“Video games showed me who I could be:” transgender gamers share their stories, joys, and fears
Gaming is still often seen as a hobby for boys. Boys play the games, boys make the games, and the games those boys make are made for more boys. But what happens when one of those boys wants to be a girl?
Dani Landers is the creative force behind Bloom: Memories, a still-in-development isometric RPG currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. The game looks beautiful, and is centered around a unique premise that influences story and game play: You are a child, born into the world broken and weak, who must rely on the love and encouragement of your mother to overcome the obstacles in your path.
It's a unique and original game that has received accolades from David Scott Jaffe and Jenova Chen, creators of God of War and Flower respectively, but the actual game is sometimes overshadowed by Lander's status as someone who is transgender. That's not something Landers minds, necessarily; she told the Report she's glad to acknowledge her status, and doesn't hide from it. Getting to that point, however, was a long and arduous process.
“The decision to start to transition is a big one,” Landers told me. She explained how many people associate being trans with being in porn, or being a prostitute. She gave examples of transgender characters in media existing only for laughs, and how transgender desires were, and still often are, seen as a mental disorder. Whether one transitions or not is not a decision to be made lightly, or without support. Thankfully, Landers had a unique support structure growing up: Video games.
“I always played the female characters in games,” Landers said when I asked how she started to explore her gender identity. “When I started getting into MMOs, they provided a more unique opportunity to play a character that really represented you more, because you were putting so much time into these characters. That's when I really started to delve into the… I labeled it the 'feminine side' of myself.”
“The thing is, going out into the real world and doing things that way is not really possible. This is one thing doctors… I think they still do this, they call it 'real life experience,' where they tell the transgender person to dress up like the opposite sex and start living as them for a year. But without any hormones, without any treatment, without anything else,” Landers said.
“So basically, they go out into society and are forced to be men in dresses – by society's standards – and that's not really something that most will allow. You can't just go to the store and be obviously a guy, pretending to be a woman, you're not passing at all, so it's not really a way for people to explore. It's a way for them to explore being a freak out in the street, but that's not really what people want. They want to blend in and be happy, and express themselves how they want without judgment.”
Landers said games provided a safe place to explore and experiment. MMOs in particular offer transgender people a chance to not only create a character in the gender they identify as, but also allow that character to interact with other people. Landers said this wasn't something limited to her experience, either; many transgender people she knew likewise used this strategy.
Before we go any further, let's take a moment to define the terms we're using. What's the difference between trans, transsexual, transgender, transvestite, tranny, etc.? A transsexual is someone who does not identify with their assigned sex, and often wishes to alter their body through hormones and surgery. We use “transgender” in this article as an umbrella term intended to cover anyone whose gender identity does not align with their physical sex. “Trans,” then, is short for “transgender.”
A transvestite is someone who does typically identify as their birth sex, but dresses in clothing traditionally reserved for the other sex. It, and several other words, such as “shemale” and “tranny” are usually considered derogatory. You can find a comprehensive list of trans and gender-related terminology via the National Center for Transgender Equality.
A short while ago, I sent out a tweet asking for transgender gamers and friends of transgender gamers to email me regarding their experiences. Based on the overwhelming response – more than a dozen within 24 hours – I'd say Landers was right: there are many transgender gamers out there and many of the responses I received cited games as a primary source of safety, support, and exploration as they transitioned.
Here are a few snippets from the myriad responses I received:
The hope that someday my real life friends and those around me would see me the same way they saw [character name removed] helped give me the strength to keep going.“When I started writing this email I was ready to dismiss my experiences playing games from my original thoughts about being transgender (and then later transition) but the more I think about it the more I do wonder if having the ability to put myself in the shoes of a female character had some impact on me. I always have chosen to play as a lady when given the opportunity and I have viewed male characters as external to me but female characters as an extension,” one transgender gamer wrote.
“I never really thought of it as, 'Oh, I'm gonna play a female character because I wish I was female,' I just played a female character because that was what came naturally. Looking back though, I think playing as female characters in social games (WoW, EverQuest, etc.) allowed me to learn what it was like for people to look at me as a girl,” another gamer said. “I didn't know who I was in real life, and it was a really dark time for me, but I could always log on and feel like, even if it was just an avatar wearing fantasy armor, that I was a girl. I think the hope that someday my real life friends and those around me would see me the same way they saw [character name removed] helped give me the strength to keep going.”
One gamer summed it up jokingly: “When I changed my Mii and my Xbox avatar, and my friends could see I was using them all the time as my main way of representing myself, they must have thought, 'Oh damn, shit just got real, he changed his avatar.' I think it drove the point home.”
Even those who didn't identify as transgender themselves could see the connection. “There is the standard, 'She almost always had a female avatar or character in games' response, which was true, but there is another point. [Name removed]'s been active in running gaming rooms in the various conventions she has become active in, and running gaming nights of her own among her friends. She mentioned to me once that she has a maternal feeling to get young gamers and geeks into places they feel safe and can be geeky, and she's only become more and more active in this role the more and more she transitions,” wrote one ally.
“Every Halloween, [name removed] would dress as a female video game character, like Yuna from FFX. It was always “ha ha, [name removed]'s dressed as a girl because he's got great hair and looks like a girl!” Not in a mocking way, mind you, but like it was funny because it made so much sense. So when we found out [name removed] was on hormones, it made sense,” wrote another. “She would show up in more feminine clothing, and there was a pronoun change whenever we'd talk about her, but that was about it. She was still the same person, except now she could be who she was on the inside.”
Safe vs stealth
Games themselves may offer a safe place for transgender, genderqueer, questioning, or other LGBT community individuals, but the gaming community has been less receptive. When Landers was promoting her game in one gaming community forum, users hijacked the thread and began posting “tranny porn,” telling Landers she should find new work in the adult film industry.
Articles and features on gaming sites that bring up gender representation of any kind, be it transgender or otherwise, is typically met with the 'Why is this important?' 'How is this relevant to video games?' style responses. It should be apparent by now that games can be far more than just entertainment to some individuals. To some, it's a necessary escape, or a safe haven where the question of 'Who am I?” can be safely explored. Now, let me tell you why it's important.
Website Feminist Critics estimated that a trans individual is 10x more likely than the general population to be murdered. The site produced this figure when they sought to refute a Human Rights Campaign statistic that claimed a 1 in 12 chance for trans individuals to be murdered (the link to that statistic is now dead). Feminist Critics called this “horrendous… but not extraordinary.”
A survey by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 41% of respondents had attempted suicide. According to the CDC, approximately 1.0% of the general population made suicide plans between 2008 and 2009, with .5% reported having actually attempted suicide.
A 1997 study by the San Francisco Department of Public Health showed 37% of male-to-female transgender individuals and 20% of female-to-male transgender individuals suffered housing discrimination.
The statistics go on and on. The reality is that, for all the positive momentum for many social issues in the United States, the country is still a dangerous place for anyone who is questioning their sexuality or gender. You may not be able to wear a dress to the store without worrying about physical violence, but anyone can play a female or male character in a game, or even experiment with same-sex relationships without fear of violence.
Games can often offer the only way many people feel safe exploring their sexuality, which is one of the reasons same-gender relationships or options in game play often come up in conversations about games. These games offer a safe and non-judgmental space for people to explore their feelings and desires, without fear for their physical safety. Sexual maturation is scary and confusing enough for most people; imagine living in a world where expressing yourself opens the door to beatings, shaming, or in some cases death. Many of us use games to get through hard times in our lives, but for some they can be an important lifeline to a safe place where players can be themselves.