How we present ourselves, how we dress, how we appear to others and ourselves is powerful. Growing up in a Christian community strongly influenced by purity culture, I was often warned that people would judge me (my values, my modesty, whether I was a good Christian) based on what I wore. But my explorations into costuming have shown me that experimenting with my outward appearance can have a deep impact on the way I perceive myself and my sexuality.
My explorations into costuming have shown me that experimenting with my appearance can have a deep impact on the way I perceive myself and my sexuality.
I came into the world of cosplay and costuming before I ever came out as queer. In high school, my friends and I went to an English country dance where Regency-era costumes were encouraged. Donning a floor-length, empire-waist dress and gloves, and embracing 19th-century dance etiquette transformed the experience from merely fun to utterly immersive.
For one night, I could pretend I belonged to a different world. After that, I began going to Renaissance Faires, where costumes can range from medieval Vikings to 18th-century pirates and fantasy elves—anything goes. Over time, being free to express myself in these costuming spaces has become so much more than a diversion or hobby; the practice has given me a safe space to embrace and explore my queer identity.
Finding real community in a fantasy world
Soon after I started attending costume and cosplay events, I learned that the costuming world brims with people who will welcome me representing any character or identity I want.
In stark contrast to my adolescent reality of feeling constantly judged by others, the lack of discrimination or shame in the costuming community struck me from the beginning. I’ve never heard any attendee make a negative comment about someone else’s costume—only compliments, which I find extraordinary…and extraordinarily safe.
Growing up in highly Christian spaces, I never felt comfortable, as a kid or teen, exploring different interests and identities; I just felt weird or othered. I experienced incredible loneliness (despite having a loving family and supportive friends) because my internal world always felt so different from the cisgender, heterosexual experience of those around me. I was isolated from my own true self and therefore, from others, too.
“For people who are queer, as with many marginalized identities, interests can be an alienating factor,” says Angela Akinyemi, a queer, Black-biracial therapist who works with clients who have felt othered because of their identities. “When we don’t like what we’re expected to like, or worse, are shamed, humiliated, or harmed because of it, it can feel safer to withdraw or hide.”
Once I entered the costuming world, however, I felt validated for the first time. I was able to connect with others who shared my interests, which Akinyemi says can “make us feel safe to be ourselves, to take up space, and to create deep connections.”
Over time, dressing up for costume events has also become a way for me to explore my sexuality and identity in an environment geared around acceptance. “The way you dress and present yourself can be a really powerful expression of identity,” says therapist Lauren Zettler. “It can signal to those around you that you are part of a specific community or subculture, which ties into the innate human need to feel a sense of belonging.”
And that’s precisely what I feel at costume events: The fact that all the attendees are in costume (no matter how different their outfits may be from one another) creates a powerful feeling of community. And as a queer person, I’ve found this feeling utterly priceless.
How cosplaying has helped me define queerness for myself
Before I felt safe coming out to the world at large, going to Renaissance Faires, cosplay events, and splendid Halloween parties gave me the empowering opportunity to look like—and be—whomever I wanted, even if I was just “pretending” for the night.
Having what felt like a universally accepted reason to get dressed up helped create a safe place for me to explore without having to make a commitment to any one particular identity, either. If I wanted to dress masculine or flamboyant or sexy, it didn’t need to mean anything that I wasn’t ready for it to mean. It could be as simple as, This is my costume for tonight; tomorrow, it could be something different.
“For those who have been forced to put on a mask in their daily lives, being in a position to choose what mask to put on and when can provide the opportunity for transformation.” —Angela Akinyemi, therapist
Costuming is a mask I choose to wear, in any fashion I desire, and to take off whenever it no longer suits me—which has proven highly liberating. “Particularly for those who have been forced to put on a mask in their daily lives, being in a position to choose what mask to put on and when can provide the opportunity for transformation,” says Akinyemi.
Since coming out as queer, this exploratory take on costuming has helped me experiment with new areas of identity and better understand my queerness. Much like trying on and wearing different costumes, if I try on an identity, and it doesn't fit? No harm, no foul; I can take it off and try another. I don’t need to box myself into one strict genre or type.
In particular, donning sexy costumes has felt like a powerful reclamation of the femininity I couldn’t embrace while coming of age amid purity culture. More generally, the ability to try on and take off different costumes—and identities—as I see fit has made me feel both safe in my body and wildly explorative at the same time; it’s allowed me to embrace adventurous unknowns while also feeling a sense of coming home.
The ultimate coalescence of my queer costuming experience came this past October when I attended Theatre Bizarre, a Halloween extravaganza held in Detroit. Described as “the greatest masquerade on earth,” it draws attendees from all over the world to the Motor City’s famous Masonic Temple spectacularly decked out with fantastical decor.
I spent weeks on my costumes (yes, there were multiple)—one was steampunk-themed, the other Medusa. They are the most elaborate costumes I’ve ever created, and with regard to the second one, there’s not a lot more freakish than fashioning half your face into a snake’s, complete with reptilian contacts and honest-to-goodness snakeskin glued onto your skin. And yet, no one batted an eye at my nightmarish interpretation of the most famous Gorgon, except to tell me how awesome the costume turned out.
In creating a space for me to explore the neglected and closeted corners of myself, costuming has become the most beautiful path toward a complete expression of who I am—with space for that identity to continue to grow.
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