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Lessons Learned at Flame Con

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Lessons Learned at Flame Con

I had no idea what to expect from Flame Con. Okay, I mean, I guess on the surface I knew what to expect from a show touted as New York City’s first LGBT comic con. I could assume, based on stereotypes, that there would be a lot of man abs, drag and a pervasive feeling of “fabulousness.” But I also knew that there would be more to it than that; while stereotypes may have some basis in truth, they’re nowhere near nuanced enough to peg real people down. Flame Con definitely did feature everything I thought it would (search the #FlameCon tag on Instagram for drag routines starring Storm — do it), but it also refused to conform to expectations. It turns out a thing can confirm, subvert and contradict stereotypes all at once, which is what made Flame Con such a thrilling experience.

The convention was a one-day affair, which felt just right for a first-time show that was backed via Kickstarter and held in a venue that celebrated its centennial back when “X-Files” was at its peak. I’ve been to a lot of cons in my day, big ones like NYCC and SDCC and smaller ones in cities ranging from Nashville to Atlantic City; Flame Con’s location — Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall — was unlike anything I’ve seen before. The ornate hall (I think 100% of the interior lighting was provided by chandeliers) seemed like the kind of place you would get married in if you were a 1940s aristocrat. The hall’s staff wore tuxedos, which led to sights like elderly men in formal wear handing beers to hairy guys cosplaying as harness-wearing versions of cartoon characters. I found that dichotomy endlessly delightful and something that you would not see at other convention centers; at other cons, people in ill-fitting polo shirts hand beers to harness-wearing con-goers.

While the location — which I thought looked like the kinda place Scooby and his pals would get trapped in overnight — was definitely a big part of the experience, it wasn’t the definitive part. That would be the vibe. Every show has a vibe, some of which can be described as “claustrophobic” or “euphoric” or “desperate” or “tiring” or “thrilling.” I would use the word “jubilant” to describe Flame Con’s vibe — and that’s not just because I saw easily a half-dozen Jubilee cosplayers at the show.

From the moment I walked into the main hall, I felt overcome by a feeling of, “I can’t believe this is happening!” Everyone there seemed thrilled, and not just because there were enough queer geeks in the tri-state area to fill a definitely-spooky-at-night hall, but because the whole thing was going over well. I’ve been to sad conventions held in forgotten hotel corridors before, and Flame Con felt like the exact opposite of that. I saw so many smiles. I saw so many people holding piles of purchases in one hand while holding their partner’s hand in the other. I saw so many fantastic cosplayers, including one Rogue wearing the short-lived orange tunic that I’ve talked about elsewhere. I saw so many people. According to an e-mail sent out to press, Flame Con pulled a “Jurassic World” and blew past attendance expectations; initial estimates of 1500 attendees blew up to 2200. Over two thousand people attended this show, which is over five times as many people as the number who backed the initial Kickstarter that made the one-day con possible.

VS!: The Great Rogue Costume Debate

That’s not to say that the show wasn’t without problems; the air conditioning in the building seemed to be stuck in the 19th century. This was a sweaty show and, as you can tell by the numbers above, a crowded show. But it speaks to the overall positive vibe that neither of those things felt like a deal-breaker. People came, they bought things, and they hung around until the end of the seven-hour day and into the nighttime, when a catwalk replaced the creator tables.

The thing Flame Con did that really impressed me was how above and beyond inclusive it was; this was a show built for everyone that exists along the LGBTQIA+ spectrum and beyond. It took me a while to recognize the privilege I have within this minority as a gay man. “LGBT” gets thrown around all the time, even if it’s really only talking about the G (and maybe sometimes the L). I’ve been guilty of this in the past and it’s something I’ve kept an eye out in my own writing. Flame Con made sure everyone was included right from the gate; all the bathrooms were gender neutral and the press was reminded beforehand to ask for people’s preferred pronoun prior to interviews (the mascot, Flamey, prefers they/them/their).

Additionally, Flame Con had stylish preferred pronoun stickers for attendees to wear. Because of my cisgender privilege, this is something that I’ve never thought about. Seeing preferred pronoun stickers on the majority of the attendees was eye-opening for me; a lot of people, myself included, walk through life assuming we just know what people want to be called based on the way they present their gender. I look like a “he” and I want people to use masculine pronouns for me; I’m easy, so is everyone, right? Wrong. The stickers were an in-person demonstration that you can’t assume how people want to be addressed based on how they look. As comics continue to grow and diversify their characters while engaging with and celebrating their diverse audience, I can definitely see features like gender-neutral bathrooms and preferred pronoun stickers becoming staples of big conventions.

Flame Con literally allowed for its attendees to choose the label that fit best — or not choose one at all. This notion of labels, specifically in regards to a con billed as a queer geek one, played with my own expectations for the show and ended up changing a lot of my own assumptions. This may seem odd consider how often my own gayness comes up in this column, but my sexual orientation does not play a very noticeable role in my day-to-day life — aside from the whole “living with and engaged to a man” thing. What I mean to say is, the majority of my friends are straight, and around half — maybe more — of those friends are straight men. I also don’t perform — that seems like the right word? — my homosexuality in the way that Bravo and ’90s sitcoms told me I should. It took me a long time to realize that being gay was not inherently tied to manscaping, Madonna and musicals. It took me a long time to come out. In turn, it took me an even longer time to realize that there’s nothing to be ashamed about if I do like a Lady Gaga song or care about fashion or really love dancing; I had to deal with a lot of internalized homophobia — a thing I did in my very first piece for CBR, which was about DC’s flamboyant gay teen hero Bunker.

At Flame Con, I got to see other gay men — gay comic book fans — presenting themselves with drastically varied degrees of masculinity. I also saw a lot of gay men that looked like me, which — as someone who has always felt a little personally under-served by depictions of gay men in the media — was incredibly validating. When you get to see that many members of the LGBT community all gathered together like that, you start to see that there’s both no correct way to be queer and also that you’re not alone. I never really understood the appeal of doing gay-specific activities before Flame Con, but I get it now.

While LGBT visibility is rising exponentially at big comic conventions, it still felt special to be at a place built — and built well — for the queer community. I learned a lot about other people and I also learned more about the labels I’ve chosen to proudly stick on my shirt. Fingers crossed Flame Con returns in 2016 and even more people get to feel that show’s good vibes.

Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He makes videos for the Upright Citizens Brigade as a member of UCB1 and writes for the sketch comedy podcast Left Handed Radio. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).

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