The Experiences of a Transgender Cosplayer

My name is Jessica Darke. Five weeks ago was Phoenix Comicon and in my 6th year going, I decided to Cosplay every day of the con. This is my first time doing serious cosplay at a con. This is also my first Cosplay since I began my Male to Female (MtF) transition. On my best days I barely pass as a natural or cisgender female. So with those facts in mind, I want to take a moment to talk to the other trans individuals out there who might be considering such an event.

This is also a guide for those who encounter trans individuals who are in cosplay.

1. What You Wear
Let me start off with this. There is no right or wrong way to do Cosplay. Want to be Batman or Batwoman and wear a spandex suit with a painted symbol? Do it. Want to spend weeks sewing your first dress and go as Elsa? Do it! Want to wear a bikini and go as a sexy Dead Pool? Do it!

While this statement is not specifically for trans folks, it is an important one. Be proud of yourself, your fandom, and be confident in who you are. If you love some obscure character from an anime only ten people have seen but really want to do play as them for a Con? Don’t be afraid.
When I did Cosplay before I started my transition, I only did it twice, dipping my toes into interesting and unfamiliar water. Each time I was afraid of being judged for being in costume; that my costume wouldn’t be good enough for the legions of folks out there with more time, money, talent, and effort than I had to put in to mine.

As a transwoman I am always in fear of how other people will react. How I will be treated. Now, I am going to a convention with over 70,000 people dressed as a character who is not the gender I was born as, and in two cases where I swapped the gender of the character to be the gender I am. All my day to day fears were compounded by an order of magnitude.
What I can tell you is, be comfortable in yourself and be comfortable in your costume but if you love it. Do it. Once I got amongst the throngs of people I had a blast! The fear vanished (mostly, but more on that later) and it was a great time.

It’s worth repeating, be comfortable in all ways you can. It will see you through.

2. Gender Swap Yes or No?
So as someone born a male and expressing female, I have some interesting decisions to make. When I pick my characters to play, what if they are opposite of my preferred gender? For example, I can play a male Jack Frost or Malcolm Reynolds any day of the week and pass. I could then play Elsa as a male and do a gender swapped version of her. Alternatively, I can go as Jackie Frost and Mallory Reynolds and express my favorite characters as my gender vs. theirs.

I won’t lie, each decision comes with its own pitfalls. When I was Elsa, I was “accused” of being gender swapped at least five times. This made me uncomfortable to say the least. I made the character mine regardless. The number of small children who looked up to me and said “Elsa!” all wide eyed made it worth it. The parents that didn’t scurry them away and didn’t even react make it worth it.

Don’t let it psyche you out. It’s Cosplay. You are who you want to be. No one can take it away from you. If you choose to gender swap, it’s because you want to. You cannot let some one else not getting it affect you. This is harder than it sounds. Much like I said before about wearing the costume, be comfortable. I was Mallory Reynolds. I was Jackie Frost. Most people got it, as always some don’t. This is no different than some one not knowing who the character is.

Don’t let it get to you. Many cosplayers go through it, regardless of gender.

3. Bathrooms
While I can’t speak for everyone, I can say for myself bathrooms hold a special sense of dread. We often hear about the conflict of “If I go into one bathroom I will get beaten. If I go into the other, I will get ridiculed.”. That’s a very good argument and one I have made before too. Its perfectly valid and honestly, it hasn’t happened to me yet, but that’s because I almost always refuse to go to the bathroom in a public place if I can help it at all.

The other fear is being thrown out. I think I would rather take the ridicule or the beating (at least there I can fight back), than be thrown out. I am talking full on having restaurant staff escort you from the premises, or even the police. The public shame that would come from that is near debilitating to think about. Again it hasn’t happened yet, but when I do use the ladies room in a public place, such as the movie theatre, I don’t make eye contact and move quickly; praying the entire time no one says anything.

Oh I still have heard the whispers, I’ve seen the stares.

So what about a convention? Cosplay isn’t always easy to get out of and honestly, if you are walking the floor or from panel to panel for hours you are going to have to go at some point. DO NOT DO WHAT I DID. I am stupid in this case. I all but refuse to drink (mostly because it’s difficult in some of the looks I’ve done) and start to suffer from borderline dehydration issues. This is a *very* dangerous practice. It’s one I deal with day to day as well, but a convention this is amplified by the amount of moving you do. In many Cosplay outfits there are weight and “material breathing issues” as well. These will cause you to sweat more and dehydrate faster. If you are on HRT like me, this is amplified as well.

However, this year I had to use the facilities to adjust my costume a few times. Unlike other venues it was head up, walk with confidence and do what I need to do. There was a moment where this totally awesome author I ran into, who leans to the masculine in her look (but is not trans) had a moment where we both were wondering if we were each in the wrong place. Then we got over our own internal BS and went about our business.

It turns out the convention has rules about such things and I would have been protected. Most conventions actually do. You don’t have to worry. I didn’t know that. What I do know is, I was born a male but I am a woman in my own eyes, mind, heart, and what passes for my soul. I will go where I belong. We still carry our own fears, insecurities, and judgments. I can’t tell you its easy to get over them, but we have to try.

And please, don’t do what I did. Drink fluids!

4. Other People
This is one of the hardest ones to deal with. You brace for impact whenever you walk out the door. I can’t speak to your neighborhoods, homes, or cities; but I can speak to your conventions. As a trans cosplayer I found myself surprisingly at home. Everyone else is expressing their passions and their enjoyment in something – just like you!

Sure, I had ONE person who was rude and kept yelling “No” when he saw me. I have personally taken it to be, regardless of the truth, that I had more courage than he did and his own little world refused to accept that.

One person in 70,000. Not bad odds. Every single other person I actually dealt with was kind. I had more compliments on my Elsa than I ever
anticipated. Every little girl who whispered to their mother “Look its Elsa” and asked for a photo was a joy.

Then there are other LGBTQ people. Aside from children, these people ended up being my biggest photo ops and my biggest fans. I got more “Way to Go’s”, “You look awesome”, and “Great job” than I ever conceived of being possible. I ran into one other Trans cosplayer. She was also part of a local group of cosplayers. The fact that she was there and doing her thing strengthened my own resolve.

As an added bonus, you may give someone else the inspiration and spark the fire of inner resolve to cosplay themselves. You can potentially help someone get over their fear through getting over your own. How is that for awesome?

Yes, you are going to run into the very rare jerk at one of these conventions, but by far and large you will run into exceedingly awesome and supportive people. At a convention other people are a support structure unlike many of us get rather than something to fear.

5. You!
The support structure I have is comprised of coworkers and friends online, most of whom I have never met in person. Whenever I have moments of doubt, I am regularly told I am beautiful, strong, and more courageous than anyone they know. I admit, I don’t often believe them, but its good to hear.

So let me tell you something. Something you need to hear.

If you want to be a trans cosplayer – It DOES take courage. It DOES take strength.

You’ve got it in you. You’ve already made one of the hardest decisions anyone can make. You decided to be who you are in being trans. This isn’t about trans being a choice, but instead making the choice to admit it and own it. THAT is the choice in being a Trans person. You are who you are inside (and maybe outside). If you have the courage to say I am a female. I am a male. I am neither. That takes power. That takes real strength of will. You’ve already done it. You’ve already done the hard part.

The cosplay is easy by comparison.