As the largest LGBT pop culture expo in New York City, Flame Con is unlike any other geek-focused convention you could hope to attend. The programming schedule features panels with titles like “Fantastic Queers and Where To Find Them.” Con-goers are encouraged to wear stickers that clearly mark their pronoun preferences. And you definitely can’t turn your head without spotting at least three Stevens, a Stevonnie and a Pearl from “Steven Universe” in any direction you face.
But there was something else that set this year’s Flame Con apart from other conventions, which you probably wouldn’t have noticed unless someone pointed it out to you — no one brought any guns.
Many conventions have policies that forbid attendees from bringing in real weapons, of course, but make allowances for clearly-marked props so that cosplayers can really nail their Deadpool or Punisher costume. After the mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando earlier this summer, however, Geeks Out, the LGBT organization that hosts Flame Con, decided that a stricter policy needed to be put in place.
“The thing about Orlando that’s so horrifying and upsetting is that by all accounts, they did everything [right],” said Joey Stern, president of the New York-based Geeks Out. “There was a guard on the scene, there were people getting checked for weapons at the door. […] They had some foresight into this kind of thing, and that still wasn’t enough.”
With little time to mourn before meeting to discuss their own safety measures, the Geeks Out board decided that merely improving security methods at Flame Con wouldn’t be enough (although they certainly did that, too). What they really wanted was to make a political statement about what sort of convention they were going to be — so they announced that they would be banning all all gun props from the convention, no matter how unrealistic those props looked.
“Part of the problem that causes this is the culture of gun violence that sees guns as cool. We want to say we don’t like that,” Stern said. “We want to say that as a convention, we don’t see guns as toys. So this year — maybe next, maybe not — but this year especially, we wanted to say, just no guns. Even if it’s a laser blaster, even if it’s a prop toy that clearly isn’t an actual weapon, let’s just not.”
Surprisingly, the convention’s decision resulted in very little backlash from Second Amendment enthusiasts — perhaps, Stern theorizes, because an event that caters to queer people probably wouldn’t be somewhere that conservative activists would expect to be gun-friendly in the first place.
“We got one email from one person [that said,] ‘I will never attend a convention that steps on Second Amendment rights,’” Stern admitted. “Well, you couldn’t bring a gun into Flame Con that was real, ever! And there’s no second amendment right to toy guns.”
Admittedly, you'd be hard pressed to find many cosplayers dressed in outfits that would necessitate the use of prop guns; "Steven Universe," "Sailor Moon,” and the X-Men were the most popular franchises to beat. But those who did cosplay as pistol-wielding badasses were more than willing to leave the weapons behind, whether that meant at home or at the convention’s security entrance.
"I honestly love the policy and I think it's fine," said Christian, a Saturday attendee who was dressed as "Tomb Raider" protagonist Lara Croft. "We're here for fun! If you want to go for cosplay, do a photoshoot later. I have no problem with that."
"Given that it's a LGBT event and considering recent events, it's totally fine to me that they institute a weapons policy,” added Gabe, who wore an Indiana Jones costume. The policy still allowed for some non-firearm props as long as they were obviously fake, so luckily Indy's trusted Party City-whip made the cut.
And for those who couldn’t bear to pose empty-handed, Flame Con’s organizers also had some fun with the prop table for their step-and-retreat: instead of weapons, it featured shields bearing LGBT symbols, rubber chickens, and even a tentacle.
“I invest a lot of time in the look and would love to show it off, but I had to leave [my gun] at the weapons check,” said Nancy, who didn't know about the policy before arriving in her Deadpool Playboy bunny outfit. “But I felt much better when I noticed that they provided more stuff to play with, so it made up for it.”
While Flame Con’s decision was a direct reaction to the Purse shooting, the gun ban is especially timely given that several larger, more mainstream conventions are currently deciding whether or not to allow real gun retailers and manufacturers to operate on their premises.
This past weekend, Wizard World Comic Con Chicago granted a Illinois-based gun manufacturer, DS Arms, permission to sell replica guns and offer safety tips as a vendor on their show floor. The vendor was asked to leave their booth by a Wizard World employee after only 90 minutes after the convention began, but still sparked a flurry of outrage online, with many critics using the hashtag #GunFreeComicCon to express their disapproval on Twitter.
Shocking, perhaps, but it’s entirely possible to see why a gun retailer would think a pop culture expo would be the perfect place to promote their products — after all, as DS Arms owner Dave Selvaggio told the Chicago Tribune, “Maybe 90 percent of people walking around in costumes have (presumably fake) firearms." And DS Arms’ convention presence has not been quashed completely; they are still scheduled to be appear at The Armory, an exhibit on historical weapons that the Atlanta-based event Dragon Con hosts every year.
Could this be the start of a larger trend, wherein gun retailers specifically seek out pop culture conventions? Probably not, says Stern, especially if people within the community at large continue to speak out.
“If conventions are doing something that you find scary or upsetting, you need to make sure they’re aware of that,” he said, noting the difficulty of organizing any live event and gauging how attendees will react. “I think the big thing is finding out about it and saying, ‘You can’t do this again,’ or saying, ‘I don’t like this.’ That’s going to be really important for people to say if they want that to not become part of the culture. “
As of now, it’s unclear whether Flame Con will continue to implement its gun ban in future conventions, but Stern maintains that the point of the ban was not to proselytize against guns (many of his friends and family are gun owners), but instead to offer an “of-the-moment commentary."
“This is not, 'They’re always evil and they’re always bad,'" he said. “It’s, ‘Right now, whatever is happening with these things is terrible, and we need to acknowledge that and move forward.’”
In the meantime, Flame Con will still be a space for the LGBT community to gather and celebrate their pop culture obsessions together — with or without the firearms.