Today’s post is a very personal one addressing self exploration through role playing. This is about a positive life change discovered through roleplay that I’d like to share.
One of the golden rules of great game groups is to encourage each person to bring their personality and unique ideas to the game. As a dominant player (who basically thought my ideas were the best) this was a hard lesson to learn but infinitely valuable to enhancing my enjoyment of games. Additionally, when I bring more of myself to my role I am more fulfilled by the experience. Through play, each person gets to highlight what is important to them and their character. In many ways, role playing can be a window to the soul.
Sometimes the things explored through roleplay and the lessons learned have ramifications that reach far out into a person’s life. Roleplaying, and my character Harrison in particular, helped me reach a literally life changing revelation.
Recognizing the Gift.
There are numerous skills I have refined through roleplay: speaking up, long term planning, problem solving, thinking outside the box. All of those are great, but that’s not why I’m writing this post. It’s self-discovery time.
At the beginning of 2018 I played in a Tales from the Loop game as Harrison, a 14 year old trouble maker, who I played only a half dozen times. He was a boy becoming a man who was struggling to find his place in the world. I wrote more than 100 pages of fiction and backstory about him. That amount of devotion to a character had never happened before and I realized I had to understand what was going on. Why did I *need* Harrison so much? Harrison was the tipping point in a major self-revelation that literally changed my life.
In role playing games I play as a fictionalized version of myself, sometimes my idealized best self, sometimes leaning deeply into my flaws and touching on the mixture of hope and tragedy that is the human condition. My characters have been tall, short, caucasian, people of color, human, daemon hosts, fat, thin, straight, gay, bisexual, happy, lonely, rich, starving, religious, agnostic, and many other things. But my favorite characters have shared one trait since I started playing at 6 years old, they’ve been male.
What I’m here to say is: it wasn’t just my characters who were always male. It was me.
Hi, I’m Wen and I am a transgender man.
Why Tell the Gnome Stew Audience?
Role playing has been the place I have been my fullest self for the last three decades. I can walk up to any game table, introduce my character and have them accepted for who they are without question. I was accepted as *who I was* without question. That is powerful beyond my ability to express. It vented steam I didn’t know was otherwise building up in my head. Roleplaying kept me safe and gave me the outlet I needed until I was ready to face myself.
For a long time I’ve said that the highest function of role playing is the ability to create empathy through game play. What I missed was that role playing can foster deep self-exploration, the ability to not just understand or empathize with others, but to know yourself. As such, role playing as a hobby and my characters, including Harrison, have always been extremely important to me. In some ways my characters were more “me” than I was allowing myself to be.
Many players don’t need roleplaying in the way I have. Not every role player will have a revelation like mine. However some of us do. I think this is important to highlight because it is one of the reasons that a player’s agency in their character can be so extremely important. When you play, keep in mind that you never know how close a person’s character may be to their sense of self. Removing agency in the character may feel violating to the player in ways you don’t understand. Regardless of the circumstances, to keep your players trust, don’t compromise anyone’s agency in their character without their enthusiastic prior consent.
What Can We Do Next?
For readers wondering if there is anything you can do to make life better and easier for transgender people like me, the answer is an emphatic: Yes! I’m writing this section of the article with our cisgender audience in mind, but everyone is invited to read on. These are my personal opinions and learnings but I think they are a good starting place for being an informed friend and ally.
I’m still me. While your perception may have shifted, at my core I am still the same person, and that is true of all transgender people. If you were acquaintances or friends before, there is no reason that should change. As a gamer, if your friend brought a character of a different gender to the table, I imagine you’d say okay and move on with the game. Follow that same model in real life. There isn’t any reason people should act differently (read: uncomfortably) around one another. Focus on what you have in common, just like always, and you’ll be fine.
Honest communication and education demystifies being transgender. If you don’t know what I mean when I say “transgender” or “trans” read this (for a quick refresher on terms look here). Start by doing some reading and branch out from there. Ask questions in good faith and clearly express the desire to listen, learn, and understand individual people’s perspective.
Transitioning 101. There are several kinds of transition, not every transgender person transitions in every way. A transgender person’s identity is valid regardless of a person’s ability or desire to do any of these steps. Safety comes first and each kind of transition has its own risks and costs. Internalize this fact, accept it, and please don’t judge one another about it.
