GDC opens up its arms to the trans community

Simple gestures send a strong message of inclusivity.
Nicole Lee
N. Lee|03.07.17

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Nicole Lee
March 7th, 2017
GDC opens up its arms to the trans community

Two weeks ago, the Trump administration rolled back federal protection for transgender students who wish to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity. The act has drawn criticism for not just discriminating against transgendered people, but also putting them in harm's way. Several Silicon Valley companies have also come forward to decry the rollback, proclaiming their commitment to LGBT rights. At the Game Developer's Conference in San Francisco last week, it was clear that the gaming industry shares the sentiment too.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the conference's registration desk. When attendees arrived to collect their badges, they saw a handful of personal pronoun ribbons that they could attach to their names. The idea is to quickly let people around know how to refer to individuals -- whether as a she/her, a he/him, or, if they prefer not to identify with either gender, a them/they. It's a welcoming gesture aimed squarely at the transgender and non-binary community, where using the wrong pronoun can lead to a feeling of alienation.

The request for gender ribbons came from attendees themselves. Meggan Scavio, the General Manager for GDC, had the idea of incorporating personalized ribbons to add a little flair and color to the normal name badge. So she put out a call on Twitter to ask what sorts of ribbons people would like. "The number one request was overwhelmingly for pronouns," she said. "It's cool to see a giant event support everyone."

Personal pronoun add-ons on conference badges aren't an entirely new concept. Smaller independent gaming conventions like Indiecade and GaymerX have had them for awhile now, as have a few corporate get-togethers. For example Worldcon, a sci-fi literary convention, and Dreamforce, Salesforce's annual technology conference, which introduced personal pronoun buttons last year. But GDC is the biggest gaming-related conference to incorporate them, a sign that the practice is becoming more widespread.

"I'm a huge fan of the idea of gender pronoun ribbons," said Carolyn Petit, Managing Editor for Feminist Frequency, an online video series that brings a critical eye to gender representation in pop culture. Petit also happens to be a trans woman. "It normalizes the idea that gender is ambiguous for a lot of people."

Sai Timmermann, a game developer who identifies as non-binary and prefers the they/them pronoun, echoes the sentiment. "It's something that we've wanted for awhile," they said. "Last year's GDC, there was an effort among some developers to make pronoun pin buttons. And to see it go from a grassroots effort to something that's readily accessible and out there... it's a statement from GDC that we want you to feel welcome."

"I've seen a lot of people use the they/them ribbons," Timmermann continued. "It's been so great! It's a great conversation starter for people who otherwise didn't know who else was out." Another addition to GDC this year were big signs directing people to gender neutral restrooms. There's at least one in every building of the Moscone Center. There were guerilla paper signs last year, said Timmermann, but this year, there's official signage.

GDC has historically been a pretty outspoken advocate for diversity and inclusion. It regularly holds an advocacy track for issues relating to accessibility, LGBT groups and women in gaming. Indeed, there are several prominent and public trans people in the gaming community.

"This is an industry, that more than other industries, tend to have people outside of the traditional gender binary," said Timmermann. "Because internet culture makes it a safer space to explore your gender and feel comfortable coming out. A lot of us grew up in MMOs and being able to be ourselves in an online space. There's not that repercussion that if I come out at school, I'm going to get beat up."

The inclusion of different perspectives is leading to a shift in the industry, said Timmerman. For example, they point out that the winner of the GDC award for Excellence in Narrative this year is Ladykiller in a Bind, a game that's described as "an erotic romantic comedy about social manipulation, crossdressing, and girls tying up other girls." "It's both a queer and kinky game which represents two marginalized, swept-under-the-rug groups," said Timmerman.

As welcome as the pronouns are, though, Petit said there's still work to be done. She would really like it if more cisgendered allies wore them too, because it helps put trans people on equal footing. "Most of us as trans people are always going to be on guard," she said. "We can't completely move around and feel safe."

"Gestures like the pronoun ribbons can really normalize the reality that transgender is absolutely as authentic and as real as cisgender," said Petit. "It's a very small thing, but it does send a message."

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