(This post was originally written as a guest post for Pride Month 2019 on Ericka Skirpan’s blog The Space Between Stories.)
If all the world’s a stage, identity is nothing but a costume.”
-Lana Wachowski and J. Michael Straczynski, Sense8
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person; give him a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.”
-Maxwell Demon, fictionalized glam-rock persona from Velvet Goldmine, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde
At an after-school program at the Jewish Community Center, one day following kindergarten or first grade, I met the first person I ever role-played with. Dave and I played freeform, diceless Dungeons & Dragons while at the JCC, and I remember having tons of fun. But he moved out of state by the time I started middle school. Watching The Neverending Story without him just wasn’t the same, and neither was playing D&D. I tried to run the Basic edition of the game on my own, but it had too many rules for me and my classmates. We just ended up fighting, and never played again. In high school, I was invited to one session of a friend’s ongoing D&D game and then never invited back. I was too weird or unpopular even for the other nerds, it seemed.
I was 17 when this gap in my role-playing career ended: I discovered the local Vampire: the Masquerade LARP at Carnegie Mellon University. I was taking a couple classes at their summer program, the summer before my senior year of high school, and ran into a friend from my Creative Writing class. The creepy doodles in his notebook often caught my eye, and we were friendly in a casual way, so I figured I would fit in pretty well with his older friends. This was indeed the case.
The larpers from House of the Unknown were the first people who ever got me drunk. One of them remains my best friend to this day, and we’re writing a novel together. They were my respite from high school drama. They were also much more accepting of LGBTQ+ people than my high school.. Not that this meant I felt comfortable hitting on men at the time; I surely did not. I was too terrified of other men to even go along with it when a guy I liked flirted with me first.
But what I did feel comfortable doing was experimenting with elements of my identity that I didn’t feel comfortable embodying or speaking about in my everyday life. I played characters who were openly occultist or pagan; my first long and in-depth debate about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was an in-character one between my vampire character and a new player’s. That same vampire character might be one of the main reasons why, today, I think nothing of giving someone a tarot or oracle deck reading in public. This used to feel embarrassing, before I played him. His honor code influenced my ethics at a time when I was worried that I might not have any.
One particularly memorable scene with him led to my first experience with spontaneous in-character emotional release, with tears streaming down my face after a dramatic and heated clan meeting. Since this happened at a time when I had never felt more emotionally blocked, it’s hard to put into words what a revelation it was. Beyond that, looking at his skills and powers has helped me to gain insight into my own personality: Did he need telepathy because I sometimes wish that I could read the minds of those more mainstream than myself? Very likely. Did I make him good at hiding himself because I still felt the need to be closeted in many situations? Probably. Did I give him enhanced speed because I felt clumsy and slow? Maybe so.
I also played a female character for a while, in nearly full drag. Was I scary-looking in my spider-web fishnet body suit, black bodice-front dress, and long white wig? I’d certainly say so. It might have worked better if I had worn a little subtle makeup; alas, I was not ready for that yet. But I did give myself permission to find and wear bright and flashy clothing. There was a vintage shop, Crimes of Fashion, near where we played. I raided it often. By the end of high school, while still officially closeted, I started wearing polyester and velour shirts from the 70s to school. Opening that closet door just a crack was a small victory, and the clothing I used to do it was originally for my characters.
Just a few years ago, I first tried wearing some eyeliner and eyeshadow to a game. I had only just figured out that I was some flavor of nonbinary, despite knowing I only like to date other men since high school. I didn’t feel like I wanted to represent my gender blatantly, even in a fictional way. Instead, I made a character who believed he was from ancient Egypt and made him up accordingly. My thanks to the entire Nocturne Lament community, especially Ben Rogers and Phil Sapienza, for creating such a supportive and inclusive local larp environment at a time when I needed nothing more.
Fast forward a few years to attending game 0 of Velvet Noir, wearing dangly crystal earrings in my recently pierced ears, and blue eyeshadow that matches my shiny shirt and dyed hair. “What are your pronouns today, Zuri?” asks V, Ericka’s fabulous train wreck of a bartender.
I grin my most mischievous mile. “That depends… who don’t you want me to be tonight?”
The ensuing hearty laughter was made possible by the generous donation of a ticket allowing me to be at that game. But even more critical was my ability to take as much time as I needed to experiment with how I might embody the various elements of myself: first with the help of alibi and then later, without. In my experience, when a character is built around some element of the player’s desired future self, bleed becomes a natural payoff of gameplay. “We are what we repeatedly do,” it has been said. This is what happened with Ajro, my vampire character; in a very real sense, he and all of my characters have shaped who I am today.
