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How my role-playing game character showed me I could be a woman

Being someone else gave me glimpse of what life might be like if I lived it honestly as myself.

BURBANK, CA. APRIL 13: Character sheets and 20-sided dice used in playing Dungeons and Dragons game at Geeky Teas in Burbank, Ca. on April13, 2019. (Iris Schneider/For the Washington Post)

The barrier between the real and the imaginary is porous, and play is more powerful than most of us understand. After all, every real thing we create begins as an idea, and when we pour our time and love into an idea — even one that’s fundamentally fictional — that creation can affect us in surprising ways. In my case, the results were dramatic. My life has been transformed, in no small part because of what I learned from my character in a role-playing game. 

I picked up role-playing games — in which players take on fictional personas in a structured setting, typically guided by a “game master” — when I was 10. The cover of the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons basic rule book had a striking image painted by the fantasy artist Erol Otus, known for his strange visions of beauty and horror: a blond lady in a red dress, throwing a ball of magical green fire at a big, scary creature. In hindsight, she didn’t appear to be attired or armed in a manner suitable for exploring dungeons full of monsters. Her dress was amazing, though, and she had fantastic eye shadow. Inside the rule book was a step-by-step example of a player (a woman!) creating a character for the game, a badass warrior lady named Morgan Ironwolf. In an illustration that shows up later in the book, Morgan’s waist appears to be about 18 inches around, and her nipples are visible through her chain-mail shirt. It’s a laughable image today, but back then she looked awesome — dangerous and ready to fight. I wanted to be her.

There was just one problem: I was a boy. Or at least, that’s what I thought I was. I wasn’t very good at it, though. My speech, movement, tastes and emotional responses were in many ways more typical of what was expected of girls. I got called “fag” a lot, and I didn’t know what that meant, but I got the message that it wasn’t okay to be a girl, or anything like a girl, so I pushed away all thoughts of playing Morgan Ironwolf or the lady in the red dress.

Still, the characters I did play weren’t like the ones the other boys played. My characters cared about the creatures they encountered. They didn’t want to kill the monsters, they wanted to talk to them. The other players (all boys) thought that was stupid, so I learned to conform. I started playing as more “masculine” characters who concerned themselves primarily with trying to “win” — which is to say kill a ton of monsters and collect a mountain of treasure — as though it were a board game. But a spark remained, and it was never quite extinguished.

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As I grew older and made new friends, new possibilities began to open up at the tabletop. I played with more diverse groups of people, in a broader variety of settings. In addition to fantasy scenarios like those in D&D, I played in games of horror, espionage, science fiction and more. Many of those games had less to do with overcoming obstacles and defeating enemies and more to do with relationships and character development. I often played female characters. I sometimes asked the women playing those games if they would be all right with me playing as a woman, and even though they all responded with enthusiastic assent, I still worried about being disrespectful. What if I came across as too feminine? Would they think I was mocking them? Did I have the right to claim an experience that was not my own, even in play? But I kept playing, and I began to notice patterns in the characters I embodied.

For instance, my characters loved to dance. They needed it, for stress relief or self-expression or both. Me, though? I couldn’t dance. It’s not that I was bad at it. I physically could not make myself do it. But when I realized that my characters shared this in common, I wondered if perhaps I was trying to tell myself something. So at the age of 29 I went to my first rave, and it was a revelation. A wall between my body and mind was demolished. Now I share my characters’ need to move with music.

Did I reveal this truth to myself by subconsciously adding this inclination to the characters I played? Or did the characters bring it out in me? In her research on the phenomenon known as “bleed,” gaming scholar Sarah Lynne Bowman has documented instances of personality traits imprinting themselves from player to character, or vice versa. I knew nothing of this back then, but I began to pay closer attention to what my characters might have to say to me. And one of them in particular spoke very loudly.

In my mid-30s, I began to realize that I was not cisgender. But by then, I feared, it was too late for me to transition. I also had a narrow image in my mind of what a transgender woman must be: young, conventionally attractive and hyper-feminine. She certainly could not be 6-foot-4 like me. So I resigned myself to life as a lie.

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But the fictional worlds of role-playing games were something else. When a close friend invited me to join a game of contemporary supernatural horror called “Trail of Cthulhu,” I created my first transgender character, a disgraced ex-psychiatrist named Zelda. A good horror protagonist should be emotionally damaged, but I chose not to make gender dysphoria a major part of her inner world. Zelda had plenty of problems, but none with living in her own skin.

Playing her, I experienced what game designer and academic Jonaya Kemper calls “emancipatory bleed,” as Zelda’s comfort in her own body began to extend across the barrier between fiction and reality, and into me. Zelda was old and plain, but she had decided for herself what being a woman meant for her. She knew she could not live up to society’s impossible standards of beauty and femininity, and was determined to be herself regardless. Instead of worrying about how she would be perceived, I reveled in her psychological prowess, using her skills to help create an unforgettable story together with my friends.

During my time playing that game, I felt what it was like to be a woman for whom transition was no longer a looming ordeal but a fait accompli. Being her made transitioning seem like something I could actually do. It didn’t take over her story. It was simply her life.

Role-playing by itself would not have been enough to help me find the will to come out. I doubt I could have done it if I had not been surrounded by loved ones who supported me or if I did not live in Toronto, where the culture has been moving toward inclusion and acceptance of transfolk. The real heroes of my story are the people who came out before me, when the world was much less kind to the gender-nonconforming.

But for all that, it was role-playing that provided the catalyst and showed me that first big glimpse of what life might be like if I lived it honestly as myself.

Twitter: @JoanMoriarity

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