I learned early on in life that as a result of being disabled, some things were going to be more difficult for me than others. This is nothing new, as I have learned that everyone struggles with something, somewhere in their life. However, this also rings true in terms of being gay in the gaming industry. We’ve made a lot of progress over the years, and I am proud of how far we have come. Despite that pride and despite the pride I feel for who I am and what I do…we still have a long way to go. Here is my experience being gay in the gaming industry, just in time for the end of Pride Month.
It is important to note that my experience and that of other members of the LGBT community are likely to be different. No two people experience things the same way, and a few factors skew my experience somewhat. The first of which is that I was born and raised in South Texas, a conservative area, that despite all efforts remains somewhat closed-minded. I also live in a fairly rural area, and though my parents are allies who have been supportive from the start, there are many who are not as enlightened.
I grew up in a multi-generational gaming family. My grandfather still enjoys video games, even at the ripe age of 68. We talk about games often, either the upcoming releases or new things he has picked up on sale at GameStop. My mom plays games as well (something she got from her father) and in the past, my dad has been known to pick up Tomb Raider (not the reboot, the classic) or Crash Team Racing and give it a whirl, though these days games don’t really excite him as much.
My earliest gaming memories were playing the original Super Mario Bros on the NES, as well as watching my mom play games on her PlayStation like Final Fantasy VII. In fact, the first words I ever read were dialogue from Final Fantasy VII’s gameplay. I played all sorts of things in my formative years, Sonic the Hedgehog, Crash Bandicoot, Valkyrie Profile, Star Ocean, and more. It may not seem like these things matter much in an article about my experiences being gay in this industry, but in a way, these early experiences really shaped how I viewed video games as a young person.
I wasn’t able to go out and ride bikes like other kids; I wasn’t the kid that had sports practice or boy scout meetings. So, I used video games to experience new adventures and things I was not physically able to enjoy. Even from an early age, I saw that things were fairly one-sided. Mario saved Princess Peach, Sonic saved Amy, and eventually even Spyro the Dragon had a female love interest.
There were characters that could be considered on the LGBT spectrum, but in most cases, they were just treated as punch lines. They were the effeminate, weird, quirky characters at which everyone rolled their eyes. Even the main characters would make jokes at their expense, or outright ignore their existence altogether.
As I got older, I noticed that for every male protagonist, there was usually a female love interest by default. The same went for female characters, which were constantly thrown together with various male characters until something stuck. The only female character I can remember not having a permanent love interest was Lara Croft, and even then they tried from time to time. They used the men in her life to shape her character, such as her father, love interests, and men she admired.
I began to see these things as normal, and because I am from the south, the world let me continue to believe that for a while. I was young; it was not time for me to learn about the realities of the world yet. My parents tried to make sure that I wasn’t sheltered too much, but as parents, there was only so much they could teach and remain age appropriate.
As I got older I started to understand that I didn’t look at girls the same way my peers did. I even noticed it in the way I played games. If there was an option to play a female character I chose to play that female. Claire Redfield or Lara Croft; the list could go on and on. This was for multiple reasons; I like playing ranged characters, and a majority of female characters focused on ranged fighting back in the day. I liked the way the female characters looked, moved, and usually, the male outfits and armor were just plain ugly.
Looking back, I realize that I chose female characters because if they were given a romantic partner, it was predominantly a male. I was choosing what I myself wanted. When Bioware games came on the scene, I started to realize the truth. Mass Effect was the first big wake-up call for me. The first game didn’t allow a homosexual male romance, but the idea of two women together in a game brought me to a realization that I wasn’t looking at the whole picture. I played through straight romances and every gay or lesbian option I was allowed. It was new, exciting, and fun. Conversely, I also remember the backlash Bioware received in the media for portraying a lesbian romance, despite it being in a sci-fi game with an alien character.
On top of that, these romances weren’t treated like the sex mini-games in the God of War series, which I found fun and hilarious, but ultimately were just a means to gain more XP orbs. It also wasn’t treated like the hookers in Grand Theft Auto which in my experience, were basically just there to imply that your character was able to get laid, without much substance.
When Dragon Age: Origins released, I fell in love with the world it created. To this day the Dragon Age franchise is one of my favorite series, and it was Origins that helped me to see things in a new way. It wasn’t just playing a homosexual male in the first Dragon Age game that helped, of course. I started to pay attention to the things around me. I started to really see past the mean-spirited things that people would say at my high school about gay students. I started to realize that I had more in common with them than I wanted to believe.
