Cross-Gender Trouble and Play

There is a question that people tend to avoid asking in roleplaying game discussion, in my experience, even as they spend a fair amount of time articulating answers and implicitly presenting them. This question is along the lines of “How much am I allowed to deviate from my social positionality and my lived experiences in making and playing characters?” There are of course a lot of domains this question concerns, right off the bat, but this is Actual Play, and I have a fair amount of Actual Play experience with the specific topic of cross-gender play. 

So to talk about my own social positionality and lived experiences for a moment, I’m a Person of Gender, in a fairly complicated way where it is generally more convenient to present myself as a trans woman in social settings where that becomes relevant, but in actuality, I have a pair of nonbinary transfeminine genders and I use she/her pronouns for ’em both, and honestly, most of the convenience or lack thereof comes from not wanting to have to explain the jargon to people who have never encountered it before. On top of all this, my personal experience of gender is one that’s fairly common for trans people of my general age- there was a moment of realization, a point at which I became aware of my gender variance, but also a retrospective recognizable pattern of experiences that pointed to this gender. 

Or genders. Because really, there have been several moments of realization and slightly fewer of retrospective analysis. All of which is to say, the question of whether a given character was cross-gender or same-gender play is one that I would say has no single answer. There are contextual answers based on whether we’re thinking about social positionality or lived experiences more, and there is another category of answers in which, because those multiple genders are expressible with the words “amazon” and “shapeshifter” and I have never put those words in a space marked for character gender on a sheet or defined an NPC as having those genders on their prospective record sheet, all of my play has been in some fashion cross-gender. But the meanings behind those words for me are such that I think certain characters I have played *would* constitute same-gender play regardless of the word on the sheet. Much of what follows is a string of anecdotes. 

In university, playing in a D&D3.5 game which was converted to a D&D4 game, I decided I would make a sorcerer (converted to a bard), make him a clownish self-important twink perpetually in wildly sexualized clothes, gave him a hastily gender-flipped version of “Emma Frost” for a name, and found an appropriate picture for him, of a skinny androgynous model. This picture would, several years later, turn out to be a picture of a woman when Andreja Pejić, only a month younger than me, came out of the closet. Spooky synchronicity of that aside, this Emil Frost was very much a distinct imagined entity from myself, someone who I had to make decisions about playing, contemplating, “what’s this jackass liable to do in this situation?” At the time, this would have been read as same-gender play. 

A few years later, that game having ended, I ended up in an ongoing King Arthur Pendragon game, using the full Great Pendragon Campaign, and I made a Player Knight of Aquitanian culture but holding a manor in Brittany. I used a public domain painting of a woman in High Medieval clothing holding a sword as character art, and then after two sessions, I determined/realized this character, Sir “Julian” was a woman in drag, creatively masculinizing “Julia”, right after her first episode of berserk murderous violence. This remained a secret to the other PKs but not to their players, and then she ended up on an adventurous journey into fairyland where she inaugurated romantic chivalry by falling in love with and marrying a fairy damosel, and then because of the superhuman stats of the fey lady, she ended up with an absurdly large Passion of Love (Wife), and then the demands of working 12-hour overnight shifts at a refueling nuclear power plant caught up with me. 

KAP, I think, has a very good, if sometimes risky, methodology of differentiating PKs as not player self-inserts, but as characters to be discovered and played. Certainly Sir Julia became increasingly distinct as an imagined person as I played her, though there of course part of it was wanting to press all the “buttons” on the character sheet. All of this would have been seen as cross-gender play at the time. 

A few more years pass, I’m aware of being trans but not yet of being nonbinary in that finicky and difficult-to-explain-concisely way, and I play in two D&D5 games that don’t last very long at all. In one of them, I make a snooty magician/slumming college professor, and in the other, I make a Zoroastrian mystic paladin. The former a man, the latter a woman. Both games are blandly Illusionist and neither character really exists in a state of play at any point. 

Finally, I end up making two characters for a Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha game, after coming to realize my nonbinary status. For one of them, I put “vingan woman” in the gender box and for the other, I put “woman”. There is, of course, a whole mess of fan questions about and interpretations of the gender terms “vingan”, “nandan”, and “helering” articulated in RQG, and after doing some historical research of old mailing list posts I realized it didn’t matter, I was going to play vingan gender in this game as “more-or-less butch”. The game is far more in a dungeon-crawl kind of mode, though, so character moments are more subtle and emerge less overtly. This last character still isn’t quite same-gender play, for the complexities laid out above, but there’s a definite affinity there as well. 

