Using RPG Characters to Express Gender and Sexuality

Gaming Tabletop Games
Modern Pride flag designed by Daniel Quasar, who includes black and brown stripes to represent people of color and the white, pink, and blue stripes which are typically used on the Trans Pride flag.

Every roleplaying game has opportunities to play characters who aren’t at all like us. Someone who is really smart might opt to play a character who is instead very strong or vise versa. But how do these characters help us discover our true selves? How can roleplaying at a table of trusted friends (or unknown strangers) help us come to grips with facets of our own identities? Simply put, that’s what the character is for—experimentation and discovery. In the LGBTQ+ community, roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons allow players to experiment with gender expression, sexual interest, and other parts of identity without committing to a lifelong label that may or may not fit “just right.”

Introductions Are in Order

When you’re creating a character, that character has to be introduced to the group. A physical description is customary, describing what the character wears, what color their skin, eyes, and hair are, and how tall they are. But there are more descriptors to be used. Often, a player will describe their character’s mannerisms and any stereotypes they might fit. This is an excellent time to casually introduce other elements of your character and their personality.  Here’s the summary I wrote up of Avery, my current character:

Avery has long brown hair, but one side of their head is shaved. Sometimes they brush it over to highlight the shaved side, but sometimes they cover it up, and you can’t really tell how much hair is missing from the left side. Avery has gray-green eyes and the tan complexion of a (white) adventurer. Avery is non-binary but has no preferred pronouns. Their pronouns are often assumed to be he/him/his, but if someone refers to them with she/her/hers, they don’t bat an eye and keep going on with their business. Sometimes Avery presents with a more feminine demeanor, but has no interest in being recognized as “female.” They just want to experience the world in their own way. Avery faces problems head-on with little patience for complicated or involved schemes, and has a crude sense of humor, but recognizes the need for discretion and civilized behavior when dealing with those outside their immediate friend circle.

This isn’t everything there is to know about Avery, of course. When I read this description to our group, I knew there would be questions from the other players. What I wasn’t expecting was that none of them had to do with gender identity or presentation. One player asked what Avery’s last name was. We played that out in character, with Avery obviously “making up” a last name on the spot since they’re a bit suspicious of strangers and on the lam. Other questions had to do with what equipment was readily available on Avery’s person—a sword, a shield, clothing, that sort of thing.

The DM, on the other hand, had pointed questions. Would I, as a player, prefer for anyone to use particular pronouns for Avery, knowing that Avery had no preference, as mentioned in my description? The answer was “no,” of course. The DM then took that opportunity to introduce himself (although we all knew him) and emphasized his own pronouns being he/him/his. He then instructed us all to introduce ourselves, including our pronouns. Surprising nobody, everyone at the table used he/him/his pronouns, but I did mention that I’m non-binary myself. This did not spark the cascade of scrutiny I usually get with that announcement. Our DM’s introduction, combined with my previous introduction of Avery, had normalized the conversation. One person asked, “What’s that?” and I quickly answered that I didn’t identify as either male or female, though I used male pronouns for convenience. They shrewdly connected Avery’s dispassion for pronouns with my own and asked if I ever cared about pronouns, and I answered that the only time I cared was when someone intentionally tried to misgender me. Since that’s not common, it doesn’t come up much. We then moved on, and the issue of my gender identity didn’t dominate the conversation the way it sometimes has in other contexts.

What I want the reader to take away from this is not that introducing my character prompted the DM to broach the topic of pronouns. That was probably a conversation that was going to happen anyway, though I suspect he’d forgotten about it. What is significant is that if I hadn’t identified myself as being non-binary, nobody at the table would have assumed that about me. It didn’t need to come up. Of course, I wanted to become friends with these guys (and I have), so I mentioned it so there would be no “coming out” moment later. But if “non-binary” was a label I wasn’t ready to use yet, I could easily have let Avery be a stand-alone character rather than a reflection of myself.

Just a side note: I also disclosed that I am bisexual. Another player told us that he’s pansexual. It might have been some time before we learned that about each other, but my character’s description and the resulting conversation made it more comfortable for both of us to talk about that part of ourselves. This helped us become friends much quicker because there was an established level of intimacy and trust that came from sharing with each other.

