Next Week: The Random Fangirl Live!

I’ve been pretty quiet lately, mostly because I’ve been plugging away at the job search and working on various other projects. Among those projects, however, is a little talk I’ll be giving at Women in Games Boston next week. I already wrote up a description for WIG, so I’ll just repost it here:

In recent years, the transgender community has become increasingly visible, with singers, soldiers, journalists, game designers and more coming out as trans, and trans activists of all ages crusading for equal rights around the world. With numerous trans people involved in the geek and gaming communities, you may easily find yourself interacting with members of this diverse community as co-workers, employees and fans.

This month’s talk will offer a basic overview of transgender identity and a primer on preferred terminology (as well as a few words you should avoid like the plague) before explaining how you can help support your trans co-workers, how you can be the world’s best boss to trans employees, and how you can build trans-friendly and trans-inclusive games. We’ll also touch on games and blogs that can give you some insight into trans identity and the struggle trans people face every day before moving on to an extra-long Q&A to address any lingering questions.

Last I checked, there were still tickets available, and the event is free, so if you live in the Boston/Cambridge area and want to come see me speak, reserve your spot today. We’ll be downstairs at Tommy Doyle’s in Harvard Square from 7 to 10 pm next Tuesday, July 30th, and I’ll be going on at around 8. WIG Boston is a safe, open, accepting space that welcomes women and allies of all backgrounds, whatever their connection to the video game community (developers, students, journalists, fans, you name it), so as long as you conduct yourself according to the party policy, you’re more than welcome to attend.

Want me to speak at your event? Feel free to e-mail me at cassandra dot lease at gmail dot com and I’ll be happy to discuss the details.

The Ranting Fangirl: Women’s Space. Some Restrictions May Apply.

The concept of women’s space is a recurring theme in trans circles: what it means, who should be included, who (if anyone) shouldn’t be included, and whether it’s okay for our allies to respect, support and/or actively participate in those women’s spaces that include some women (generally cisgender women) while excluding others (generally transgender women). I personally value inclusion, and fundamentally believe that women’s spaces should include anyone who identifies as a woman. This can get tricky where those who do not identify with the gender binary are concerned, of course, though my gut tells me that genderqueer or non-gendered people should absolutely be included in women’s spaces if they want to be. I would also extend that principle of inclusion to trans women who have not yet begun their transition or altered their outward appearance, but nevertheless identify as women, and to trans men who may still face women’s issues (i.e., sexism based on being ‘read’ as the gender they were assigned at birth, and so forth). This is because I’m basically that girl from Mean Girls who wishes she could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat it and be happy.

But there’s always someone waiting to point out that I don’t even go there, or rather, that I don’t belong there, for one reason or another. I have been fortunate to find women’s groups and women’s spaces that were happy to include me, from my college’s student feminist club (which has undergone some name changes, I believe, since my time there; when I was a student, it was Womyn’s Action Group, and I actually helped design our t-shirt for Take Back The Night one year) to the Boston Dyke March (which is explicitly inclusive and trans-friendly) to Women in Games Boston (which welcomes male allies, so it’s not strictly women’s space, but it is safe space designed for women) to the annual ladies’ brunch/girls’ meetup at PAX East. That’s partly down to luck, and partly down to conscious efforts on my part to avoid places where I would not be welcome. I’m a bit of a coward, really. I don’t like confrontation, and I have to force myself to speak out at all – that’s partly why I retreated into ‘stealth mode’ for so long and refused to discuss my trans status at all. So, as a rule, if I’m unsure about any given group’s policies, I politely inquire as to whether or not I’m welcome, and if I’m not, I’ll generally stay away. And if everything happened in a vacuum, I suppose that would be the end of it.

Spoiler alert: nothing happens in a vacuum.

Everything comes with a bright, shiny context all its own. And so, whether it’s the recurring controversy around the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival (or MichFest), the trans-exclusive Dianic rituals held at PantheaCon in 2011 and 2012 (though it appears that there was not a similar ritual this year, or if there was, it was not listed in the program guide), or the debate over whether or not trans women should be admitted to women’s colleges, or the RadFem 2013 conference over in the UK, these issues keep cropping up again and again. Everyone, in my view, has the right to free assembly and association. Everyone should be welcome to gather in any kind of group they want. But when you exclude people, there are consequences, and there should be. And here’s why.

