Everybody settle in and get cozy. We're about to share some deep stuff on gender, personal identity, sexual orientation, and personal expression. The following deep dive is an exploration of distinct characters I've played, others I've observed behind the screen, and a small look of the current state of D&D and how it affects and empowers us.
How Playing A Woman Made Me A Better Person (and many other things)
Gender-bending is a foregone conclusion when you are a Game Master. Unless you're running a completely male or female world (I mean...why?), the assumption follows that if you are playing as every character that is not another player-character, you will undoubtedly play a character that is the opposite sex that you are.
And we've all seen some cringe-worthy elements come out of this with newer DMs. A dude that plays all the ladies like lascivious harlots with high-pitched voices (because all women CLEARLY sound like THAT), or an awesome dudette playing all the men similarly but down two octaves. I get it, we're learning, and their range will (I hope) increase.
I'm happy to say I came from the middle when it came to voice. I was blessed with a love of the theater, and I adore trying out new voices, dialects, and accents. Some I've blended into regional accents for my fictional world, and that took some time! It's great to look back, and when I play ladies, they run the gamut of high to lower pitches. Most tend to sit in soft palette, and elevate slightly. But...it's not about the voice.
Characters are EMBODIED. A lot can change by a simple shift in posture and position. How a person moves, in face and body language, is even more important than how they sound. A shifty urchin looks shifty (regardless of gender), and a stoic knight is no less stoic with feminine features; both can also be seductive, or monstrous, or terrifying. Their actions and body language speak more than any masculine or feminine features would at their base. A lot of it ties more into the variables of communication, interest, and an alignment of style.
I'd be lying if I said gender DIDN'T play a role, but for me, I find it a little more complex.
I think I played Vanora to feel sexy at a time in my life that I certainly didn't. As frame, many of my men were shy and awkward (like me), or far too exuberant and annoying (like a cartoon version of what not to be), and my women, though cool, had what I thought was lacking in personality. Now, Vanora was not flirtatious; she was confident. Not once did she hit on anyone in the game, but I knew she could rock it if it came up. She was sensual in her movements, almost animal-like (Aasimar Shifter, Pathfinder), and I wanted to experience an otherworldly perspective, separated yet powerful, and highly feminine. And the perspective was...neutral. In fact, it became a piece far more about characterization; the subtle aspects of a person - their flaws, ideals, and the deeper shifting layers of emotional sand. It was a lesson in HUMANITY most of all. As the campaign fizzled out, her lessons reformed in the creature known as Lorelai in Gray Owls, except ten-fold, and much more complex, dangerous, and alluring.
And I end up playing a lot of women in my games, and not to feel sexy. Actually, I'm very proud of the women of Io in every age. I find I play them like people, rather than women or men, which might sound silly to some of you, but I think that that's the best way for me. Instead of gender first, it's always character. There's no sexism in Io (at least not in any frame that is acceptable), so a good leader is a good leader, regardless of gender. A ruthless tyrant is still a tyrant, whether it a man, woman, or anything in between. Yet, my players have had little trouble identifying who I'm playing and when (there is a family of strong women that all sounded a little similar early on, but I've adapted), and usually grasp their gender quickly.
In a lot of ways, playing women helped me consider people as people. I didn't want to box myself into tired narrative cliches or tropes, so to break free I played a person who just happens to be female, male, or something else. Their gender is secondary to their personality. What a concept to consider, yet I do believe - as a clearly heterosexual man - that women hold certain extra powers over those that would be interested in them, and the same is true for any gender that interests another.
So of course this swings toward orientation, at least at first. Love is love in Io; you love whom or what you want (as long as you're not hurting anyone), so the societal pressures that surround one's orientations that we feel so viscerally today...don't exist here. And it doesn't define someone's prevalent or lack of partners. Let's take Cecil, a high-elf bard of the court in Gray Owls, who, despite being married to probably one of the most frighteningly-powerful women I've ever played, has to play the field of information, favors, and rapport in order to sway the odds in the favor of his family and his assets. Cecil is a listener, first and foremost, and can flip on a dime whether to be masculine or feminine and all levels between as the situation allows so he can make the other in the room feel the most comfortable...whether that's manipulative or not. But for me, it forces me to wait and pick my moves carefully, embracing whatever side I need to and being open to multiple possibilities; a perspective of a tactically sound mind who will wield physical and mental intimacy to position others is a thing of beauty.
