Flame Con, presented annually by Geeks OUT, is growing every year and illuminating the diversity of nerd culture.
Brooklyn, New York, is home to many fun and strange events throughout the year, particularly in the summer. For the last three years, Brooklyn summers have been graced by an eye-catching event that’s grown in size annually: Flame Con, an LGBTQ+ inclusive geek convention presented by local nonprofit organization Geeks OUT.
Founded in 2010, Geeks OUT has been promoting various events to empower and bring together the queer geek community in New York, the largest among them being Flame Con.
New York City is also home to the largest convention on the East Coast (and now growing in size to fight for the largest in the United States), New York Comic Con. With recent changes to NYCC, many New Yorkers are looking for other conventions to scratch that geeky itch.
New York, like all great cities, has a central hub of the LGBTQ+ community housed inside it, and again as in all great cities that community is expanding. Flame Con was a massive gathering of that community and a welcoming of others, focused on bringing together fans, creators, exhibitors, cosplayers and artists for a huge celebration of nerds in the queer world. And pretty immediately, Flame Con proved to be cut of a very different cloth than New York’s other great flagship convention.
While smaller in attendance and location size (Flame Con was housed in the Marriott at Brooklyn Bridge this year), this convention had no shortage of amazing cosplayers. Around every corner, attendees were met by an intense aura of welcoming acceptance, including the evident signs to handicap-accessible entrances, hallways dotted with water coolers and of course Gender Neutral signs plastered at the entrance of each bathroom. Inside the convention and in all surrounding areas were volunteers in pink capes, ready to help make everyone’s experience as good as possible.
The many young, queer, cosplaying attendees seemed rather thrilled with the atmosphere they found inside the hotel. “I feel like as a cosplayer, in a lot of other cons there’s a specific ‘look,’ and if you don’t fit into that very particular ‘look,’ you’re either overlooked at best, or stared at [at worst],” said one attendee, cosplaying as Lucrecia from the con-favorite The Adventure Zone. She noted how happy she was to find a canonically Black character to cosplay, pointing out the general lack of them in geek media. “People get really excited, seeing [characters] that fit into their identities.”
For many geeks active in their respective nerd communities, a notably more exclusive, almost hostile environment greets them at conventions — particularly cosplayers, and even more so queer cosplayers, women, and people of color. The geek world isn’t always known for its inclusivity, something this writer in particular has covered a few times. Though the debate of “why” is ongoing, it’s reassuring that the negative bits of the geek world are starting to be phased out, as demonstrated by the totally welcoming vibe at Flame Con. Cosplayers of all ethnicities, skill levels and orientations proudly toted their work, with no shortage of compliments and pictures greeting them.
And this, by the way, is from the objective and even jaded standpoint of a regular NYCC attendee, who has faced their fair share of objective hostility due to gender and orientation.
Among some of the guests in the realm of cosplay was Jay Justice, cosplayer and advocate for the LGBTQ+, POC and feminist geek community. “Fandoms are just a microcosm of the regular world; there’s no magical wall that keeps out bigots. You’re going to face the same adversity inside that you face outside, and the most important thing is to try and stay positive,” said Justice. When further explaining her involvement in Flame Con and in the rest of the Geeks OUT organization, she went on to say, “No one really feels safe. We need more safe spaces. So by being in a fandom, it made me think, ‘I want to make everyone else around me as happy as I am when I’m [cosplaying].’”
When discussing the “narrow lens” of geek media focusing on the predominantly white, straight and cisgendered cosplayers of note, Justice was asked what could widen the lens, and she cited her participation with Geeks OUT. “We’re doing it. We’re going out and making our own content, we’re supporting each other, and we’re networking. Like here at Flame Con.”
As with most conventions, the most popular room at Flame Con was the show floor of exhibitors. And as in most indie conventions, each table was full of independent art, comics, books and baubles made by the people sitting behind them.
The room was dotted with independent works featuring queer and diverse characters, and a number of tables featured more than just artwork. Outreach programs had their own setups, offering information packets regarding such topics as medicines to curb the HIV virus, LGBTQ+ youth outreach programs, other queer conventions across the country and free STD testing. There was also a special donation and information table for The Trevor Project.
Among some of the indie comic creators and artists featured at Flame Con were booths belonging to exhibitors like Carey Pietsch, artist behind the upcoming The Adventure Zone graphic novel. The Adventure Zone, like popular children’s cartoon Steven Universe, dominated in the featured cosplays at Flame Con. The podcast features many openly queer characters, including one named after Carey herself, who — spoiler! — in the recent finale of the series ended up marrying her partner Killian. Like most of the featured creators at the convention, Carey greeted all her cosplaying fans with a hug and a picture (including me — thanks, Carey!).
Another featured creator at Flame Con was Katy Farina, one of the artists behind the Steven Universe comic series, as well as the Rick and Morty: Pocket Like You Stole It comic series.
Steven Universe in particular, like the aforementioned The Adventure Zone, is a beloved franchise in the LGBTQ+ community due to prominently featured queer characters and an overarching theme of acceptance.
In recent years, she noted, creators of geek media have expanded to be more diverse. “It’s starting in the indie-sphere much more. Independent publishers like Boom and Oni [publishers of Steven Universe and Rick and Morty, respectively], their teams are all tremendously diverse. I think that’s starting to leak into more mainstream media. The indie-sphere is where everything sort of starts.”
When asked about her feelings on the fan base Steven Universe has gathered, Farina looked proud. “It’s important to show kids a lot of different people with a lot of different life experiences, like with LGBTQ+ characters, we need to show them those relationships… We need to prove to these networks that there’s a market for these spaces, for kids.”
Steven Universe last year celebrated the release of a children’s book based on the TV episode “The Answer,” featuring a love story between two female characters. The book soon became a New York Times best seller.
And these spaces certainly do have a market. Flame Con has grown proportionately every year in attendance and in volunteer numbers. The convention is growing in popularity, as has demand for LGBTQ+ inclusive cons across the country.
The geek world, as mentioned before, has a preconception of being somewhat vitriolic toward fans who don’t necessarily fit the usual mold, but it really is just a reflection of our culture at large. The emergence of big presences like Geeks OUT illuminating the queer side of nerd culture heralds a bigger change.
And while many other larger conventions can learn from Flame Con by example in terms of inclusiveness, attitude and accessibility, many creators of the geek media that the fan world consumes can take a page from that book as well.
Geeks have always been diverse in every way, but unfortunately it has taken creators of the media they consume a remarkably long time to take the hint that there is in fact a market for broad-ranging experiences. Hopefully with events like Flame Con leading and growing each year, the accessibility and inclusiveness of the queer geek community will funnel upward to produce more diverse, wide-ranging and challenging material that finally fully reflects its audience.