Trans-exclusive events should not be held in public venues. This is why I don’t really have a problem with MichFest in principle, though I do have problems with it in practice. MichFest is held on privately-owned land, and it is organized by a specific group of people with a specific intention. Their trans-exclusive policy is fairly well established and well known by now, though it was not always so. Now, because they sell admission fairly freely, MichFest may technically qualify as a public accommodation (remember that phrase, we’ll get back to it), and I do believe, as a rule, that trans people should have equal access to all public accommodations under the law. If that became national law tomorrow, then I don’t know how the festival would change, though I’m confident that the organizers could find a way to keep going with the trans-exclusive policy intact if they so desired. I’m not a lawyer, but there are lots of organizations and events that have managed to keep going despite policies that explicitly exclude an entire class of people, so I have to believe there are loopholes to spare.

On the other hand, you have Z Budapest’s rituals at PantheaCon. I am absolutely for freedom of religion, and I rarely feel the need to step into anyone else’s rituals, particularly when I’m not wanted. My own religion is, as I’ve said, a very private thing, though I do consider myself part of the pagan community and I have taken part in open rituals in the past. I do not believe, however, that it is appropriate to exclude an entire class of people from a programmed event at a convention open to a diverse population of attendees (as opposed to, say, a convention that is only open to women, trans women excluded – but I’ll get to that). I do not believe it is appropriate to advertise a ritual that celebrates women in their infinite diversity and then exclude trans people – certainly not without explicitly saying so in the event description. I would personally never do anything of the sort at a convention. I have organized events targeted at specific groups during conventions, but I have always chosen to hold them off site, and I have never sought to list them in a convention program. I could not find any similar events in the PantheaCon 2013 program offhand, and I sincerely hope that the PantheaCon community has reached a similar conclusion: attendees are free to hold private parties or rituals in their suites and invite whomever they like, but the con cannot put its stamp of approval on exclusive events. However, I have not yet had the opportunity to join the PantheaCon community (though I would like to, when money and time allows) and cannot speak to that particular matter.

As for RadFem 2013. Conventions are by their very nature exclusive events, and while I find the conference policies and the viewpoints of many of the participants repugnant, they were at least clear about their rules and their intentions. However, after assorted messages of protest, the venue they had chosen reviewed those same policies and the rhetoric surrounding them, found them troubling, and told the organizers that the conference was no longer welcome there. The venue’s operators were well within their rights to do so. We reap what we sow. The conference’s proponents have tried to claim that men’s rights activists and trans activists colluded to get them thrown out (never mind that men’s rights activists tend not to like trans people very much, either, and the feeling tends to be mutual…though I suppose that hasn’t stopped certain ugly elements of the feminist movement from working with certain ugly elements of the religious right when it suited them), but it’s fairly clear from the statement issued by the venue that the protests merely caught their interest, and it was the trans-exclusive politics surrounding RadFem 2013 that got them booted.

Trans-exclusive policies attract and encourage transphobia and naked bigotry, particularly when challenged. The rhetoric surrounding these events is absolutely repugnant. I know, or I would like to believe, that the most vocal, most obviously bigoted defenders of trans-exclusive policies are in the minority, and there’s a much more reasonable majority that simply hasn’t been moved to speak. But we don’t excuse men for their failure to stand up to misogyny, even if they themselves aren’t actively misogynistic. We don’t excuse heterosexual people for their failure to stand up to homophobia, to so much as say ‘hey, that’s not cool,’ even if they’re not throwing around slurs. And we should not exclude cisgender people for their failure to confront transphobia and naked bigotry. It is not enough to maintain an uncomfortable silence. It is not enough to believe, in your heart, that whether or not trans women belong in women’s spaces, they still deserve respect. All that is required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

I have seen defenders of MichFest, RadFem 2013, and other trans-exclusive events throw slurs around like they’re snowballs on a schoolyard. I have seen them say deliberately hurtful things which not only deny the identities of trans people, but our very humanity. I have seen minor incidents like glitterbombing (immature, but ultimately harmless) or a little ink from a marker smeared on someone’s skin blown entirely out of proportion, characterized in some cases as the acts of extremists or even outright assault. I have seen trans people accused of hideous crimes with no justification. I even vividly recall one particularly horrible anti-trans bigot questioning whether a horrific car accident in which lives were lost might not have been a terrorist act committed by trans activists – a baseless accusation, to say the least, and if anyone had been explicitly named as a ‘suspect,’ it might well have qualified as libel.

