Ah, how many times has my RP looked like this in my head? ((A Night Elven woman in a comfortable green and earth tone dress looking out over a harbour at dusk, the twinkling lights of a town in the distance beneath the fading light.)) Image Credit: WoW Fan art by Jian Guo.

Clicks on a Keyboard: Dungeons, Dragons, and Trans-Feminism

 

Ah, how many times has my RP looked like this in my head? ((A Night Elven woman in a comfortable green and earth tone dress looking out over a harbour at dusk, the twinkling lights of a town in the distance beneath the fading light.)) Image Credit: WoW Fan art by Jian Guo.

What I love about “click” is that it can happen anywhere, anytime, for any reason. It can best be defined as the moment you became conscious of the personal being political, the moment you learned a social fact through a deeply personal interaction. But “click” also connotes precisely that brief space of time, the moment, the instant, something changed forever. For me, my click was a bit longer and slower than that. It was a pastiche of revelations and experiences- both good and bad- that enhanced my feminism. You see, that’s another part of this: the story I’m going to tell begins with me already being feminist, but ends with me making peace with being a woman. To me, this is something that is vital to a feminist consciousness among women. In my own case, I learned this through video gaming.

Being a transgender woman means one has a ‘special’ relationship with gender and with womanhood in particular. For many of us, part of our self-discovery necessarily involves a dawning of pride and acceptance of one’s own gender. I grew up surrounded by media images and socialisation that told me femininity and womanhood were inferior, weaker, undesirable, and should be either avoided or pitied. As a young trans girl trying to find her place in the gendered sun this naturally screwed with my head in many deeply unpleasant ways and fed self-hate in a rather dramatic way. I came out as a feminist when I was 15 because my father’s abuse of my mother put the lie to the notion that sexism was a thing of the past; but that did not click away my own self-loathing and fears regarding acceptance of my gender.

What finally did that for me was video gaming and roleplaying. As I suffered through severe depression and suicidal ideation, I discovered a wonderful oasis that enabled me to live as someone more closely approximating what I would choose: roleplaying games. It all started with The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, and my discovery that I felt so much more comfortable and even empowered when I played as women characters. Same with Knights of the Old Republic; the women characters in that game, like the Jedi Bastila Shan, provided me with secret role models that gave me hints of the kind of woman I’d like to be. Above all, each game elucidated a possibility that the cheap TV I was exposed to never did: that women could kick ass. It’s knowledge I take for granted today, but for young-me it was an eye opener and something that began the slow and steady process of scrubbing away the socialisation that had told me to be a woman was to be lesser.

Quinnae. ((A Night Elf Priestess in purple robes with a dark staff, white cape, and floating against a wintry background.))

Single player games provided me with visions of female power. Women with swords, spells, lightsabers, martial skills, elegance, high education, class, guts, skill, and who above all showed no shame in who they were. If these fictional characters could do it, so could I. But since I was still being forced to live as a man, where could I possibly begin? As I subconsciously chewed over that dilemma a friend suggested my first online multiplayer roleplaying game: Neverwinter Nights. He wanted someone to play as his character’s daughter and since he knew I enjoyed RPing as women characters he thought I would be perfect for this. If only he knew. What began with NWN expanded into a range of other games, most prominently World of Warcraft, and it is here that abundant clicking became commonplace.

My experiences with my mother, some things I had observed at school, and had read about all impressed upon me the realities of women’s situation in the world. But WoW would afford me my first opportunity to experience them first hand. Knowing and knowing are two abundantly different things, and the harshest lessons WoW taught me were to know what it was like to be stalked, to be harassed, and to feel excluded; World of Warcraft provided me with a virtual social world where my character’s female gender became a salient fact of both her existence and my own experience in the game world. I began to understand on an intimate level what it felt like for your refusals to go unheard and for people to feel entitled to your time, attention, and sexual interest.

Some might argue that this is a lesson in victimisation. I beg to differ, however. My direct confrontation with these realities threw more fuel on the political fire that had been burning since I was fifteen; more reminders of what it was that we needed to stand against, more reminders of the politics that inhere to everyday life. More than this, however, it taught me empowerment. My story in World of Warcraft is not just a story of people stalking me. Hardly. I made friends there, explored my sexuality there, and apropos the harassment I learned to fight it.

