“I am an individual.”
So many people say it, especially cosplayers. They view themselves as a subculture, a group of misfits who have been pushed aside by society. However, even isolated subcultures create group norms and rules. It is part of being accepted by others. It is normal to want to be normal. Yes, we are individuals, but most of us cannot be individuals without the affirmation of a group of likeminded peers.
But what would it mean to truly, wholly realize individuality? Could you live your life completely and perfectly free of society’s norms and labels? I would find this task daunting, even frightening, perhaps lonely.
I think Azymth is closer to attaining this type of lifestyle than anyone else I have ever encountered. He never had to tell me he was an individual because he lives it, without remorse. He lets people pick out their labels for him, and isn’t worried when they struggle to find the right one. When they struggle with calling him either “man” or “woman,” for example, he just shrugs and goes on living the way deems best fits him, for him. (And he shrugs with the flippancy of one of his favorite cosplaying inspirations, Squall Leonhart from Final Fantasy VIII.)
Even his name is a rejection of norms: He doesn’t go by the “Jayme Smith” on his birth certificate and, instead, chose a name that he feels best reflects who he is: Azmyth Irwin. The “Irwin” is for his No. 1 hero, Steve Irwin. He is an expert outdoorsman and naturalist, as I witnessed first-hand. Azymth is close to azmith, which is a method of displaying directions on a compass. Azmyth is his own compass, after all, ensuring alignment and direction with only himself as the reference point.
I spent a beautiful fall afternoon with Azymth, photographing him in his favorite costume and listening to his stories.
The Journey, The Destination
Just finding Azmyth is part of the adventure. Before our interview, he tries to give me directions that lead directly to his home, but he finally gives up and tells me to meet him about 30 minutes away, in the town of Piedmont, the closest noticeable mark on the map. The drive is long and boring, but it reminds me of where I grew up: mile after mile of snaking, slim highways, barbed wire, and cows, staring blankly, wondering where I am going. I desperately have to pee by the time I reach Piedmont. Most of the downtown businesses appeal to the locals with signs like, “Show deer tag, get free coffee!” There is a small tourist stop, a Space Station store: Piedmont’s one claim to fame is a string of UFO sightings in the 1970s. I, however, am the only outsider here. As I wait in a gas station, the agreed upon rendezvous point, my car and I are examined with equal scrutiny. It’s mostly older white men in camouflage jackets.
I walk inside in search of snacks and lip balm. “Where are you from?” the cashier girl asks me as I check out. She is also donning camo (of the pink variety) under her smock, and her voice is carefully neutral. I tell her St. Louis, and I’m here for an interview and story. “For a newspaper?” she asks me. I say “yes,” not really feeling like going into a long explanation of our “project” and its purpose. I hustle out, feeling rude, but also shy.
I sit and wait, and I finally see Azmyth. There isn’t much of a greeting, just a series of early morning grunts before I jump back into my car and follow him away from civilization. As I struggle to follow his zippy little car through the twists and turns, the area of the state gives me a new understanding of “rural Missouri.” This is not my home of Franklin County, where generational farm families are equally balanced by status-seeking suburbanites. These people are living a life completely outside of my experience; this is my first glance at rural poverty.
The scenery is dominated by shells of rotting barns, rusted out vehicles, and mounds of lumber and brush, and the locals themselves can be seen sitting on porches or taking easy, measured steps along the road, in no hurry at all. I observe them as they spend just as much time observing me. I realize we have reached Azmyth’s home when I see a few of them wave as he drives past. The only difference from the highway is that the road is now narrower, and the homes are closer together. But this is the town of Mill Spring, and there is much to see. I’m staring, even though I’m irritated when they stare back. I can’t help it: the locals have pieced their homes together themselves, out of bits of materials and wood found through the years. They reflect the personality of the owner in their color, shape, and accessories. It looks nothing like the red brick, mandated monotony of St. Louis.
We turn into a driveway belonging to Azmyth’s grandmother and find his own mobile home off to the side of the main house. The trailer is sheltered by a copse so perfectly it could be mistaken for part of the scenery. As we approach, we are greeted by the enthusiastic barks of a pack of happy canines. I also spot a few cats stalking along the roof. Other than the sheer number of critters and some clutter, nothing about the outside of the mobile home bears the unique marks of the other homes I have seen.
He leads me inside, and my eyes can’t stop in one place long enough to absorb any information. It’s no wonder that the outside is plain because everything that is important to Azmyth has been piled somewhere inside these four metal walls. Animal fur, pieces of cosplay costumes, sealed containers, dream catchers, spider webs, a painting of a mask from a Legend of Zelda game, antlers, coffee mugs: it’s all scattered around, lying on counters, hanging out of cabinets, pasted on the walls. It all surrounds a meticulously clean and expensive looking entertainment center.
