Geeks OUT's Joey Stern Talks Flame Con, Producing NYC's First LGBTQ Convention

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For the last five years, Geeks OUT has been a presence at comic conventions across the country where it “rallies, empowers and promotes the queer geek community.” That time spent carving out their niche has paid off and is now culminating in the form of Flame Con, New York’s first LGBTQ comic convention.

Flame Con will be held on June 13 at Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall, and it’s shaping up to be more than just a massive Meetup of like-minded fans. Beyond giving this growing group a comfortable place to gather, the one-day event aims to introduce fans to smaller-scale creators they might otherwise miss at the bigger conventions. The convention surpassed its initial Kickstarter goal and the program already boasts names like Phil Jimenez (Wonder Woman, Amazing Spider-Man), Kris Anka (Uncanny X-Men) and Kevin Wada (She-Hulk). While Flame Con’s focus is on the LGBTQ community and its contribution to pop culture, its main goal is for fans of any kind to be able to express themselves. “I think the thing you’re going to see is everyone can participate,” said Joey Stern, president and co-founder of Geeks OUT. “Certainly someone who’s straight can attend.” Plus the whole thing is capped off with a huge party.

Stern took some time to chat with us about Flame Con’s progress and what attendees can expect from it in June.

Paste: For those who may be unfamiliar, tell us a little about Geeks OUT.
Stern: Our goal as an organization is to offer to comic book fandom a different take on what comic book fans are, look like and act like. So the biggest part is acknowledging the fandom that already exists for stuff, and empowering those of us that are part of this community—that a lot of times is stereotyped as being primarily [straight] white men—and giving people a place to feel comfortable if they don’t fit that mold.

Paste: That’s the main idea behind Flame Con. How did that all come together?
Stern: Four years ago Geeks OUT went to New York Comic Con. The people who put it on do a very good job of making it all inclusive, but they only had one queer panel. They had people from DC and Marvel and smaller ones in this crowded packed room. So there’s a thirst for this and they can’t keep up with it. Over the last five years, we’ve gone to a lot of conventions, put on panels, made spaces that people can gather in. Flame Con is sort of the culmination of that work—a convention that welcomes everybody but specifically tailors a lot of its efforts to the queer geek community.

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Paste: Have the bigger cons gotten better about that over the last five years?
Stern: I think so. I think there’s been a lot of effort from all different angles to improve those spaces for everybody and to welcome a lot more diversity to them. But I think the biggest factor for a lot of that is still the overwhelming [majority] they cater to is the straight male contingent. They’ve worked on that. And the fan base itself isn’t sexist or homophobic, but at those spaces it becomes hard to do things like crossplay. The goal of Flame Con is not to segregate or make anybody feel like they shouldn’t attend larger cons, but rather to offer a safe space for people who want comics in an environment that says, ‘Be whoever you want to be here.’

Paste: Yeah, they’ve taken some pretty public steps toward addressing sexism and harassment.
Stern: We’re seeing traction on those things, but they’re far from solved. But we are seeing large conventions take those on. Last year New York Comic Con put out “Cosplay is not Consent” and made a lot of efforts to have an anti-harassment policy.

Paste: So how is Flame Con going to set itself apart from the mainstream cons?
Stern: Flame Con, where we’re expecting 1,500-2,500 people, is a small con, so we can be really focused on stuff that people are very excited about in the queer community, such as Night Vale and smaller queer artists who don’t get a lot of press in the larger mainstream cons. Cecil Baldwin from Welcome to Night Vale will be there. Getting people who hold a prominent place in the queer geek community pushes the con into the artsy, smaller niche that at larger conventions you have to root around and look for. At ours you’re not going to. You’re going to wander around 150 artists and each one of them is going to offer a unique perspective, whereas at a regular con you might run into 100 artists like, ‘here’s another drawing of Wonder Woman in a super-objectified manner.’

Paste: How has it progressed since all the early coverage Flame Con got?
Stern: We found a space that we’re super happy with, which is the Grand Prospect Hall in Brooklyn. It’s perfect—this giant space, it’s got an old charm, it’s got a lot of really cool aspects that I think cosplayers are going to be really excited about. From there a lot of it was reaching out to local artists and seeing who’s available. Then because of the Kickstarter we had a bunch of people from around the country take an interest. Right now we’re putting together some of the program. We’ve got some big names I think people are going to be really excited about. Right up until the con we’re going to be making announcements every week.

Paste: Anything you want to tease now?
Stern: I think that we’re going to have a partnership with GaymerX that’s going to make a really cool experience for gamers and an interesting blend for our convention.

Paste: In the Kickstarter video you mentioned something about avoiding the same over-done panel topics. What kind of stuff are you looking to do?
Stern: A lot of panels that focus on gay topics do one of two things: there’s a cosplay panel that everyone does and there’s a comics panel which is like, “what’s it like to draw gay characters?” With Flame Con, we’re going to go a lot deeper on those things. Specific, cool and interesting topics that are focused on the audience who will be in attendance. If you look at a lot of panels as gay topics 101, sort of entry for everybody, we’re trying to do 201 or 301—going with the college metaphor. You know what gay characters are, you already read them, that’s why you’re here, now let’s talk about what you’re looking for, what audiences have been asking for in terms of representation.

Paste: The Kickstarter beat its goal, what else have you seen by way of response?
Stern: Overwhelmingly positive. It’s been really vindicating after going to bigger conventions and feeling like we were right, that there are people who want this. We’ve gotten a surprising number of people coming in from out of town for it, and a lot of artists who are very excited to finally have a space to meet their audience. It’s really rewarding to be able to offer people who only interact with their fans through email a space to meet those people and really connect with them. If you’re and artist who can’t get to C2E2 or WonderCon or Comic Con out in San Diego, it’s nice to have a place to say hi to these people that support you.

Paste: In your history with conventions, were there any specifically negative experiences that you hoped to address with Flame Con?
Stern: We’ve had the occasional person who comes by our booth and finds out who we are and what we represent and kind of tosses our material back at us. Nothing super dramatic. I think because at those big conventions it’s easy enough to walk away from stuff you don’t like. But attending a convention, not as a vendor but as an attendee, you dress up as a character you’re excited about, but if you crossplay, the experience can be generally positive but there’s a 1 or 2 percent reaction that can feel negative. I think that with this convention we’ll change that and give people an opportunity to feel like, ‘I don’t have to worry about this not being the ‘right’ the way to like it.’

Paste: There’s obvious room here for growth. If you’re successful, are you concerned it might just become like every other convention and lose its niche?
Stern: That would be an extremely amazing problem to have. But I’m not particularly concerned. Flame Con, at its core, is going to be about reaching out—as much about the fans as about the artists. If it gets really big, that’s great and then that means something else will create space for a smaller scale audience that Flame Con doesn’t represent, and that’s how these things go. First, the goal is make year one successful. I think we’re going to achieve that and hit all the right marks. If we become a 65,000-person convention and we’re no longer niche, that means that the world will have shifted in some dramatically positive way.

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