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Florida’s big fighting game tournament is becoming unsafe for trans attendees

State’s new bathroom bill could make CEO 2024 unwelcome for some in the FGC

A photo of the CEO Fighting Game Championship stage from CEO Orlando 2022 Photo: CEO Gaming

Organizers behind the biggest fighting game community tournament in Florida, Community Effort Orlando (CEO), recently found out the hard way why you don’t rely on the infrastructure of an increasingly fascist state to host your event, especially if you care about keeping transgender attendees safe.

Florida’s House of Representatives in May passed HB 1521, which “prohibits willfully entering restroom[s] or changing facilit[ies] designated for opposite sex and refusing to depart when asked to do so” within government-owned or -leased buildings. The bill goes on to define “male” and “female” according to narrow “reproductive roles” assigned at birth, making its anti-trans agenda abundantly clear. Those found in violation of these restrictions could face criminal trespassing charges and fines of up to $10,000.

The state’s far-right Republican governor and 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis signed HB 1521 into law on May 17.

CEO, one of the most prestigious events on the competitive circuit behind the Evolution Championship Series (or Evo), is currently contracted with the Ocean Center convention center in Daytona Beach through 2024, a move that even before the passing of HB 1521 drew criticism from the fighting game community.

Since moving from Orlando to Daytona Beach in 2018, tournament attendees have reported hostile and bigoted treatment from locals. CEO organizer Alex Jebailey was quick to address the city’s open aggression after the first year at the Ocean Center. Instead of seeing residents’ negative reaction to the diverse crowds often associated with fighting game events as a symptom of Daytona Beach’s cultural issues, however, Jebailey laid the blame largely on panhandlers.

And while the Daytona Beach area seemingly remains adequate for the tournament’s needs despite these problems, Ocean Center now has one more black mark against its reputation in the fighting game community: As property of Florida’s Volusia County, it falls within the scope of the state’s impending limits on trans bathroom usage.

Concerns about HB 1521 began to circulate through the fighting game community shortly after its passage on May 3, with community members advising trans folks via social media of the potential danger of attending CEO in 2024 (the earliest the bill will go into effect is July 1, 2023, one week after this year’s tournament). Some locals implored players to stay away from the event altogether, echoing a similar warning from LGBTQ+ civil rights group Equality Florida in April cautioning against travel to the state.

“I’ve always felt relatively safe at CEO events, particularly in Orlando, though simply existing in the Daytona area gave me pretty bad vibes,” trans competitor Victoria “VickiViper” Taylor told me via email. “I’ve loved going to CEO in spite of Daytona being Daytona, but honestly, this law makes it too easy for someone to completely legally harass me or worse, so then the question becomes do I forgo the event or do I come down fully prepared to possibly have to defend myself. The fact that that’s even something I have to think about is really wack.”

Taylor, a talented multi-game specialist who regularly frequents fighting game events across the United States, said she remains unsure about future trips to Florida thanks to HB 1521.

“I’m still weighing how much I feel like risking having to defend myself or worse, even as someone who’s seen as more ‘conventionally attractive,’” she said. “I really love these events and getting to see my friends there and fighting everyone, so I’d possibly just go anyways against my better judgment, but I seriously don’t blame anyone who wouldn’t.”

Alex Jebailey did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the situation, but the tournament’s official Twitter account shared this statement on May 4:

The majority of Community Effort Orlando attendees and staff live in Florida. We recognize our state is problematic for our community, but it’s not realistic for us to leave, and we won’t give up on the community living here. We’re doing our best to create the safest and most fun events we can. We will continue to communicate directly about concerns with the venues, vendors, and community members we work with to try and craft enjoyable attendee experiences.

Despite its importance to fighting game players across the globe, CEO has long struggled to establish a welcoming environment in an area of the United States that can be anything but welcoming for many community members. Now, with HB 1521 on the horizon, tournament organizers face an even greater hurdle: How do you get folks to attend an event where merely existing could pose a serious threat to their safety? Putting on a large-scale fighting game competition is complicated, but at some point the safety of your community needs to take precedence. Whether that means moving back to Orlando or finding a smaller venue not under the purview of the local government is up to organizers, but the seriousness of the situation in Florida requires action to safeguard the diversity of the fighting game community.

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