, know that it is a very unique space. Jumping headfirst into con culture can be exhilarating. The creators behind your favorite media are a just a queue away, fabulous geeks wearing fabulous costumes are everywhere, and for a weekend you can put the outside world away and celebrate that rare comic where you see your queer, trans, PoC self projected onto the page.

Unfortunately, conventions are not free from the transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny that plague the outside world. However, Queersplay Cosplay, a new organization that aims to create safe spaces for queer and trans people within conventions and empower LGBTQ youth experiencing homeless with sewing skills, is aiming to change those negative aspects of con culture.

Full disclosure: I know Kimber Brightheart, the founder of Queersplay Cosplay, and Lilyana Fey, their partner in craft, personally. These are some very hardworking folks bent on creating safe spaces for those who need them, but to do so they need your help. I interviewed Brightheart about what it means to make people feel welcome at conventions, and how they’re starting a business that will use cosplay to provide resources for vulnerable youth.

How did you initially come up with the idea for Queersplay?

Cosplay and costuming have always been important to me. I’m transgender and have made a habit of making clothing for myself because my body doesn’t fit a lot of the ways that I would want to be presenting, and I’m finding the same thing in a lot of people in my life. I was making clothes for myself and other people — in addition to costuming, cosplaying — just to take care of myself.

My background is in social work, and I worked with youth experiencing homelessness for close to fifteen years. [Recently] I was laid off as part of the budget crisis that Chicago is currently in. I was trying to figure out what I needed to do to move forward because there are not a lot of options for me if I go work for someone else. I was finding that I was working for organizations that had some mission drift going on. They weren’t necessarily lining up with what they were saying they wanted to do. That’s nothing against the organizations that I worked for because I think that’s something that happens, especially when small non-profits start getting bigger. They stop thinking about the clients and stop thinking about the most effective way to meet the clients’ needs.

Image by http://www.turk-wise.tumblr.com/
Image by http://www.turk-wise.tumblr.com/

In starting Queersplay, I was looking at all these different pieces of the things that had happened in my life and ways that I wanted to benefit the community. It made the most sense to find a space where I could create something cute and small that really worked with extremely vulnerable communities.

When I talk about Queersplay, I look at it as this three-circle Venn diagram. One of those [circles] is costuming; that’s a thing I love doing. I love making clothes for other people and myself. Then there’s cosplay. For me, and I know that for a lot of other people, cosplay was a big part in my coming out as transgender. I’m trans masculine but have a very feminine presentation, and I don’t subscribe to the born in the wrong body narrative. I’m happy with my body, I like my body, I know internally that I’m not a woman despite what my body says.

Cosplay was an important thing for me in discovering that identity because it was the only space I could go into, and really still the only space I can go into, where I can be extremely high femme and have all the fake eyelashes and all the makeup and all the hair and burlesque tutus and all the things but still be like no, I’m not a woman and I’m going to be this male character and I’m going to present in this way, and you’re going to praise me for that.

You too can have burlesque tutus! Photo by Andie Meadows.
You too can have burlesque tutus! Photo by Andie Meadows.

I want to empower other people to have that same feeling. I also really want to think about vulnerable members of the community, because con life and cosplay is not always safe. We have these cute little bubbles of feminism and queerness that are spouting up in fandom culture… [but] the convention, cosplay and fandom scenes in general are very, very toxically masculine. I wanted to think about how we are by no stretch the most vulnerable, and how it’s always been important to me to make sure that the most vulnerable members of the community have the resources they need, too.

Another part of Queersplay is this piece of transgender advocacy, and transgender activism, and working with trans youth experiencing homelessness to provide an additional clothing resource so they can feel empowered to move on in their lives, and be able to feel comfortable and safe in their bodies and their skin and their clothes.

Can you give me a concrete picture of what the social work aspect will look like?

The intention is to get fiscal sponsorship from an existing 501(c)(3) as opposed to starting our own 501(c)(3) and partner with drop-in spaces for youth experiencing homelessness. We’ll do sewing empowerment classes and help youth to create these outfits for themselves so they can feel comfortable in their presentations and feel more authentic in the way that they are looking at the world and perceived by the world.

What’s your vision of what things will look like post-indiegogo, and when you’re out of this initial stage?

Queersplay Cosplay time travels to Comikaze. Photo from the Queersplay facebook.
Queersplay Cosplay time travels to Comikaze. Photo from the Queersplay facebook.

If you get too rigidly involved in what you think a trajectory should look like, then you’re going to cut yourself off to opportunities that might present themselves, so I’m very focused on where we are now. I want to continue going into conventions and setting up queer safer spaces. We recently got back from Stan Lee’s Comikaze in Los Angeles, and it was a really positive experience because it’s the biggest con we’ve done to date. There were so many people that just needed that [queer and trans safe] space.

I would like to see us grow. Right now only two of us that are consistently working with this project. I founded it, [and] Lilyana Fey contributes to all the work we do, and goes with me to conventions. We have a handful of other people that contribute different things to the process.

I would like to see it take more shape in that social justice forum as well. I would like to have more people working with us so that we can access more spaces and do more work with vulnerable youth that need resources. It’s perfectly fine for Lily and I to go into conventions, but as far as working with vulnerable people… I’d really like to see that piece grow.

More people with social work backgrounds?

Not even more people with social work backgrounds, more people with sewing skills. More people with comprehensive, advanced sewing skills that are confident enough in their abilities to be able to go into those spaces and care enough about those spaces and the vulnerability of LGBTQ young people to be able to make sure those resources are available.