So what can I say about my own actual play experiences which have produced a string of characters, almost all of whom are some degree of medial between cross-gender and same-gender play? Well, I’m clearly comfortable with doing so on some level, even though my cultural exposure saw cross-gender play as probably suspicious, perverse, and inauthentic. Untangling that complex of ideas is difficult- how much of this is the imaginary of stark gender differences working its way out? How much of this is suspicion of people being “too into roleplaying their character”, eg the transmission of bad experiences at the table and their formulation into a general rule? I don’t know, and I don’t have the resources or training to really probe that sociology. 

What I can say instead is that, at the current moment, I do have clear preferences about the kinds of characters I like to create and play, which run towards playing androgynous, femme, and butch-rather-than-masc characters, and this definitely inflects questions of genre appeal for me. But with that being said, these preferences are far from absolute, in particular if I’m sitting in the “GM” seat at the moment. Some of it is definitely from negative associations for masculinity, and some of it is, glibly, “I spent decades trying to play a dude, I’m clearly not very good at it”. I’m not sure how much it matters. 

And even then, I don’t feel any specific need to make characters and play them with a specified gender of “amazon” or “shapeshifter” on the sheet (setting aside what the game itself may say about what you can put there), but simultaneously, I can identify bits of those gender identities in most of these characters I’ve articulated here. It’s a tangle of thorns indeed! I suspect that digging any deeper may require digging out Judith Butler, not an action to be undertaken lightly. 

So- my experience is that the lines of cross-gender and same-gender play are very easy to find fuzzy and easy to cross, and in turn, I am generally able to draw linkages between my own subjective experience and that of these imaginary people with different genders, and feel comfortable playing them. What are some experiences other people have had with this distinction of play? 

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12 responses to “Cross-Gender Trouble and Play”

  1. Here are a couple of recent examples for me which I hope present relevant contrasts.

    Playing Ribbon Drive, my character Casey was the youngster among several much older characters on the road trip. I decided almost without any consideration for Casey to be genderfluid, which combined with age (between a quarter and a third of my own), led to playing a person extremely different from myself. You can read about the game in Bleak hope.

    More recently, one of the characters in our current Circle of Hands game is a trans woman, as roughly or partially expressed in the game’s Iron Age culture. One of the phrases which arose during preparation was “this biker is queer,” meaning that, if you’re a Circle Knight and a wizard (which in this game is adjacent to deranged), well, most people say, I guess you can be whatever else you want.

    In these two examples especially, the character is notably accepted by their companions and even receives distinct encouragement that isn’t coming from anywhere else. (In the Circle case, we’ve just begun, but it looks that way so far.) The varying discomfort or hostility from most other people in the fiction is an ongoing reality, and this … what’s the right word, arrangement perhaps, is played into by the other real people at the table. It’s a bit different from some other long-ago examples on my mind, e.g., (i) a gay ork in Orkworld was played primarily by-within-about that one player, without interplay or much consequence from the rest of us; and (ii) variant-gender characters in our Hero Wars game were mainly played by me as GM in a way I think of as “not a person, but an NPC” (this applies to a lot of the NPCs, not just these, but the point stands).

    Also, and intermediate in time, so I guess about ten years ago, I played in a two-player game in development which was entirely about transitioning. Most conflicts concerned re-shaping and sometimes abandoning things that were important to the character. This experience is sensitive to discuss and perhaps open to challenge, because I quite liked the character, felt strongly in her skin, and enjoyed the tough development of honesty about self and others, but the designer may have had goals about my emotions or experience that weren’t met.

  2. From one trans woman to another, Effy, thanks for writing this 🙂

    Two games that really hit me right in the I-Don’t-Need-To-Transition-Really were Kagematsu and Sagas of the Icelanders, both of which I played at a local community RPG convention in Virginia, USA, called Camp Nerdly, in the late 00s. The former, because you’re supposed to play “cross gender’ (lmao) characters, and I was both closeted and presenting as a guy at the time, so I played a woman, y’know, my “cross gender” 😉 and the latter because, like your Vingan Woman, Sagas offered me the Shield Maiden.

