Gender & Sexuality in your game
Okay. Dang. This is a hard topic.
There are a few issues that can get us started, but there are people with PhD's who struggle with this topic, so by no means is this a complete exploration of the topic. I'm just one little gamer in a big sea of games, who happens to think all people are people regardless of arbitrary assignments forces upon a society by a pragmatic and often under-informed few with large amounts of power and money. (Oops, is my political side showing?)
ANYWAY. If something I say upsets you, please pause and reflect upon why it upsets you. If you feel I am being inaccurate, please remember that I am NOT an expert and I do NOT claim to be. If you feel I am incorrect, please remember that I am NOT you, and therefore my opinions and views may NOT be the same as yours, and that's okay. Thanks.
Gender is hard. Why is gender hard? Because gender is complicated. Back in the day it was easy for Gary Gygax to say things like:
"Gaming in general is a male thing. It isn't that gaming is designed to exclude women. Everybody who's tried to design a game to interest a large female audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the different thinking processes of men and women."
To be fair, I don't know where exactly the quote comes from, so I can't be 100% sure that he even said it, but it does show the general view of things for non-male gamers for a long time in the game world, not only for players, but for designers. I could go on a diatribe about why this was and how it was wrong, but that's not my point.
Here's a quote from me, a gamer, a game master, and a game designer:
"Games are not a gender thing. It isn't that gaming is designed for any particular gender. Everybody who has tried to design a game to interest a single gender audience has failed. And I think that has to do with the fact that NO GAME IS INHERENTLY RESTRICTED TO ONLY ONE GENDER."
Have you ever met a non-male who enjoys football? Is or was in the military? Drinks beer? Votes republican? Wears a suit? Wears pants? Has short hair? Has sex with women? A lot of things that used to be culturally "male" have expanded to just be... things. Now it's nothing for a non-male to walk into a corner office wearing a suit. Now it's nothing for a non-male to walk into a bar and order a jack and coke. Have you seen the number of non-males wearing pants, something that would have been unthinkable a couple hundred years ago? Bonus. Ever seen a male wearing a dress? Have long hair? Paint their nails? Work as an office admin? Take an art class? Learn to bake? Stay at home to care for a child? Again, these are GOOD things. Gender should not bar anyone from doing what makes them happy. So the same thing has happened to games. Games are no longer relegated to the poorly-socialized-bros-in-the-basement. And that's a GOOD thing. I mean, come on!
Okay. Back to games. So now you know that everyone should play games. How do we make this happen? I have certainly had my share of doozies at game conventions. There are still game masters and players who aren't sure what to do with non-males at their table - and even non-stereotypical-males. It's hard sometimes for people to adapt to the new and strange. How can you avoid the typical pitfalls?
Now I will share to you the mystic wisdom that solves all gender issues - don't worry about gender. Tada! Easier said than done, I know, but that's the basic tact. It shouldn't matter what gender your players or characters are. You build stories that are interesting and compelling. You create challenges that are suited to the skills and histories of your characters. You interact with all players as equal participants of the group and make sure that all voices are heard.
Well, that was easy! So what's the big deal? Why can't all GM's and players adopt this basic, straightforward, easy to understand philosophy? Sigh. I am going to speak in grand-sweeping-generalities that do not apply to all gamers, or all men. To put it crassly, I think it's because for years dudes didn't have to deal with anyone but dudes at their table. They could say and do rude, misogynist things in game without fear of being called on it. I think that's the crux. Now male players are being held to the same standards in their games as they are in the real world. Now male players have to adjust their thinking on things rather than just lie about them when in public. It's a lot harder for someone to change how they think than how they act. When a non-male comes to the table - the sanctuary - it can present challenges.
Why does sexuality make you uncomfortable? Well, duh - it makes you think about people having sex. Disclaimer - I am not a PhD. I'm about to ramble about personal observations and opinions.
Most of us grew up with the standard heterosexual view of things. You don't have to think about men and women having sex because you know and understand that and how it works. But if you haven't learned about non-heterosexual intimacy, it makes you wonder about how it works. And now you're thinking about that gay person having sex, and that's weird. So it makes people uncomfortable. You don't want to think about people having sex unless you are attracted to them. SO! What's the solution? Educate yourself. Learn about how non-male-and-female sexual encounters work. Then it's no biggie when you find out that someone is gay.