For a long time I had been deeply shy and unable to speak up for myself. The shame inculcated in me by patriarchy and the gender dysphoria it was in part responsible for also had a gag effect on me. It was the silence that had made me afraid to take up space, the socialised quietudes that were the wages of my feminine identification. WoW, for all the failings of that game, provided me with a social world where I found the power to break that silence by seizing subjectivity as a woman consciously and affirmatively. In that world I was “Quinnae” and “she and her” to everyone, and I quickly became known on the forums for prosaic arguments, tongue lashings, and verbal self-defence par excellence. I found shelter in communities of fellow women gamers, people to commiserate with and laugh with, who made harassment a much more manageable problem. All of these people were 3D avatars and text on a screen, but it was all that saved my life and showed me a brightly lit road to accepting my womanhood in the real world.

Each click on the keyboard brought me one step closer to loving myself.

As I stood up for myself and took crap from no one in WoW I realised that I had developed more of a spine here than I ever did in the physical world. Part of that was due to the anonymity the Internet afford, but it was more than that too. It was because the game offered me the opportunity to stand in the shoes of a woman character I had created, a thoughtful, strong woman modeled after my newfound role models and representing a potential vision of myself. The scholarly Night Elven Priestess who became my main character in WoW was how I explored womanhood, became a woman, and how I learned to take pride in being a woman. She taught me how to stand up for myself, how to fight back, and eventually how to take control of my life.

It was WoW who introduced me to the first trans woman I ever knew,  who spoke of what transgender transition was like. This would offer me a new path in life that I never realised would be open to me.

This ‘click,’ as it were, took roughly a year and a half to run its course. I had to overcome socialisation that told me there was something wrong with me for desiring womanhood, I had to teach myself that I had everything to be proud of if I was a woman, I had to overcome. Growing up in the South Bronx left me with few options in my immediate vicinity to do this. The Internet, and most of all gaming, was what saved my life in this regard. World of Warcraft and other online games still suffer from a variety of problems, including sexism, racism, transphobia, and homophobia. But there is a tremendous amount to be said for the subversive agency of the people who populate these worlds, and it provided people like myself with the breathing room necessary to use online gaming spaces for self-exploration and growth in a relatively controlled way.

This is a theme I have explored in a lot of my recent writing for The Border House to be sure, because I think it’s important. Vitally so. When we discuss online games, we must not confine the discussion to the world that the developers deliver to us only, but expand it to include the variegated social worlds the players themselves weave within that space. My story of ‘click’ is how I assumed female subjectivity in the midst of an oppressive moment of my life and learned that I was a strong woman who could fight back.

When I came out to my father I had to stare down threats and words one never wants to hear from a parent, but I faced it with determination. Physical threats, threats of being thrown to the street, of being rejected by everyone around me were all hurled my way because I claimed womanhood.

Artist's rendition of Quin coming out. (Note, some events may be exaggerated or metaphorical.) ((A poorly drawn black and white sketch of Quinnae and her father who looks suspiciously like a moustachioed Dalek. Dalek dad says incredulously "Transition!? But you have no weapons; no defences; no plan!!" and your ravishing correspondent and hero replies "Yeah! And doesn't that scare you to death!?" ))

In defiance of this I stood there that day with the strength of all my fictional characters behind me, with the knowledge that feminism meant strength, meant power, meant courage- and that my womanhood was not a shameful fact of my existence, but something for me to be proud of. That was something I learned through roleplaying and gaming, in great measure. My mother also deserves a tremendous amount of credit: she inspired me with her heroic endurance and courage in an abusive marriage, and she never attacked me for roleplaying female characters (unlike my father). She was and remains a huge supporter of mine, who helped me transition and who helped me to find myself. No story of my transition is complete without her, no telling of my feminist history is possible without her.

She found my gaming to be more cute than threatening, and she gave me the levity to explore. Props definitely go out to her.

To most people it may seem strange that I can speak of my feminism being enhanced through roleplay, giving me the needed experiences and subjectivity to see the political in the personal. Stranger still could be my statement about how my characters stood with me when I came out; to some that may well parse as the words of a childish fantasist. But what I was trying to get at was that video gaming provided me with a range of personal guises I could explore in the social world, that enabled me to train myself to both take pride in my womanhood and to fight sexism with vigour. These are two things that are central to my feminist consciousness and nothing I’ve accomplished since then would’ve been possible without it.

In the intervening years I found the strength to stand firm against rape threats, more casual and quotidian sexism, the wolf whistles of random men, and the courage to face down sexists and transphobes everywhere. I’m still relatively shy as people go, I’m probably not your go-to gal to hand out a petition to random strangers. But I am far more confident than I was and far truer to myself than I ever was: I have all my little Elves, Wizards, Clerics, and knights in shining armour to thank for that.

This post is part of the Feminist Portrait Project’s and Bitch Magazine’s Blog Carnival where bloggers from all corners of the web are contributing their feminist “click” moment. Have a story you want to share?   Get in on the blog-a-thon action here!

