I’ve been wanting to write something like this for a while, and actually did for a project that unfortunately fell through. Well, I still feel it’s important and I’m not going to wait around for another initiative to do so. As always, I must make clear that I only speak for myself. I speak for no other transgender person, I speak not for their journey nor exploration. Of course we’ll have experiences in common, that’s what brings us together as a community. But too often cisgender people take what one trans person has said and use it across the board to speak for an entire group of people. I must also emphasize that, obviously enough, this takes place over a decade, and there are flawed ideas in here, but nonetheless they play an integral part of my personal history and development of my identity.
I’ve always played video games. As much as movies, books, music, theatre, and so on have informed my development, so strongly have games as well. It’s why I’m so critical of them–I’ve grown up alongside them, and as with any friend, want to be honest and acknowledge where perhaps they have stagnated, remained immature, and have perpetuated harm where there should be growth. I love them and their potential, and want them to be so much better. To grow as I have through them.
I am in a strange position. A masculine trans person in juxtaposition to the feminist boom currently afoot in games criticism. I can’t help but feel a twinge of guilt almost, of betrayal to a cause. Here we are fighting for greater representation of women, of people of colour, of queer folks, of people with disabilities, and here I am, a child, finding solace in being able to be a muscular, able-bodied white man in a digital space.
I’m not that. I am white, but not Anglo-Saxon Protestant White™. This is a post for a whole other day, but yeesh do I occupy an uncomfortable position of awkward-confusing self-loathing and a sense of not particularly belonging anywhere. But here I am, stocky, soft, high-cheek-boned, with some thick, curly ass dark Hispanic hair and Funny Foreign Name White Folks Can’t Get Right For Some Damn Reason. I had a whole lot of self-hatred as a kid because of this, and it definitely lingers in places. I bleach my hair blonde. I pull it through a straight iron. I still have fantasies of eventually forsaking my last name and gettin’ some proper Christian Name. Christ, though, it definitely got worse when I hit puberty.
I’m female-assigned-at-birth. When puberty hit, even then, everything felt fucking WRONG. These breasts shouldn’t be here. This vagina shouldn’t be here. This bloody, terrible goop definitely shouldn’t be coming out of it. Stop insisting I wear dresses, mom. Stop complimenting me on my beautiful, thick, long hair, everybody in the fucking universe. I couldn’t identify what exactly these feelings were, but good lord something was off. Something was terribly wrong.
Rewind a little bit. There’s Pokemon. Great, tons of little monsters right up my alley. Charizard and Nidoking are my BROS, man. Then Gold and Silver come out. Then Crystal. Oh, boy, does Crystal ever come out. You see, Crystal introduced to the franchise the option of being a boy or a girl. And it framed it in a very important way, one I don’t think gets enough credit. It asks you what you are.
Sure, it’s still stuck in a binary, and sure, that question can be aggravating in real life situations, but holy shit, you know? The point is, not only did it give you a gender option, but it explicitly defers to you for your gender. This is the Professor (the Academic, the Gatekeeper, the Innovator and Holder of Knowledge) allowing you to explicitly, without fear, decide who you are in this world.
Of course, as a little kid I didn’t get this all, I just thought it was neat. But there was a weird hesitance on my part to choose the girl character. I was a girl, right? Why didn’t I want to play as a girl in my favourite game at the time?
However, Pokemon Crystal was pretty much the only game I played back then that allowed me to choose a gender. Otherwise, I played some Mario, some Digimon, and Grand Theft Auto, mainly. There were other games, but that was my core. Like I said before, it’s a strange position to be in, to look at games as an arena in which I could finally be Me in sense wherein others don’t have that opportunity. Again I only had a vague feeling at the time of Rightness when playing as a guy and a Wrongness about anything ‘female’ being associated with me. I won’t deny there was some internalized misogyny at play, as there tends to be with some teenage girls. I had all those nonsense hang-ups back then too, hating pink, thinking dresses are stupid, thinking ‘girly girls’ were stupid, etc. As an aside, I think a lot of trans guys still have those hang-ups, and it makes for a very unpleasant community that I eventually detached myself from. In hindsight it’s certainly easy to say, “you guys should fuckin’ know better”, but it doesn’t really make it any less true.
Anyway, like any good child of the internet, I discovered porn, and more specifically, gay porn. Live action, animated, written, you name it, I was into it. Whatever there is to say about yaoi and the community around it (and the grossly misogynistic insistence of analyzing why women like it), it certainly provided a safe place to explore my own sexuality and gender. Half the time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to fuck the guys or be the guys in that stuff. I started describely myself (in secret) as a “gay guy stuck in a girl’s body”. FYI, I had no idea at the time that being transgender was even a thing. Sure, there was the half-baked, highly inaccurate abstract and comedic concept of it from television, but it didn’t fully materialize in my mind as something people could actually be.
Inevitably, a lot of that yaoi featured dudes from games I played, and it coincided with the secret pleasure I took in being able to play a guy unquestioned. This is the pivotal thing for me, what games provided for me as a trans person. In the real world, trans folks are constantly denied the right to be taken at their world, to have their identity simply accepted. I’m not able to share what I am without even supposed allies basically saying, “Yeah, ok, but you’re still REALLY a girl, y’know.” In video games, I simply am a guy. No one in that virtual world questions it. It’s accepted at face value. I’m a guy and that’s not really that important because I’m too busy kicking ass (the merits of this ass-kicking to be debated and condemned/condoned another time). In flesh space, it’s a dangerous game to play. It’s hard to let go sometimes of the idea that you’re “deceiving” folks and that comes with a sense of helplessness and vulnerability and fear. God, no one find out what I “”””””really”””””” am, lest there be harassment and ostracization, or worse. The stakes are so much lower, practically nonexistent in the space games provide. They provided a safe place for me to explore not only gender, but sexuality without fear of being “found out”. Amusingly enough I ended up being primarily attracted to girls, but the value of a risk-free environment in which to explore how I felt about men and masculinity and how attraction manifested there was, and continues to be invaluable to me.