When the Indigo Girls decided that this year’s MichFest would mark their final performance at the festival until the trans-exclusive policy changed, and announced that they would campaign for trans inclusion during their time on stage, they and the trans community at large were met with ugliness that still hasn’t entirely abated. This for voicing an opinion, and exercising their right to choose where they will and will not perform. Some of the rhetoric put me in mind of the controversy surrounding the Dixie Chicks when they openly criticized President George W. Bush a few years ago. There, too, artists were told that their opinions were offensive, that no one wanted to hear them. Shall the Indigo Girls shut up and sing as well?

I do not believe that going to MichFest, as an attendee or as a performer, necessarily makes anyone a transphobic bigot or a bad person. But, given the negativity surrounding the event, the ugly and sometimes terrifying rhetoric of those who defend its policies, I do look askance at those who go to MichFest without questioning or even thinking about its policy of trans exclusion. I do feel that participation in the event can be a slap in the face to the trans community. And I think the event is irrevocably tainted, at this point, by an aura of bigotry and negativity. If the policy changed tomorrow, I don’t think I’d go. I wouldn’t feel safe there.

And that aura of negativity leads me to say this, too. The Indigo Girls made, or at least announced, their decision regarding MichFest in the wake of a petition asking a number of MichFest performers to reconsider their participation in the event. One of the other artists named in the petition asked for her name to be removed because she didn’t want it affected by the negative energy surrounding the issue – but unlike the Indigo Girls, she plans to continue supporting the event. I am honoring her request to leave her name out of this, but respectfully, I think that if you want to avoid negative energy, you should avoid participating in events rooted in exclusion and surrounded by bigotry and fear.

Trans women are women. There are two arguments that those in favor of trans exclusion love to trot out when explaining why we shouldn’t be a part of women’s spaces. First, there is the privilege argument – the idea that trans women still carry male privilege, behave in typically male ways, and have not faced sexism. Second, there is the socialization argument – trans women were not raised and socialized as women, and so do not fully understand women’s experience.

The privilege argument is ridiculous on the face of it. As a trans woman, I am not a member of the boys’ club. Truthfully, I never was – even when I outwardly presented as male, I was considered a wimp, a sissy, or not really a boy in any number of ways. Certainly I never felt like one. I am viewed either as a woman or a freak. Neither position is privileged. When I began my transition and chose to present as my true self, I surrendered my male privilege, my straight privilege and my cis privilege (which, I assure you, does exist: cis people don’t have to worry about being assaulted for choosing the ‘wrong’ bathroom, for example, or losing their job if they’re ‘read’ as the gender they’re assigned at birth rather than the gender that agrees with their identity and presentation). I promise you, I’m either treated the same as any other woman, or I’m treated like shit for ‘trying’ to be one.

