Cosplay means different things for different people. For some, it can act as a creative outlet or a place to make lifelong friends. For those in the LGBT2SQ+ community, cosplay can be a welcoming and safe space to explore who you want to be, inside and out.
Some people can explore their identity through cosplay — Emery Pesch-Johnson is one of them.
Emery, 27, sits at a Starbucks. He has slight bags under his eyes. His hands clasp a cup of coffee. He is two weeks post-op from a double mastectomy, commonly known as top surgery.
Emery’s journey leading up to the surgery began in grade 11 when he started cosplaying with his now-wife, Michele Pesch-Johnson.
They watched videos online about a cosplay group called Fighting Dreamers Productions. These videos inspired them to go to conventions and to cosplay.
“YouTube was a big gateway to a lot of cosplays,” says Emery.
A quick browse through the internet leads to a rabbit hole of videos ranging from convention vlogs to makeup and cosplay character tutorials.
Cosplay is one of many ways people in the anime and comic community express themselves by dressing as their favourite characters. The word cosplay, coined in 1984, is a combination of “costume” and “play.”
Cosplayers (people that cosplay) can dress or act like characters, enter cosplay contests, or join charity events.
Creating these cosplays is often a long process, and Emery has had his fair share of difficulty making complicated designs, including a cosplay that called for leopard print and crocodile skin.
Emery has a love-hate relationship with cosplay — but it helped him affirm his identity.
While Emery, who used they/them pronouns at the time, was getting ready for a convention in early November 2017, he recognized something that would change his life.
“I was trying on this jacket for Nyx Ulric [a male character] and I had the big realization like ‘Holy shit,’ and it all just clicked into place,” says Emery.
Emery realized he was a trans man.
He started using male pronouns with close friends that month and went to his doctor to discuss how he could start transitioning shortly after. In April 2018, Emery started taking testosterone supplements to grow facial hair and deepen his voice. He says these changes helped him feel more like himself.
Emery then talked with a psychiatrist about undergoing a double mastectomy, a surgery to remove breast tissue. He had to pass the psychiatrist’s mental and physical health evaluation to make sure he was ready for the invasive surgery. And he did.
After 14 months of being on a waitlist, Emery had the surgery on October 23, 2019.
Since then, he says he’s noticed some transphobic reactions from people at work and in his personal life. Emery says he occasionally corrects customers to use his proper pronouns at his retail job. But some customers purposely misuse his pronouns and try to “correct” him instead. These uncomfortable interactions also happened with other people in Emery’s life. He doesn’t talk to some of his old friends or coworkers anymore because of it.
“It’s worse when somebody comes out and they’re outspoken on social media or to your face like, ‘I’m trans positive [a trans ally],’ but their actions don’t show it,” says Emery. “I don’t associate with people like that because I don’t need that added stress in my life.”
Emery doesn’t feel that apprehension at conventions because people are more accepting. He says he often meets people who make him feel understood like he’s known them for years.
Emery says his family’s reactions to his transition were mostly positive. He describes his family as “eccentric” and laughs while mentioning his mom and her updates about her “five boys” to her friends. But the surgery also brought the stress of finding acceptance in his personal life with his father. Emery says there’s tension between them, but his family is working on it together.
On top of that, Emery says the surgery has taken a physical toll on his body.
“There’s a slight aspect of body horror to my healing,” says Emery. “My brain is still used to seeing what used to be there, how my chest shouldn’t have this scarring.”
Emery’s main concern with the surgery was the possibility of his nipple grafts falling off. He couldn’t shower for a week until they had healed enough. When Emery could finally shower, he called his cosplay friends on Discord. He says they were excited for him.
It hasn’t all been scary. Emery laughs when he mentions how his pecs will often twitch or flex “like Terry Crews’.” Despite the mix of experiences, Emery says the surgery has been a huge relief and a boost of body confidence overall.
