Running a Safe Game Table for Trans Players
In the previous article, I wrote about how to portray trans characters if you’re cisgender, and why it’s important to put trans characters in your game worlds as a GM. Now, I want to focus on game masters specifically, how they can build a safe and inclusive gaming table, and how to cis-proof their worlds and stories.
First, we’re going to talk about the out of game challenges of preventing, recognizing and quashing transphobia at the table. Then, in the next article, we’re going to get to the fun stuff: Gender in games and queer-inclusive storytelling.
Running A Safe Table
At the table, it’s everyone’s job to create a safe environment for each other. But as the game master, you have more power to set that intention and to reject bigotry when you see it.
Proactively indicate your support for LGBT+ people and issues. When you start a new game, even with close friends, tell them before the first session, “This is an LGBT positive game and I’m not going to tolerate any bigotry in or out of character. I encourage you to play characters of any gender or orientation.”
Include gender & sexual minorities in your game world. Model how to play those characters compassionately, as fully-realized people rather than as dehumanizing caricatures.
Speak out when a player expresses intolerance (in or out of character). In-game bigotry can very easily substitute for out-of-game bigotry if someone decides they want to harass a queer player. Even if there are no visibly queer players at the table, remember, anyone might be struggling with their identity in private.
Mediate disputes with the intention of advocating for your minority players. Your innate sense of social situations, like everything you’ve inherited from our culture, is inherently biased against gender and sexual minorities. Don’t try to find a “fair” or “balanced” compromise between them and a player they’ve complained is making them uncomfortable. In all likelihood, they’re already playing off the offense as being “not as big a deal” as it is, and trying to avoid feeling like a squeaky wheel. Intentionally err in their favor.
Be prepared to toss out your bigoted players. Yeah, even if they’re friends. Why do you have bigoted friends? I’ve sat in far too many toxic situations because the GM, as de facto authority on the game, decided to keep letting abusive behavior slide. If you don’t kick out bigoted players after repeat offenses, at a certain point, the queer people abandon your table. (And in my experience, bigots aren’t really fun to play with in myriad other ways.)
Frequently reiterate how your players can reach out to you in private to talk about the game. This is a universal rule: give your players an avenue to talk to you about the game without everyone listening in, and then make sure they know about it and feel invited to use it.
I don’t want to dwell on this subject because it’s not RPG-specific, but one of cis peoples’ biggest anxieties about interacting with trans people is pronouns, so let’s talk about them briefly.
If you’re not sure what a player’s pronouns are, or what a character’s pronouns are, just ask. If that feels weird, then especially ask, because it feels easier and more natural the more you do it. Don’t worry about offending them— a trans person is almost never offended by this question… and cis people who get offended are waving a red flag that tells you that they’re likely to engage in other transphobic behavior at the table.
If you forget to use the appropriate pronouns, briefly correct yourself and then move on. If you over-apologize, you’re really centering yourself and asking your trans friend to absolve you of your guilt. It makes being trans feel like a burden to others— and pronouns are really not that big an ask. Just correct yourself without making a big show of how sorry you are. “He goes-- Sorry!-- They go into the cave and…” is fine.
If you know someone else has used the wrong pronouns, briefly correct them and then move on. This is not a gotcha, just a correction. Treat it same as if they’d misheard anything else described in the game: “You mean ‘her’ axe, not ‘his.’ But you’ve grabbed it, now what do you intend to do with it?” If you’re not sure that the person being referred to would want you to correct others on their behalf, you can always ask in private.
See? It’s not stressful. Trans people get called the wrong pronouns pretty frequently, and while it can be frustrating, we’re much more resilient to it than cis people seem to think. It’s pretty obvious to us when it is and isn’t intentional.
How to Recognize Transphobia When You See It
Transphobia only really comes in a couple of flavors. All of them imply that trans people are “really” the gender they were assigned at birth, but that implication can come disguised or with a nasty twist. Here are the most common veins:
Insistence that a trans person has an ulterior motive for their identity. (Especially sexual motives, “for attention,” or to “take up” cis people’s resources and spaces.)