Could you paint me a picture of what it’s like to be in a con and create safe spaces?

People come and share their really vulnerable stories with you. I’ve had people come to me at cons and I’m the first person they’ve ever told that they were trans, because that space was there and they were like, I need someone who gets this. We’ve had people come because they just needed to get away from all the toxic masculinity. We’ve had people come crying because they just needed a hug or [were] feeling gross about themselves and their bodies, and just needed to know that there’s other people there.

You do sit up there and put yourself in a vulnerable position, saying hey, I’m here for you. People do come and they do want to talk about it and they do want to talk about how they’re actualizing themselves through their experiences.

Then there’s the fun pieces, like you get to nerd out with other people over shared interests that are not always things that other people are super into. You get to talk about your nerdiness, [have] conversations about Steven Universe and Jem and the Holograms. I’ve learned about so many amazing queer and trans comics and games that I had no idea about.

There’s the business piece. We sell costuming accessories and prints and artwork and all of that. But by far, my favorite thing is just having those real moments with people.

Harley Quinn finds Poison Ivy at Comikaze. Photo from the Queersplay facebook.
Harley Quinn finds Poison Ivy at Comikaze. Photo from the Queersplay facebook.

At Stan Lee’s Comikaze, [on] the last day of the con, which is historically a pretty mellow day… I was dressed as Harley Quinn. I do burlesque Harley Quinn, so when I do Harley Quinn I’ve got these giant blonde pigtails and one’s black and one’s red, I have a tiny, tiny top hat and this big black, sparkly burlesque tutu, I have a split corset that’s half black and half red, and split [makeup] on my face… and I just alternate throughout my body. It’s one of my most high femme looks.

I remember being at our booth and some dudebro being like, “Oh, you’re such a beautiful lady.” I said, “I’m not a lady,” and he said, “Oh? Well to me you are.” Lily at that point was like, “YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE!” and kicked him out of our safer space. I was so grateful for her in that moment, and in most moments. That navigating the culture-within-the-culture is really hard.

What does the workload for starting a business like this look like?

You’re talking to me coming out of October, which was just ridiculous because we were trying to prepare for this giant con, and my costuming load was really high because I was doing costumes for Halloween. It can vary, because in September it wasn’t really high volume. I was mostly making cheeseburger backpacks, and we were trying to get organized and set up the space. Then October hit and we’ve got this giant con [and] it’s Halloween.

Of course, for me [taking a break] doesn’t happen because I founded this and I’m financing this. There’s figuring out business expenses [and] trying to come up with the next move in our strategic plan. I haven’t had a down moment to not think about Queersplay for at least a few months.

Tell me about the backer rewards for the Indiegogo and how you chose them.

Cheeseburger Backpacks are also an Indiegogo perk. Photo from the Queersplay facebook.
Cheeseburger Backpacks are also an Indiegogo perk. Photo from the Queersplay facebook.

We tried to think of things that would appeal to mass people because a lot of the things we come up with are very femme-oriented. A lot of the backer rewards are things I know, from going into conventions, that people really like. There are character sketches, original pieces of artwork, prints, cosplay prints… my very favorite reward is our $50 perk where you literally are buying an outfit for a vulnerable trans person. I will go into a drop-in space and I will talk to the director of the drop-in space and I will find somebody that needs it the most and I will make them that outfit.

You can get a certificate of passing the Kobayashi Maru, come on trekkies! We’ll get you that completion. It’s a no-win scenario, but you’re gonna beat it. We have a Queer Scout perk where I will embroider and make you a limited edition Queer Scout badge for generosity.

That’d be good for Lumberjanes cosplayers! What are your favorite shows, video games, or comics to make merch and costumes for?

I have so many. I love Steven Universe and Adventure Time; I’m a big cartoon person. McTucky Fried High is a relatively new online show. It’s based out of Chicago but it’s an entirely LGBTQ cartoon. If I’m understanding correctly, everybody that writes for it is LGBTQ, most of the people involved in the creation and the development are all queer and trans people of color.

I like horror movies a lot. That can be a challenge because so many of them are misogynistic and gross, like I was having such a love affair with Eli Roth… but then his most recent film is all about killing Social Justice Workers. Eli Roth, what happened to you! …I love Adam Green, because he does tend to gravitate toward the strong female characters that really kick ass and save the day that I think they don’t in a lot of other horror films.

I’m in love and swooning over the new Jem and the Holograms. I want to start reading Squirrel Girl because I’ve heard it’s really good. I’m really into the female Thor; I like her a lot. I’m not much a gamer, but they said it – and no matter how many times they un-say it, to me it’s cannon now that Samus is trans.

I very much gravitate toward Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy as a non-monogamous couple. I love Sailor Moon, the Sailor Stars series especially. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for X-Men but I like 90s X-Men. I really liked the cartoon. You don’t see enough Jubilee these days! I like Bee and Puppycat a lot, Rebecca Sugar needs to do more things because I really like Rebecca Sugar. I love My Little Pony.

To support Queersplay Cosplay and get rad cosplay accessories and costumes, donate to the Indiegogo campaign, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, or buy merch from their etsy shop. If you’ve got mad sewing skills and would like to be part of Queersplay, email them at Queersplay@gmail.com. You can also meet Kimber and Lily in person at Chicago Tardis, November 27-29.

This posted was edited on 11/14/2015 to update the QueersPlay Cosplay diagram.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.