Here at The Beat we’ve been big fans of Flame Con since the very beginning, interviewing GeeksOUT founder Joey Stern back when Flame Con was still just a great idea that had birthed a successful Kickstarter campaign. We were on scene for their first event at The Grand Prospect Hall and returned each year, following the con from its Brooklyn beginnings up through its expansion to The Sheraton Times Square in Manhattan last year.
2019 was Flame Con’s fifth fabulous year, so we thought we’d try something a little different with our coverage of the event. Since its second year, Flame Con has offered a free Youth Day on Sunday to attendees who are under 21. How does it feel to a queer teen seeing it for the first time? This reporter recruited her stepdaughter Gaby Fraser, 15, to accompany her to Youth Day to find out.
It didn’t take much to get Gaby her Flame Con pass. For those youthful enough to qualify, they need only sign up beforehand to take advantage of a free ticket. According to Michelle Rose Micor, director of PR for GeeksOUT and Flame Con, 350 young fans took advantage of the Youth Day offer this year.
“The age limit for youth day has always been youth under the age of 21,” Micor told me following the 2019 event.
We arrived at Youth Day shortly before the Cosplay Contest began, which Gaby definitely wanted to see. At the registration table, she grabbed a sticker badge announcing that her pronouns are “she/her/hers” before handing me one to wear. When I asked her about her expectations for the con, she told me she “expected it to be a bunch of gay white guys,” and was pleasantly surprised to discover that wasn’t the case.
“They’ve included a person with a disability,” she said, looking at the Flame Con image of a wheelchair user seen on signage and flags posted around the event. Gaby explained that in her experience, many pride events aimed at adults seem limited in their diversity. “Diversity isn’t just about race, it’s about everyone,” she said, and pointed out that the cover of the Flame Con program guide also included a person with a service dog: “they’ve even got service dog pride.”
It’s the kind of nuance she’s come to expect from the queer youth events she’s participated in. Gaby has been a member of the Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at Fiorello H. Laguardia High School since her freshman year. Last year she became co-president of the GSA, where she helps to organize student-run queer events which raise money for charities like The Trevor Project as well as other queer youth organizations.
“The younger generation has more representation of things like gender diversity at their queer events,” Gaby said, and felt that her peers tended to center non-binary and agender experiences in addition to transgender inclusion.
We took our seats for the Cosplay Contest near the stage set up on the second floor, and saw a wide range of bodies, genders, and ages take part in the hour-long show. Gaby especially enjoyed the many examples of gender-bending cosplayers.
“There’s guys in dresses,” she said, “but they can have beards, too.”
The crowd, which filled the seats in the stage area to capacity, seemed supportive of all the cosplayers participating, whose skills ranged from amateur to advanced to professional.
Gaby’s favorite costume was Old Man Squirrel Girl, who announced to the judges that he “ate nuts, kicked butts, and wandered around the post-apocalyptic wasteland.” Portrayed by cosplayer Nayland Blake, both Gaby and the judges appreciated Blake’s blend of gender-bending and age diversity. He ended up taking third place overall.
The winning look was drawn from the season two finale of Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, so spoiler alert I guess?
“Look, the bathrooms are all gender-neutral,” I pointed out as we passed a few on our way to the vendor room. Gaby stopped just short of rolling her eyes at me, saying: “Well, yeah, of course.”
The exchange stood out to me as an indicator of the kind of progress queer teens have grown to expect within the past few years. Gaby is going into her junior year at Laguardia, which was the first high school in the city to have gender-neutral facilities on site as of 2016. It’s a nice reminder that not all of 2016 was a garbage fire of Russian-hacked elections and painful celebrity deaths.
Gaby was impressed by the many depictions of out-and-proud queer sexuality present on the various merchandise offered in the vendor room and artist alley. Though the scantily-clad images of everyone from Batman to various Pokemon characters weren’t her personal taste, she was happy to see that “such images weren’t censored, or hidden behind a sheet.”
We stopped at a table for Queer’s The Thing, a brand-new podcast that purports to “filter through this cold, dark world full of buried gays and sad lesbians.” We chatted with hosts Lee and Madison about the show, which reviews LGBTQ+ media, as Gaby flipped through a booklet they produced titled “Queerly Beloved.” Inside was a list of various queer characters who had met their untimely ends, indexed by year and explaining the method of their death. It reads like the most depressing episode of Six Feet Under ever.
I’ve had to explain the “bury your gays” trope to plenty of people my own age, but Gaby was already very familiar with the concept. Earlier that week we’d been discussing it during her re-watch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as well as her dreams of alternate universes that allow queer icon Willow (Alyson Hannigan) to date both Tara (Amber Benson) and Oz (Seth Green).
There’s so much to browse we can barely make it through all the exhibitors. A crop top has caught Gaby’s eye not once, but twice, bringing us to the table of Steph Bulante, a Filipino-American illustrator who is currently a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She’s printed a number of her illustrations on T-shirts, and it’s the image of two women in an embrace on an ancient greek vase that just has to be bought.
Flame Con increasingly plays host to illustrators just beginning their careers, and built on that fact this year by offering a mentorship program with Eisner-winning illustrator Jen Bartel. Bartel has said that her career “really took off when I started tabling at conventions in 2016,” and mentored two artists who also won table space for this year’s con.
When I asked Gaby about increasing teen engagement with Flame Con, she suggested that programming designed with teens in mind could help boost attendance and awareness of con, which she admits she hadn’t heard of before I mentioned it to her. She added that queer teen celebrities aren’t necessarily as known among adults, and including those kinds of performers could be a huge draw for the queer youth demographic.
Gaby tells me one of her classmates, who works on social media for the GSA, reached out to Desmond Napoles on behalf of Youth Pride in 2018. Napoles is a young drag performer who goes by the stage name Desmond is Amazing, and he was the star performer of the 21-and-younger event, held in connection with the New York City Pride Week celebrations.
As the number of queer teens participating in Flame Con rises, expanding con programming with them in mind seems like a natural progression. Volunteer Jonathan Sellers says he noticed “a lot of supportive parents their with their queer youth” while working the check-in desk on Sunday.
“I also saw kids coming with what appeared to be queer parents,” he says, “like making it a family outing.” The extension of the Youth Day tickets to those under 21 was important, Sellers says, “because a lot people, myself included, really find themselves and their queer identity after leaving high school or home at 18.”
Flame Con is listening. Micor says that the con issues a survey “to all attendees to learn more about their experiences” and stresses that con organizers are always looking for feedback on how to expand the con, and that includes their growing teen audience. After all, the queer teens of today are the queer adult nerds of tomorrow.