Framing trans identities as ridiculous, confusing or burdensome. (“Okay, well, I identify as an attack helicopter!” “You can’t expect the world to play along with your pronoun requests.“ “Biologically, there are only two genders…“)
Displays of disgust, confusion or discomfort with transgender bodies or a trans person’s appearance. (It’s okay to quietly feel these things when first disarming the hatred you’ve absorbed from our culture, but anyone who over-performs these emotions is making an attempt to further stigmatize us.)
Excessive focus on a trans person’s assigned gender, the extent of their transition, their genitals, or any other personal details that the trans person has not volunteered for discussion. (We’re more than our trans identities, and cis people don’t need to know anything about our bodies, pasts or struggles that we don’t bring up ourselves.)
Framing trans people’s requests to be recognized as their gender as “PC culture,” “compelled speech” or an infringement of ideological freedom. (Refusing to recognize that trans people exist and deserve basic respect is the surest sign that someone isn’t ready to address their transphobia.)
Like racism and sexism, almost everyone has learned and ingrained some transphobia from our culture, transgender people included. Active transphobes, who are not just ignorant of trans people but actively seek our exclusion, know this, and try to use the stigma against as a smokescreen for their abuse. As a cis person, you won’t always notice it right away, but you’ll get better at spotting it the more exposed you are to trans-inclusive media.
When You’re GMing And You Recognize Transphobia
Stop the game to take stock of the situation. Don’t just roll past it or try to address it in-game.
If you don’t have a visibly trans player, call the behavior out yourself. You never know who at the table might be invisibly trans.
If you do have a visibly trans player, still call the behavior out yourself. Don’t make us do the calculation of whether it’s worth it to speak up and whether we’ll alienate ourselves from you in doing so.
As the GM, this is your game. Make it clear to the offending player that you’re not comfortable with bigotry at the table and that if it persists you’ll ask them to leave. Don’t frame our discomfort as the deciding factor: do it because you don’t tolerate bigotry.
Don’t force your trans players weigh in, because they’ll feel pressured to “be cool” about it. They’ll speak up if they’re comfortable doing so, but you should take on the burden of being the person doing the calling-out.
Check in with any visibly trans players in private, after any session where another player revealed their intolerance. Be clear that you’re on their side and, if you didn’t ban the offender, find out whether they’re still comfortable playing with them in the future. Ask them how you can better protect them at the table, and then do what they ask.
When You Were GMing And You Failed To Recognize Transphobia
You should already have made sure that players know they can contact you in private to discuss the game and especially anything that made them uncomfortable.
When they come to you, listen to their complaint, and treat it seriously.
Don’t try to minimize the offense that they’re coping with, or defend or rationalize the offending behavior.
Strategize with them to solve the problem. And remember, “the problem” you’re solving is that there was transphobic behavior at the table, not that a trans person was offended. Solve the transphobia, not the hurt feelings.
Err on the side of drawing a harsher line for the offender than the trans person suggests. The trans person is likely “trying not to make waves,” but if it was serious enough that they came to you, it’s serious enough for you to make the waves yourself.
Don’t discuss the private concerns of your players with the group unless you’ve gotten an explicit “okay” from the player in question.
If you want to do more, seek out deeper transgender resources.
This article is intended on a quick primer of how to be mindful and inclusive while running tabletop RPGs. There is a ton of nuance and to being an ally— I didn’t teach you how to counter anti-trans arguments, for example, because you don’t have to: if someone’s being transphobic, you don’t have to explain how to them, you can just pressure them to stop or remove them. But if you want to better understand the issue, or learn to better spot transphobic and cisnormative thinking, there are a wealth of academic resources for you elsewhere on the internet.
(A good place to start for understanding the fallacies behind transphobic thinking, especially against trans women, is with the works of transgender biologist Julia Serano.)
And now that you know how to run a safe playgroup, we can talk about the fun stuff: What being trans-inclusive means for your storytelling and world-building.