Well now I’m in my late teens and I’m starting to get a feel for all this new-fangled gender stuff is and I’m openly identifying as genderqueer and it’s pretty weird but neat too. I’d played a few RPGs, but I had never really been too into them. I really enjoyed the aesthetic of Persona 3 but I could never actually play more than a few hours just because I hate grinding so much (also, it just wasn’t that fun to me). But P3 isn’t really that important in this conversation, its sequel is. Of note, I couldn’t actually bring myself to play Persona 4. My distaste with RPG conventions aside, hearing secondhand the treatment of Naoto Shirogane was downright painful. The character was fascinating to me as someone I could so directly relate to. Like, seriously, a potentially transgender character that wasn’t a huge mockery of trans people? Sadly enough, Naoto’s romance social link treats them poorly and I never want to even think about certain segments of the fandom again. But Naoto’s presence is not forgotten on me, the impact of a having what appears to me a transgender man in a popular video game was immense.
Let’s not forget Kanji either. I’d like to think he’s equally important and his arc brings to light an important distinction to be made about gender and sexuality which parallel points in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble; i.e. the issues surrounding sexuality and gender are really not so much about the physical acts but about the supposed transgression of socially accepted gender roles, what it means to be a man or a woman, and, consequently, about how so much of what we are is performative.
While I’m on the topic of performative gender, can I just say how video games could offer the perfect opportunity to explore that? Games have been likened frequently to theatrical art, which I think it s a pretty apt analogy. It’s a lot of hidden language and communication, so much being accepted and implied. The most in-your-face performative aspect of games I can think of is the character creation screen.
The Saints Row series is praised for its character customization, allowing players to design virtually any type of person they want, to almost ludicrous degrees. Saints Row IV in particular I believe to be ripe for dissecting, considering so much of it canonically takes place within a simulation, a video game world within a video game.
But anyway, around 18 I finally pretty much accepted I was transgender and identified openly as a dude. Trans people occupy these spaces where privilege fluctuates in so many ways, wherein someone of the “target demographic” suddenly no longer exists or someone, such as me, suddenly does gain that power and presence, but conditionally. My opinions on Twitter and other places are not met with the sheer vile aggression that those of cis and trans women are treated. I don’t get rape threats, I’m not dismissed outright as someone with an agenda. I’m approached as a human being, but, you know, within certain parameters. My privilege in relation to women is certainly there at all times, but its power in relation to cis dudes aware of my transness is something under constant scrutiny. It’s like bobbing on a plank of wood in the ocean, teetering on the edge between safety and risk. And there is so much guilt, and no real sense of belonging. As it is with my mixed race, I occupy a tentative, fragile space where no one is my people.
Throughout this time, I still have some of that internalized misogyny to work through (disclaimer: this work is never done, fellow “allies”, our prejudices are not items on a checklist, but a daily hard scrubbing). Oh, did I mention I was/am mentally ill? Yeah, depression was there too. Since puberty, that constant miasma of lethargy, inadequacy, guilt, and so on. I had gone unmedicated and hiding my suicidal tendencies for about a decade and in college I had a breakdown, dropped out, and finally got some meds in my system. This was right about the time I started playing Mass Effect too.
Look. It feels pathetic to say a video game saved my life. Absolutely pathetic. But some guy out there ended up not killing himself because of a pizza. When you’re ready to give up and die, your brain’s not in the most rational place and the stupidest things can suddenly become the most important and life-changing. Mass Effect, and my female Commander Shepard kept me from killing myself. Yeah, Bioware is shit and there’s so much troubling garbage surrounding their representations of queer folks. But Mass Effect helped me, and while I readily acknowledge all its problems both on a mechanical and narrative front, playing out a canonically lesbian relationship was probably the most important thing for me in all my years of playing games up until that point. And while I was aware at that point about femininity not being some toxic goo upon which being touched all sense of my manhood would wither away, it didn’t really cement itself until after playing through the trilogy. Sure, upon further inspection, the Commander isn’t really much of a hero (they can be downright awful even when a Paragon option is chosen), good lord just being able to play as a woman in such a revered position was enormous for me. It was such a flip on all my previous development, all my previous indulgence of male characters, and after years of struggling with being male, I was no longer. I had reached rock-bottom emotionally and mentally, and a virtual woman helped me climb back up and simply not give a shit.
I currently identify as genderqueer/gender-neutral. How much that matters in practice, considering I still use male pronouns and have a conventionally male name and eventually plan to go on HRT and get top surgery, is suspect. For all intents and purposes, I’m still pretty much a guy and it doesn’t really bother me to be considered as one despite my technical affiliation. But I wouldn’t be who I am today, hell I wouldn’t be here at all, without video games. I am a person whose life was informed by and saved by video games, and that makes it ever more urgent that we look at them seriously, that we be willing to approach them honestly and critically, address their problems and utilize their potential to its fullest.
[EDIT 5/15/2015: It’s been almost two years since I wrote this post, and a lot has changed in that time. My experiences still hold true, but I wanted to clarify that I’ve since then learned more about Naoto and how she’s perceived in the context of Japanese culture. It doesn’t change how important she was to me at the time, but hopefully I’m less ignorant than I was before.]