The first time I romanced Zevran from Dragon Age: Origins, I tried to only play romance scenes when no one else was watching me play. I didn’t want the questions about why I was choosing gay romance options, though I probably wasn’t all that subtle. It was a weird experience, and I was not even close to comfortable enough with my sexuality at that young age to play through it confidently.
I came out to my mom as bisexual first. I was not ready to come to terms with the fact that I was gay and that I wasn’t at all interested in women. I tried to fake it out of survival, and I tried to live a sort of double life at school and in public. I was afraid of what would happen if I came out. My parents are not religious, and they are supportive of the LGBT community, but I feared that if they were presented with it in their own home that perhaps things would change, and not for the better. At that time I didn’t even know what Pride Month was, much less why it existed.
This fear bled into my school life as well. I’m from a conservative, small, rural, area, full of churchgoing people. In my experience with the people in my area that went to church every Sunday the belief was that if you weren’t straight you were going to hell. I don’t say this to badmouth Christian people; I say it to paint the picture of what I was confronted with on a daily basis. Snide comments about gays, jokes, and demeaning statements that disparaged anyone who was different from the norm were simply commonplace.
To come to terms with things, I delved into other video games, as was my usual escape. I also focused on academics, figuring that if I could just buckle down and get through school, then things would be better. In a way, I was right. I escaped in story-based games but found that outside of Bioware, most developers were sticking to the typical heterosexual romantic experiences. This didn’t kill my enjoyment of great storytelling, but it did feel like they were only telling some of the stories that could be told.
Around my junior year, I began to delve into multiplayer games with friends I had met on the internet. This was where I saw a whole other side of the gaming industry that I had not expected. An industry that I had felt was accepting and a safe place to escape suddenly showed a dark, angry side that I did not understand. Homosexual slurs were thrown around freely, people told other people they hoped they contracted AIDS, and so many other things went on that I honestly questioned my place in the industry.
I had just started internships at various gaming journalism sites that same year, volunteer positions that allowed me to gain job experience and write about the industry. I spent a lot of time ignoring the dark side of the industry that I had experienced because I loved everything else so much. Around this time I also began to expand how I viewed other forms of media, searching for shows and movies that represented me, with limited success.
(Editors Note: For an example of the type of language used all too frequently in games, follow this link. Warning: This contains hateful language not suitable for younger audiences.)
I came out fully in 2012, during my senior year of high school. I stopped pretending and began to speak out both at school and at home. When I played multiplayer games I tried to challenge what people were saying and why they said it. Through doing this I learned that in some ways, there are some battles that are too big for one person to fight alone.
I began to make friends that accepted me and took comfort in the acceptance I received from my parents. Life wasn’t perfect, and there were things that needed work, but I had made a lot of progress. The biggest thing was that I had begun to accept myself. I began to research things like Pride Month, the fight to cure AIDS, and even things like the Stonewall Riots.
As time has progressed, more games have showcased LGBT relationships and characters in their campaigns like The Last of Us, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Fallout 4, the Grand Theft Auto Series, and so many more. Additionally, a variety of television series have also showcased homosexual romance as well. It wasn’t perfect back then and still isn’t, considering most gay relationships tend to end in either promiscuous infidelity or the death of one romantic partner, or both. If you want evidence of that, just Google the “Tragic Lesbians” or “Bury your Gays” tropes. There is plenty of proof online.
Even this year during E3, we see games like The Last of Us Part II, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Cyberpunk 2077, and a few others that are taking the initiative to continue showcasing LGBT characters. We have come a very long way, even in just the 24 years that I have been alive, but we have a long way to go.
Multiplayer games are still a brewing den of toxic behavior, people using slurs of all varieties, and acting belligerently toward people who are different. Not only that, but most developers give players the choice of being a gay character, while the majority of games are still reinforcing the idea that heterosexuality is a default setting.
Games like The Last of Us Part II are taking things in the right direction, saying “Ellie is a Lesbian, and that is a part of her character. You have no choice in the matter.” Science has proven over and over again that being gay, or transgender, or bisexual, is not a choice, so why should the gaming industry treat it as such?
More games should normalize the idea that just because a character is gay, or transgender, doesn’t make their story suddenly unappealing. Let players of all walks of life step in different shoes; let it be a default setting for once. It is important to think about that during Pride Month because Pride isn’t about “Look at us!” it is about “Look how far we’ve come.”
I applaud the gaming industry for the progress we have made, but my experience and the experiences of other people prove that there is still more progress to be made. These things take time, and I believe that we are on the right track, but if we do not remain vigilant and keep talking about these issues, we risk falling back into old habits. We risk regressing and losing the progress we have fought so hard for.