14 thoughts on “Clicks on a Keyboard: Dungeons, Dragons, and Trans-Feminism”

  1. I hope it doesn’t sound trite when I think thanks for sharing something so personal. And as a fellow gamer with mental disorders, it does not “seem strange” at all that you found so much in our hobby! Though I have not been remotely as strong as you.

    Among all the hate and contempt for women in the industry, there are some real gems and possibilities too. Can I ask what drew you to this particular race/class combo for your WoW main?

    1. Not at all trite, thank you. :)

      Night Elf Priest, hmm… I have played several characters, I just thought that the namesake Quinnae was one of the more prominent in my gaming experience, so she was the one I thought I’d share. Prior to that point I played (in a variety of other games/settings, included) a Nephilim Paladin, a Half Elf Cleric, a Human Bard, and a Night Elf Rogue. Quin was among the more enduring, though.

      It’s an interesting sociological question, really, and one with a variety of answers- do our race/class choices reflect something about our real world selves? To a certain extent, I think it does. But that extent varies from person to person, often quite dramatically. In my own case I always liked Elves- I was just an Elfy person, I suppose. In WoW they also came across as a more woman-affirming society. As to Cleric/Priest… I’ve always loved healing. It’s still my favourite role. I’ve tried to assess that psychologically but come up with no clear answers.

      1. Yes, what drew me to the night elves was that in WC3 they were the only “race” with a female presence — and while it had its problems (Tyrande taking a back seat and needing rescue once Malfurion is awake, the skimpy outfits) it was a strong presence nonetheless. I liked the savagery, the no-compromises attitude. Sadly much of that was gutted in WoW, which remains one of my biggest disappointments with that game.

  2. Oddly, suddenly gravitating toward playing females in video games and finding I was more comfortable and more “into it” when I did was one of the things that helped me realize I was trans in the first place. Due to Aspergers and other such issues, it didn’t just immediately click with me… that tendency, combined with finding that being trans was a real thing that a person could be, helped solidify things. It explained why I had discovered why I was most comfortable playing “the girl”, along with numerous other things about my life — how I’d always gotten along better and more easily with girls, some of my habits and inclinations, how increasingly uncomfortable I was in Middle School and High School, as I went through puberty and the male/female social dynamic changed yet again. It was like my life suddenly made sense for the first time ever.

    … This probably sounds silly to everyone, though…

    1. Not at all silly. In fact I would say, in similar terms, that that was what it felt like for me. :) Thank you so much for sharing; I want to focus, in future research, on what video games do for trans people in terms of helping them find their own identities.

    2. That sounds similar to what I went through as well. Being able to interact with a world (even one as stupid and prejudiced as the WoW community) as a woman was the ‘click’ moment where I could finally envision what the puzzle I had been putting together actually was.

  3. I’m glad games helped inspire you through difficult times that must have taken a tremendous amount of courage. It’s great to hear about positive empowerment. Thank you for sharing!

  4. That was a really interesting experience to read about, thanks for sharing. It resonated with me a lot because a lot of who I am today was deeply shaped by what I had the freedom to create as “myself” online and then remold my own in person self to reflect that. Very happy to hear games have had such a positive impact for you.

  5. This is not real name, obviously. I’m a recently come out transgendered to my friends online and to some of my friends in real life. They’ve all taken it pretty well. I have not come out to my family because I’m afraid of the reaction.

    This article was a fantastic read. Thank you for your insight, well written insight and your thoughts.

    Towards the end of my wow life, I too started to play female character, including RPing; and I loved this. It helped reenforced what I had known then subconsiously but refused to admit till now.

    Thank you again!

  6. Oddly I don’t think roleplaying played any significant part in my discovering I was trans.

    This seems kind of odd to me, considering roleplaying games are kind of my favorite thing ever. :P (Although I’ve avoided MMOs which probably contributes to that not playing a significant part in it)

  7. Thank you very much for posting this article. It hits home a bit. I’m a fair bit older than you, but my wife has known for about four years. Since then, I’ve started playing video games as female, and I’ve noticed what you have. You said it so well.

    I’ve been on HRT, and I’ll be coming out to my kids and friends, and to my conservative family in 2012. Transition should be occurring in late 2012 or 2013.

    However, during this year I plan on playing a woman more publicly, with friends, and in front of my kids. I’ll even start playing a woman in my table-top role-playing group. That one’s a bit odd since we have a dirty-minded male who always plays anime-type women.So I’m sure that’ll be a bit awkward. :-)

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