I grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s. This was the Era of Don't Ask Don't Tell. The gender spectrum wasn't talked about outside of academic philosophical circles, and gender affirming care was a punchline. 

Growing up in a Catholic household, my family was in church every Sunday morning and if our Sundays were booked, we'd be at the less popular Saturday-evening mass. Before my sexual awakening, I enjoyed going to church. I liked singing along with dozens of other people and knowing all the right words to say for an hour. As I grew older, I learned that this feeling was called collective effervescence and that it could arise in any event where a community comes together to express the same thought and participate in the same action. My church was a hub of my community. They hosted family events on their expansive lawn. I remember fairs with their brightly painted booths. I remember plays on a temporary stage ringed with folding chairs. My family participated in a number of these events and it felt good when everything came together. I imagined myself orchestrating future gatherings and how much more ostentatious they would be. A little queer boy dreaming of being an event planner; I was so painfully cliche and I didn't know it yet.

I realized that I was sexually attracted to men in high school. Since a near-drowning incident in my childhood, I'd been afraid of the water. When I turned ten, my parents wanted to help me through my fear by signing me up for summer swimming lessons. It was harrowing at first, but I began to look forward to spending an hour twice a week in the community pool to escape the summer heat. Three years later, my fear of water was under control. I could tread water and swim a lap, but I was no Michel Phelps. It was while I was attending one of these classes that it happened. Our instructor was new and he looked like a young Lee Pace with blonder highlights. In short, he was hot. 

My stomach fluttered. My heart raced. My forehead and palms broke out in a sweat. My throat went dry. I attributed all of these to a residual fear of the water. The start of the class was a review of what we'd learned in our previous classes. At the end, our teacher introduced something new. He wanted us to go into deeper water and dive down to grab a weighted object and bring it back to the surface. I was nervous. Deeper water always brought a part of my old fear with it. On top of that, I had the overwhelming urge to show off for our new swimming teacher. My turn came quicker than I expected. I took a deep breath and I dove. I had the weighted thing in my hand. The water's surface spread out above me: columns of light piercing the dark, a plane of rippling prismatic blues. Halfway up, I ran out of breath. I could feel the water pressed against my lips like a threat. I was spiraling into the familiar embrace of my old fear. I thrashed. My hand fell on something solid above me. My fingers clamped shut and I pulled myself up. When my lifeline loosened and fell away, I almost screamed. When I saw that I had a pair of adult swimming shorts in my hand, my fear evaporated. I looked up to see the bottom half of my new swimming instructor fully exposed. In that moment, I knew I wasn't straight.

After that, my fear of water was replaced with a different fear. 

A year before, one of my upperclassmen was outed. One of his younger siblings overheard him talking to his boyfriend on the phone and the sibling told everyone. Everyone had suspected but now there was proof. Students ostracized him. Teachers tried to convince him to change with class-long lectures that harped on the sanctity of 'normal' relationships. Eventually, his parents pulled him out of school. They said they were sending him to live with his other relatives, but the rumor was that they'd enrolled their own son in a conversion camp.

I knew that I would suffer the exact same thing if I was ever outed, so I put on a face for the adults and isolated myself from other teens. Though I still went to church and helped out with their events, my fear of exposure overshadowed any sense of communal joy I felt. I assuage my loneliness by consuming all types of media; TV, movies, manga, books, video games. Even in my isolation, I craved community, so I found myself socializing with students who were as media-obsessed as I was. I befriended the nerds. 

At lunch, we would gather. We'd talk about the last Dragon Ball Z episode. We'd bring different gaming magazines and determine whether the latest JRPG was worth buying. We shared different video game secrets we had discovered. We played collectable card games like Magic: the Gathering and Yu-Gi-Oh. We even tried to do a book club once. Our first discussion led to a debate about what place robots had in a human society. Though it never came to blows, our argument escalated to the point where the school faculty had to step in to separate us. We didn't speak for a week. Our reconciliation came at the cost of ending the book club.

These nerds were the closest friends I had in high school, but even they didn't know everything about me. Discussions on which anime girl was the hottest had me talking about how I thought Bulma's traditionally matriarchal attitude made her the best, but in the privacy of my room, I scoured early internet archives for Goku/Vegeta slash fiction. When the movie The Road to El Dorado came out, I told my friends that Chel would never be with a pair of scammers like Tulio or Miguel all while imagining a friends-to-lovers storyline between the two European cons. Would they ever be able to hide their affection from the rest of the world? If they did, what would that look like? I yearned. But I could not share my yearning with anyone else.

We didn't get into tabletop RPGs until my junior year. We weren't adverse to them, we just chose to express our geekery in other ways. Looking back now, our slide into tabletop games was gradual and inevitable. It began with hypotheticals. If you had a superpower, what would it be and why? Among the superpowers we chose, which was the most powerful? Our discussions would last for days. One of my friends was notorious for bringing in note cards filled with research notes and talking points. Hypotheticals turned into discussions about if and how we would change the plots of different TV shows and movies. Those were animated conversations. We would act out our envisioned scenes, pulling in other friends to take on different roles or to clarify our staging ideas. 

