Wherein I get overly "share-y."
I said in the introduction to this blog series that this is a topic I've been meaning to cover for a while. In the interest of candor, I feel like it's worth mentioning what it was that finally pushed me into doing it. See, I read a lot about GLBT issues. From contemporary social debates like gay marriage and Don't Ask Don't Tell, to more general sort of media critiques and discussion, I try to stay abreast of what's being said about things like GaymerCon, Makeb, and the like - especially on sites that I generally respect, like Destructoid. And while doing so, I occasionally make the mistake of reading the comments section. And almost invariably, I'll encounter someone (more often than not, a straight someone) asking the same old questions: "Why does this matter? Why do you care? Why is this something you feel like you need?" When it's something like Gaymercon or Makeb, it's a little irritating. When it's something like gay marriage, it's beyond infuriating.
Nobody likes the "p" word. But privilege is a very real thing, and it's never really noticeable until it's something you don't have. It's what causes straight people to say "Why do gay folks care about marriage so much? Marriage sucks, lol!" Because unlike me, they forget that marriage actually carries distinct legal benefits like hospital visitation rights, inheritance security, etc. They forget those things because they've never had to worry about not having them. So, in the interest of explaining why gay representation in video games, and geek culture in general, matters to me, let me provide a bit of background on my own experiences.
I knew that I was gay as soon as I knew what sex really was. It was at a friend's 12th birthday party, and he had an unrestricted internet connection in his room. And while the seven other sweaty, desperate pubescents gathered around his monitor to get their first glances at naked women, I found my own eyes drifting somewhere else entirely. But if I'm being honest with myself, I knew that I was different before then. It started with Final Fantasy VII, a game I recieved at around age 9. Despite a translation that was basically indecipherable to my tiny child brain, I found Cloud's misadventures in Wall Market, where the player is tasked with infiltrating a crime lord's mansion, accomplished by collecting women's clothing from places like a "Men's Gym" and a brothel where one of the rooms is the "Group Room", as something intensely confusing and weirdly electrifying. It was the first time I'd ever been exposed to these ideas, and I felt like I was seeing something forbidden. Something dangerous. It was also the game that introduced me to my first ever crush, even if I had no idea what that meant at the time.
Rude. No joke.
My second major experience came at 13, not too long after I had had my eyes opened to who I was, as far as sexuality was concerned. At the time, I was obsessed with anime. Like much of what I was interested in at that point in my life, it was something that my father had introduced me to. I devoured every bit of it that I could get my hands on - including whatever I could manage to download off of Limewire on a dial-up internet connection. I don't remember how it happened, but at some point I was turned onto the existence of a little anime called Gravitation.
For those of you not in the know, Gravitation is part of a little genre of anime/manga referred to as shounen-ai, or "boy's love". It's the story of an insufferable musician named Shuichi Shindo who falls in love with an insufferable author name Eiri Yuki after Yuki sees his lyrics and (justifiably) calls him a talentless hack. It's . . . well, my opinion of it has changed radically from what it was nine years ago. But at the time, Gravitation was something that I clung to like a drowning man. I'd never seen a piece of work that concerned a gay man before, and basically took him seriously. The idea that a work could be primarily centered around the romance between two men was unthinkable. And I spent hours sitting in front of the computer, downloading 256 mgb files on a dial-up internet connection, watching them only late at night with headphones, after everyone else had gone to sleep. I was convinced that I was watching something dirty, wrong, something that I shouldn't have been. I took the same precautions with my episodes of Gravitation that I later would with my pornography - hide it in the registry, in a folder ambiguously titled "Data."
In retrospect, I'm more embarrassed about this than the porn.
And that was it, for a while. That was what I had. The closest thing to a gay role model that I had in the media that I consumed was a Japanese pop star with bubblegum-pink hair. In the next few years, I'd come out of the closet, and get my first boyfriend. He was too old for me - already in college when I was fifteen. He didn't respect the things I liked. He didn't really respect me. He said occasionally that gaming was a waste of time, that it was just something people do when they didn't want to think. Once he mentioned explicitly that it was something he was just waiting for me to grow out of. We dated for eight months, before I ended things. Which was at least seven months after I realized that things absolutely wouldn't work.
