All photos by Leah James

The Fantastical, Gender-Bending World of Crossplay, in Photos

Meet the cosplayers breaking down gender norms—and looking amazing while doing so.

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Oct 13 2016, 4:55pm

All photos by Leah James

Rule 63 of the Internet decrees: "For every given male character, there is a female version of that character; conversely, for every given female character, there is a male version of that character." The foolish among us might question this, but the enlightened know it to be true—we've seen teen vampire Edward from Twilight transform into a girl in the moonlight, and female icons like Lara Croft become male in uncovered tombs.

This phenomenon occurs on fan fiction forums and on illustration sites like DeviantArt, but Rule 63 also manifests IRL, thanks to subgroup of cosplayers. This type of cosplay exists in two distinct traditions. The first is known as crossplay. Similar to the better-known term cross-dressing, crossplay refers to the act of dressing up as a character of the opposite sex.

The second tradition is known as gender-bending, or genderbent cosplay. This occurs when the cosplayer chooses to alter gender of the character itself. For instance, if a man were to crossplay as Poison Ivy, he would simply dress as the unaltered female character. Alternatively, if a man were to genderbend Poison Ivy, he would turn the character herself into an alternate, male version by masculinizing her costume.

Read more: Surrender Now: The Women Taking Over the World of Comics

Last week at New York Comic Con, there were many examples of Rule 63 roaming the convention floor. One crossplaying man donned the ensemble of Princess Leia; several others had become Misty, Ash Ketchum's orange-haired companion from the Pokémon television series. A young woman had genderbent Jack Skellington of The Nightmare Before Christmas, giving a toothy grin in a pinstripe corset.

Princess Leia. All photos by Leah James

"It always boils down to my love of a character—regardless of who they are," one crossplayer said, explaining why he sometimes chooses to cosplay as female characters. "It's how they're written, how they come across, or parts of their personality that I see in myself," he said. In other words, gender has little to do with it.

"It doesn't bother me if people call me she or he because I'm very comfortable in my skin," another crossplayer said. "Regardless of what people call me, I know who I am."

But while Rule 63 appeared to be accepted throughout the convention, some crossplayers and genderbenders had gathered at a panel to discuss the issues they face defying gender norms in cosplay.

Kim Possible

It isn't uncommon for cosplayers to alter the characters they portray, but many adamantly prefer looks that "are canon"—or, in other words, looks that conform to the original, official rendering of the character in question. Some cosplayers are critical of others who stray from canon for any reason, meaning if you personalize an otherwise official outfit, you might find yourself called out by purists. "Characters can be very delicate because people know these characters in their heads, and they may like these characters and they may not like what you're doing," one panelist explained.

Such sad scrutiny is often centered on the idea of "authenticity." But while using a real wooden wand versus plastic might make your Harry Potter cosplay more authentic, critics often pick apart other, more personal aspects of a cosplayer, like their race and gender. "Accuracy is about what you made, not who you are," one panelist said.

Captain America, Black Widow, and Aang

An Ecuadorian crossplayer in the audience was dressed as Aang, a popular male character from the cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender. "Back home, they always say, 'Why are you doing this?'" she said, explaining the criticism she has received: "'Avatar has no boobs.' 'You are too sexy to be Avatar.'" At one convention in Ecuador, she said she had been physically removed from the premises, "because they said it was sexually inappropriate" for her to be dressed as another gender.

One crossplayer on the panel, Brayan Vasquez, was dressed as Kim Possible. He crossplays a lot, and said he's been harassed before. "They were saying, 'Oh that's a man.' Well, yes, I am a man. You can tell. But I didn't let that break me, because I was proud of myself that I got to walk around in these five inch stiletto heels for the first time ever."

Criticisms of crossplayers aren't really about accurate character representation, one panelist, Jay Justice, said: They're reflections of prejudice. She recalled one incident where she was harassed for not being "canon"—but, in this case, her critics weren't targeting her for her gender. Justice says that she was told, "Wonder Woman's not black." (Never mind the fact that DC Comics actually did create a black Wonder Woman)

The Incredible Hulk

"I was told that I was a disgrace to Wonder Woman, that I need to take off my costume right now," Justice said. "What I said to them was, 'If Wonder Woman was a real person, she'd be ashamed of you right now because you're bullying someone based on their race, and that's just really wrong.'"

Though there are bullies who try to stifle their creativity, this new generation of cosplayers say that things have changed for the better. "Five years ago, people were really shocked," about crossplay and genderbending, one young man said. Another chimed in: "Ten years ago, I would see tons of female-bodied people choosing to do a gender-swap cosplay, but not as many men. Now I see they're just about equal."

Ultimately, they find strength in community. Tony Ray, another crossplayer on the panel, ended the discussion. "As we start to rise and become visible, and our voices are heard, everyone who is not a part of our community, our support system, a part of what makes us us, is going to try to destroy us, bring us down, and make us less than. We must stand together, united and tall."