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WoW adds uniting element to YA novel about a transsexual teen

WoW adds uniting element to YA novel about a transsexual teen
Lisa Poisso
Lisa Poisso|@@lisapoisso|November 22, 2012 2:00 PM
WoW adds uniting element to YA novel about a transgender teen
"Look! Look! Someone wrote something and actually mentioned World of Warcraft!" That used to be A Thing, a Really Big Thing. After eight years and millions and millions of players, though, it's much less of A Thing. Everybody knows WoW. In fact, the last time a group tried to make a big deal out of the fact that someone played WoW, the outcome didn't turn out in their favor.

So WoW has evolved from A Weird Thing to An Everybody Thing, sort of like the latest hot TV show or book. It's something people talk about over coffee. And that's why author Rachel Gold chose to have the teenage protagonists of her young adult novel Being Emily play WoW -- that, and the opportunity WoW provides to try on different gender roles by playing characters of the opposite sex. You see, Being Emily is the first YA novel to tell the story of a transsexual girl from her perspective.

"I've been playing WoW since its first weekend, and although I'm not transsexual myself, I know that a lot of my trans friends who game found relief in the ability to play a character that matched the gender they know themselves to be, regardless of what body they were born into," Gold observes. "I included that feature of gaming in the novel by having the main character and her girlfriend both play WoW (casually, since they're in high school)."

Since Being Emily arrived in bookstores at the end of June, it's hit #2 on Amazon.com's Hot New Releases in Teen Fiction & Literature. Gold talks with us about why the book resonates with teens and how WoW is helping open doors for people searching for new identities and places to be accepted for themselves.

WoW adds uniting element to YA novel about a transgender teenMain character Lightbringr
Guild Inner Peace
Realm Shandris

WoW Insider: So here you are: You're sitting down to write a book about being a transgender teen, and you're wondering how to round it out with relatable and relevant details. At what point during your conceptualization of the book did you decide to bring in a touch of WoW?

Rachel Gold: WoW was in the book from the first draft. In later edits, I expanded two of the scenes. I wanted to make it easier for non-gamers to understand Emily's experience in WoW so I detailed that more. Plus I was getting a good response from early readers about including the game.

To give a little background: The main character, Emily, was born into a male body but she knows she's female. She's 16 and has had to live her whole life so far trying to fit into this male role that everyone expects of her. She deals with that by pretending a lot and running these internal programs that have her act like the guy she's expected to be -- but she finds that logging into WoW and getting to play female characters is very affirming for her.

What was the goal of weaving WoW into the story?

I've played WoW on and off since the first weekend it came out and I have friends in the transgender community who talked to me about game worlds as places where they can be themselves before they've fully transitioned in real life. I wanted to represent that experience in the book.

Plus I wanted to honor the benefits of game worlds. I think that for a lot of us, being able to try on different kinds of characters can help us open up sides of ourselves we haven't fully explored. That doesn't have to be about gender or sexuality -- game worlds can be places to explore leadership abilities, compassion, aggression, self-confidence, or to socialize differently than we do in real life.

One of my favorite scenes in Being Emily is when Emily's new therapist talks to her about gaming archetypes as a way to learn more about her. When I meet a fellow gamer, one of the first things I want to know about them is what kinds of characters they play because then I feel like I really know them. I wanted the book to show how games like WoW help us learn about ourselves and each other.

WoW adds uniting element to YA novel about a transgender teenDid knowing that you were writing this book cause any gay or transgender players you already knew to come out?

I'm very out both in game and in real life, so I think the people who know me have already come out. But the reverse did happen -- during the time I was editing the book, I got a few GLBT friends to try WoW. I think they were attracted to the idea of being able to go into another world and be someone else or be a heroic version of themselves.

In a 2008 interview with a member of the guild Taint, I noted that many players just don't understand why someone's sexual orientation (and of course gender identification) would have any relevance to their guild experience in an online game. As I asked in that interview, what does membership in a pro-GLBT guild offer that players can't get in another guild?

I've heard people ask that in general chat often when someone asks for a GLBT or GLBT-friendly guild. I think when you grow up heterosexual and cissexual (that's the opposite of transsexual) in American culture, it's hard to really get what it's like to not see yourself represented everywhere. For GLBT players, often they're just looking for a place where they can play without everyone assuming they're straight and cissexual.