And, hey, you might even like learning about it. That's another thing that I think freaks people out. "What if I find out that I'm gay?!?!" Well, then, sweet; you learned something about yourself and now you can explore a new category of activities that will bring you happiness. This is a bad thing? Being non-heterosexual isn't a bad thing - it's just a thing. And it's only a thing because it's not the dominant culture (yet).
I have less to rant about with regard to sexuality because it doesn't affect my day to day life like being an assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB) affects my life. And, in general, sexuality of players doesn't come up in game. But what about sexuality of characters? I almost always play pan-sexual characters. Why? Because I like it. I like to keep my options open and flirt with EVERYONE. Does this detract from the game play for other players? No? Then I'm gonna keep doing it.
To avoid issues in my game, I typically let my NPCs be pansexual because, why not? There is a long history of men and women having sex with all kinds of men and women. Below are a bunch of interesting links - none of which are scholarly, so take everything with a grain of salt. The internet is full of information, and not everything is to be believed. These are just some places to look for inspiration and inspire lines of inquiry.
Homosexuality in Ancient Rome has a pretty fun wiki. "It was expected and socially acceptable for a freeborn Roman man to want sex with both female and male partners, as long as he took the penetrative role."
Homosexuality in China also has an interesting wiki. "The political ideologies, philosophies, and religions of ancient China regarded homosexual relationships as a normal facet of life, and in some cases, promoted homosexual relationships as exemplary."
A Brief History of Bisexuality and Homosexuality in Pre-Modern Japan has pictures! "In pre-modern Japan, men engaged in same-sex relationships with other men. These relationships weren't deemed any less acceptable than male-female relationships, and just because you had one type of relationship didn't mean you couldn't have another relationship with someone of a different gender."
Victorian Views of Homosexuality is an interesting perspective on how laws were, and weren't enforced. "The criminalisation of commercial male-female sex only applied to women, for instance: men were not punished."
Lesbians in History are a hell of a lot harder to find, because women have not been able to write about themselves for most of human history.... #Patriarchy. Also, in general, women having sex with women has been less worrisome for men because of... dang, okay, too much to talk about here. Moving on.
Sure, marriage has always typically been between a man and a woman, but marriage has also typically been a contractual means of reproduction. When I make a married couple in my game, they are typically heterosexual. That doesn't mean they are ALL heterosexual, but it's a default I allow. I have gay relationships in my world. I have non-gay relationships. I have non-gay-but-also-non-straight relationships. Things get complicated when magic is real, okay? You don't have to restrict yourself to any particular norms in a game. You get to make your own norms in your world.
Things to Avoid
Gender based races, religions, and classes.
While it may be enticing to think about a race of warrior-women who live in the forest, wear little to no clothing, and force men to have sex with them, that isn't a good thing. If you're going to explore that sort of trope, you should probably look at it from a multi-perspective stance. Where did the men go? Why are they gone? Why don't the women wear a lot of clothing? Why do they force men to have sex with them? How do these questions fit into your world and your story? Is there a plot reason, or is this included for self-gratification? A GM shouldn't put things in the world and game just because it's sexy.
Disclaimer - sometimes I put things in the world and game just because I think it's sexy. I'm not perfect. I have wild romantic fantasies too, and I let those things live in my game world. However, I try not to force those things on my players.
Highly Sexualized Villains
Dude - you can NOT have the villain be a fat gay person. You just can't anymore. You can NOT have a freaking villain be a half naked female wizard with a harem of enslaved men. Why not? Because gay people are not the enemy. Overweight people are not the enemy. Women are not the enemy. You know who is the enemy? Rich white men. Remember when Nazi's were bad and every villain was just a metaphor for Hitler? Remember when the Soviet Union was bad and every conflict was a metaphor for the Cold War? Yeah. In games we fight our real world adversaries. If your real world adversaries are women, fat people, and gay people, then you need to reevaluate your views. Remember the last time that woman with ultimate power nuked another country? Remember the last time a gay person crashed the stock market? No? Why not? Oh, they were all rich white men. Well, what a strange thing.
