In 2017, Brittney Orcutt returned to Ohio from attending Flame Con in New York City, the world’s largest queer comic convention, with an idea.
“I felt really inspired that we could do something similar here in the Midwest,” says Orcutt.
She put out a call on Facebook asking for help starting a queer comic con in Cleveland
Orcutt proceeded to found Flaming River Arts, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that grew out of the planning of the convention, and offers year-round programming in addition to the annual convention.
“Our main intention was just to do a convention, and then we learned we had the potential to do so much more,” Orcutt says.
Logan Dorado responded immediately to Orcutt’s call for assistance on Facebook. Now the Vice-President and Treasurer of Flaming River Arts, Dorado says they were lucky enough to have some connections at Case Western Reserve University.
“One of the professors there, we knew from a previous job that I had,” Dorado says. “He helped us set up the actual non-profit.”
In 2018, after a year of planning, Flaming River Con debuted as the Midwest’s first Queer Geek Convention. Setting up shop in the West Shore Universalist Unitarian Church in Rocky River, they provided a full day’s worth of events complete with 36 vendors, other non-profit groups, panel discussions, and keynote speakers.
There were some hurdles to overcome, one of which was their status as relative unknowns in the convention world leading to an inability to find a food truck willing to sell at the event.
Still, people definitely heard about the event.
Orcutt says they would have been happy with 100 people attending, but by the end of the day they’d clocked roughly 430 people coming through the doors.
Flaming River Con returned in 2019, this time occupying a much larger space— three floors of the Louis Stokes Wing of the Cleveland Library.
Attendance for year two jumped significantly, both inside and outside the venue. Outside, Flaming River Con attracted two protesters. Inside, Orcutt says they clocked roughly 630 attendees.
“With the gaming room, and the vendors, and the non-profit tables, I think we were around 70-80 different tables,” says Orcutt.
Fun is the end goal when it comes to Flaming River Con, as it is with all of Flaming River Arts’ programming.
“Joy is our main motivation,” Orcutt says. “Our guiding motto is that joy is a form of resistance.”
Offering LGBTQ+ representation in the geek-sphere where there was previously a vacuum is important as well.
Dorado says, “Growing up, for a lot of us that were queer, or people of color— I’m Asian-American trans-queer—there was not a lot of representation for me in any kind of geek community. It was a slew of white, cis, hetero men for the most part.” He says it was important for him to aid in creating a welcoming space for younger LGBTQ+ folks, and people who might not have experienced camaraderie through the shared bonds of geekdom.
Despite grinding to a halt in 2020 due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Flaming River Con isn’t dead. On Jan 6., they announced through their Facebook page that they’re taking the 2022 Con virtual.
The decision to hold a virtual convention wasn’t spontaneous. Over the past year, Orcutt says, the organization has taken the time to learn what it takes to hold an event like this online in anticipation of the move.
“None of us are tech-queers,” Orcutt says, laughing. “We are analog, in-person people.”
For her part, she joined NYC’s Flame Con as a programming coordinator to learn the digital ropes
She says they’ve also been working on developing a website and an online store for Flaming River Arts to make up for the lack of tabling opportunities.
Dorado is optimistic about the new horizons available to the Con now that they’re taking it online. Without giving too much away, he says the event will be hosted on Discord, a free app that allows people to communicate through video, text, and voice. He says that much of the programming will be the same as the in-person convention, but the versatility of the app gives them room to expand on their previous successes— as long as they can figure out how to work the technology.
Discord will also enable the Con to expand its activity across multiple days. “We’ve even talked about making it a whole week of activities,” Orcutt says. Not necessarily a week long convention, but a week of related content ending with the convention.
Over the next few years, as the COVID situation (hopefully) improves and things open up, Orcutt believes the trajectory of the Con will lead them to an integration of in-person and virtual events. Bringing in a nationally diverse roster of speakers whose participation might have been stymied due to travel restrictions is also a possibility.
“I’m also really looking forward to this being accessible to people all around the world,” Orcutt says. “Discord is an international server, and anybody can access it. We do all have friends in other countries who are going to be able to attend this event, [and]their country doesn’t have anything like it.” 🔥
- Learn more about Flaming River Con by going to their Facebook page.