    Kagematsu was actually an incredibly validating, almost startlingly so, experience and I realized that, because of this, when I was done I could never play Kagematsu again. Because gender dysphoria, mostly.

    Sagas was great because I could, in my very best Egg (unselfaware) Trans Woman fashion, play a very masculine i.e. violent woman character, so I could be myself without having to reveal that I might like icky girly stuff like, idk, weaving? Beer-making? Come to think of it, I think I had fun picking the butchiest woman role in a sea of sturdy, practical, no-nonsense woman roles. Gay af.

    As a general approach to GMing, I am encouraging of players portraying characters of different race or gender, but almost all of my group’s games have very few or zero in-setting stakes for these differences.
    I noticed almost right away that Runequest: RP in Glorantha is gay as hell but like, cis gay?? No gender variation anywhere to speak of except for the occasional widdle allusion. I then got to researching how one might get Sexual Reassignment Surgery in Glorantha, and I was able to hash something together by hacking the Transform Self rune spell.

    I then realized, I don’t want to put trans *players* through the painful experiences of portraying a character dealing with exclusion, self-loathing, difficulties with transition, etc.
    So if and when it comes up, it’s going to be as painless as possible for the in-universe character, because <3

    Y'all should hear about the subcult of Orlanth I came up with the other night – – the Colymar Chief's personal Orlanth shrine is run by a trans man and dedicated to Orlanth Husbanding (on paper). He's Orlanth when he's wedded Ernalda and is trying to keep her happy – there's murals in the shrine of Orlanth sweeping the floor and rubbing Ernalda's feet, for instance.

    But upon closer discussion with the shrine's rune priest, Samus, he reveals that the *actual* deity being revered here – without the knowledge of the Chieftess! – is Ernaldt Husbandwife, aka Ornalda Wifehusband, taking the idea of divine marriage to the level of a literal divine fusion into one, polysex being. 😀 I look forward to seeing where Samus takes me, and what the players do, if anything, with this subcult! 🙂 🙂

  3. My experience is that there has been a general lack of introspection in terms of gender and character. I suspect this is because the people the people who are privileged to not have to consider their sex/gender escape into the games to further avoid having to deal with it. And those who might feel differently, who might have questions and thoughts and do have to have to consider them are also escaping into the game to avoid that pressure (or perhaps relieve it).

    Being kinky has allowed me to take my experiences from kink and that community and apply them to play, hopefully creating space for players to explore gender and sex in a way that is satisfying. I do not think it is a coincidence that so many gamers are kinky and vice versa. So there is a great deal to plumb from kink that can be applied to the gaming space as well. In fact in some of the safety tools we can see a direct lift from kink concepts.

    But, I feel that it is sex that is largely ignored, more than or as much as gender in terms of character. No one ever takes a (consensual) look to see the sex of the character and if it matches the gender, we just always assume, right? And I think that only by creating opportunities for sex and gender to matter can players feel safe in exploring that in play.

  4. I wanted to offer my insights into playing a character different than one’s own gender from when I was relatively inexperienced. This was before I knew anything about these matters, well over a decade ago (I have educated myself and also received plenty of insight from my patient enby and trans friends). When I GM’d, I enforced a strict rule about one playing the gender one was assigned at birth. This was partly because I had seen and also myself played some pretty cringe-y “female” characters, but also because no one at the tables bothered to remember the gender of the other characters – they defaulted to what they saw.

    Nowadays, I’d never institute such a rule because we need to be more open to being flexible with pronouns but also because we shouldn’t take the comfort of people who are too lazy to be respectful above the genuine creative drive of the other players. At the time, though, I thought it was justified, though, because it did make the game run a lot smoother.

    As for other kinds of cross-play, I think it matters if one attempts to portray the character genuinely, as a deliberate stereotype or even just as a joke. All of those are valid, but the latter two shouldn’t really be kicking down. If I, as a (well, sort of) Swede want to play a humourous character, I probably shouldn’t portray a marginalised group. But if I wanted to genuinely explore and it was at a table where it would be handled respectfully, I think it wouldn’t be a problem – though one has to be mindful that what seems respectful to outsiders may not be that in reality.