“When I walked past a mirror about three days after surgery I stopped, and I kinda took a couple of steps back to get a better look at myself,” says Emery. “It’s the first time I’ve stood in front of a mirror and awkwardly enough checked myself out. That’s the first time I felt like saying, ‘Yeah, I look good.’”
Emery says cosplay helped him through a rough time in his life — it acted as a way for him to explore his gender identity and realize who he is.
“I’m able to portray something that at one point my outward body did not portray,” says Emery. “Cosplay gave me the ability to explore and start feeling comfortable in my own skin.
People like Michele Pesch-Johnson see cosplay as therapeutic and a place for LGBT2SQ+ education.
Michele, 27, sits on her living room floor while applying light blue paint to the wings of her next cosplay character, Deet from the TV show The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. She’s getting ready with her husband, Emery, for an upcoming comic convention, Anime Milwaukee.
She starts making the wings by forming the bare skeleton out of Worbla (a brand of non-toxic thermoplastics that change shape when heated), papier mâché, and chopsticks. After that, she paints the shading design to the wings. The whole process has taken her a month and a half.
“I make a lot of my cosplays because it’s a process I enjoy,” says Michele.
This elaborate practice is a satisfying way for Michele to take a break from her busy life as a linguistics student.
“Cosplay is a nice way to press pause on those responsibilities without completely pushing them away,” says Michele.
For her, the best part about cosplaying is the creative process and seeing the result of her hard work.
“It’s like a puzzle you’re figuring out and putting together,” says Michele. “There’s a sense of accomplishment.”
For as long as she can remember, Michele’s interest in creating came from her late grandma. Michele fondly remembers making stuffed animals and receiving homemade Halloween costumes from her. For Michele, cosplay is a way to bring back those moments.
In addition to the connection to her grandma, Michele says the cosplay community provided her with LGBT2SQ+ education she didn’t learn about in school.
Michele says her high school didn’t teach students about the LGBT2SQ+ community, which was difficult when she needed to explore and understand her bisexuality. She hopes schools will consider changing this to help create a safer space for students.
At conventions, people can connect through their love for certain shows or comics. Most conventions even have panels discussing a variety of topics, including LGBT2SQ+ anime.
For many LGBT2SQ+ people around the world, the cosplay community acts as a safe space and promotes body positivity, anti-bullying movements, and anti-harassment policies.
With cosplay, people can dress as any character they want, no matter their gender, race, or body type. That’s why most cosplay movements and sites like Cosplay Realm Magazine focus on encouraging body positivity in the community.
Cosplay Against Bullying is an online campaign and organization that raises awareness about the psychological effects of bullying towards cosplayers.
An anti-harassment policy and movement most conventions follow called “Cosplay Is Not Consent” helps create a safer space for cosplayers by setting down rules for convention etiquette. Not only does this movement help prevent disrespectful actions at conventions, it helps empower people to speak up and share their stories too.
“You can find a good support system [in the cosplay community] and if you need someone to help you through something, there will always be somebody,” says Michele. “You have the cosplay side, and that’s cool, but it’s also great that you have a community with shared interests that’s more than just cosplay.”
Cosplay helped Rey Nicole find a community and build friendships.
Rey, 21, laughs with some of her friends during dance practice. Against a white wall behind them are big gold balloons that spell “Love Live!”
Behind the balloons is a light pink decal with the name of their dance group, Nonets. The 10-member group based off the anime, Love Live! School Idol Project, wears school uniforms and a variety of coloured wigs, ranging from blonde to bright orange.
Today, Rey’s group is making a Valentine’s Day dance video. They practise once a week to make sure all members are ready for future dances at conventions or for videos.
Rey started cosplaying back in 2012 as Blake Belladonna, a protagonist from her favourite show RWBY. While she looks back at the old cosplay and laughs, she says she appreciates watching her cosplay skills improve with wigs and makeup, especially since it helps her look more like the character she wants.
“I can’t sew very well, but I can do the other stuff,” says Rey, referring to her experience working with makeup and wig styling.
