A week after the mass shooting that left 49 patrons of a gay nightclub dead in Orlando, Florida, upcoming fan convention Flame Con is asking its attendees to drop the firearms from their costumes.
Flame Con, in its second year, is an LGBTQ-focused geek fandom convention that will be held in Brooklyn this August. Like most other fan events, it’s a popular place for cosplay. But where most conventions have some policies in place to stop people from arriving with genuinely dangerous or misleadingly realistic prop weapons, Flame Con is taking the unusual step of banning "any kind of gun or simulacrum of a firearm, no matter how fake it looks." (Realistic-looking weapons of other kinds, or anything sharp or heavy enough to hurt, are also prohibited.)
The team behind Flame Con describes this partly as a symbolic decision, and partly a way to make the convention more welcoming to people who might be leery of weapons. "Guns are not toys. Guns are not accessories that can be flaunted in public without inherently making light of their intended use — while simultaneously making many people deeply uncomfortable," the organizers said in a statement. "Your cosplay at Flame Con will help our community make a strong, colorful statement against gun violence, and our culture’s toxic love of firearms."
In the wake of a shooting specifically targeted at members of the LGBTQ community, Flame Con in particular has reason to think some attendees might be on edge — the organizers say they’re also working to get extra security at the event. But just as the shooting deeply changed how it felt to see gunfights on screen at last week’s E3 gaming show, it forces us to reconsider how we translate the violence — even the cartoonish, bloodless kind — of genre fiction into the real world. Cosplay is a creative art in its own right, but it’s also a kind of public performance, which impacts the experience of others at the show.
Flame Con itself isn’t an event categorically opposed to violence — in its inaugural year, it held a panel called "No More Mister Nice Gay: Uber Violence In Queer Storytelling." To Joey Stern, president of Flame Con organizing group Geeks Out, the major concern is not making it a default setting for convention-goers. "We're a group of people who enjoy a wide variety of entertainment, some of it violent. But that is media that we consume, and if you're a person who is not interested in that stuff, you don't have to look at it," he says. "You can't really close the book on a person in your space, so the method for avoidance means removing yourself from that space, and that's not what we want Flame Con to be."
But as The Mary Sue notes, a policy like this can also subtly change the tone of cosplay. After all, it’s often a chance to dress up in a way that personally makes you feel cool, and having to think about whether or not that idea of "cool" specifically includes guns forces us to examine exactly how they show up in geek culture. From there, it’s hard to say exactly what that might tell us. If a character’s gun turns out to be unimportant to their costume, does that mean it should never have been there in the first place? How do we balance the fact that any gun-shaped object holds a specific, sometimes ugly symbolism in American culture, while acknowledging that a realistic machine gun isn’t the same as a Star Trek phaser? And even if the intent isn’t to condemn the fiction behind cosplay, if putting a prop firearm on a real-world costume contributes to a toxic gun culture, what’s different about putting it on a page or in a theater?
The odds of other conventions following in Flame Con’s footsteps seem low, so it’s unlikely that these questions will come up much in this particular context. But especially after Orlando, the conversation around gun violence is becoming a continuous one — and geek fiction, which shapes how so many of us see the world, is going to be part of it.