So it’s come to this…
A new online strategy game entitled Prime World is going to be offering discounts to players who use characters consistent with their IRL gender. Or, in other words, ratcheting up the cost to provide a financial disincentive to those who would prefer to play as the “opposite” sex.
Lovely Lord All-Made-Up.
I don’t think I really need to walk you guys through all the numerous and creepy sexist, transphobic and gender-binarist implications of this (trying to BRIBE people into gender conformity? Really?!). And I also don’t really recommend reading the comments on the aforementioned article.
But those comments have got one of the most fascinatingly gaping voids of trans-erasure I’ve ever seen, with people mentioning every conceivable reason someone might explore alternative gender expression by playing as a cross-gender character except for actually wanting to explore alternative gender expression. It’s amazing.
It’s really interesting to me the degree to which our ideas about people assuming cross-gender characters in video games or role-playing, or cross-gender identities on internet message boards and chat rooms, is so thoroughly and steadfastly divorced from the obvious transgender implications. The near total refusal for people to accept how trans-ness plays into these things.
The fact is that yes, trans people do use such things as a comparatively safe, harmless and low-risk way of exploring their gender identity and gender expression (sorry!). It’s not only something that happens, but it’s something that’s actually extremely common to trans people of younger generations. There are very, very, very few trans women I know under the age of 35 who didn’t use role-playing or videogames or message boards as an early means of exploring gender in at least some way.
Regardless, assuming a female identity in an online interpersonal situation is a transgender act, if that identity is assumed as one’s own rather than simply performed as a character. That is an act of variant gender expression, and trans, whether a person defines it as such or not. There’s a huge difference between an AMAB person saying “Hi I’m a guy and this is my female character!” and an AMAB person using the opportunity to say “Hi! I’m female and this is my female character!”. Whether it’s admitted or not, that is a form of expressing one’s gender that falls outside cisnormative standards. It falls instead within the bounds of queerness.
But still we don’t talk about this. It’s impressive the degree to which this discourse has yet to really be allowed some breathing room to consider it’s full scope and implications. Instead we just see the same tired and intensely limited cliches trotted out time and time again (“if I have to stare at an ass all day it might as well be a girl’s amirite?”) and simply accept those at face value as though that really is the whole of the story.
C’mon. No one is that superficial and that motivated by sexual attraction to sprites.
Most of us trans folk are well aware of how often that excuse is an intentional lie meant to distract from the actual reasoning: that playing as that gender feels right or comforting or exciting or liberating or rewarding somehow. Actual reasoning that we’re unable, unwilling or too uncomfortable or scared, to admit.
Why are we so willing to just let such an important conversation end at the most obvious (and obviously inaccurate) answers? Why so reluctant to explore the implications? Especially when we consider that these are the patterns that begin to emerge in a virtual environment where people can indeed choose to express or identify their gender however they wish. If this is what we see when the limitations of biology and sociocultural conditions are stripped away, what does that imply about how human gender actually operates? Isn’t that something we should be discussing, rather than simply going along with our instinctual reluctance to “read too much into it”?
I remember at Skepchick there was an Ask Surly Amy question that once came in where a young AMAB person confessed to having spent seven years online claiming a female identity, originally through a game, and had found a female best friend online who knew him as female. He began to feel he was falling in love with her, and wanted to pursue those feelings, but feared what would happen when she found out he wasn’t “really” female. In discussing the question with a few of the Skepchicks, I mentioned that it could be worthwhile to encourage this person to ask questions about their gender identity and what it was that they were getting out of expressing as female that was rewarding or comfortable enough to maintain the “deception” for seven years.
I was shot down, pretty much, with the other folks believing that I was over-thinking it, that he probably simply began with an innocent lie and found himself locked into it, that I was playing “armchair psychologist”, that I was projecting, that having a cross-gender character online doesn’t mean someone is having gender issues, etc.
What I found interesting about that reaction is given the fact that the “lie” was maintained for seven years, him having some unexplored gender identity issues is by far a simpler and more reasonable explanation than what would have to have been going on for it to simply be a case of him being “trapped in the lie” for that long, and to have gone to the effort of maintaining it without any kind of emotional reward. In most circumstances, people don’t maintain strong lies with potential consequences and harms just because. They do so because the lie is meeting some need or desire. In other words, the instinct to not examine possible gender issues in these situations led those colleagues of mine involved in the discussion to bend over backwards imagining some kind of improbable situation in which the act of gender transgression could be fitted into a cisgender narrative, while regarding the much simpler explanation of there being some gender issues in play as outlandish and couldn’t possibly be the case. Such is the power of cisnormativity. Such is the degree to which it is internalized. Such is how strongly we refuse to accept transgenderism as simply something that does happen, that is a part of life, that isn’t only an extreme, near-impossible outlier that shouldn’t be considered until there is absolute, unequivocal proof.
