It’s been five years since My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic first aired, and the Brony fandom is stronger than ever. This year’s BronyCon in Baltimore gathered over 10,000 Bronies, the first MLP convention to hit five digits. It's more than just a gathering of superfans, however; BronyCon has become a sort of radical safe space.

Like all animation or illustration-based conventions, the expected elements were there; cosplayers who had dedicated weeks to costume-making awaited autographs in snaking lines, punny panel titles filled the overwhelmingly extensive schedule, vendors from around the world settled in their booths to sell thematic art, sort through trading cards, or bedeck the unprepared with ponytails and pegasus wings.

What was less expected was the thorough display of radical inclusiveness throughout the convention. Bathrooms, for instance, were relabeled as gender neutral facilities. Attendees were given “interaction cards” to clip to their lanyards, indicating whether or not they wanted to be approached by strangers: green card? Please talk to me! Yellow? I’m sort of just into talking to my friends right now. Red? I’d rather be left alone. BronyCon organizers facilitated identity needs from the outset, allowing Bronies to assign preferred names to their nametags upon purchasing their tickets. And the convention center's singular public elevator—a notable flaw in the building's design—was reserved to ensure access for those with additional needs.

It was beyond considerate; it was compassionate.

The magic of fandom

“I have never encountered a group as friendly as the Brony community,” Sam Miller, a PhD student at the University of North Dakota, tells me. Miller has been studying the Brony phenomenon with a focus on its sweeping disregard for hegemonic masculinity and its essentialist traits of dominance and competitive brutishness. This is especially apparent given that the average Brony is a straight-oriented, college-aged white American male; in other words, the presumed prime candidate for reinforcing machismo.

Ponying up radical inclusion at BronyCon. Image 1.

Miller first encountered Bronies when working at a community college in Northampton, PA, where he agreed to be an advisor for a My Little Pony fan club, a subsidiary to the existing anime club. To his surprise, the club was quite popular; 25 students attended the first meeting alone. “At first I thought that this must be some joke I’m not getting,” Miller recalls, “and then they started singing along to the song from the episode… off-key, but they were all singing it and they meant it. These were mostly college-aged guys and just a handful of ladies, and I suddenly realized I had to figure out what this was.”

“What this was” was a quickly-expanding fandom outside of My Little Pony’s target demographic of little girls. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a children's animated television series produced by Hasbro Studios that debuted in 2010. Executive producer Lauren Faust (The Powerpuff Girls, Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends) said she felt that most animated girls shows were boring, and wanted to create stories with real conflict. Fans cite Faust’s dedication to the cross-generational relatability of her characters and the high quality of the show’s animation as reasons for the phenomenon, and it is in fact a genuinely good show.

But it seems to go beyond that. Bronies have fostered a different type of excitement—one in which gathering with other enthusiasts may actually be more important than the show itself.

Public and private Bronies

This could be a form of self-preservation; Bronies are no strangers to bullying, and a “strength-in-numbers” defense mechanism has helped them in the past. When the fandom first started forming in 2011 in 4chan’s infamous—and often distressing—/b/ forums, 4chan users retaliated in full force, inundating any pony-related threads with gore and porn. But instead of being trolled into submission, Bronies responded with unified fervor, flooding 4chan threads with pony pictures and ultimately splintering off to start their now well-established—and growing—communities. Some theorize that it’s this initial rise against the haters that fostered the Brony camaraderie as it exists today. In fact, a study out of the University of South Carolina reports that MLP superfans are experiencing an increased level of self-acceptance and social support.

Not that all Bronies feels safe enough to feel comfortable disclosing their enthusiasm. “This is the only fandom I know where people hide their fandom,” Miller says. “Some fans won’t display. And I understand that.” In today’s bullying world, it’s not hard to. Bronies dress up as My Little Pony characters, which inevitably correlate with constructed themes of femininity. They’ve bonded over princesses and unicorns. And, while they tend to be more introverted than non-Bronies, they are also more compassionate and less angry than them. The Brony, it seems, acts well outside the conventional norms of masculinity, and he has been punished for it.

Ponying up radical inclusion at BronyCon. Image 2.

BronyCon has become a safe space in a way, the one place where “fans can wear it,” Miller says. “We have this notion of ‘public’ and ‘private’ Bronies. In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick talks about the notion of the closet as living a double life to hide homosexuality,” he explains. “You portray yourself privately one way, while publicly act another way out of self-protection and preservation in the face of a violent society. I see a lot of the same things occurring in the fandom.”

This notion doesn’t cheapen any “real” struggle; BronyCon is just a magnification of the safe space mentality that Bronies can form just by existing, creating a haven for those generally stigmatized by their peers. In some ways, those leading the Brony community are the radically inclusive allies that the marginalized population—whether by identity or ability—have been waiting for; where else outside of queer politic has the gender neutral bathroom been proposed? What other pop cultural phenomenon supports a place where people can feel comfortable saying that they are just experiencing way too much social anxiety to talk right now?

A unique, localized masculinity

Miller proposes Bronies as an opportunity to redefine masculinity as a place that rejects current models of gender conditioning and in turn promotes emotional intelligence and the idea of cultivating values despite how they are presented. “I encountered one fan in Omaha who compared My Little Pony to Aesop’s fables, saying that people have always listened to tales of animals that teach you virtuous things. And he’s right,” Miller says. “I never understood why, just because something is packaged a certain way, it can’t be appreciated for being universally good.”

Ponying up radical inclusion at BronyCon. Image 3.

It’s a proposition that seems to be bleeding through. The military, a rather cliché example of American machismo, has a well-recognized Brony community, with some members adhering MLP-related patches to their uniforms. “They compare a lot of things in the show to army values: leadership, loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity,” Miller explains, “a lot of them tell me that My Little Pony teaches the same things that they're taught in the military, it’s just packaged differently.”

It’s all part of accepting that there is no one ideal masculinity. “Maureen Hogan and Timothy Pursell say that masculinity is localized—North Dakota masculinity is way different than, say, New York masculinity, which makes sense in and of itself,” Miller explains. “So I’m trying to adopt their notion to provide an argument that says that, within this fandom, there’s a unique, localized masculinity."

Photos by Kevin Blackistone