The following is a guest post from Samantha Allen:
Samantha Allen is a transgender woman and an ex-Mormon. She is also a third-year PhD student in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on practices of sexual fetishism. In her leisure time, Samantha plays video games, writes music and dreams of inhabiting the universe of Twin Peaks. For more on Samantha’s PhD research, please visit her website.
“If I’m going to look at somebody’s ass for twelve hours, I want it to be a girl’s ass.”
I’ve heard countless straight male video game podcasters, journalists and message board commenters supply this as their rationale for playing as female characters in games when presented with the option. I’m willing to believe that, for some of them, the reasoning behind selecting a female avatar truly is this superficial. But it also saddens me to think that other straight men, the ones who might actually enjoy some sort of cross-gender identification in their role-playing, nonetheless supply this as their reason so that they can keep up heteronormative appearances amongst their peers.
I have always rolled Lady Shepards in the Mass Effect games and, recently, a Lady Hawke in Dragon Age II. And, when I find out a game has a character creator full of sliders for every conceivable bodily dimension—everything from boob size to brow depth—my interest is instantly piqued, even if I never end up playing the game itself (I’m looking at you, Demon’s Souls). I’ve been known to spend a full hour on the character creation screen fine-tuning the appearance of my avatar, making sure that the forehead is the right height and that the eye shadow isn’t too garish.
At the time I played the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, I would have admitted, however reluctantly, to being a straight man. But I wasn’t laboring over these elaborate female creations so I could have a hot piece of tail on my screen. The key to this mystery is that I have struggled with gender all my life and, for me, these practices of character creation were a way of idealizing, visualizing, and imagining myself as female. We had a lot of shared traits, my Lady Hawke and I: blond hair, brown eyes and a big forehead. This verisimilitude was intentional. I wanted her to look just like me (with different secondary sex characteristics, of course) so that she could live out a life I couldn’t, enjoying a public career as a woman and wearing dresses when she went home to Hawke Manor. Video game commentators often refer to games as a form of escapism but, for me, I wasn’t just escaping a humdrum life, I was escaping a physical body that didn’t feel quite right. It takes a lot of courage and the right life circumstances to be able to transition (to change genders socially and, if desired, to change the sex characteristics of one’s own body).
Many beautiful transgender women I know have struggled their whole lives with the decision, only taking the plunge in middle or late life. I, too, had my own set of circumstances that made the proposition of transitioning a difficult one to swallow until I was twenty five years old. Most pragmatically, it took me that long to become financially independent. Transitioning is expensive business: I’ve had to shell out hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for a new wardrobe, laser facial hair removal, reproductive cryopreservation, blood tests and court fees. And there’s always the ever-looming expense of vaginoplasty on the horizon.
Personal circumstances within my own family also made it difficult for me to imagine ever being able to transition. I’ve been wearing women’s clothing as long as I can remember but, because I grew up in a Mormon family, I hid this sartorial choice for my entire life until last year. For a time as a teenager, I too became deeply involved in the Mormon Church.
When this happened, I threw out all my clothing (trans- people call this “purging”) and vowed to be a boy forever. That lasted long enough for me to spend two years as a self-righteous teenager and six months as a hotheaded Mormon missionary before the bubble finally burst and I left the Church in 2008. The night I decided I didn’t want to believe anymore, I drove straight to the pharmacy and re-stocked on my makeup.
After my mission, though, I still had roommates and sometimes lived in the basements of family homes. Co-habitating with others as a young adult did not leave me with a lot of room to explore my gender presentation. I would count down the days until the family I was staying with was scheduled to leave town and then I’d slide my Rubbermaid Bins of Shame out of the closet and get down to business.
But, despite all of these obstacles preventing me from coming to terms with my gender identity in real life, I always found a way to access a game console and move sliders around on those detailed character creation screens. This form of fantasy—this role-playing that, for me, would eventually become more than just play—helped to sustain me while I waited to figure out my gender on my own terms. I could scroll through all those luxuriant hairstyles and dream of having long hair myself. I could play with my makeup without alarming my family. And, yes, I could turn up the boob slider and dream of having my own someday.
I’m happy to share that I now identify as a transgender woman. I started my transition socially in August 2012 and I’ve been on hormones since November. Funny thing about hormones: they don’t work as immediately as those sliders on the character creation screen. I’m still waiting for certain things to grow in but, now that I’m on the right path, I can be patient.
I still play games when I’m not busy writing papers or teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies at Emory but I don’t need them for the same kind of wish-fulfillment that I used to. Now I get to wake up every morning and look how I want to look. But when I look in the mirror, I’ll always see a little bit of Lady Hawke looking back.