Recently, she started making wigs from scratch, a process she says is difficult and time-consuming. Her latest wig, a short bob, took her all summer to make.
Rey says she mainly goes to conventions to improve her skills as a cosplayer and spend time with her friends. She says conventions are a place she can be herself completely. It’s this feeling of acceptance at conventions that helped Rey realize at age 14 that she was gay.
“I had a gay awakening,” Rey laughs.
This was when she went to a cosplay social dedicated to Homestuck, an online comic. She met many of her friends through the community there, which led her to go to more conventions in Winnipeg.
“I think conventions are some of the most accepting places I’ve ever been, honestly,” says Rey. “I feel like every time I go to a convention, it’s always like ‘Come to the LGBT2SQ+ panels.’”
Rey says she feels comfortable and open in the cosplay community, but she doesn’t always feel that acceptance outside of conventions.
“Sometimes I’ll go outside with my girlfriend in public and people will sneer at us and I’m like ‘Okay, it’s 2019, let me live,’” says Rey.
Rey says in convention scenarios you’re more likely to meet people you can connect to because of the open atmosphere.
“[Cosplay] made me more comfortable in who I am,” says Rey. “It was the first time I started telling people ‘I am gay.’”
She says it’s likely her cosplay friends knew she was gay before her school friends because she could be open at conventions. She even met her girlfriend through cosplay.
“It kinda felt like I was almost living a double life,” says Rey.
Rey first came out to her family when she was 15 but says she went back into the closet after hearing homophobic remarks from her mom. She says this memory, paired with other prejudiced slurs her family used in the past, held her back from coming out again when she had a girlfriend.
Last September, Rey finally built up the courage to tell her family about her relationship. It was a tough moment for her, but she says she felt a wave of relief knowing that she can talk about her girlfriend at home.
“It feels like nothing is different, yet everything is different,” says Rey.
The support Rey gained from going to conventions also helped her become more outgoing.
“It’s funny to say this because many people don’t take me for it, but I’m very much an introvert,” says Rey. “But the minute I put on a cosplay, it’s like, ‘Hurrah! Extrovert time!’”
Rey has 16 variations of outfits for characters from the dancing anime Love Live! School Idol Project and a wide selection of different outfits for characters from other anime.
She wears many of these cosplays for dancing, whether at practices or conventions. While cosplaying is a fun experience for her, it also reminds Rey of her childhood.
“I also think cosplay stemmed from my love of dressing up,” says Rey. She talks about a trunk full of costumes including a princess dress she used to wear at her grandparents’ house as a kid.
To this day, Rey says she’ll only go on a stage for her dance performances if she’s in costume.
“I wouldn’t feel as confident in myself if it weren’t for cosplay,” says Rey. “Slap a costume and some makeup on and sure let’s go, I’ll dance.”
Chelsea Howgate gained the confidence to be herself through cosplay.
Chelsea, 22, sits on her couch while drawing new characters in her sketchbook. This book holds designs for new cosplays and Dungeons & Dragons role-playing characters. Her bright red nail polish stands out against the paper.
“It was a roller coaster of gender discovery,” says Chelsea.
That’s how she describes her experiences growing up in grade school. When she first heard the word in Grade 6, she says she immediately connected to being transgender. It made sense to her. As a child, Chelsea says she would raid her sisters’ closets, wear their clothes, and dress up in princess dresses.
After she learned what it meant to be transgender, Chelsea started exploring her relationship with gender and fashion by wearing more feminine attire.
“For the longest time I think I always wanted to be a girl, but I didn’t know there was a word for it,” says Chelsea. She talks about a time where she wondered if she was non-binary or gender fluid.
She didn’t fully realize she was a trans woman until her second year of university.
At 16, Chelsea hid boxes of girl clothes under blankets in her room so her parents wouldn’t find out.
“When I was in high school, I was really secretive about it, exploring being feminine,” says Chelsea. “But one night I went to a friend’s house to hang out and my mom got curious because she thought I was doing drugs or something. So, she went into my room and found those and confronted me about them. That’s how she found out.”