Before we begin, he gets comfy in his computer chair, and I sprawl out on the floor next to a noisy space heater. The November chill is starting to leak its exploratory fingers through the mobile home’s thin walls, but the heater does its job. It’s relaxing, in the same way a bonfire in the forest at dusk is relaxing. It feels normal, even though it’s outside of your daily experience.
Living for His Past
Azmyth was born Feb. 27, 1986. His entire life, from birth to present, has been lived in the area surrounding as well as in Mill Spring, population 189 during the 2010 census.
“I usually round it up to 200 because people are having babies all the time,” he says with a warm smirk. He can’t really make fun of his home, not really, considering how long his family’s history has been tied to this place. His father’s side of the family has been in the area since it was first settled. He can trace his Native-American ancestry back to the Trail of Tears.
While many of his current relatives don’t spend much time thinking about their family history, Azymth tries to live his life in a way that would make his forefathers proud. Instead of explaining what he means by this, he plucks a piece of what looks like dried jerky off of the kitchen counter. It is a piece of tendon from a deer’s leg, he tells me. He has been pounding on it in hopes of making it into thread or string, just like the Native-Americans did for their clothing and bows.
“It’s my first successful harvest,” he tells me, beaming with pride at this little red piece of flesh. He explains that he found the leg as well as about 10 more legs just like it in a spot where other hunters had dumped parts of their kills they thought were useless. “I try to use the pieces of the animals that the hunters don’t use,” he says. Heads and legs lying around are marvelous finds with a myriad of uses, when placed in the hands of someone who knows what to do with them.
Azmyth does have some formal schooling in forestry and his related passions. He holds two Associate of Science degrees (in agriculture and forestry) from Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff as well as nearly all required coursework for a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Southeast Missouri State University. He also worked with for the Missouri Department of Conservation for a time. However, he stresses he is not out to snitch on his brothers in hunting. The wildlife hunters in the area respect Azymth and his skills. Many of them have even asked him for some tips on what else they can do with their dead deer other than eat the best parts and mount the trophies. Maintaining this positive relationship with his neighbors means letting them know he is not going to demand that they produce any type of official paperwork or tags. As you can imagine, the people in Mill Spring are distrustful of authority. It’s engrained in the culture.
And so are guns. Knowing how to clean a deer and shoot a gun are considered rights of passage and parts of everyone’s life here. Everyone is armed, Azymth explains. Despite this fact, he never feels unsafe walking up to local hunters, friend or stranger, and asking them if they have any spare animal parts he can take off their hands.
“As a rule, nobody you walk up to is going to shoot you,” he explains. “Everybody has guns and knows how to use them.”
And gun people are not mean violent people, he stresses. Even though he has seen and enjoys life outside Mill Spring, he always returns home to his trailer because of the town’s sense of community and family. His neighbors are nice, and he wouldn’t stay if it were otherwise.
Cosplay and Challenging Gender Boundaries
Most of Azymth’s recent travels have been to anime conventions. He is a 10-year veteran of cons and tries to make six to seven cons per year, driving or carpooling with friends. His personal favorite con, although it isn’t anime-focused, is a science fiction and fantasy convention, Dragoncon, held annually in Atlanta. He also enjoys ACen (Anime Central) in Chicago because the dealer room is so big “you could fit a 747 in there!” he exclaims. On the other hand, he isn’t a fan of the local residents.
“I enjoy the city, but I hate the people,” he says. “Chicago is mean, but all of Illinois is mean!”
For all his years of cosplaying, he has never entered a contest, calling it a “waste of a Saturday.” He believes the competitors in the master-level classes can be elitist and critical. He prefers to distance himself from the negativity and, instead, enjoy cosplaying for what it is: a chance to explore a new identity and to mess with people’s perceptions.
The greatest compliment anyone can give his cosplaying doesn’t involve an award. It doesn’t involve any words at all. “Most people don’t even recognize me, even if they know me,” he says proudly.
His efforts have been noticed. He has recently been asked to present workshops on various aspects of cosplaying, such as perfecting the art of styling and wearing wigs. This may seem minor, but anime characters are famous for their crazy hairdos. He has learned this skill just through practice. He also has been featured in the Cosplay Coalition Network’s calendars, usually as nerd girl heartthrobs like Cloud from Final Fantasy VII or Link from Legend of Zelda.