Plus in a GLBT-friendly guild, you're somewhat insulated from anti-gay language other players might use. For example, I still frequently hear players using the word "gay" when they mean "stupid" as in "that hunter's gay" or "this new valor vendor system is so gay." That use of language can be hurtful for GLBT players -- particularly those who are just coming out and hearing their sexual identity used as an analogy for "stupid."

And that's just the medium level of hurtful language -- I've heard worse and I've heard it in guild chats as well. In fact, a friend and I left a guild we'd joined on a new server specifically because the guild leader would not tell other members to stop saying "faggot" as an insult in guild chat. My game time is my time to relax and have fun, so I choose to protect that time -- and I think that's a reasonable choice for anyone to make. Even if you're an activist in your real life, it's okay to come into WoW and not confront everyone who hasn't yet learned that using "gay" as an insult isn't cool.

Another reason is the freedom to talk about your personal life and have it not be a big deal. I suspect there are some guilds where people only ever talk about the game, but I've never been in one. There's usually a little chatting about what someone did over the weekend or if someone's missing a raid because they're moving across the country to be with their girlfriend/boyfriend. In a GLBT-friendly guild you can be a woman talking about her girlfriend or a man talking about his boyfriend and everyone's just as happy for you as they are for the other members. And if you're transgender or transsexual and your voice still sounds like it matches the body you were born into, people aren't going to give you shit about that.

And the last reason is to be around good role models. I think it's an important part of the coming out process to see transgender and GLB people who are living open, happy lives. You're more likely to find those people in GLBT-friendly guilds.

WoW adds uniting element to YA novel about a transgender teen
As part of your research for the book, did you experiment with playing characters of different genders yourself? What did you take away from that?

I have played characters of both genders and my main is currently a male tauren -- though the character I've played longest is a female orc hunter.

Some gender theorists -- I'm thinking of Julia Serano in particular here -- suggest that our experience of gender arises from a mix of our biology and how other people react to us. Biology isn't eliminated in WoW; we still have our emotional landscape and the way our hormones color how we see the world, but the way other people treat us can shift radically. I know there are a lot of hetero guys who play female characters, and I think sometimes they're shocked when they get hit on or when they receive unexpected offers of help, which are fairly common experiences of women in our culture.

I recommend that players try both genders and a variety of sizes of characters. I think it can be a really eye-opening experience.

Tell us about the panel you appeared on at Gaylaxicon recently. Can you hit the highlights of your presentation or speaking points?

The panel was "GLBT in Gaming" and I was on it with the guys from "This is Outcasted," which is a gay gamer podcast. We talked a fair bit about WoW. One thing that we all had in common was that in our character creation process, we all thought about what sexual orientation our character was. Plus most of us had more than one sexual orientation across various characters. So for example, my main is a gay male and some of my female characters are lesbian and some are actually bisexual, and it's different based on the character, even though I'm not really a roleplayer. And in our experience, most of our hetero and cissexual friends didn't think about that dimension for their characters.

We also talked about whether there would ever be a major quest line involving a same-sex couple in WoW, like the quests involving Thrall and Aggra. My personal vote is for Garona Halforcen to come back into the game (from the comics) and fall head over heals for a woman character -- maybe even a human.

And we discussed what we do when we hear anti-gay language in game. It seems like the longer we've been playing the more likely we were just to ignore it or to use humor to point it out, rather than confrontation.

WoW adds uniting element to YA novel about a transgender teen
Can you give us a short list of tips and resources for players who might discovering questions or concerns about their own gender identity?
  • If you're just coming out and you want to play in a GLBT-friendly guild, you can always create an alt to ask for one and then join with a different character.
  • Turn off general chat and trade chat (or make another window so you don't have to look at them).
  • Try not to get discouraged if you hear a few negative remarks. Remember this is a game with a wide diversity of ages and the player using anti-gay language in a chat channel might be very young and not understand that using the word "gay" in place of "stupid" is hurtful. If this is your relaxation/recreation time, it's okay not to educate every person like that. You're not alone, there are lots of us out here.
  • On the other hand, if people being truly offensive -- you can report them. It feels pretty satisfying and Blizzard is good about giving people temporary bans.
  • Just because you like playing a character that's different from the sex you were assigned at birth doesn't mean you're transgender.
  • If you are exploring gender, or are openly transgender or transsexual, find a guild that will not only support you but defend you. There are wonderful people in WoW and you don't need to spend your game time worrying about how people are going to treat you.