    • You’ve brought a thought to my mind. My earlier experiences are similar to yours. I never enforced same-gender play, but I think our culture of play in the 1980s took it as given that one would play same-gender. I also played with many women during that time and this assumption seems, in retrospect, to have been in place for everyone.

      … except for the GM. Now isn’t that strange? Apparently it was perfectly all right for this one person to play anyone and everyone of whatever character or description. Consider, too, that as I GMed our Champions game, with person A playing a hero character, we were also playing Rolemaster, with me as a player and that person as GM.

      The logic here is instantly obviously flawed. If I was somehow “good enough” to play women while GMing Champions, then why wasn’t I good enough to play a woman as a character in Rolemaster; if the other person were somehow “not good enough” to play a woman while playing a character in Champions, why or how did they somehow become good enough to play women while GMing Rolemaster?

      It speaks to some very weird constructions of “GM” and “player” as independent states concerning the actual human being in question.

      [As a detail, both games also included women players playing female characters.]

    • I don’t think it’s only about good enough – and even if it is, good enough for a while isn’t the same as portraying the same character session after session. It’s also easier for the GM to reestablish their characters, by doing voices that might be grating if used too often and more naturally providing a lot of descriptions, so it’s easier to be like: The girl turns towards you, her eyes glittering in the firelight. Grabbing for your hand, Mork, her tiny hand delicate on your bruised knuckles, she mutters, almost imperceptibly “I’m glad you’re here. You’re not like the other orcs.”

      The same situation, where the girl is a player character, would probably sound something like: Bella turns towards you, taking your hand. “I’m glad you’re here. You’re not like the other orcs” or even just what the character says.

    • There’s something interesting for me in your experience there being that the situation which drove your rule requiring same-gender play was that players judged character gender based on the appearance of the player and used the wrong pronouns/other referents for the character. I think, without making too much hay of this fact, that there’s something going on in cross-gender play that hits upon our understanding of gender generally, such that misgendering of roleplayed characters is a negative, even grating experience (if I’m not putting it too strongly).

      Some of this is definitely tied up with beliefs about immersion, I think, as Ron’s point about “GM” versus “Player” expectations suggests, but your experience makes it clear there are other things going on besides the concept of immersion here, to my mind.

  5. This comment is perhaps addressing a larger scope than the body of this post, but regarding this specific issue:

    «There is a question that people tend to avoid asking in roleplaying game discussion, in my experience, even as they spend a fair amount of time articulating answers and implicitly presenting them. This question is along the lines of “How much am I allowed to deviate from my social positionality and my lived experiences in making and playing characters?” There are of course a lot of domains this question concerns»

    I think today there’s also a bit of confusion because so much of current role-playing discourse happens around the world of actual plays which are media that is made to be broadcast and consumed by people outside the group of players.

    I hold that if person A chooses to play identity B, and does it in a way others may find offensive, it is really between them and their group as long as it stays out of the public record. But, if it is live streamed or recorded, and watched by an audience, suddenly there are tons of other concerns which are as *valid* to that particular medium as they are *irrelevant*, I would say, to the subjects that concern us.

    • Good point.

      Similar concerns get raised in writing circles around who has the right to write about whom–not trying to have that discussion here, just saying that it’s a fraught area in media these days and the comparison with roleplaying-as-entertainment to any other mass transitive media in this regard is spot on.

  6. Hello Effy. Thank you for bringing up this topic. I’m not sure if what I have say is much relevant, except sharing my own experience. The post is longer than I expected and I’m writing this humbly, authentically, with all my doubts and openness to learn, hoping nothing here is offensive.

    I identify my gender as the most dominant heteronormative you can imagine – a cis man. For some unconscious reason that I have yet not unrooted, playing my gender is absolutely out of my comfort zone. When imagining a character, I “naturally” imagine a cis woman. I have no idea or opinion why, it just happens to be the case, and I have to force myself out of my comfort zone to play a man.

    I realize that I never played anything else, and here, I have some idea why. I won’t get into psychoanalytical self-dissection – I’m super bad at this and I don’t thing it will be relevant for our purpose here – which is play. But here a few things that might me relevant, if anyone sees an interest in that.