This, of course, is where the cosplaying culture gets interesting as well as slightly confusing. It is a common sight at a con: A nerd girl squeals and hugs another girl because that girl is wearing a male’s costume. For instance, about 10 years ago I hugged a female cosplayer dressed as Vampire Hunter D. It’s not that I wasn’t aware she was a girl. I just loved the character so much, I allowed myself to forget for those few seconds my arms were wrapped around a “her.” (It was D, after all.) Girls cosplay as men all the time, sometimes entering cosplaying contests as these characters and graciously accepting the squeals of entire ballrooms of female fan girls. Some of these girls, of course, could be lesbian or bisexual, but the squeals are deafening, unifying, overpowering. They all squeal, lesbian or not, because it’s part of the culture.
Azmyth challenges even this bizarre “norm,” sort of. He is not, technically, a “he.” He prefers the male pronoun because the English language demands that he picks one: male or female, no in between.
“I wish there was a ‘neither,’ ” he laments. “But I pick the confusing one because I’m mean.” At birth, Azmyth was diagnosed with Klinefelter syndrome, a mutation of the sex chromosomes. As anyone who passed high school biology knows, a woman is XX, and a man is XY. It’s just that simple, unless you have Klinefelter. Azmyth’s chromosomes are XXY, making him primarily female, but also partially male.
Growing up in America, with its culture of wanting to put everyone in one of two gender-labeled buckets, was challenging. His family life alone was a struggle, with some drugs, drinking, and other instability. He stresses that his parents were wonderful to him, but they had flaws, like anyone. While struggling with these home issues, he was being raised as a girl, which always felt awkward. As he’s grown up and matured, he’s tried to move away from any one gender role. He will freely go into the men’s or women’s restroom, for instance.
In terms of his sexuality, he defines himself as “technically” bisexual because gender is meaningless to him. However, he hasn’t had any traditional, romantic relationships. He forms close friendships, but he shies away from long-term commitments with labels and obligations.
Although the cosplaying culture has its flaws (such as the “elitist pricks” in the master classes, according to Azmyth), he says everyone is accepting of his life choices.
“People honestly into the culture (of cosplay) don’t care about gender,” he explains. He’s tried to scare other cosplayers who have asked him about it. “I have terrifying genitals,” he tells them. They shrug, much like Squall, and say “OK” like it’s not a big deal. Because to them, it’s not.
Normal, According to Azmyth
As we continue our conversation, he begins trying to put his Squall costume together. He opens more bins and cabinets than I thought could fit in the trailer before he finally gives up, lamenting that not all of the parts can be located. After a quick change in the bathroom, he reemerges in the basic outfit and wig of Squall, one of my own first fan girl crushes.
He keeps talking about wig maintenance and the importance of mascara in making those anime eyes pop, but I’m not listening. Azmyth, without being aware of it at all, has challenged my own ideas about gender and sexuality. Because he looks very cute right now. What does this mean about me, I wonder to myself, if I find him cute? Am I still straight? I immediately feel silly for asking it, and then recant. It’s not silly. It shouldn’t be silly. I should be asking this question. I attack it, in my mind, like an algebraic equation.
All of this internal debate is happening as he is gluing his sideburns on and arranging his costume’s many belts. “Do they cross in the back? No, they don’t. I did this wrong. How did I do this wrong? What did I do?” He chews on his lip and consults a picture on his computer, as I try to revise my own definitions of straight, gay, male, female, and attraction.
But he’s completely unaware, and before I know it, he’s satisfied enough with his work to say he is “done.”
And he’s Squall, my teen girl crush. I follow Azmyth, now Squall, out of the mobile home. He has even changed his walk to match Squall’s pensive shuffle. I can’t make sense of any of it. He babbles about the perfect natural settings for our photos, the recent hunting season, the story of one of the abandoned buildings. I, meanwhile, am growing more and more frustrated with my inability to solve this puzzle when I suddenly remember we are now in public, by which I am generously referring to the main road traveling through Mill Spring. Azmyth’s neighbors are outside, seemingly with nothing to do and nowhere to go, and Azmyth is walking down the road in full costume.
I wait for some sort of reaction, some epic culture clash that will be the climax of my story on Azmyth Irwin. But there is nothing, just a few waves and chuckles.
“Taking her to the spring?” a middle-aged woman calls out.
“Yeah, we’re doing photos!” he calls back enthusiastically.
With that one, brief interaction, I realize I have to give up trying to find the answer. The people of this tiny hamlet have accepted Azmyth for who he is, even in his crazy costume of fake white fur and black leather. They don’t all know that he prefers to go by Azmyth, or that he thinks of himself in the male pronoun. What they do know, however, is that he/she is a good neighbor, and sometimes he/she takes visitors to the spring so they can take photos of each other in crazy costumes.
If they can make that leap of faith and step outside of their comfort zones like that, then I can make one allowance, too. Azmyth looks cute as Squall. Really cute.
Now go ahead. Judge me, Internet. I don’t think Azymth will.