Chelsea refers to this time of secrecy as her angsty phase. After that, her mom became intrusive and would periodically look through Chelsea’s things. Her mom wasn’t supportive at the time, and it took her nearly six years to come around after some coaxing from Chelsea’s sisters.
“In the last couple of years, she’s been super supportive. Right now, she’s doing the most to get the rest of the family in the know,” says Chelsea. Now, all Chelsea’s relatives know, but she says her dad is still in the “adjustment phase.”
When Chelsea wanted to take testosterone blockers and estrogen to help her start transitioning, her mom picked them up for her. Chelsea’s been taking them for 13 months now, and she’s already noticing her body becoming more feminine.
“I’ve got boobs. Yeet!” says Chelsea.
When she was 10 years old, Chelsea went to conventions with the same group of friends. But she drifted away from them as she wore more outwardly feminine costumes. She was afraid of how they would react to her appearance, and being a closeted member of the LGBT2SQ+ community at the time, Chelsea was also uncomfortable with the transphobic slurs that group used at school.
As a result, Chelsea began to go to conventions by herself. After a year of going to conventions alone, she says she joined her sister Becca and her group of convention friends.
Chelsea didn’t know what to expect going back. She didn’t have many convention friends at the time besides her sister, and she wasn’t sure how people would react to her appearance. It wasn’t until she met Becca’s convention friends and quickly became part of the group that she felt comfortable.
“I was like, ‘Wow, these people are not only super supportive but also super encouraging of the stuff that I want to do,’” says Chelsea. “They’re willing to be here. They’re changing how they talk to me based on how I want to be referred to and such.”
While her newly found cosplay friends were accepting of her, Chelsea says she’s met transphobic people in and outside of conventions.
On two separate occasions, Chelsea says someone at a convention jokingly called her a “trap.” It’s a term Chelsea hates, but she isn’t afraid to correct people in those situations. She says she tries to ignore the negativity, especially since most of her convention experiences have been positive.
“Apart from some bad eggs, it’s such an accepting community,” says Chelsea. She says the misunderstandings are more frequent outside of conventions.
“A lot of the time someone will call me ma’am at a store, and I’ll be like ‘Yeah?’ Then they’ll go ‘Oh sorry, sir,’ and I’m like, ‘Nope, you were on to something first,’” says Chelsea.
Cosplay gives Chelsea the outlet she needs to express herself and gain confidence in her regular life.
“Especially when I started cosplaying female characters, I was like, ‘Hey, I don’t have to be scared of this. I can be how I want,’” says Chelsea.
One of Chelsea’s ways to recreate herself is through her original LARP (live-action role-playing game) character, Kaera: a short, silver-haired elf rogue/archeologist.
“She’s basically what would happen if Lara Croft also was gay and did crime,” Chelsea laughs.
Kaera is not only a fun character to cosplay. She represents parts of who Chelsea is on the inside.
“She’s an exaggerated version of myself. She’s this super flirty, excitable, curious bisexual disaster. She’s hyper-focused on what she likes, but because of that she doesn’t think about the consequences of what she’s doing,” says Chelsea. “So, in a way, that’s sort of like a high-stakes version of me.”
Chelsea says while she enjoys cosplaying, she goes to conventions mostly to spend time with friends. She says these connections helped her stop worrying so much about what other people thought of her.
This new confidence also gave Chelsea the motivation to dress feminine outside of conventions.
She put makeup on for the first time when she was 18. The whole experience wasn’t as life-changing as she thought it would be, but she said it was an important part of her transition.
Today, Chelsea dresses openly feminine and wears makeup on a regular basis.
“At a certain point I just stopped caring,” she says. “I felt like I could go out in this feminine attire and not care what people thought about it.”
Chelsea says she’s finally at a point where she feels true to herself. Her years of exploring her gender and the friendships she’s made have all boosted her self-esteem.
“I want to show people I’m trans, and I’m confident about it,” Chelsea grins.