Roleplaying From The Closet
Role playing games are a fantastic tool for personal growth, casually exploring your friends’ psyches, and expanding your powers of empathy. The immersive play RPGs offer allows us to construct and inhabit alter egos-- and even when our characters aren’t much like us, they’re still alter egos while we inhabit them. Our characters’ stories play out, intentionally or unintentionally, our emotional preoccupations.
So, naturally, when I first got into D&D, as a closeted transgender, nonbinary person, with infinite worlds of pure potential open before me, I used RPGs to explore characters who…
… were the same coercively-assigned gender* that was making me miserable in real life.
Why did I do that?
What I wanted to be playing were characters who didn’t have gender roles, or who did have bodies and presentations that I knew I’d feel more comfortable in. So why didn’t I?
The short version: Because of the visibility, stigma and voice dysphoria associated with playing a character who crossed gender lines. I’ll outline those below, and then talk strategies for overcoming them. While reading, I want you to keep this in mind: There is always the possibility that someone at your gaming table is a closeted LGBT+ person, who will be more comfortable, engaged and empowered if the group is actively inclusive of queer identities.
The worlds we were playing in had no explicitly queer components. By and large, they modeled the liberal-but-mainstream social sphere we lived in: gay people were entirely unaddressed in the worldbuilding, very few characters were explicitly non-straight, and none of them were outside the gender binary. If one of the players had wanted to introduce themes of gender and sexuality, there was an implicit assumption that the table would be supportive, but they would have been singling themselves out to do it.
When you’re in any kind of closet, invisibility can be important to your health, safety and comfort.
Invisibility was how I protected myself, before I had even processed that I was trans, from harassment. I had lots of mannerisms, behaviors and interests that weren’t socially appropriate for my assigned gender, and they got me targeted by bullies unless I could suppress or conceal them. Being beneath notice was usually my best defense.
I was never going to create a character who (intentionally) stuck out in these fantasy worlds, because it would draw attention to me in the real world. Everybody else was playing characters of their same assigned gender, and I wasn’t going to be the one to intentionally toe the line.
Takeaway: Introduce LGBT+ themes and characters to your game worlds, even if you think everyone around you is cis and/or straight. Normalize playing characters of other genders at the gaming table.
My play group was very progressive, as I’ve said, but progressiveness is generally passive, and creating a safe table for trans and nonbinary people requires active attention and intervention.
When someone cracks an uncomfortable joke at a minority’s expense or expresses a bigoted sentiment, there’s a tendency to glance around, see if anyone is upset, exchange cringes and then shrug it off as “no harm done.” This signals to a closeted player, who isn’t in a position to defend themself, that the rest of the table is okay with trans- and homophobia, or shares those view.
Early in my D&D career, a player’s cisgender girlfriend dropped in for a single session to play a faintly villainous male character, had him cross dress as a gag, then purposefully got her character arrested and essentially killed off.
If I had been out of the closet at the time, I’m confident that the GM would have never allowed any of this to play out the way it did. But as a relatively new player in a relatively new social group, this incident confirmed for me two (untrue) fears: That nobody could play a character of the opposite gender without it being a joke, and that stereotyping and bigoted play at the table would go unchecked.
Takeaway: As a player who is an LGBT+ and especially trans ally, speak out when you recognize hateful speech and behavior, whether it’s part of the game or not. As the GM, assert that disrespecting minorities is not acceptable behavior at your table. Don’t make the minority player fight their own battle, especially if they’re closeted. And remember: there’s always the chance there’s a closeted player at your table.
Something a lot of trans people struggle with is that we don’t all sound right to our own ears. In the same way that a trans person might experience a disconnect with their self-image and their physical body, they may also experience a disconnect between how we sound in our heads and how we sound out loud. Have you ever heard yourself on a voicemail and thought, horrified, “THAT’S what I sound like?” It’s like that, but worse, and all the time.
My first table was very performance-heavy, and the thing that kept me from playing a female character for the longest time was the conviction that I couldn’t “do” a female voice.
I was only sort of aware that I couldn’t really “do” a male voice, either, with my lisp and natural cadence—I gave all my characters weird accents to obscure them. But I already knew how to survive the embarrassment of being “bad at” my assigned gender... whereas the idea of trying to believably portray the gender I identified with and falling flat was intolerable.
This all got easier to deal with when I started playing at tables where everyone was more willing to play characters not of their gender. The dysphoria was easy to ignore when others were successfully voicing other genders and the table just accepted it.
Of these three limiting factors, this is the one that my fellow players had the least control over, since voice dysphoria is mostly internal. But a takeaway might be this: Be supportive and encouraging of your friends’ character voice attempts, and try to normalize the act of voicing characters of other genders by doing it yourself.
Whether as a player or as a GM, you have the power to create cover for closeted players to explore transformatively powerful characters.
You do this by choosing to be visibly interested in LGBTQ+ themes and issues, and an active ally to LGBT+ people... Even and especially if the whole table seems straight and cisgender. Remember: RPGs can be very attractive to people who aren’t usually allowed to be themselves. The likelihood that you’re gaming with someone in the closet is higher than you think.
Some suggestions, to help make this magical thing happen for them:
As a GM, go out of your way to include gender and sexual minorities in your explanations of the campaign world. How are they treated? What’s different as a result?
As a fellow player, if the GM fails to address gender and sexuality in their world before the game begins, be the one to ask those questions, so a closeted player doesn’t have to work up the courage and knows they have allies at the table.
As a GM, during character creation, ask questions about the player’s characters instead of making assumptions. Actively ask everyone what their characters’ genders and pronouns are, even if your friends always seem roll up exclusively same-gender characters.
As a player, if the GM forgets to do the above, bring it up yourself.
(As a GM, if someone at the table can’t seem to take playing characters of another gender seriously, or turns the process of asking pronouns into a joke, publicly ask them to respect these issues, even if you don’t think there are trans people at the table. And if they can’t get past it, ask them to leave. I’ve written more on dealing with transphobia at the table, here.)
As a GM, put LGBTQ+ characters in your game worlds. Especially if you’re a cisgender man, get comfortable playing female NPCs. Then, get comfortable playing trans and nonbinary NPCs. No player wants to be The Only Trans Person In The World.
As a fellow player, contribute to a table atmosphere where anyone can play any gender of character… by doing it yourself. Play characters of the opposite gender, play same-gender characters who break their gender’s roles, and yes, play trans and nonbinary characters.
If you can do all of that, it’s a great start towards running a better game and welcoming trans players into the RPG community. But if you’re not sure about any of the steps, you can check out my other articles of advice for running inclusive games, which are collected in this masterpost.
*Now, I actually have trouble looking back on these early characters and describing them as men. Their interiority as characters was modeled on mine: they, like me, had trouble following male gender roles, were distressed by the possibility of sex or romance, and hid their voices behind intentionally weird modes of speech. But we all called those characters men, and used he/him pronouns for them. But, like Dumbledore being Gay All Along, now that their campaigns are over it feels a little pointless to re-litigate whether they were all actually nonbinary.