The Long Game

Not all representations have to go this way, though. That’s the best part. A player can play a bi-curious rogue, and their sexuality never comes up, or only come up when the player is ready for their character to take that step. You don’t have to tell the whole party everything at once. Sometimes, you’ll learn more about your character (or yourself) and your portrayal of that character will evolve.

I’ve seen characters who finally “came out” as transgender partway through a campaign, and their personal mission was the ability to transition. In those cases, uses of the “Wish” spell or divine intervention are the most common way for someone to transition, since surgery and hormone therapies aren’t the kind of thing you typically see in tabletop games. Sometimes the party helps, sometimes they just don’t stand in the way. It can be a big deal, or practically nothing, depending on how the players themselves react and interpret their characters’ personalities.

The World We Live In

Another factor is the setting—the world in which you’re playing. Someone playing in Waterdeep, a hugely diverse and accepting community, will have a different experience than someone playing in Avernus, the first circle of hell. If your setting is inherently bigoted, your character may have to remain in the “closet” or face bigotry and discrimination. Talk to your DM/GM if you have concerns. It’s never okay for a DM to use their world as a tool to discriminate against you or your character, but some DMs will play their world with bigots and dangerous people in it, simply because that’s a reflection of the real world. Again, tell your DM if this makes you uncomfortable. A good DM knows that the fantasy world doesn’t need to reflect the “real” world in every way, especially if it’s ruining the fun.

Naming

Another aspect players can experiment with is names. This might sound strange to a cis person, but choosing a new name is a deeply personal and often difficult part of transitioning. If you just want to try the name on, you can give your character the name you’re considering and see if it fits. Many groups refer to the players by their characters’ names, so you can get a feel for what it’s like to be called by the new name. That’s actually how I settled on Rory when I changed my name. I had a character named Rory Gallowglass, and while we played, people referred to me as “Rory” rather than “Robert,” which was my given name. “Rory” felt right, and the longer I used it, the surer I became that I was Rory, and it wasn’t just a name I was trying on anymore. Other strategies used for this include giving the prospective name at the coffee shop, so the barista will call out the name you’re trying on. This shorter commitment lasts only as long as you’re in the coffee shop, and most baristas have been given obviously false names often enough that even if they know your actual name, they’ll play along. The advantage of using a character for this purpose is that you get a longer investment out of it, and the other players will maintain the name without constant reminders.

I do want to point out that it’s certainly easier to change a character’s name than it is to change your own. If you get a few levels out of the character and realize the name isn’t right, you can just change the name of your character on the spot. In real life, getting people to call you a new name every few weeks until you’ve discarded it can be confusing and disruptive to relationships. I went by several unique names before I settled on Rory, and it was difficult for friends and family who had to make the change each time. Luckily, I settled on Rory early on in my relationship with my partner, and she has called me “Rory” almost since we started dating.  It’s “Rory” she fell in love with, not “Robert,” and that distinction is important to me because she fell in love with who I truly am, not who I imagined myself to be before I realized I was non-binary.

Your Mileage May Vary

Now, these have only been some of my own experiences with using characters to express my identity. Many other players have used their characters to try out romantic fantasies, gender expressions, sexual orientations, and other aspects of sexual and gender identity. Each player and their character(s) are unique because gender and sexuality are so complicated that they can’t be summed up clearly with simple descriptions. Your experience will be unique too if you decide to do the same. Keep in mind that not every group is up for this kind of expression. It’s a good test of the people’s sensibilities to “out” your character first. If nobody bats an eye, you might have found a group that will accept you for who you truly are. If they balk at a male-presenting player who wants to play a female, gay, or trans character, you can see that that group might not be ready to know your true self.

The Warning

As in all other parts of the LGBTQ+ community, I’d like to advise two things, which may seem contradictory at first glance. Never be ashamed of who you are. Be your true self boldly and without fear because you deserve your own truth. But also be aware of who you are exposing yourself to. LGBTQ+ folx still have reason to exercise caution when outing ourselves because it’s still not universally safe to be our actual selves. Feel out your friends and acquaintances, use your best judgment. Take care of yourself, and reach out to the greater LGBTQ+ community if you need guidance and/or support. We love you, and we’re glad you’re here.

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1 thought on “Using RPG Characters to Express Gender and Sexuality

  1. Tabletop games are amazing. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games, afford a little more wiggle room compared to the gender binary presented by the original Pokémon games. These games give us the unique opportunity to play as people of different races and different walks of life, from magic-users to barbarians.

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