A Discussion with Steve Gianaca on the History and Mission of Flame Con

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Earlier this month, we attended Flame Con, a queer comic convention held in New York City. While we were there, we spoke with the Convention Chair, Steve Gianaca, about Flame Con’s history and its mission to serve queer fans.

Sean Z.
Can you tell us a little bit about who you are?

Steve Gianaca
Sure. My name is Steve Gianaca, I am the vice president of Geeks OUT, and I am the chair of Flame Con.

Sean
What is Geeks OUT?

Steve
Geeks OUT is a national nonprofit. Our goal is to rally, promote and empower the queer geek community across the country. Our biggest event is Flame Con, which is the world’s largest LGBTQ comic con.

Sean
How did this convention start?

Steve
Well, our founders started a Kickstarter one year. Figured, okay, maybe we’ll get a few hundred queer geeks in one space. All the tables sold out, which surprised us. We reached our Kickstarter goal, which surprised us, and we got to the venue and there were 2,000 geeks there waiting for us. So, we were all like, “Huh, this is something, let’s see what it does.”

Sean
I know a lot of conventions have trouble in their first few years. What are some of the things you learned as you were getting up and running?

Steve
Luckily, we are a fully volunteer organization, so all our staff are professionals in other areas, and we were all able to bring in our professional expertise. I do a lot of event and planning and design. Other people are analysts, financial advisers.

My biggest advice is always get everything in writing first, never announce before you’ve gotten a contract. Be realistic about goals. You are not going to be San Diego Comic-Con in two years. Small cons are fantastic and big for community. And I guess my last piece of advice is be aware of your community. We are specifically serving the LGBTQ community and we make sure we form our modus operandi around that.

Sean
And what does that look like, to serve the queer community? In what ways do you focus that as part of your mission?

Steve
Well, this past year we had a very concerted effort to up our accessibility because we believe at Flame Con accessibility to conventions and events should not be optional. There are wonderful things like the ADA, but like this year we have sharps containers in every bathroom, we have braille and large print program guides available. We have live captioning in our panel rooms because being queer isn’t the end all be all of your identity. There are disabled queer people and neuro diverse queer people.

Sean
Have you been able to deliver on that goal, do you think, to provide an accommodating space?

Steve
I think we really have. The reason we go with the Times Square Sheraton is because they have such great accessibility. There are ramps where there need to be ramps, the elevators are large, they are braille friendly, they’re wheelchair friendly.

Sean
Which is great. I know there was one case, for example, where a venue objected to a convention making the bathrooms gender neutral.

Steve
Yeah. Our venue makes the [gender neutral bathroom] signs for us. I mean we have our own but it’s a sticking point. We cannot have a convention or an event if the bathrooms are not gender neutral.

Sean
You mentioned in that first year you had 2,000 attendees; can you talk a little bit about the growth of Flame Con?

Steve
Sure. We started with a Kickstarter, and the first year [2015] we realized that we couldn’t house all the people we wanted there. We moved to the Brooklyn Bridge Marriott for two years and saw about a growth of a thousand people each year, which is a lot for a small con. We’re not a small con at this point. Last year, while we’ve always sold out of tables, we sold out of tables in seven hours.

Which is great, but also a problem. This year we instituted a lottery, so people who do not have access to a computer right away can have a fair chance of getting in. And we’ve had amazing entries. I think we had over 800 entries for 200 tables (though some of the tables were split between multiple people).

Sean
What attendance do you have this year?

Steve
Right now, we started the con last year with 3,000 tickets sold off the bat. We are approaching 4,000 and that’s not counting the ones we sell during the con. I wish I could tell you what number we’ll have tomorrow. It’s tracking well, people love us. People keep coming back to us and we’re so grateful.

Note: After the event, Flame Con shared with us that there were 8,000 attendees this year.

Sean
That really is great. I attend a lot of conventions, and one of the things I always do is I look for queer comics, or comics with queer characters in them. I look for things at Emerald City, at New York Comic-Con, at San Diego Comic-Con… To go to a con where it’s all the things I really want and look for is an amazing experience.