What about some suggestions for players who suspect a guildmate or in-game friend might be struggling with gender identity issues?

Let them go at their own pace. It can be very scary for people who aren't ready to come out to be pulled into a conversation about their gender identity or sexuality. You can also let them know that you're supportive by the way you talk about and treat people who are already out -- either in game or in the media.

If they are talking to you about their gender identity, a lot of times a top concern is if they're going to be able to live the kind of life that they want. I was talking to a 17-year-old transgender player a few months ago, and one of her big worries was whether she'd be able to find someone to be in a relationship with once she was able to transition to living as a woman. Of course finding someone is usually high on the list of anyone who's 17, but you can imagine how much more frightening it is when you're also dealing with gender or sexuality issues. You can reassure them that there are lots of GLBT people who have successfully come out or transitioned and are living happy lives.

For many people struggling with gender identity, being interacted with as the gender they know themselves to be is huge. For example, if someone is just coming out as a transsexual woman (that's a person born with a male body and a female sense of self), she might still have a male-sounding voice for a while. And it can be tough if you're not used to that to be on a voice chat with this male-sounding voice and calling her "she," but doing that is so important.

If you're afraid that a friend is considering suicide or are engaging in risky or self-harming behavior, one great resource is The Trevor Project. It's a crisis intervention and suicide prevention resource for GLBT and questioning youth.

WoW adds uniting element to YA novel about a transgender teen
OK, fun time -- let's talk about how you WoW. What's your playstyle? What are you into in Mists at this point?

I switched from DPS to healing in Lich King, and every expansion I like healing more. I'm particularly enjoying pally healing right now because I get to throw the Hammer of Thor (Light's Hammer) around and I can now bubble twice. (And at this early stage in Mists, people need a lot of bubbling.) I really enjoy the mastermind healer role where I can be strategic and save people and turn the tide of battle.

I don't have that much time to play this year because I'm promoting Being Emily and working on some future projects. I'm lucky in that my guild raids one day a week but we're good enough that I'll get to see all the end content with them. They were very excited for me earlier this year when Being Emily hit bookstores and even forgave me for having to miss raids while I was out publicizing the book.

My other personal gaming project is to get all the healing classes to max level just to see what it's like to heal with each one. I had all four at 85 but now there's the monk and she's going to take forever to level, so I'm sure it'll be well into 2013 before that project's complete.

Oh, and just so you know that I'm a serious geek, my newest gaming toy is the a plastic shelf that fits over my treadmill so that I can walk and play at the same time. Between work, writing and gaming, I sit so much of my day that I'm trying to get more standing and walking in. I can't raid while on the treadmill, but I can quest and do pet battles.

What's next? Are you still out promoting the book, or are there any related projects or new projects in the works?

I'm definitely still promoting Being Emily and I'm enjoying the feedback I've been getting. I'm excited to hear from more gamers about their experience of gender and gaming.

I'm also very happy to announce that I'm working with my publisher on a sequel to Being Emily. It also looks at gender issues and gaming, but this time with an alternate reality game played on a college campus. Now that I covered a lot of basic information about what it's like to be a transsexual girl in Being Emily, I want this next book to tackle more advanced issues while still being a exciting story. And of course as a young adult novel in addition to asking questions like "What does it mean to be a woman?" it also delves into crucial topics such as "Does that boy really like me?"

I'd like to write and publish many more young adult novels that include gaming in them as a way that the characters get to learn about themselves and prepare themselves to take on challenges in their lives. That depends somewhat on sales and what publishers are buying, but I think our gaming community is huge and becoming more vocal all the time, so I'm hopeful.

Learn more about Rachel Gold and her book at Being Emily. Turn to WoW Insider's Drama Mamas column for more about coping with transgender issues in WoW, and see the post by guest Drama Mama Seraphina Brennan, a former senior editor at our sister publication Massively, who has has personal experience with this issue.

"I never thought of playing WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn) ... a blind ex-serviceman and the guildmates who keep him raiding as a regular ... and a 70-year-old grandma who tops her raid's DPS charts as its legendary-wielding GM. Send your nominations to lisa@wowinsider.com.
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WoW adds uniting element to YA novel about a transsexual teen