By looking at the concept of “fiction gender” and how it’s enacted, its clear that sometimes – in order to understand yourself in a real way – you have to dig yourself a little deeper into the world of fiction!
I’ve always been a nerd.
Whether I was holed up behind my computer screen, running around with a foam sword and a tunic in a field, or rolling dice in someone’s basement, as a child I happily found happiness through fantasy worlds. When I was young I always saw it as a form of escapism from my formidably rocky childhood. As an adult, I’ve been returning to these games I’ve used to play again. I find they are still a wonderful form of escapism from the horrors of our world today – but I also appreciate it as a time for me to stretch my creative muscles and practice my crafts while having some good ol’ sober fun.
It’s become clearer and clearer as I grow older and continue to re-engage with my nerdy roots that the fantasy worlds I evoked were also a play place and learning ground for my gender expression. I am not the only person who did this and grew up to recognize it. I’m not even the only person to write on this topic. Might I suggest another article on this by my dear friend M, who talks about “Roleplaying From The Closet” in their much more comprehensive take on gender in roleplaying games, “Gender At The Gaming Table”? I’d still like to offer up my experiences to the conversation, however. This is because I want to drive home the fact that playing with one’s gender expression in fictional settings is a perfect example of how complicated and winding a road it can be to understand one’s own gender identity.
With transgender becoming a buzzword in media and political debate, there are a lot of narratives about the “trans experience” that seem to boil being trans to a very concrete essence that doesn’t truthfully capture what trans folk experience. I want to introduce to you what I call “fiction gender”. Not to be confused with “fictional gender”, which would suggest that whatever experiences being had held no truth, “fiction gender” are the gender concepts we take on in play settings that allow us to explore what feels right in terms of gender identity without having to declare it as yours permanently. If that definition seems vague and esoteric – it’s because I want it to be. The way I’ve explored my own identity with fiction gender is different than how others might. Fiction gender might be a verb to some and a noun to others. Fiction gender can be done, worn, fucked, or killed – it is what the person enacting it needs it to be.
For example, fanfiction and online roleplaying started my journey of understanding my sexual attraction as men as something beyond “straight”. I wanted to have sex with men…but as a man myself. Fanfiction allowed me a world where I could do just that. Years before I even knew what the word transgender meant I was beginning to navigate my want to penetrate and be penetrated in a very specific way. I was able to enact a fiction gender through my fanfictions – becoming characters I already wanted to emulate with the perfect excuse of “I just liked that character a lot and really really wanted them to fall in love with that other character”. It allowed me to articulate through storytelling in a world what I wanted and needed without me having to have a conversation I wasn’t equipped to handle yet. It allowed me to break the rules of an author’s world, giving me the practice and courage to one day break the rules of mine. It also helped that fanfiction has a thriving online community that allowed others to read my work and enjoy it – relate to it – want more of it. I was able to egg other people on, encouraging them through comments and favorites to explore their fantasies in the same way I was exploring mine – giving me fiction gender community engagement.
D&D and other tabletop roleplaying games were also always a way to live out the fiction gender of being a man without any of the consequences. I could exist in a fantasy world, cradled by my dungeon master, as exactly who I wanted to be. Naturally, I was always a male character. The times I played women characters, they were never empowered. Women characters, in-game for me, became a place where I could manifest my depression. I remember one character I had, many years ago, was a woman who was ice-cold, blue, timid and had a giant wheel sticking out of her chest that prevented her from doing most activities. If that’s not a cry for help I don’t know what is – but it was also an example of me enacting fiction gender to manifest my unhappiness with my assigned gender and my dysphoria.
LARPing took that same freedom I felt during tabletop roleplaying game and brought it into my body. Now, to be fair, I did attend a very radical little LARP camp in the woods of upstate New York. We were a band of freaks, hippies, nerds, witches, punks, and general rabble-rousers who lifted each other up and refused the ordinary. This combination of summer-camp magic, radicalizing, and complete emersion into fantasy gave me an intense amount of autonomy over my own body. If I stated I was something – the rules of the game demanded that everybody see me that way too. I could be a fairy or a cyberpunk hacker – cool – but the fact that I could be a male fairy or cyberpunk hacker was even cooler. Without the fiction gender afforded to me at LARP camp, I probably wouldn’t have had the guts to walk directly into the office of my first ever director in my first ever theatre production and state that he should gender-bend one of the parts so that I could play it (before I had even auditioned).
I want to be clear by what I mean when I say “fictional” settings, also. I want to expand my understanding of what “fiction gender” is beyond the obvious angle I am taking. I’ve used fiction gender during my many year stint as a drag performer, using my performances as a fictional space to explore the real world of presentation. I catch myself using fiction gender when I’m writing plays and stories for my professional work – expanding on my fears and feelings by creating storylines and characters that inflate their gender into something larger than life or real human experience that I haven’t learned how to personally articulate yet. Let your fiction exist in this space, whatever it might be.
The first steps of coming out as trans are the ones that are so often ignored. I want to say “coming out” is only one part of a very large, complicated puzzle. The corner pieces that start helping that puzzle make sense are the ones that help someone understand their own gender identity. We can’t come out if we don’t know who we are? Of course, no one knows who they are if they don’t do a little bit of exploring first. Fiction gender allowed me to be a pirate, a superhero, a werewolf, a scientist, a hacker, a gay high schooler, a redshirt – hell, even a sentient mustache! Enacting it allowed me to kill off the parts of me I didn’t like and celebrate the parts of me I needed to learn how to love. For me, fiction gender in all of its shapes and sizes helped me do just that with pride, courage, and a firm understanding of who I was. Now…go roll a few dice and do a little exploring yourself.
Raine (he/him/his) is Queeries Blog founder and 27 year-old playwright, director, and WGSS/Theatrical scholar whose work focuses on theatre as a form of social activism. He continues to use his “out and proud” attitude to educate people on LGBTIA+ rights and visibility.