(It reminds me a little bit of “theories” of transgenderism presented by people like Blanchard, Bailey and Lawrence, where there’s a similarly enormous effort expended into formulating extreme -and impossibly convoluted- theoretical frameworks to slot MtF transsexuality into our assumptions about male sexuality. That underlying bias that anything that would show trans women to not really be what we say we are, no matter how improbable, MUST be true, because us simply being women is assumed to be, or treated as, impossible)
Needless to say, the angle I suggested wasn’t explored in Amy’s response, but I did bring it up in the comments. He responded saying that yes, he had been dealing with some confusion regarding his gender identity, and that the cross-gender persona had been a way of exploring that.
I imagine this is a factor in such situations far, far, far more often than people will admit, or are even comfortable considering.
Though in a strange way, this set of excuses, reluctance to consider the trans implications, and defensiveness when the subject is broached, is a big part of what allows things like cross-gender gaming, or presenting as a different gender on chatrooms or message boards, to function as the safe space for exploration that they are. Much like sci-fi/fantasy/anime cross-play, it provides a social framework in which acts of gender exploration or alternative presentation aren’t as heavily loaded as they are in most situations. Because it’s possible (and probably more often the case) that someone using a cross-gender character in a video game or RPG, or dressing as a cross-gender character while cosplaying, is done for reasons unrelated to one’s own gender identity that one is able to explore the gender identity without “outing” oneself as doing so. The exploration can occur in a context where no one needs to know that what you’re doing is exploring. Where your excuses like “if I have to stare at a characters ass all day…” will simply be accepted at face value.
And it’s true that in the majority of cases, the reasons people play as different genders than their assigned one really aren’t connected to gender identity. Yes, people do play different genders just for the sake of variety, or aesthetics, or a better storyline, or enjoying being more “outside themselves”, or an infinite number of other reasons. I’m not disputing that, and I don’t think anyone reasonably could. The alternative reasons that can disguise issues of gender identity are reasonable possibilities, and that makes that disguise all the more effective. As does our eagerness to play along, to not allow gender identity in to the list of reasons a person might be playing such a character.
But in maintaining this stringent refusal to really consider the fact that gender exploration amongst people questioning or trying to sort out their gender identity is an important aspect of cross-gender gaming, and is one of the more prominent and consistent motivations for doing so (someone AMAB can feel comfortable expressing as female in such contexts without having any desire to transition in real life… it can be pretty much like a really mild form of cross-dressing, just feeling some emotional satisfaction from temporarily inhabiting a differently gendered persona, which is a totally okay thing for people to want to explore), we’re not ultimately doing anyone any favours. We’re shutting down what can potentially be an extremely important conversation about things like, for example, how the relative lack of such “safety” for exploration (or possibility of exploration) in most meatspace contexts is mediating how gender operates, distorting our understanding of it, and perhaps making gender variance or desire to explore alternative gender expressions appear far more rare than they really are.
Furthermore, the reluctance to discuss it, or admit this is a thing that happens, a thing that is a part of our culture, and a part of human gender, ends up presenting a distorted view of gender and how people deal with it, express it, explore it, to those who are questioning. While we give them the relative benefit of invisibility and anonymity, we also give them the profound loneliness, isolation and crushing shame that goes along with erasure. To kids who are playing as cross-gender characters as a way of exploring and coping with their transgender feelings, the interminable insistence that NO THIS IS TOTALLY NOT EVER ABOUT ACTUAL GENDER ISSUES AND TALKING ABOUT THAT IS OVERTHINKING IT ends up presenting to them a world in which they’re alone, in which others haven’t experienced what they’re experiencing, in which they feel ashamed and flawed, like they’re feeling the “wrong” things and doing this for the “wrong” reasons.
Aside from the importance of the dialogue itself, we need to open up this conversation just for the sake of letting people who are exploring this way know that this is common, this is something that a whole frigging lot of us did, that it’s normal, that it’s a natural part of the process of coming to terms with your gender identity. It gives you the capacity to “try on” various genders and get at least some small inkling of what feels wrong and what feels right. It gives us a space to consider hypotheticals, to imagine ourselves as different. Of course it is used as a tool in the process of understanding and accepting one’s gender. That we insist on sweeping that under the rug like a dirty little secret does immense harm to our ability to progress towards a more realistic and beneficial understanding of how gender operates.
By erasing the fact that various things, like games, the internet, cosplay, etc. are used as points in a process of defining gender, we contribute to erasing the fact that gender is defined through process. We keep that quiet and instead perpetuate the fatalistic model of gender. That it isn’t something we work through (and towards?), but something that is simply an assigned, immutable FACT of us determined by our sex. You’re a man because you have a penis because you’re a man because you have a penis.
That model is false. AND inadequate. AND useless. AND dangerous. AND kills people.
So can we knock it off with the whole “what do you mean people sometimes assume cross-gender personas as a way of working towards understanding themselves, or that sometimes there’s more going on than just aesthetics and characterization? That’s crazy talk!” thing? It’s embarrassing. It shouldn’t be that easy to fool ourselves.