A ‘Con’ for Everyone

At Katsucon, a conference in Maryland, people of all types of ethnic and cosplay identities fit in.

Zaria Poynter and Bianca Wadie at Katsucon 2016 (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Proud nerds converged upon the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center this month to celebrate their love of anime at Katsucon, the annual three-day gathering that showcases Japanese animation culture and welcomes professional and amateur cosplayers of all degrees of fandom.

Since its launch in 1995, Katsucon has experienced a dramatic shift in its attendees. For a while, the event skewed older and male. But by 2000, according to Chad Diederichs, who is in charge of press, the fan base was primarily under the age of 30, and women and girls represented 50 percent of attendees. In the past decade, crowds have continued to get younger and more female. Not surprising, brands like Marvel have committed to diversifying their characters and creators, most recently hiring the young Chicago artist Ashley Woods and introducing Amadeus Cho, a Korean-American Hulk.

Anime fans of color have historically chosen to create spaces for themselves through independent podcasts and communities. Zaria Poynter, 19, put it bluntly, “I don’t expect diversity when I come to cons. I see a lot of racism on the Internet, and I think it deters people from [attending].”

“I feel like there is something you have to overcome to come to a con,” her friend Bianca Wadie added. Both young women are black and say they have observed racism in online anime communities. But both also agree that the Internet enables geeks to find out more about conventions and mingle IRL (in real life), particularly so in the realm of cosplay, a subculture of costumed role playing that has exploded in recent years, and in which Katsucon has found a niche. “At first, I felt I could only cos as a dark-skinned character,” Wadie said. “Now, I don’t care.”

According to Diederichs, who is white, Katsucon’s intentional inclusion goes beyond gender and skin color. One of the reasons Katsucon is hosted at its current location is the location’s extra handicap-accessible facilities. “We just had a photo shoot upstairs hosted by Marvel, and I was so thrilled to see the number of disabled cosplayers participating,” said Diederichs. “And I think that’s what people come here looking for. This is a place they can meet up with their other costumed friends and catch up and see what everybody has been working on.”

“There’s certainly an ugly side to large groups of fandom,” says Diederichs. “There are a lot of jerks around, but I’ve got to say, Katsucon has been a very welcoming environment for these cosplayers.”

Ashlynne Perez, 19, who was dressed in a unicorn onesie, shrugged at my long-winded questions about inclusion and diversity in comics and how the two play out at the convention, and explained to me plainly, “Everyone’s just super hyped about what they’re excited about.”

Waiting for coat check (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)
Kristal Cazella, 28, from Florida, dressed as BB-8 from Star Wars (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)
The Cantuba family came to Katsucon together with 14-year-old Gezelin’s anime club at school. “This is our first time,” said Fernando Cantuba, on the right. “We’re mostly just people watching. Everyone’s just so friendly.” Clockwise from left: Zena, Gezelin, Fernando, and Persephone Cantuba (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)
Brad Harper, 27, from Severn, Maryland, takes a break with his Pikachu costume. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)
18-year-old twins Laura and Leia Parayannakos, traveled from Long Island, New York, for their first Katsucon. They dressed as characters from Love Live! (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)
Jasmine Godfrey, 25, left, and Kailynn Millner, 25, said they stayed up for three days straight preparing their costumes. “A few years ago, I’d say I didn’t see people of color actually cosplaying,” said Millner. Godfrey says that since anime has become more mainstream, it has allowed more people, especially fans of color, to feel comfortable getting into cosplay. “There’s the thought of ‘Oh, they can do it? I can do it, too!’” (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)
“I think anime’s becoming more and more diverse,” said Stephanie Johnson, 26 (in the silver wig). “And fast,” her friend Charles Walker, to her right, added. Both have been to other conventions before, often with their significant others. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)
Cosplayers in line for studio shots at Katsucon (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)
Cesar Via, 25, dressed up as Drake for his third time at Katsucon. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)
Ashlynne Perez, 19, left, came with her boyfriend Kendall Guerra, 22, in matching unicorn onesies. “I’m into anime,” said Guerra. “And I’m into him,” said Perez. (Emily Jan / The Atlantic)