Beginning with a video game in 2008, Sam Cullen takes us on a journey through their relationship with cosplay, fandom and the world of online friends. Detailing the highs and lows of queer self-discovery, and how this has often intersected with their online presence, Sam provides a candid view into the importance of online communities.

Anime, Cosplay & Online Friends:

A Tale of Self Discovery

My descent into the world of anime and self discovery was a bit of a weird one. It all started after the release of an online puzzle platform game called Little Big Planet in 2008.

Whilst I had friends in school, I didn’t feel like I had anyone with the same interests. Then I met a Scottish lass called Lottie. We would play online together every day and talk about everything and nothing. She was my very first online friend so it didn’t cross my mind that she might be a catfish – and thank god she wasn’t!

One day we were playing together when she asked me “Have you heard of anime?”. I had, but I hadn’t seen anything other than Tokyo Mew Mew and my dad’s copies of Akira and Ghost in The Shell (He grew up a weeb in the 80s so I can see where I got it from). The first anime Lottie decided to recommend to me was Elfen Lied and looking back I reckon my innocent 12-year-old mind was too mesmerised by this cute pink cat girl to notice the gore. Soul Eater and Death Note followed, and I chose to tackle Naruto because it felt mandatory to tackle one of the ‘Big Three’ in order to properly appreciate the world of anime!

Virtual singers called Vocaloids were also introduced to me through Lottie, which (finally!) leads to my first time cosplaying at London MCM back in 2009. One of my childhood friends was a huge fan of all the magical girl animes, and her dad scored some Press tickets through the magazine company he worked for. I thought we were just going for the comics and paraphernalia until she suggested we cosplay together for the full experience; which I was familiar with from all the times Lottie and I would dress our virtual knitted friends up as our favourite characters.

Being young and stupid at the time, I really thought my outfit would look perfect the first time round, but of course not. Cue me buying a £5 Dumbledore wig (beard included) and asking my mum to sew me a cosplay for a fanmade Vocaloid who loved beer.

When you think of MCM now, you think of queuing for 4 hours to get into an overcrowded convention centre, squeezing your way through the Fox (a nearby pub patroned by many a cosplayer) and ending up right next to a not-so-subtle under-the-table orgy. But when you’re younger you don’t see any of that. Back then you were able to freely roam around a convention without a care in the world and with the goal of buying as many Japanese snacks as you could. You also only had to spend £20 on a weekend ticket as opposed to your present day £90 (ouch).

My very first con was amazing. Not even the group of teenagers laughing at me and my friend dancing to Love and Joy could bring me down. I just wanted to go back and do it all over again, but I had to wait patiently and find something to fill my time. So, I got myself on the DeviantArt hype where I found myself talking to a lot of other kids who cosplayed already or really wanted to.

I had one friend in particular that I’d talk to every day for weeks on end. They were a kid from Exeter called Ollie and they were really funny and kind and oh no what was this sudden feeling?

After speaking to an online friend about my feelings, I came to the conclusion that I was bisexual (I wasn’t aware of pansexuality until a year or so later)

Apart from my obvious childhood crush on Kim Possible’s Shego, I didn’t have any fully realised feelings towards anyone of the same gender (at the time) until I started talking to Ollie. After speaking to an online friend about my feelings, I came to the conclusion that I was bisexual (I wasn’t aware of pansexuality until a year or so later) and did in fact have feelings for my DeviantArt friend. Despite us only living 4 hours away from one another, we didn’t actually meet up until a year after we’d broken up (a month after the relationship started). Meeting them allowed us both to meet so many LGBTQ+ people through other platforms like iScribble and Facebook through various anime groups whose London meet-ups I’d started to attend.

For a year or so I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell anyone about my sexuality because I already had my online friends who understood, right? I didn’t need to tell anyone if I didn’t want to.

But I did, and oh boy.

Telling my best friend in confidence resulted in her telling the whole school that I was a lesbian. If school wasn’t hellish enough, that made it unbearable. Day after day I’d have bullies pulling inappropriate faces, shouting stuff out in class while the teachers turned a blind eye, and sometimes I’d have first years come up to me and ask “what are you?”. I’d save my tears for when I got home and reply with an “I don’t know, you tell me.” I reckon the cosplay gods gave me the strength to sass them back from time to time.

It did get me thinking, however. I’d grown up feeling like I didn’t fit into any particular gender binary.  And questioned why I hated it when people referred to me as “she”, yet I felt weird about the idea of being referred to as just male. I had a few online friends at that point who’d told me they felt the same. A few of my older friends told me that I might be non binary, and I thought so too.

I didn’t dare tell anyone in school that, though.

Before long I’d do nothing but wait for school to finish so I could run home and talk to my online friends. We would eagerly wait for a weekend full of hanging out at Trocadero, getting bubble tea and hitting up the Purikura Machines (R.I.P Photo Sticker Club London you served us well). I’d be able to tell them how school sucked and that I felt like nobody understood me and they’d always remind me that they were there. They’d been through the same stuff as I had and while we were there to cosplay, we were also there to provide each other with an escape from our normal lives where we’d not be judged for being ourselves. Something the bullies could never do.

My Media A-Level taught me that we use characters we relate to or aspire to be to shape ourselves as people, and that’s stuck with me for the longest time.

My Media A-Level taught me that we use characters we relate to or aspire to be to shape ourselves as people, and that’s stuck with me for the longest time. I always thought it might have been the reason I found such happiness in cosplaying. When there are days when you don’t like yourself, it’s nice to know that you can become these strong and confident characters just for a day.

CONCLUSION

It’s hard enough coming to terms with your identity and self worth as a child, let alone trying to figure out your gender and sexuality. I think that’s why a lot of us are drawn to the cosplay community. They provide you with a level of comfort and understanding that no other community can. The community seems to attract these people that have grown up with hardships, people that you can share your troubles with and they’ll understand and won’t give you a hard time for being yourself.

Regardless of what the ‘elite’ cosplayers that are littered through the community seem to believe, cosplay is for EVERYONE. It couldn’t matter less what you look like and how you identify because at the end of the day we’re all just here to dress up, enjoy a drink, and have a good time together. There’s no age limit for cosplay. I mean, look at me. I’m 23, mixed race and very much non binary.

I don’t go to MCM anymore but I’m still attending other conventions 10 years on. I even had the amazing chance to DJ at an 18+ convention last November and I don’t intend to stop any time soon. I truly believe that cosplay friends are for life. I’m still close with a lot of the people I met right at the very start, and I still love them all dearly. They helped shape who I am as a person, and I’d still be quiet and introverted without their constant love and support.

So, what are you waiting for? Go cosplay the character of your dreams and come find me drinking myself silly at a con. You’ll be welcomed with open arms.

Sam Cullen

You can follow Sam on their personal instagram here and on their photography instagram here.

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