"Gender is a game in fairyland, and you can play it however suits you." - Meguey and Vincent Baker, Under Hollow Hills
I'm playing Apocalypse World. I think about what my character looks like: a white dress with structured sleeves and a large skirt, covered in artificial flowers. Long white hair in braids against brown skin, pale eyes that see past what everyone else sees in this world. Coming up with names is difficult, but before a name forms I see gender in my mind: nebulous and drifting across a broken dance floor, shifting and just beyond reach. They're Non-Binary, I realize. They're not bound to gender like I am, forced to fit into a category of social cues and cultural interpretations. Their pronouns are they/them, I think.
I play this character for a month, once every week. By the end of the month, I realize that I too, am Non-Binary. I don't know what my gender looks like, I can't see its shape and form yet. But playing this character for a month, feeling powerful in their skin, walking in a broken world with a bright flame of understanding within them, they gave me the strength to be Non-Binary in my own world.
Months later, I have difficulty playing any character that is cis and uses she/her pronouns. I can do it for one-shot games or for characters who eventually discover their gender identity as they learn to express themselves more. I play characters that exist outside of the gender binary almost exclusively, and it feels like coming home. After a while I almost always play characters who use They/He pronouns. I don't think anything of it at the time, but something has shifted in me. Armor is taken off, left to the side. My skin breathes and flowers bloom underneath.
I play Takahiro Santos, they use he/they pronouns. He's a monster hunter for hire, and has a complicated relationship with their ex-boyfriend. Every time Takahiro swings his beaten up metal bat to hit a monster on the face (the words "boyfriend" spray painted along the sides), it feels freeing. Takahiro believes in their friends.
I play Takahiro again. It's a game about children collecting magical cards. Takahiro is younger, they have colorful band aids all over their face. Takahiro believes in their friends.
I play Takahiro again. They've enrolled in a mysterious high school where students duel for power, but he's desperately trying to impress his ex-boyfriend on the student council. He wears crop tops and never wears the proper school uniform. Takahiro never loses a fight. Takahiro believes in their friends.
I play Takahiro again. It's a game of larger than life characters who go up against huge monsters. He wears a wolf pelt and little else. Takahiro believes in their friends.
When I talk to some people, I notice there's a lingering shadow on my face that they can't look away from. They refer to me as she/her. When they look at me I can see the woman they want me to be in their eyes. It's unbearably painful, and I can't find the words to describe the pain to them. Takahiro lays a hand on my shoulder, and gives me a great big grin. Takahiro believes in me. "My pronouns are they/them, please don't refer to me as she/her," I say.
After some time, I admit to a friend that I've been thinking about using they/he pronouns, but I can't explain why. I'm not interested in changing my physical appearance or becoming society's idea of "androgynous" or "non-binary masculine". But there are new flowers under my skin and they sing, "they" and they sing "him". My friend says, "That makes sense, I've been calling you him in my head for a while now and I didn't know why". I almost cry in relief.
It's been a hard year, and I've set aside enough money for a personal tarot art commission. I've played Takahiro in several different worlds; the strongest himbo with the biggest heart has carried me through difficult months of struggling with my health and a global pandemic. I ask the artist to draw Takahiro Santos, a sword being pulled out of his chest by another version of him. One Takahiro has short black hair and a crop top, eyes closing as the sword leaves his heart. The other Takahiro stands confident before a broken tower, long red hair flowing around them, a student council uniform gleaming in the light of the sword.
When the artist sends me the final drawing, I experience something almost indescribable. A rush of heat from my heart, the undeniable sensation of the flowers under my skin coming into full bloom. There's a sword being drawn out of my heart, and in my mind's eye I see Takahiro's hands pulling the sword out. Gender euphoria, I realize.
Soon, I tell the world, "My gender is The Tower, about to fall apart for the last time. I'm a proud non-binary himbo, and my pronouns are they and he."
I haven't changed anything about how I look. I wear my hair long and dresses are comfortable. But my heart is the fiery storm that tears down The Tower. I am in full bloom, my body is a cage forced open by a year of embodying Takahiro Santos. The flowers fall around me, and they are a bright blazing orange and red.
My name is Jamila R. Nedjadi, and I play tabletop roleplaying games. My pronouns are they/he. I've played several characters to help me discover my gender identity. I took my time and used the creative space to safely explore who I am beyond what society wants me to be. I've lived with a gender identity that wasn't mine for more than 30 years, and I'm still learning what it means to really be me. I know that I'll keep exploring gender in games while I'm having fun! I'm grateful for Takahiro, his baseball bat, and their belief in their friends.
I hope you can see gender as a game too. I hope you have fun discovering who you truly are too.
About the author
Jamila R. Nedjadi (they/he) is a non-binary himbo of the TTRPG indie space, cheering on BIMPOC and queer folks! He's a prolific game designer, and his games include BALIKBAYAN: Returning Home which was nominated for the IGDN Indie Groundbreaker Award for best setting, and Apocalypse Keys which will be published through Evil Hat Productions. Jammi is also one of the co-hosts for The Gauntlet Podcasts, where folks chat about the indie games they've played in the Gauntlet community. You can directly support Jammi through their patreon.