I know it's scary for everybody, at that age, to end a relationship. It feels like this might be "the one", your only real shot at happiness. But for a gay teen growing up in small town Texas, that feeling was magnified exponentially. I put up with the condescension because I was terrified that this was my only shot. That being gay meant that the only way I'd get to be happy with someone was if the universe decided to be generous. And he was my Eiri Yuki, for better or worse.
During this time, my father had been getting me more and more into American comics, largely by way of titles like Supermarket and DMZ. I had grown up with superhero cartoons, but always found superhero comics to be too inaccessible. The owner of the local comic book shop in a town near ours suggested I try the Ultimate Marvel line, a sort of "alternate universe" line of comics that took established Marvel characters and rebooted them in a Universe where the writers could be allowed to try new things with them, and not be bogged down by decades of continuity. It was ideal, I was told, for someone wanting to start trying to get into comics. So I picked up a copy of Ultimate X-men.
I wrote in my last post about heroes, and how the lack of gay heroes in games was damaging. I didn't articulate it on this then; because it's still something I'm wrapping my head around, almost seven years later, trying to figure out exactly on what level it has affected me as a person. What I can say is that after reading that book, I haven't looked at media, entertainment, or my own career aspirations in quite the same way. And the character responsible for that is Piotr Rasputin, Colossus.
Ultimate Colossus is, in many ways, similar to his mainstream counterpart. He's a big, powerful guy who's imposing stature belies his good-natured, mild-mannered personality. He's fiercely loyal to the people he cares about, and his powers and build make him the team's de facto powerhouse. But he does differ in one fairly substantial way: in the Ultimate Universe, Piotr Rasputin is gay. To me as a teenager, and even to a degree me now, this was revolutionary. I'd never encountered a gay hero. Much less a gay badass. I'd never encountered a work that had one of the primary characters be gay, have a crush on another male character, and fight to defend him - all without a hint of ridicule.
Growing up gay, it's hard to maintain a high self-esteem a lot of the time. Even if you're not religious, or from a religious background, the overwhelming sense of "otherness" can be suffocating. You're told that your issues and experiences are lesser, that your hopes for yourself are inferior, that your whole existence is, in a lot of ways, laughable. You're a punch line. You're a cheap insult. "Faggot" is someone behaving stupidly, or in a way that doesn't merit respect. And that's what you feel like. Something stupid, not worthy of respect. It's the same phenomenon that turns something like Brokeback Mountain, a tragic and heart-breaking tale about two people whose lives are destroyed by circumstances and societal pressures that they have no means to combat, into a cultural punch line. Because those two people happen to be men.
So I hope you, the reader, can understand what it's like for a gay person to see something take them seriously, respect them, even lift up one of their own as something to be admired and aspired to. How incredibly, unbelievably freeing that is. I can't really say whether I started changing myself, after I encountered that character and that feeling. But it did establish, in my mind, something that I needed to do - I needed to write, to craft characters and stories that will remind other GLBT folks that they're not a joke, that their experiences do matter, and that they are worth taking seriously.
That's why media portrayals matter so much to me. They affect not just how the world sees us, but how we see ourselves. But video games take that a step further. Video games let us do extraordinary things. They let us be heroes. They let us save nations, slay monsters, explore the universe. They let us be badass, nigh-indestructible killing machines or frightened, put-upon individuals that rise beyond their means to become extraordinary. They let us connect with characters in a way much more intimate and much more immediate than most other mediums. Games have the potential to give everyone the chance to feel empowered, by giving them player characters that they identify with and can embody. And to create in them new empathy, by exposing them to experiences and people that they might not have encountered or thought about. Interactivity has so much incredible potential. Which makes it all the more disappointing that, more often than not, our options are so limited to only being allowed to do things if we put on our "straight, white, male" masks first.
But I can't be too mad about it. Like I said from the start, the times they are a changin'. Games are becoming more inclusive, slowly but surely. And that will only continue, as development becomes easier and cheaper and the hobby becomes more and more commonplace. But the point of this blog series, as I said, is to communicate honestly what the situation is and why it matters. Why some people get so worked up about it, and why it's a topic that needs to be discussed. To give the best window that I can manage into my own thoughts and experiences as a gay gamer. And I hope that I've accomplished that.
I really appreciate those that have stuck with me thus far, and have been supportive of this effort. If any of you would like to see a blog post about a specific topic as an addendum, feel free to mention it or send me a message. Otherwise, it's been a pleasure writing this series.