There was an unspoken agreement that we were, without a doubt, a collection of creative geniuses who would soon usurp the tired writers and directors of Hollywood. From there, we began to collectively tell each other original stories. They would usually begin with a premise like what if everyone was telepathic or what if our bones were rubbery. We would spin that premise into dozens of branching storylines some of which built off of other people's stories. None of us thought to write these down, though in hindsight, I wish we had.

So it was in this last stage of our slide that one of my friends brought in an early publication of the Dungeons and Dragons Players' Manual. We poured over it, memorizing every rule and every black-and-white drawing. The friend who owned the book photocopied the character class pages so everyone else could take them home. Without talking about it or coming to a consensus, we knew we were going to play this game. I don't remember where we got our first set of dice, but I do remember we had to share them. Character creation took months. We'd all memorized the how of it. What stalled us was our back stories. Half of us wanted to be mentally scarred from witnessing the deaths of our parents. The other half wanted to be some kind of reformed criminal. As a collection of artistic geniuses, having an unoriginal plot was taboo, so the orphans and the once-criminals fell to arguing among themselves over who would take which origin story.

In that chaos, I realized that I had a unique opportunity. While I was closeted in my real life, my fantasy persona didn't have to hide their attraction to men. The problem was that I didn't know how my friends felt about queer people, so I came up with what I thought was a brilliant con. My first Dungeons and Dragons character was a woman. It was a risk. Everyone else's character's genders matched their real life genders. I had a list of arguments memorized in case anyone brought up the incongruity. (The only one I still remember is that Shakespeare had cast male actors in femme roles.) One person brought it up and all my talking points evaporated. The only thing I could think to say was that nearly all of them were guys and I didn't want my life in this fantasy world to be surrounded by guys.

To be clear, I knew that this argument was nothing and that it made absolutely no sense. This group of people so fond of argument and debate should have called me out as a liar and demanded the truth. But they didn't. Instead, they fell back into the ongoing debate over whose character would be the inadvertent orphan and who would be the reformed criminal. My character was a barbarian femme new to the civilized world, and her backstory was deemed unique enough to get a pass. Still, I wasn't sure how they'd react once we started playing. Would they balk if I chose to flirt with a male NPC? Would they start using she/her pronouns for me when we weren't playing? My first steps in our fictional world were tentative. I could feel their gaze on me as I described my femme barbarian. It reminded me of the threatening press of water. I tried to speak as little as possible in hopes of flying under everyone's radar.

I remember specifically what pulled me out of my shell. Some NPC catcalled my character as our party was walking down the street. I put his face through a wall, and everyone else at the table cheered. It felt like my friends were giving me permission to play however I wanted. 

So I did. 

Whenever my character came across an attractive man, she would try to sleep with them. Whenever anyone disrespected her or her friends, she would break their bones. If a power fantasy allowed one to experience a level of autonomy they didn't have in their real life, I was certainly playing out my own type of power fantasy. My character did everything I wanted to do and she did it with not a shred of regret. 

Having to shift between that and my real life at the end of every session was like regrowing a limb. Part of me knew how I had to act outside the game to pass as straight, but that part felt less and less necessary. 

Let them come, I thought. Let them see who I was and if they didn't like it…. If they didn't like it, my parents might send me to a conversion camp. One slip would have the people in my church and everyone at school shunning me. My newfound comfort and my joy has surely exposed my queerness. If not, how long would it take until someone started asking the right questions? There is a grim calculus to anxiety.

I tried to quit roleplaying. My friends, however, were snared in its web (third level, wizard spell). A new Magic: the Gathering set was coming out, so I tried to get my friends to dig our decks back up and play a few rounds. They told me they'd buy a few packs once they took down the evil cleric who was trying to summon their malevolent god. In a moment of honesty, I admitted that I too wanted to stop that evil cleric and I wanted to do it as my femme barbarian. I saw that I had three options. I could shut out my desires for the rest of my life and refuse to play any role playing games ever again. Doing that would alienate me from my group of friends. My second option was to immediately come out. The consequences of doing that already kept me up most nights. My final option was to embrace who I was in secret and to stay in the closet until I graduated. 

I went back to playing my femme barbarian, and I reveled in the joy of doing it. My friends and I took down that villainous cleric. When I got to college, I came out by sleeping with my dorm's RA. 

In psychology, ‚Äúrole-playing in supervised groups seems to promote reflection and insight not only for students in the patient and therapist roles but also for peers observing the group sessions‚ÄĚ (R√łnning & Bj√łrkly, 2019, p. 415). Years after graduating, I still kept in touch with two people from my friend group. They told me that, including them, all but one of my high school friends had come out as some shade of queer. My friend said that they knew I wasn't straight when I debuted my femme barbarian and seeing my joy in our play encouraged them to embrace their own queerness.¬†

In my dreams, I come out of the closet in my teens. My friends follow me into blessed authenticity and we support each other as our lives crumble around us. When I wake, I know that all of us did what we had to to stay safe and secure. Even as a tax-paying adult, I've played characters of different genders to confirm whether or not I align with the one I was assigned at birth. I'm glad that coming out isn't as harrowing for high schoolers now, but roleplaying games are still a fun, low-impact way for people to experiment with their sexuality and gender. 


Jun 28, 2023

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