IIn his concise fantasy novel The name of the windAuthor Patrick Rothfuss writes: “We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we say we are.” To me, that’s not a warning, but rather an encouraging promise.
How we present ourselves, how we dress, how we appear to others and to ourselves is powerful. Growing up in a Christian community heavily influenced by the culture of purity, I was often warned that people would judge me (my values, my humility, whether I was a good Christian) by the way I dressed. But my exploration of costumes has shown me that experimenting with my physical appearance can have a profound impact on the way I perceive myself and my sexuality.
My exploration of costumes has shown me that experimenting with my looks can have a profound impact on the way I perceive myself and my sexuality.
I got 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 that promoted Regency-era costumes. Donning a floor-length gown with an empire waist and gloves, while adhering to 19th-century dance etiquette, transformed the experience from mere fun into a totally immersive one.
For one night I could pretend I belonged to another world. After that, I started attending Renaissance fairs, where costumes can range from medieval Vikings to 18th-century pirates and fantasy elves—everything goes. Over time, the freedom to express myself in these costume rooms has become so much more than just a distraction or hobby; The practice has given me a safe space to embrace and explore my queer identity.
Finding real community in a fantasy world
Shortly after I started attending costume and cosplay events, I learned that there are many people in the costume world who welcome me and represent any character or identity I want.
In stark contrast to my youthful reality, in which I constantly felt judged by others, what struck me from the start was that there was no discrimination or shame in the costume scene. I’ve never heard a contestant make a negative comment about another person’s costume—only compliments that I find extraordinary…and exceptional secure.
Growing up in a very Christian environment, I was never comfortable exploring different interests and identities as a child or teenager; I just felt weird or different. I experienced incredible loneliness (despite having a loving family and supportive friends) because my inner world always felt so different from the cisgender heterosexual experience of those around me. I was isolated from my true self and therefore also from others.
“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 different because of their identity. “If we don’t like what’s expected of us, or worse, it shames, humiliates, or hurts us, it can feel safer to withdraw or hide.”
However, when I entered the world of costumes, I felt validated for the first time. I was able to connect with others who shared my interests, which, according to Akinyemi, “can give us a sense of being ourselves, taking space, and building 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 towards 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’re part of a particular community or subculture, which ties into the innate human need to feel a sense of belonging.”
And that’s exactly what I feel at costume events: Because all participants are in costume (no matter how different their outfits may be), there is a strong sense of community. And as a queer person, I find that feeling absolutely priceless.
How cosplaying helped me define queerness for myself
Before I felt safe about going out into the world, attending Renaissance fairs, cosplay events, and grand Halloween parties gave me the empowering opportunity to look — and be — how I wanted to, even if I was only pretending that night .
The seemingly universally accepted reason to dress up has helped me create a safe place to explore without having to commit to a specific identity. If I wanted to dress masculine, extravagant, or sexy, it didn’t have to mean anything I wasn’t willing 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 wear a mask in their daily lives, being able to choose which mask to wear and when can offer an opportunity for transformation.” —Angela Akinyemi, therapist
Costumes are a mask that I wear any way I want and take off when it no longer suits me – which has proven to be extremely liberating. “Especially for those who have been forced to wear a mask in their daily lives, being able to choose which mask to wear and when can offer an opportunity for transformation,” says Akinyemi.
Since coming out as queer, this exploratory approach to costumes has helped me experiment with new areas of identity and better understand my queerness. Similar to trying on and wearing different costumes if I try on an identity and it doesn’t fit? No damage, no foul; I can take it off and try another. I don’t have to categorize myself into a strict genre or type.
In particular, donning sexy costumes felt like a powerful reclamation of femininity that I couldn’t embrace coming of age and being in the midst of a purity culture. More generally, being able to dress and undress different costumes – and identities – at my own discretion has made me feel both secure in my body and wildly exploratory; It has allowed me to embark on adventurous unknowns while still feeling like I’m coming home.
The ultimate merging of my experiences with queer costumes happened last October when I attended Theater Bizarre, a Halloween extravaganza held in Detroit. Dubbed “the world’s greatest masquerade,” it draws visitors from around the world to the Motor City’s famed Masonic Temple, spectacularly adorned with fantastical decor.
I spent weeks designing my costumes (yes, there were several) – one was steampunk themed, the other Medusa. They’re the most elaborate costumes I’ve ever created, and as for the second, there’s not much crazier than turning half his face into a snake’s, complete with reptilian contact lenses and real snake skin glued to the skin . And yet no one took an eye on my nightmarish rendition of the most famous gorgon except to tell me how awesome the costume turned out.
By creating a space where I can explore the neglected and closed corners of myself, costuming has become the most beautiful way towards a full expression of who I am – with space for that identity to continue to grow.
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