Anyone walking west of 8th Avenue between 30th and 40th streets in New York City this weekend would be forgiven for thinking Halloween came early this year. Since Thursday, thousands of costume-clad comic book and superhero fans, better known as "cosplayers" (short for costume players), have been marching to and from the Javits Center as part of New York Comic Con.
But not all cosplaying is created equal.
While just about everyone can relate to wearing the costume of a favorite character, even if it's been a few years, far fewer people, even within Comic Con, are familiar with the growing movements of cosplaying known as "crossplaying" and "genderbent cosplay," or otherwise known as Rule 63 cosplay. While Comic Con is a welcoming celebration of all brands of geekdom, those brands of the popular trend invert gender stereotypes in ways that do not make everyone comfortable.
"People like to think that there is a wall around fandom that bigots can't get into, but bigots will always be here. There is no wall," Jay Justice, the co-director of New York Comic Con's LGBT HQ and an avid cosplayer and crossplayer, told International Business Times. "This community is just a microcosm of the outside world. We have some things in common, but at the end of the day, we are still the people we were before we put on this costume and you will deal with prejudice within the community."
Crossplaying is when a fan dons a costume of a character that is a gender other than the one they identify with in day-to-day life, such as a male cosplayer dressing up as Wonder Woman. Genderbent cosplaying is when a cosplayer adapts a preferred character to their self-identified gender, such as a female cosplayer dressing up as a male version of Spiderman. This is sometimes referred to as Rule 63 cosplay, thanks to the titular comic rule stating that any character has a male or female counterpart. In both cases, the cosplayer is more concerned with connecting with a character's internal identity than their external gender.
"I once crossplayed as Gabe Jones from the Howling Commandos as he was seen in 'Captain America: The First Avenger,'" Justice explained. "I primarily did it because I wanted to be a part of a group of my friends who were doing the entire 'Howling Commandos,' but I really enjoy the character. I was hoping to see more of him in the film. The fact that he is judged by the color of his skin, as I am, and the fact that he is fighting the good fight in a group for something bigger than himself."
On Thursday, Justice moderated a panel on crossplaying and genderbent cosplay. The forum was attended by a couple dozen people, a fraction of the thousands-strong audiences courted by Comic Con's premier events. But those who did show up revealed that crossplaying is not always as accepted at Comic Con as one would think. Cosplayers and Genderbent cosplayers face ridicule and oftentimes sexual harassment from fellow attendees at various conventions. Many said they preferred to travel around the convention in groups for safety.
A woman, who identified herself as Frida and dressed up as the male Avatar Ang from "Avatar: The Last Airbender," confessed that she had been receiving unsolicited attention all day. The convention was barely two hours old.
"They said, 'You are too sexy to be Avatar Ang,'" Frida said. "This is who I am. This is what I feel comfortable with."
One measure Comic Con could take to put these cosplayers minds at ease is to institute gender-neutral bathrooms, fans said. Aside from accommodating the trans community at the convention, this would simplify things for crossplayers worried how others will perceive their costumes.
"When I dressed up as ["X-Men" character] Emma Frost, I needed to use the bathroom and didn’t know what to do," said male crossplayer Bryan VM. "I ended up using the men’s room because that’s what I identify with regardless of my costume. But when I came out of the stall the men were like, ‘what are you doing here?’"
Though some conventions have adopted gender-neutral bathrooms — the male-dominated video game convention PAX converted its female restrooms to gender-neutral restrooms this year — New York Comic Con has yet to do so in its 10 years.
"ReedPOP and New York Comic Con is supportive of all of our fans and they are what make each of our shows so unique and special so it’s of the utmost importance to us that all of our fans are completely comfortable and accommodated. We work with the venues throughout the months leading into and following a convention to ensure the safety and satisfaction of all fans and cosplayers," said Comic Con organizer ReedPOP, which also organizes a number of comic conventions in other cities, in a statement sent to IB Times. "At a number of our shows at different venues across the country, there are gender-neutral bathrooms and we are hoping to bring that same feature to New York Comic Con just as soon as possible.
Justice says that as LGBTQ issues have moved into the mainstream in recent years, more people have become aware of the crossplaying and gender-bending community's plight. She acknowledges that things have improved, but says there is still a long way to go.
"For the part of the community that fears they are going to be bullied or chased out of the restroom, [gender neutral bathrooms] are like salvation," Justice said. "[Comic Con is] fully aware of the situation. They are doing some of the things they can right now, but they are doing it very slowly because they don't want to run the risk of upsetting the vocal minority of people who are continuing to oppress the people who are different than them."
She added: "You want to have fun, but it gets frustrating when people don’t see you the way you want to be seen. We are here. We have been here. And we are not going anywhere."