Photo by Vanessa Gutierrez.

Photo by Vanessa Gutierrez.

On any given Saturday, the Reitz Student Union is devoid of life. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch freshmen without cars munching on Panda Express or graduate students who prefer the comfort of cushioned booths to the rigid chairs of Library West.

During the week, the North Lawn is littered with people clad in Greek letters and tank tops making their way to their next class. On Feb. 7 and 8, however, the area was filled with a menagerie of fictional characters, vendors and families to celebrate SwampCon.

Upon registering for the event, one of the first things attendees noticed was a handwritten sign noting that “Cosplay Is Not Consent,” a refrain that has become popular in light of frequent sexual harassment of scantily clad cosplayers. Since its inception in 2012, the free convention has made an active effort to not only empower the various communities in attendance, but to create a space that is safe and inclusive.

As a result, SwampCon has brought together thousands of anime, comic and gaming fans from various backgrounds. The assimilation of various communities over the past four years has led to an environment in which women and queer folk feel at home in a space that is predominantly perceived as being male-dominated and heteronormative.

SwampCon has grown to cover even more demographics beyond the already diverse roster it started with. Last year, SwampCon hosted its very first Drag Show, a culture not generally associated with Japanese animation, video games and cosplaying.

There is no mistake that SwampCon plays host to many diverse interests and niches within the “geek” community. Although the primary purpose of SwampCon is to have a good time, the notion of having a diverse and comprehensive convention was always a stated goal, according to its event coordinator Lawrence Chan.

What began as a collaboration between Delta Nu Delta, the University of Florida’s tabletop gaming club, and the Gator Anime club in 2011 has now become an inviting and empowering space for individuals of intersecting identities.

Chan, a 21-year-old journalism senior, is one of the key figures behind SwampCon’s inception. In his own words, SwampCon aims to “bring a lot of different groups and interests together… and provide a platform for people to celebrate their fandom.”

This goal has resulted in SwampCon becoming one of the larger conventions in the North Florida area. What had begun as a simple cross-club event grew in size as ambitions swelled.

Nicki Mirage, a fourth-year chemical engineering student at UF and the financial coordinator for SwampCon, is the Drag Show Coordinator for SwampCon. Not only is Mirage a Drag performer herself, but was one of the primary forces behind the introduction of the Drag Show to Swamp Con.

“When initial planning began for SwampCon: Rising (Year 3) we had entirely new leadership and a clean slate to start with,” Mirage said. “Our event coordinator at the time had a brainstorming session with her team for fresh event ideas for that year’s convention. One of the ideas they threw out there was a drag show.”

When the idea was presented to the rest of the convention board, Mirage hopped on the idea and decided to spearhead it. Despite assuming responsibility for the show, Mirage was herself a newcomer to drag at the time.

“I still hadn’t begun doing drag and had no idea how a drag show ran, so I had a lot of work to do,” she said. “But even with my lack of experience, I managed to pull together eight performers for last year’s show, including myself, and it was a huge success.”

Although it was SwampCon’s first ever drag show, it ultimately had the highest individual attendance of any event last year.

What began as a collaboration between Delta Nu Delta, the University of Florida’s tabletop gaming club, and the Gator Anime club in 2011 has now become an inviting and empowering space for individuals of intersecting identities.

“We were essentially going to have a day where they [the club members] just watch a show and play some table-top games on the side,” Chan said. “Somewhere along the line, they said ‘Why don’t we have people come in and have a cosplay contest on the side?’”

Photo by Vanessa Gutierrez.

Photo by Tegan Davis.

Eventually, the group realized that they could use the Reitz Union for the event, as it can be rented for use by student organizations. As more organizations learned of the clubs’ newfound ambition of hosting a widespread panel-based event, the number of panels and events on the agenda increased, creating a gathering much larger and more inclusive than a mere partnership between two student-run clubs.

“From there, we decided to just turn it into a full-on convention,” Chan said.

Although numbers from this year have yet to be released, a post on the official SwampCon Tumblr noted that 2013’s attendance was 4,405–more than half of that from the year before. These are lofty numbers for a gathering that was initially restricted to two student-run organizations.

The presence of the drag show is particularly notable given recent events in larger geek culture.

Gamergate, a recent controversy that its proponents have held is centered around a desire to hold video game journalists to higher standards, has produced a number of ad hominem attacks on outspoken female figures in gaming and geek culture. This includes Anita Sarkeesian, a cultural critic who has spoken at length about the tendency of “geek” cultures to be disproportionately reflective of the interests of men, rather than the diverse group of individuals that, in reality, these niches end up attracting.

Gender-issues in geek culture are not restricted to complaints of lack of proper representation- Sarkeesian’s criticisms led to her being relentlessly harassed both online and in the real world, resulting in Sarkeesian cancelling a planned speech at Utah State after death threats last fall.

Gamergate has brought a seedy underbelly of geek culture to light – one wherein women and other minority groups experience bullying by individuals (primarily, at least based on Sarkeesian’s experience, white males) who feel that they seek to alter a culture that they have no genuine stake in.

It is fortunate then that not only could no sense of exclusion be observed at SwampCon, but that the event actually took steps to prevent such behavior.

Additionally, the selection of panels available, including but not limited to, ‘Anime Ladies that Kick Ass’ and ‘Finding Empowerment through Positive Cosplay,’ displays an awareness and inclusivity that, although not exactly rare in these circles, can sometimes be hard to find.

The positivity and inclusiveness of SwampCon is perhaps best exemplified by the experience of Alyssa Ison, who came to SwampCon dressed as Poison Ivy, a famous femme fatale from the Batman franchise. Ison, a 16-year-old high school student at Gainesville’s Buchholz High School, has been attending SwampCon since its inception.

“Even though the Gainesville area is very open about a lot of geeky stuff, there’s not really a lot of places to go and do that [express that interest],” said Ison. “So, I think SwampCon is really the only place where you can do that… I wish there was more [in Gainesville], to be honest.”

When asked if she had ever dealt with the sort of harassment reported by many people at events of this nature, Ison had nothing but kind words to say about her own experiences at SwampCon.

“Now that you look at cons, it’s more and more females going [sic],” Ison said. “I’ve never experienced anything firsthand.”

Ison maintained that SwampCon is by far one of the most positive expressions of geek culture she has ever been a part of. She noted that her attendance at SwampCon has made her want to go to the University of Florida, and she already plans on submitting her application.

Although founded as an event meant to entertain a specific niche of UF students, SwampCon has gone on to not only provide a makeshift community for people of all walks of life in Gainesville, but has managed to leave a tangible, lasting impact on their lives.