    My first character was a woman. I was 11 years old. We played the d&d black box before that but I don’t count as my “first” – we didn’t enjoy the experience. We were a group of four 11 years old kids. All white but one, my best friend, an adopted Indian. I specify ethnic group as I think this may be relevant later. Our experience in RPG was mostly Make your Own Adventure books – we were fan of the Lone Wolf serie and we shared book.

    Our GM bought Call of Cthulhu 4th edition, and said “ok, this is an rpg, so no sissys, someone plays a woman please, it’s totally legit.” None of us had any contact with RPG or geek culture at that time. Our only contact were Dragon Magazine, Blood Bowl, and the small RPG from the Board Game shop near the school. No players or club or whatever. We were too shy to talk with the older customers or clerks.

    I said “ok, I’ll play a nurse”. It’s a long time so my memories can’t be trusted enough, as I may be retrospectively reinterpret some elements. But I was watching A LOT of horror movies from the 80s-90s and Vietnam movies too (my stepfather was obsessed by that).

    We played 8 hours by week during 5 years, and played all possible published scenarios related to the Miskatonic River & the Dreamlands. I’ve lost my character during the last year – and decided to play my character’s ex boyfriend looking for her (who never appeared in the fiction before, he was created for that). Those 5 years were incredible – even if it was mostly ever transitive thespian play of published scenario or storyboarding, with some “real play” between the interstice (all the parts played in the dreamlands). When I played the boyfriend, an Australian aviator, it fell pretty flat. I was never able to find what I felt when I played Brenda, my psychiatric nursed who became investigator after witnessing an exorcism in the Arkham Asylum.

    It may have influenced my relationship to cross-gender play. After that and before 2017, I can count the number of male characters I played on one hand. They were all very strong caricatures – Gregg Araki’s character styles.

    Playing Brenda was a challenge. Since the beginning, I was asking myself how to play a woman. I have no memories of how well I did, but at 11 years old, I had no knowledge of woman as hard sexualization. It may have influenced me too. I have no idea how it evolved and when. I know that constantly, playing a woman constantly raised in my mind: “how to play a woman … without projecting my own self idealization of what a woman is”. Today, we would say “without the Male Gaze”. And every time I played a woman – that was my challenge.

    Something may be related. I was super androgynous. At 17 years, I identified myself subjectively and intimately as a girl – though I had no concern, interest or claim towards what other would assign to me. Actually, I was fine with people identifying me as a boy, although I was fine with people identifying me as a girl. I was just a bit pissed off when, entering men public toilets, people would direct me towards the lady’s room. My own relation to gender assignation was basically: I don’t care, so kind of apolitical. But I dressed and did make up in a very sexualized way, looking like a girl as hell, and being something like bisexual if you want to put a name of that. That changed later so I can totally relate to what you wrote about gender being contextual – but my comment is not about that.

    At some point, I realized that all the character I played had miscarried a child. This was a repeating pattern. Honestly, those years were though – lots of death, suicide, poverty, violence, discrimination, depression, anxiety, drugs, toxic relationship and as Arraki wrote, sex, mayhem, whatever. So all of that would translate into the characters I played.

    When I realized the miscarriage, I stop doing that. Then I analyzed other patterns. First, I never played relationships, love or sex. I remember having done a conscious choice first, being younger: the fear of portraying badly a woman, or to project my own male gaze that. So I just ignored those things to avoid the problem. For the same reason, I avoided the idea of playing an homosexual woman. I mean, being an heterosexual man, playing a lesbian that is not a projection of a man’s desire is the obvious thing I should be able to adress.

    I would never pretend that I’m good at playing a woman. But your post may be realized that I played woman character for 30 years now, and RPG being an art, or a craft (or whatever), I learned at least the pitfall to avoid and some way to avoid them. I really think playing Mitsu during our Bushido game was a transformative experience for me. I wrote a bit about my process in comment 16, in Keizoku wachikara nari.

    In other way, “trying” to play cross-gender puts me in a path where I’m doing everything I can to portray an unique woman, without lacking respect for women. It asks a lot of real curiosity and empathy. And it raises the question: Can you play a character who has an experience of oppression that you never experienced yourself? By “can”, I mean two things : (1) are you authorized to do it, (2) are you able to educate yourself, to deconstruct your own representation, to show enough empathy in your life so you’re able, not to “know” what an experience of oppression is, but at least to be able to express it in terms that are not offensive.