Contrast this with Obidia Skurr, the Master Slate Duelist of Feathertongue, who is concretely gay yet classically masculine, and chooses partners rarely, if at all. He never uses his sexuality overtly as a tactic; it is a subtle piece of himself that he chooses to save for only his most vulnerable times. A private person; willing to help, but only willing to open himself up to those that truly matter, yet he is pursued for his mystery. (Not the mystery of his orientation, mind you, because that doesn't matter). Whereas Alejandro Esuarve, definitively pansexual, can't get anything in bed due to his aggressively abrasive and annoying personality. Neither is a commentary on either orientation, and such an orientation is secondary to who they are as people. Whom we choose to love is really only a small piece of who we completely are, and we can choose to wear that intimate choice on our sleeve or express it only in the quiet, special moments. Neither is hiding, and both are completely normal. And yet still I can play the strong and masculine Lyla Ironwood, who (at this point in the campaign) hasn't expressed any shred of sexuality or interest in anyone, and still get hit on by the party's Barbarian, even though he knows she can rip his heart out. People are interested in who they're interested in, and each of those is a layered person (which I dare say is MUCH more attractive). ;)
Too often, we find ourselves in camps of judgment, across picket lines of which fun is most "right." We view one side in a given context, and omit others, yet we forget key powerful facts of the human identity. A person using their sexuality as a weapon is empowering and a person wielding a great sword in a huge battle is also empowering. The existence of one does not belittle or negate the existence of the other. And you know the best thing? That can be the same person. True agency is having a say in how you portray yourself in every given moment; a badass soldier can be a sexy seductress, and a sexy seductress can be badass soldier, and people WANT TO BE BOTH at different times, and run the oscillation between many others. The ability to pivot to what is most appropriate given the situation is an adaptable skill that so many desire, yet have little practice in. Wouldn't it be great if we could feel strong AND sexy? They're not exclusive, people.
I guess my main point in exploring this deeply is that, similar to my post on Boundaries, I build and play characters from a state of ideal representation. I'd be silly if I didn't reference the cruel fact that we fight for empowerment and representation because of a long history where it was taken from us, and how cool would it be if the core aspects of ourselves could be expressed without the barriers we have to punch through today. If I want to look good, I will. My choice to be fabulous. My choice to fight. My choice to breathe. My choice to express myself however I see fit.
And I choose unhinged Druid Assassin who believes she's descended from a long line of Tabaxi, despite being human. :) That fun is not wrong, and I'll probably learn something from it, too.
When Players Pursue Identity Through Gender and Orientation
I expect it at every one of my tables now; especially the one-shots. One of the gals is going to play a guy, and I'm totally down. Maybe it's just to be different, gain a new perspective, or to practice their own identity. Yeah. Practice.
So much of what we do at each table involves communication, problem-solving, complex fantasy cooperative storytelling...and social interaction. I'd be an idiot if I said my characters were not related to me SOMEHOW, as each will undoubtedly represent or be manifested from an aspect of oneself. They may grow and change, but, actually, so are you (the player). Each character we play is intrinsically tied to a piece of us, and will affect us in ways we may not have planned for.
Which is why when I witness players step outside (or inside) their comfort zones with new characters or explorative decisions I internally squee with glee. You now get to experience, in a safe and imaginative space, actual feedback on character choices, orientations, responses, communication... And if you offend, or miscommunicate, or cause a mass genocide - it's okay, because this is a game, and you can try again. That's one rep. Take the feedback, apply where you can, and we'll continue to grow together.
And 5th Edition has done quite a lot for representation. Couple this with Io's world, and my players have a lot of opportunity to explore themselves (as theme and appropriate for each age group in campaign, of course) in the shoes of each character. Maybe you're a girl that's figuring out if you like girls...so you play a guy character and try flirting out. Or you play a girl character who is bisexual, or lesbian, or pan. Who knows? Maybe you're a guy that would like to see what happens if you play a girl; will your perspective change, your thoughts, your motivations? What if your character is asexual? What does that mean, how would I play that? What if I'm a boy, and I identify as a girl? How do I explore that?
How does the group react to your bend, or your orientation? Do they support you, reject you, or are just uncomfortable? Are they uncertain, and need to consider a few things for themselves?
Maybe they're actually decent people and accept you for who you are, and try to help wherever they can. :)
I'm happy to say that I have players that decided, through their experiences pursuing an orientation they were uncertain of, to come out to their family and fight for agency in their own life. They used their character to harness the warrior inside, and actually fight for what made them happy. That's the beauty of this game; it's an opportunity to find your Sword and Shield, and rise above the walls you built around yourself. It is a forge, and when building yourself, you can always start over. You can always rewrite your narrative; tell yourself a new story.
And what we're seeing, more and more, is how little it actually matters at the table what sort of orientation, gender, or identity you wish to pursue. Those aspects of yourself (as long as they don't hurt others, and respect each other's boundaries) will be accepted at my table, and many others. However, those aspects are only tiny pieces of a much greater YOU.
What becomes possible when we expunge the social gender norms present today in what separates the expectations of a boy or a girl or the spectrum between, and embrace only the commonality of character and the sliding gradient of alignment point to point; decision to decision? Then, we are only measured by our actions, not solely by our gender, and we are but people drifting together. Sometimes we have a heading, others not, and either way, the journey is our own as we grow and learn and love together.
Forever pride. Forever human.
See you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.