In retrospect, one of my early queer traits was preferring fantasy novels over science fiction. At my elementary school, most kids seemed to feel that science fiction was for boys, and fantasy was for girls. I wasn’t into sports much either, preferring to read or people-watch on the playground. Before I was shamed into it by others, I didn’t believe in “girl things” or “boy things.” There were simply things I liked, and other things I didn’t. Other people seemed to ascribe too much meaning to them. In some of my recent classes, our textbooks have referred to people like me as gender-aschematic, or as having an androgynous personality.
Relatedly, being nonbinary – especially as an AMAB person who’s also autistic – can be confusing, tricky, and alienating. Am I cisgender? No. Am I transgender? Solidarity aside, also no. Gender, like so many concepts in neurotypical society, does not really compute for me, and the first time I “cross-dressed” was in preschool. (Is it really “cross-dressing” if you’re gender-fluid? Ask someone else, because I don’t know.) The character was called Mrs. Mean. As far as I can remember, she was a parody or caricature of grumpy adults who yelled at kids.
Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, I was lucky to have as many opportunities as I did for sanctioned gender-fuckery. My summer program in middle and high school always had one unofficial drag day per three-week session, which my friends and I helped to organize and publicize. Later, in my early 20s, I was a member of a local Rocky Horror Picture Show cast. Regional burn events, mentioned above, have also been a great place for dressing up as wildly and colorfully as I wanted. But never, not even when playing Dr. Frank-n-Furter or Magenta in the cast, did I feel as free to express myself as I did in larps.
Nowhere have I seen this more than in my recent experience with Velvet Noir. I went into the game knowing that I wanted to play someone in makeup and earrings. In the future, that character (Zuri) may be as likely to wear a dress as a suit. I knew that having a safe space in which to play with gender, and to experiment with the possibility of romantic roleplay, would be transformative in a helpful way. But what took me completely by surprise was how powerfully affecting it was to be invited to portray my Jewish identity simultaneously, as part of the Jewish underworld group called the Mishpacha. In our debrief exercises, I let my fellow Mishpacha players know that no real-world Jewish communities make me feel so safe and accepted to step out of the “broom closet” as a queer Jewitch. It can be easy to forget how othering my Jewishness can be, in this predominantly Christian society. A few short hours in an in-character space where that was not the case showed me what I had been taking for granted.
At Living Games Conference last year, I happened to notice that at the panel on LGBTQ+ game design, the hair colors were reminiscent of the Capitol people from The Hunger Games movies. There was so much red, orange, green, blue, and purple hair that I sometimes had trouble finding someone with regular old brown or blond. When I asked him about this, one of my teachers suggested could be because after stepping out of the prescribed straight / cisgender box, making other changes to the self (such as tattoos, piercings, or hair dyeing) begins to seem more obvious. That same teacher, Nick Walker, is one of the people who came up with the term neuroqueer to describe those like myself, whose queerness and neurodivergence feel intertwined and largely inseparable.
So, what I want to say to my fellow LGBTQ+ larpers is this: Give yourself permission to experiment with your identities, at whatever pace and in whatever ways feel right for you. While this process can sometimes feel therapeutic, it is not therapy or a substitute for therapy. If you have a therapist, let them know what you’re doing. To paraphrase Octavia E. Butler badly, you change every character you interact with, and every character you interact with changes you. Carefully consider both the surface meaning and the deeper significance of the types of characters you play; acting like an assassin, for example, is going to influence you differently than acting like a healer. To whatever extent possible, know your own limits and be careful what you choose to invoke – especially on a long-term, repeated basis.
Pretend to be what you wonder if you could be; what you might already be; what you want to learn about; even what you despise. Maybe the roleplay that comes out of it will be ridiculous, or the character ultimately unplayable. You might gain new insight into ways of looking at the world, or you might gain a deep understanding that your everyday persona is, itself, a mask. But what I really hope is that you’ll learn something, transform something, or refine something within yourself, in whatever way leaves you feeling a little more like who you want to be.
As LGBTQ+ people, each of us is a true original. We can free ourselves from roles and expectations that don’t serve us. We can create ourselves from whole cloth, in ways many straight and cisgender people feel unable to. Take full advantage of that, whenever and wherever you feel able. Spread those queer, weird wings and let them carry you somewhere fabulous and unexpected. Perhaps those wings feel like glorious, colorful stained glass, or perhaps like gray, tattered gauze. More likely, they’re somewhere in between. However they look and feel in your mind, use them. It may be the greatest gift you can give the world.
My sincere and humble thanks to Ericka for lending me this platform to ramble thusly.
Chance J. Kallisti, www.alchemicalgaming.com