- Social transition can involve several possible steps like coming out to friends, family, and coworkers; using a different name, pronouns, or titles; and updating gender expression through clothing, hairstyle, make up, etc.
- Legal transition can include a name change and/or updating gender markers on legal paperwork like identification cards and passports. Rules typically require some form of “proof” which may take an extended period of time to obtain.
- Medical transition can include hormone therapy, voice therapy, hair removal treatments, and surgeries. Rules require varying degrees of “proof” before medically transitioning, which may take months or years to obtain. If you aren’t in a relationship with someone where you already discuss deeply personal medical matters or each other’s genitals it isn’t appropriate to ask about medical transition. If someone wants to talk to you about it let them bring it up. That’s just common courtesy.
Pronouns: He/Him/His, She/Her/Hers, They/Them/Theirs, Name Only. Together we can normalize offering and asking for each other’s pronouns. If cisgender (non-transgender) people normalize this practice people who are trans (or non-binary or genderfluid) won’t effectively have to “out” ourselves every time we meet someone new.
- Start by offering your own pronouns and then asking other people’s pronouns when you meet. Opening that door for people to walk through who may not identify exactly as they appear on the surface is one of the best gifts you can give.
- Offering your pronouns in online spaces like on your social media pages, dating profiles, or email signatures also normalizes the practice and makes written communication easier. If you can take 5 minutes to do that now, that would be awesome! (Ex. He/Him/His, She/Her/Hers, They/Them/Theirs)
- When asking for someone’s pronouns you can leave out the word “preferred” as in “What are your preferred pronouns?” It’s extraneous. To me saying “preferred” implies that you are humoring me instead of simply respecting me. That’s not everyone’s take, but if someone wants to let you know that their pronouns are preferred, their response can simply be “My preferred pronouns are…”
- Respect a person’s name and pronouns. If a person uses a new name, use that and don’t refer to them by their birth name (often called a “dead name”). When someone calls me “ma’am” I respond with “It’s sir, thank you.” Typically people take that in stride and carry on, you can do the same. If you slip up, correct yourself and move on. If you make a big deal about apologizing it is going to make everyone uncomfortable. If you are trying to get it right no harm, no foul, I forgive you, the end.
- Help others to get it right. Be clear and be consistent, but don’t make a scene. I’m okay with folks correcting other people on my behalf, that takes some of the weight off my shoulders and spreads it around. It helps me to maintain my dignity and self-respect. Ask your friends if it is alright if you do this for them too and respect their decision.
- Some people do not use pronouns. In that case specifically use their name or other descriptors, honoured guest, my friend, the author.
- They/Them/Theirs can feel awkward in the singular form. The Associated Press Stylebook adopted it in 2017, we are living in the future, so this is your opportunity to be a strong ally and accept change. If needed, you can read more about it here.
Be a Visible Ally and Back it Up with Your Actions. Your words matter. Your actions matter. Your votes matter. Visibility matters (that’s why I wrote this post). It is important to nurture and embrace diversity in all spaces, including gaming spaces. Wear your rainbow colored shirts, pronoun pins, and Ally ribbons at conventions and game stores. I can’t tell you how happy I was that I could always pick at least one person in the crowd wherever I was at Gen Con 2018 with a rainbow shirt on. Listen and act in good faith. If you made it this far, you’ve already taken the first step, cheers! If someone tells you their experience and you aren’t transgender, listen, believe, and value their experience. Finally, human rights need to be inclusive of people of all genders and sexual identities. However those rights are called into question and potentially being eroded even as you read this. This is the time to unite, stand up for each other, and keep each other safe by working together as allies and friends.
I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to share my experience, and I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of this article. I cherish games and game players. I believe role playing as our common bond is a powerful force to unite people, I’ve always found my best friends through the hobby. I’ll always love and adore my characters, but now that I am myself all the time my characters have less of a burden on their imaginary shoulders. Roleplaying did its job shielding me for a long time, but it is a relief to be myself full time now.
It’s good to know you as myself beyond the game table.
Special thanks to: Deanna, Chelsea, Ang, Senda, Rob, John, and Camdon for their advance feedback; to my game group Quincy, Derek, Jake, Senda, Camdon, and Brett; and to the creators of Tales from the Loop for unexpectedly laying the groundwork for my exploration.