As for typically male behavior? Wow, that’s a fuzzy line, isn’t it? And it sure seems like I can’t win for losing. If I’m outspoken, I’m dominating the conversation, which means I’m not really a woman. If I’m quiet, shy and soft-spoken, I’m behaving according to female stereotypes, which means my gender expression is all artifice and I’m not really a woman. If I’m open about being trans, then I’m not even trying to ‘pass’ as a real woman. If I stay in stealth, then I’m a wicked, horrible deceiver. If I date men, then I’m some kind of artificial woman designed to replace real women and destroy feminism. If I date women (as I strongly prefer to do), then I’m a faux lesbian just trying to get in innocent women’s pants, and really, what is the point of this whole gender identity thing anyway, right? (Never mind that gender identity and expression are not necessarily linked to sexual orientation, or that I prefer to date bisexual women in a desperate effort to avoid offending sensibilities – it doesn’t always work, and plenty of women who identify as gay would be fine with me, but like I said, I don’t like confrontation.) I am who I am: the quiet, shy wallflower who gets really excited and talkative once she’s comfortable with you or you’ve got her on a subject she’s passionate about. The geek girl who can’t get enough baby doll tees, adores Victorian and steampunk styles, and loves to cosplay, but spends most of her days in jeans and glasses, with little to no makeup on, to the point where people express open shock when she shows up in a skirt or a sundress. The trans activist who would really prefer not to have to discuss any of these things, but feels a moral compulsion to do so. The lesbian feminist Amazon who doesn’t quite fit into everyone’s definition of any of those groups.

I don’t know if my behavior is typically male or typically female. I think the range of human personalities is so broad that you can’t really define those traits without resorting to stereotypes, and isn’t feminism about rising above stereotypes? I’m tired of walking this tightrope. No one should have to do it. I am myself. But for the record? I’m rarely read. Even with my horrible, awful voice, which I absolutely hate. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice.

Then there’s socialization. This much is true: most trans women were not raised as girls. This is beginning to change, to some degree, as trans children begin to reject their assigned genders at younger and younger ages, and with the help of accepting parents, begin the journey to their true selves in childhood. But I, for example, did not begin my transition until I was nearly 20 years old. I had a very strong sense of my gender identity and preferred gender expression from a young age, mind. I always preferred the company of girls. I begged my mother to let me go out for Halloween as Babs Bunny (we ultimately compromised on Buster; I remember her outright refusing to let me go out as Babs, while she, the last time we discussed it, thought I’d simply changed my mind), I was insanely jealous of my little sister’s American Girl doll (though she had Kirsten, and I wanted Samantha), I campaigned for years for a doll of my own (and eventually got a Princess Jasmine doll, just as I was growing out of them), and so on. My mother, a feminist in her own right, involved both me and my sister in baking, cleaning and various chores. I was bombarded by the same media images, and even before I had a word for what I was, I knew I wanted to be like the girls and the women, not the boys and the men. Funny thing: I never even quite got the hang of peeing standing up. I just wouldn’t or couldn’t do it. I told my mother at the age of twelve, just when I’d learned that there was such a thing as sex change operations, that I wanted one, that I thought I was meant to be a girl. (She got very quiet; later, when I asked her about it as an adult, she didn’t remember it at all, though she was very supportive when I did actually begin my transition.) And I spent night after night praying at my bedside, begging God to make me a girl.

It wasn’t a typical girl’s childhood, no. Maybe it wasn’t a typical trans woman’s childhood, not entirely. My parents resisted some things, but I was never forced into explicitly masculine pursuits, and I was encouraged to express myself. The thing is that I’m not sure I believe there’s any such thing as a typical childhood. We start in so many different places, in so many different ways. We all have different experiences. But even if we assume that there are childhood experiences that those raised as girls will always have, and those raised as boys never will…does it matter? We socialize as women now. Assuming we are accepted as women, we have to deal with many of the same issues of sexism and harassment. And where our experiences differ, we can still be allies, just as those women who have never experienced abuse can still support those who have, or those women who have never felt attracted to other women can support their lesbian friends. I still find it helpful to get away from a society dominated by straight white Christian men and seek the company of other women from time to time. In my experience, my presence does not in and of itself destroy the sanctity of women’s space. I’ve never tried to insert myself where I’m not wanted, of course. But I do feel that you get out what you put in. If you bring bigotry, fear and anger to a space we share, you’re bound to have a bad experience. If you come in the spirit of friendship and compassion, you’re likely to have a better one. I do not believe the mere presence of a trans woman is a pox upon women’s spaces, and I do believe that we need them just as badly.

