As a young anime fan, I never imagined that such an ugly and dismissive statement would lead me to a such wonderful and inclusive community. I was like every teen trying to figure out their path in the world, but with some added roadblocks: I was queer, AND I was a nerd. While queer representation in North American media was still stuck on the stereotypical Sassy Gay Friend™, and I was too young to go to the gay bars. What was a young queer girl in Calgary supposed to look to?
To my surprise, I found what I was looking for at my first Otafest, way back on the U of C campus. Nerd culture has always carried with it a very special type of acceptance: those of us bullied in our youth recognize a kindred spirit, and the staff and attendees at Otafest have always opened their doors with open arms. On top of that, the convention gave me queer-themed anime, opportunities to stretch my wings through cosplay and volunteerism, and connected me with other queer youth and allies in Calgary.
It was Anime that brought Cosplay to North America, and the opportunity to re-imagine myself as a powerful and self-assured anime character or a beautiful gender-bending Japanese “Visual Kei” Musician. I hear stories of the freedom I found in cosplay reflected in stories of Drag artists in the queer community, and feel honored to have helped establish the early cosplay community in Alberta. Now Otafest runs no less than five cosplay competitions, including the Crossplay Contest for cosplayers of all identities, and the Canadian qualifiers for an International Cosplay competition.
Queer themes in Anime were also transformative to my young queer life. Overtly queer-themed anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena finally gave me interesting queer role models in media – characters who happened to be LGBTQPIA and were allowed to explore their queerness as people rather than being defined by it. Magical Girl Anime like Sailor Moon gave me a plethora of strong and unique women to aspire to – who didn’t need to be rescued by heterosexual stereotypes. Even more Anime gave me complex male characters in queer relationships or close male friendships not constrained by North American standards of masculinity.
Otafest itself has continually sought to evolve and improve their own accessibility and inclusivity. Long before bathroom bills were introduced Otafest had implemented gender-neutral bathrooms at the University of Calgary, carried over to its current venue at the Telus Convention Centre (arguably the nicest ones in the venue). Taking Otafest to Calgary Pride was just the logical next step, opening our doors to Calgary’s queer community and taking our own community to march with pride.
In its efforts to build community in Calgary, Otafest has created something really vital to Alberta’s queer community – a place to form meaningful connections and relationships outside of the bar scene. I’ve never questioned whether putting in the countless volunteer hours to bring Otafest to life year-round was worth it – it is. For the teenaged me, and for everyone else in Calgary who needs to find a place to call home.