Huddled Penguins in a Hetero-Normative Storm: Gender Identity in Con Culture

I don’t remember the last time I made an effort to attend a 10:00am panel at Anime Boston. I was probably still in high school and trying to catch the second screening of videos for the AMV contest. This year, however, I was a woman with a mission: to attend my cousin’s panel on Gender Identity in Convention Culture. The panel was a big hit last year. The room filled up about twenty minutes before it started, and I was one of the fifty-plus people who were turned away because the room was at capacity.

This year, however, the GICC panel got upgraded to the Grand Ballroom in the Sheraton, so there was plenty of room for everybody – transgender, cisgender, and non-binary!

"Stand up for yourselves, twist arms if you have to."
“Stand up for yourselves, twist arms if you have to.”

Gender is weird. And so much more complex than ‘boy/girl’. The beginning of the panel was actually a good refresher for me, so let’s get a run down of terminology.

Cisgender: ‘Cis’ is the Latin prefix meaning “on the same side”. It does NOT mean ‘comfortable in skin’, nor is it a slur. It is a simple adjective to refer to someone whose gender identity matches the one they were assigned at birth.  I, for example, am cisgender.

Transgender: The prefix ‘trans’ refers to “opposite side”, and the word is used to indicate someone whose identity doesn’t match what they were assigned. For example, Sophia and Arthur, the speakers on the panel, are both trans people in their mid twenties.

Sophia was assigned male at birth, and after several years of a painful battle to be acknowledged for her real self, she’s pretty fearlessly public about being a trans woman. Arthur, on the other hand, was assigned female at birth and is only out in certain circles. This does not include his professional life, so no photos of him will appear in this article.

Other important terms are nonbinary and bigender. Nonbinary is a wide term for anyone who doesn’t identify solely with male or female.  They could feel like neither, a mix of both, or that they move between  feminine and masculine identities from day-to-day. That latter is called bigender.

The focus on convention culture began with the topic of crossplay. For instance, why do we laugh when we see a man with a beer belly squeezing into jean shorts and suspenders to look like Misty? Why don’t we react the same way when we see a woman slap on all sorts of belts and buckles to look like someone from YuGiOh or Attack on Titan? It’s because we’re conditioned from an early age that Male is the “default” for acceptability, something that reminded me of a quote in a Madonna song:

Girls can wear jeans and cut their hair short, wear shirts and boots. ‘Cause it’s OK to be a boy. But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading. ‘Cause you think that being a girl is degrading.”

That’s one inherent problematic feature of our day-to-day culture, but convention culture highlights another. The notion of The Trap. Someone who looks like a man or woman but *le gasp* isn’t. Arthur admitted to hearing the phrase used in several panels over the weekend, many which weren’t related to gender in any way.  It’s an incredibly transmisogynistic phrase, and at cons specifically it’s harmful to any individual trying to suss out their gender identity. And that’s what some people in crossplay are doing – they’re learning to express themselves, and it’s not something to be joked about.


The above Deadpool comic was referenced in the GICC panel. This speech scene would be great if the aforementioned cheerleader were actually trans. But no, it’s some shapeshifting criminal trying to make a clean getaway. It’s not representation, it’s reducing someone’s life experience to a mere gag for laughs. Don’t call people “Traps,” reduce your gender-based assumptions, and make an effort to use the right pronouns.

Both Sophia and Arthur recognized the struggle of adjusting one’s language when it came to pronouns. “It’s like adding a new word for ‘the’,” Sophia explained. She also suggested using the pronouns of whatever character a person is cosplaying, rather than trying to assume their gender identity through the costume. Sophia admitted she had mixed feelings on being asked for her preferred pronouns. While she understands most people are trying to be respectful, it also makes her “feel like I’m not doing my job”. She encouraged people to stand up for themselves, twist arms (metaphorically!) if you have to.

What started off as a laid-back panel peppered with educational facts turned into a meaningful dialogue between audience members and the panelists. More and more people raised their hands to get a turn at the microphone. Many spoke in praise of the panel and the range of topics it covered. “Growing up I was confused as hell. I wish I’d had this in school.”

“I’m glad this exists so I can learn to help.” Arthur recommended some additional resources: Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition offers support groups and educational resources, while PFlag has a service that matches the parents of out people with parents who are struggling to understand their child’s transition.

A tearful Death the Kid cosplayer stood up and admitted this was their first convention since coming out. They received a round of applause for their bravery.

Others shared stories about experiences at other conventions. One Ash cosplayer spoke about being a volunteer at PAXEast 2015, where they were required to undergo an hour of training about Transgender Awareness, including a waiver and a packet of acceptable behaviors. This same volunteer was misgendered constantly during that con, and when they brought it up with the head of staff it was a matter taken very seriously.

Arisia has optional pronoun ribbons, and AB has set gender-neutral bathrooms for cosplayers, but it was clear that conventions still have a way to go. One person shared a horrifying story: “I’m really glad this panel is happening, I have friends who won’t come out to AB because they were chased out of [a different con] with a knife.”

Still, the panel ended on a positive note.

“Thank you [for this panel], I feel so included,” a bigender speaker declared. She (as she was feeling feminine that day) spoke to how difficult it was to find like-minded people in a society where binary gender was the default. “We huddle like penguins in a hetero-normative storm,”  she added to thunderous applause. Hopefully with more panels like this raising awareness, we can weather that storm together.


One thought on “Huddled Penguins in a Hetero-Normative Storm: Gender Identity in Con Culture

  1. Just randomly found this article. I’m actually the Death the Kid cosplayer. It was an amazing panel and the speakers were awesome. I would have asked for a picture with them after if I had time. It would be so amazing if they did it again next year!

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