This is not to say that none of your villains can be gay, fat, or non-male. All I argue is that you should balance your roles of power. For every female villain you should have a non-male leader. For every gay villain you should have a gay hero. For every fat adversary, a fat ally. Also, a character should never be defined by a single characteristic. Again, take a multi-faceted approach. WHY is that character a villain? What made them what they are?
It would be nice to just say, okay, sweet, gender and sexuality don't matter, but that's not realistic. Does it matter that the prince is gay? Hell yeah, it does - if he doesn't produce an heir, what happens to a patriarchal line of succession? Now this is a plot point. Does it matter that the farmer over there is gay? Probably not. So you can just let that one exist. Picking when to address gender and sexuality is important. If you don't want it to matter at all, then you have to think about the big picture. Is adoption acceptable as a form of succession? Remember that for a large part of human history, bloodlines have mattered. And if you're playing a game where magic is passed down through genetics, then it continues to matter. If you're going to make it irrelevant that the ruler is a queen rather than a king, then explain how the monarch is selected. Is it just first born? Then how does that change things at lower levels of society? How is pregnancy treated? How is marriage seen? There is no magic wand to wave to just make things not matter. Civilizations are complex, living things that grow and change. As the game master you have to consider the long range impacts of societal values and traditions to ensure internal consistency.
AND IT'S OKAY! If everything is easy, then what's the point of playing, right? Sometimes it's okay that people have to deal with conflicts in game. One of the things I throw into games constantly is stereotyping based on where characters are from. People have views about other people based on things out of their control. That makes for interesting stories and dynamics. It also makes the world feel more real. I know one of my characters is gay, but that doesn't mean women don't flirt with him. Mwahaha! I know one of my characters is demisexual. That doesn't mean NPCs won't be attracted to them. Mwahaha! Gender and sexuality exist - don't just ignore them as a way to avoid addressing them. Address gender and sexuality in a way that makes sense to your world and your story.
Things To Do
COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR PLAYERS
The most important thing to do is keep open lines of communication with your players. Make sure you are running a game where they feel comfortable as players and characters. Work with them to tell your story, and when you come across something that makes someone at the table uncomfortable (including yourself), work with your players to resolve the tension. Maybe someone has just never encountered an openly gay person before, or maybe they aren't used to non-males playing games. Who knows? By talking about things like adults you can continue to play like kids. :)
Get the Terminology Correct.
You'll notice that I used the term non-male. As the GM, you need to make sure you are setting the right tone for your game. Not all people are male and female. Non-binary folk are all over now. Sometimes people are transitioning to their correct gender. Sometimes the person you've known as Dave for the last three years is now Diane and she's living her life to the fullest. Don't be a dick about it. You do not live that person's life, and you need to accept that they are doing what's right for them. Use the correct pronouns. Use the correct names. And know that not everyone is comfortable with all words. Some terms that used to be common and acceptable are not okay anymore. If you aren't sure what words to use, just fucking ask. People will tell you what they are and aren't comfortable with. And if they don't want to talk with you about it, then you haven't made them feel safe. If they don't feel safe, that's a problem and you need to figure out what the problem is. It might be an offhanded comment you made once five years ago about "homos." Well, that's fair. Now you need an opportunity to apologize for hurting their feelings, and ask what you can do better in the future. That's how communication works - both ways.
The landscape of society is changing. With the advent of instant and constant communication, ideas can transfer faster than ever before. This means people who previously were isolated and afraid now have support from countless people going through the same struggle. You can not understand all things, and no one expects you to. Maybe you don't get the whole non-binary thing. Okay. That's fine. Hell, I'm a non-binary person and I don't even get it. But it is something that is real, and it's something that people are learning how to express. Be supportive, even when you don't understand. That's the only way you get to play the game. Things in the outside world push into our games all the time, and as game masters it's up to us to navigate and incorporate change.
Keep an open mind.
Keep an open heart.
Play games with your friends.
That's what we're all here for, and that's what really matters.
Update: It was pointed out to me that this is a harmful stereotype. I recognize that not all gamers were poorly-socialized-bros-in-the-basement and I apologize for harm caused by my continuation of this stereotype.
To rephrase: Games should not be relegated to poorly-socialized-bros-in-the-basement. Nice people of all genders, social abilities, and residences should be included in games.