Steve
Rainbows and superheroes that way.

Sean
Switching gears, harassment is a problem at cons. Could you talk a little about the training and the procedures you have for your staff to ensure that it’s a welcoming space, and you’re capable of resolving incidents if they happen?

Steve
First off, we always have our policies clearly posted. We have policies of cosplay is not consent, always to ask, and take photos, do not touch. We even have policies saying if there’s a service dog around, they may be great, but do not interact with them because they’re working.

While it doesn’t happen often, we do have harassment policies. We believe the victim. If someone comes to us to report harassment, the policy would be help them, not say, “Well, really?” No, we help the person.

And while I can’t say it would never happen, I can quote a tweet from two years ago. It said, “I love Flame Con, it’s the only con I’ve ever been to where I’ve never been sexually harassed,” which is terrible, but also great that we can create that space.

Sean
Definitely. Have you ever had problems with outside people or protesters or any other outside negative pressure against the con?

Steve
Mostly everybody loves our little bundle of love here called Flame Con. Occasionally well, if you read the comments, I mean you should never read the comments—

Sean
I’m a queer journalist covering fandom. Learned that rule fast.

Steve
When someone promotes Flame Con in a publication that’s more cis/straight oriented, there’ll be someone saying, “I don’t get it.” Or something derogatory. But we’re not here to serve them, we’re here to serve the people who need us.

Sean
That’s great. What do you think is the largest achievement you’ve had with Flame Con so far?

Steve
I would say, as weird as it is, I oversaw the move to this new venue and it is the largest space we’ve ever had, and that way we can be more accommodating. It’s way more centrally located. It’s on all these major subway stops in New York City. Brooklyn is amazing. We love Brooklyn, but there’s a barrier for entry for people who can’t get here easily. There is accessibility here [in central Manhattan]. We’ve moved it to a location that queer people can find and get to and really enjoy.

Sean
What is your ambition for the convention going forward? What is the thing that you’re hoping Flame Con can accomplish in the next year or two years or…?

Steve
What I want is Flame Con to start projecting outward to other cons. I want to create a con that other cons will look to for accessibility, queer representation, messaging. Larger cons are fantastic. We love them. They’re deep in our hearts. We want them to start noticing that underserved communities are a large part of their base and deserve to have a voice in their larger con.

Sean
To that end, why did you end up with starting your own con versus partnering with a larger con and gathering floor space? I know that’s a technique that some other organizations have done at, for example, shows like PAX.

Steve
We’ve done both. PAX has the diversity lounge, which Geeks OUT, our nonprofit, runs.

We don’t just do Flame Con; we do events and cons all over the country and one of our strengths is helping other conventions create those queer spaces.

The diversity lounge in all the PAXs, at East, West, South, and Unplugged, it’s run by us and we reach out to queer underserved or disabled gaming groups. Even a suicide prevention hotline. And people reach out to us and coordinate best representations. We are their liaison to PAX to convey concerns, we advertise, occasionally in some cities there will be meetups or events, we will help promote them.

Sean
We’ve spoken a lot on accessibility. Do you have people on your staff that are able to provide first-hand advice? Do you consult with an external partner? How do you ensure that you’re getting a good set of requirements on these topics?

Steve
All of the above. I understand right off the bat that I am an able-bodied cis white man, and this year we were making a full-on push for accessibility. We hired an outside consultant to help us, because we’re not going to just pretend that and speak for communities that we are not a part of.

And there are members of our team who are disabled and neuro diverse. We also looked for input internally.

Sean
Many our readers are parents (I write for GeekDad). Would you say this con is accessible for parents with young kids or is this mostly targeting older queer fans?

Steve
Flame Con promotes itself as a family friendly con. In fact, Sunday of every con is youth day. Anyone under 21 can get in free.

Sean
Excellent. And I believe that’s our time. Thank you for chatting with me.

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