    This resonates a lot with a question I raised to myself 13 years ago when I discovered black feminism theory: can a white man be an ally to black feminism? I have a statement about that today, that I was able to formulate with black feminist themselves, but that’s another story.

    I have never articulate all that so well before I’ve read your post and thought about this. I see playing cross-gender as a path, a craft to portray respectful people more discriminated than me without appropriating their experience. When I created my Legendary Lives character, I ended up with a winged woman with a heavy weight. And I was super excited to play it, but also terrified (I still am, as play never occurred). I imagined her discriminated for a weight in her culture, and it was a founding part of how I imagined her personality, motivations, her weltanschauung. I feel the same fear (as an expression of anxiety, discomfort) should I play someone from an oucast discriminated group – various groups of Romani being an obvious case in European countries. So this all conversation relates a lot with the racists post here on adept play :

    And now, about gender I’m thinking: I want to do this. I feel far more comfortable to play heterosexual relationship with my heterosexual cis woman character than when I was 11, or 15, or 20. I feel confident – not enough so I don’t have to think at least twice before I push play in that direction – but at least confident to see the pitfall and avoid them if I get into this play. But now I want to look at different genders and get out of the comfortable heteronormative.

    So the way I see cross-gender play, is a way to dare to confront my own social constructions of what the other his, through the expression in a group. It’s not just signaling values “hey transgenders have rights too”, which is an easy thing to do. It’s actually confronting the expression of my real subjective constructs to the reality of a group and to learn, through an empathic process and work that needs to be done outside of this play and this group, the reality of the “Other’s” experience. In this way, I value highly cross-gender play, and I value highly trans-ethnic play, and I encourage thinking about playing people with disabilities, older people, and different types of oppression.

  7. Heya, Effy!

    You know, I’ve never played a non-binary player character. As a GM, I’ve had NPCs from all over the gender spectrum, either gender pops into my head as appropriate or I roll a die. Ron, above, mentioned how it has never been considered odd for Game Masters to play cross-gender. I’ve been (with an exception of a few years) primarily Game Mastering since my second session of Dungeons & Dragon. As a player though? It hasn’t come up.

    So I’ve mostly always played cross-gender and never saw it as a big deal. It felt in line with my day-to-day existence. I would have to remind myself when playing a character: “Oh ya, this [gender] in this context, means this character is expected to do [action].” Which, coincidentally, is what I would do most of my life “I am assigned dude, a dude is expected to be like this”. It’s kinda hilarious to put that into words, honestly. (How could I not know about my own gender for so long?)

  8. Hi Effy! Thank you for the opportunity to think through the nexus of my real-life gender identity and the identities of the characters I play. To address the former: I’m a cis male, mostly performing masculinity (when I am consciously performing gender) out of preference, though also suppressing some “femme” expressions, in mannerism and dress, because it currently benefits me in my professional life. I’ve been fortunate in friendship, with close relationships with cis women, as well as non-binary, trans and agender people.

    On the latter: Huh.

    For PC’s and notable NPC’s, I’ve been playing women almost exclusively the last year. They’ve been sorceresses of one kind or another, ranging from, “Pragmatic and scary” to, “Deranged and flatout terrifying.” A couple of notable examples. On the flatout terrifying side: A major NPC in a Burning Wheel game who found herself caught between affection for her ne’er-do-well son and the tenets of her fanatical religion. On the pragmatic and scary side: The Dragonborn businesswoman and scientist-Warlock in 4e.

    Ron’s point about playing characters with other identities than my own as “just NPCs” hits a nerve when thinking about a few of the women characters I’ve played over the past year. Overall, though, I find it very fun and even empowering to imagine myself as femme, formidable, and fabulous, even when the character is somewhat cartoonish.

    Out of all these characters, I am most proud of how I’ve played Connie Bleak in Marvel Super Heroes. I’ve thought a lot about how to play her as a character who defies a lot of gender expectations, but is also very aware of those expectations. It’s noteworthy that sex and eroticism haven’t played much of a role in Connie’s development. In fact, sex isn’t something I’ve focused on as material in my roleplaying. These reflections are making me think critically both about the kinds of characters I default to, and also about areas I’d like to explore as a practitioner.

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