essay

“The Quest to be myself in a Magical World”

"Playing a transsexual character in the world of Dungeons and Dragons is quite like wearing a sign that reads, 'Use me as a Plot Device!'"- Jonathan Smith on playing trans RPG characters.

I first rolled the dice at age 15. My friends and I were teens with big dreams, so we each rolled characters who were idealized versions of ourselves. My friend Brent, who wanted all to view him as a gentle giant, rolled the half-orc Grobath, a barbarian with a gruff exterior but a heart of gold. Josh, the charismatic smart aleck, became the charming rogue Jack Wylder. Ben, who prided himself on his vast stores of knowledge, rolled the elf wizard Leewon. I—filled with fury, and always feeling like an outsider—created the half-elf sorceress Ceridwen.

As I neared thirty, finally coming to terms with my gender and sexuality, a powerful wave of nostalgia engulfed me. I wanted to make up for the dice-slinging adolescence I’d lost while living as a confused, angry girl. However, I now faced the dilemma of rolling a character who felt like me—a gay trans man—in a medieval-style world of hijinks, mishaps, and magical transformations.

Playing a transsexual character in the world of Dungeons and Dragons is quite like wearing a sign that reads, “Use me as a Plot Device!” You risk being discovered and exposed for what you “really” are. There’s also a good chance you’ll become the butt of hackneyed jokes. Worst of all, you risk losing whatever magical or physical changes you’ve accomplished to make your body more comfortable. Do you take a potion every morning to keep your manly physique? Well, now your supply has been stolen, and your party must catch the thief; all the while, you’re jogging around in the womanly curves you thought you’d finally escaped.

However, the thought of playing a male character who has never shared my struggles with gender did not appeal to me, either. A gay man who is not transgender might approach the world in a fundamentally different way than I do. Absent might be that maelstrom of confusion that kept me so long from realizing not only that I am a man but one that likes other men as well. I knew that, in order to solve this issue, I would have to travel back to my past as that furious young girl to discover how I could be myself in the world of D&D.

Ceridwen did fulfill some emotional needs for me, after all. I was an angry kid, and she had explosive fire spells in her arsenal and cast fireball every chance she got. As a Charisma-based caster, she had the ability to make others bend to her will, something I’d always felt inadequate in as a nerdy young pipsqueak. She was a half-elf, too—an eternal outsider in both human and elf societies. It bothered me deeply, however, that Ceridwen was apparently heart-stoppingly gorgeous. That’s typically what happens when you have an astronomical Charisma score. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but I’d always experienced the most powerful dysphoria in relation to prettiness. It’s hard enough dealing with beauty as a young girl, and I can guarantee it’s no easier when you throw gender dysphoria into the mix.

As I tried to envision Ceridwen as a half-elf male, I realized playing such a character would present precisely that confusing, complicated relationship to masculinity I know so well. Now, I have no patience for thinly-veiled allegories; in other words, I would never posit that half-elves are the transgender people of this world—just writing that makes me want to fireball something. Nevertheless, certain details about how this half-elf would relate to human masculinity feel quite similar to how I relate. Corvus, as I’ve decided to call him, is slightly smaller than your average human guy. He’s somewhat delicate-looking, and his beard took far too long to grow in properly. In the elf village where he grew up, Corvus was too loud, too awkward, too hairy and smelly, but in the face of burly human men, he can’t help but wonder, “How could I ever be considered one of them?”

Thankfully Corvus, like myself and Ceridwen before him, wears his outsider status as a badge of honor. Traditional society is simply too small to contain him. He is charismatic in a witty sense, can talk his way out of anything, and is handsome in his own way.  The elves and humans of that world may treat him with disdain, but that only fuels Corvus’ desire to become more skilled and powerful than ever before. He is, unapologetically, himself—and thus he allows me to be myself as well.


Jonathan Smith is a Cajun Ravenclaw living in Texas who loves craft beer, shrimp tacos, and reading nonfiction.

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