Like many folx in the TTRPG space- and especially the Actual Play space- I’m a recovering theatre kid. From doing plays in school all the way through college, I’ve been involved in theatrical performances for almost two decades now- and one of the biggest things I learnt as a trans person doing theatre, is that gender is extremely performative.
More often than not, I was cast in roles that did not align with my gender- there aren’t many roles in theatre for nonbinary people, and the few that there are have mostly come about recently. These roles, often femme, were a source of dysphoria for me for a very long time, and actually dissuaded me from theatrical performances for a time.
In an effort to be gendered correctly, I fell into a habit of abandoning things I enjoyed that were perceived as feminine, closing myself off from a whole aspect of myself.
When I got into the Actual Play space a bit more and played tabletop RPGs on a public facing platform, I used the same techniques I use for theatre to keep myself calm. One of these is costuming and makeup- I love getting to put on a wig and a full face of makeup to truly become a different person in front of the camera.
I started off playing characters who share gender identities with me- using the same pronouns and presenting themselves the same way. Over time, though, the characters I built for shows and podcasts came to vary in terms of gender and how they presented themselves, and I began expanding my own presentation to reflect that.
When building tabletop characters, I tend to do the mechanical pieces first- building a character sheet in any given interface, rolling or assigning stats, picking abilities, etc. From there, I will usually go into designing looks- picrew and I are very good friends every time I go to make a new character. And then finally, I’ll write their backstories and any necessary relationships.
Some characters began speaking to me as more femme- and I wanted to do them the justice of presenting as they would present. So I started making more elaborate costume choices for my characters- wearing longer wigs and doing more makeup. It was nervewracking at first- to be presenting as femme for these streams and stomaching my anxiety about how I would be gendered.
But I had the joy of playing at tables with other trans people and with allies- people who were always certain to gender me and my characters correctly. And over time, I got more confident in gently correcting people in larger circles.
Playing characters with a wider variety of gender presentation than my own has helped me get in touch with parts of myself that I had closed off in the interest of suiting the ‘traditional ideal’ of a nonbinary trans masc person. I got to get back in touch with my love for makeup and my love for fancier clothing- things I had abandoned previously.
Getting to explore the genders of my characters at the table sparked a joy and love in me that I had not felt in a long time. I came out as nonbinary in high school, and was more upfront about it in college, but the constant experience of being misgendered, othered, or ignored had made me fall out of love with my identity. Being trans was a constant drain on my spoons- always having to correct people or remind them of my gender and pronouns. While I was more comfortable in my own skin, I was exhausted day in and day out by having to justify my existence.
All of that exhaustion didn’t follow me into actual play spaces. At the table- virtual or otherwise- I could be my authentic self- and let my characters be their authentic selves as well. I was lucky to find a space in the tabletop community that was extremely welcoming and celebrated trans people. For the first time in a long time, I felt comfortable exploring gender and performing as genders that were not my own- and knowing that those performances would not count against me with my cast mates.
Playing in worlds created by queer people- at tables run by queer and trans people, or tables where I wasn’t the only queer and trans person- changed my entire experience with gender and transness. Finally, I was able to play a trans character in a space where they would not be singled out for their transness. It was a part of their narratives, and important to them- but not something they would be called out or discriminated against for. And I was able to, as a GM, help normalize transness for my players.
Performing a variety of genders in the actual play space has given me so much more confidence in my own gender and how I present. I have learnt, through playing characters of genders that line up with my own and genders that don’t, how to embrace the femininity I left behind to adhere to Western standards of masculinity. I experience a lot less dysphoria associated with dresses, skirts, makeup, and ‘traditionally feminine’ accessories and looks now that I have explored them at the table. Getting to explore gender in tabletop has shown me that what matters at the end of the day is what makes me feel happier and most comfortable in my skin.
I am extremely grateful to the other trans, nonbinary, and queer people in this space who have carved a space for us to explore our identities and be celebrates as queer people. My experiences here in the tabletop space have expanded not only my perspectives on gender and queer identities, but also given me space to better understand myself and fall in love with being trans again, rather than connect it with the difficulty and exhaustion I had previously dredged through.
Our stories are powerful, meaningful, and distinct- and I am proud and excited to be part of a movement that centers them, so other people can experience the same joyful journey that I have.