At least some of this is a load of hypocritical bull. Consider, if you will, the currently ongoing exclusion of trans women from Smith College and other women’s institutions. Yes, yes, socialization, privilege, please see above. As I said, I believe that trans women can benefit from women’s spaces just as much as cis women can, and I do not believe that our presence will ruin everything and destroy feminism forever. Here’s the thing, though: many of these women’s colleges are perfectly all right with the presence of transitioning trans men on their campus. So we’re talking about institutions that exclude an entire class of women, but welcome students who explicitly identify as men. Regardless of what you think about trans women at women’s colleges, doesn’t that seem like hypocrisy?

Now, I don’t want to see trans men kicked out of school, whether or not trans women are allowed, particularly if they started their transitions during their college careers. I started my transition at the end of my freshmen year. I know how hard it can be to do that under the best of circumstances. Forcing students to drop out or transfer doesn’t feel right to me, either. But I do think that policy carries some ugly implications. It implies that biology is destiny – that it’s all that matters – which is directly contrary to the ideals of feminism. It calls trans men’s manhood into question as much as it questions trans women’s womanhood. And it feeds into the mistaken notion that trans men really are ‘still’ women, that they’re just an extreme form of butch identity or some such.

Above all else, I simply believe that students’ gender identities should be respected, and that their needs merit close consideration. It’s true that our government tends to be less than enlightened with regard to gender identity, and it’s possible that women’s institutions could face legal trouble, at least in some jurisdictions, for admitting students who were assigned male at birth. In that case, I absolutely believe the law should be changed. There should be stronger protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression nationwide, and I concede that these schools’ policies probably shouldn’t change until those protections are in place. But that change needs to happen, and those who sit idly by cannot be excused for their ignorance or their inaction.

All of this trickles down. Lastly, I’d like to talk to you about public accommodations. Public accommodations cover a wide variety of businesses and public facilities, from theaters to restaurants to restrooms. My home state, Massachusetts, passed a law some time ago which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity in employment, education, and housing. This law very explicitly excludes public accommodations, and it does so thanks to rhetoric familiar to pretty much any educated trans person: the Bathroom Bill meme.

The idea behind the Bathroom Bill meme is that we as a society cannot afford to let people use the restrooms associated with their gender identity and presentation. After all, a man could just dress up as a woman, claim to be trans, and go into the ladies’ room, where he would be free to peep and install spy cameras and God knows what else! Besides, trans people should just use the toilets corresponding to their genitals. It doesn’t matter that toilets are unisex by design (urinals are not, sure, but only men’s restrooms have them and no one is required to use them), or that most public restrooms are either single occupancy (usually with locking doors) or have toilets inside stalls (also generally with locking doors). It doesn’t matter that we have laws against voyeurism and sexual assault that could be used to prosecute anyone who went into a restroom with malevolent intentions, regardless of their assigned sex or gender identity. It’s a shame, really, but think of the children. A lot of those trans people are perverts anyway.

I bring this up because it did in fact come up at a public dialogue on trans inclusion that I attended at Simmons College some years ago. One of the women in the audience stood up to proclaim that she would not be comfortable seeing a trans woman in the women’s restroom, though, when asked, she admitted that she wouldn’t feel comfortable seeing a trans man in the women’s restroom, either. While the Bathroom Bill meme is often invoked by conservative (or simply transphobic) politicians, it also comes up in the discussion surrounding women’s spaces. And, once again, we can’t win for losing. Trans people have been arrested for choosing the restrooms that agree with our gender identity, to be sure, but we’ve also been arrested for choosing the restrooms that agree with our assigned sex at birth. If I’m ‘read’ in the women’s restroom, depending on exactly where I am, I could be arrested. Or I could simply be harassed, or assaulted. If I go into the men’s restroom, on the other hand, the very best I can hope for is surprise; harassment, assault or worse could swiftly follow. The only absolutely safe choices are unisex restrooms, but not all places have them, and when they are present, they’re often intended as handicapped or family restrooms, and I don’t want to use a facility that someone else might genuinely need.

So I use the women’s restroom. Because this all comes down to unjustified fear which has been fed deliberately through naked bigotry by people who, ultimately, just don’t like trans people, and prefer to believe the absolute worst of us. Because, as bad as things could get for me in the women’s restroom, I’m quite sure they could get much, much worse in the men’s room. Because I present myself as a woman and am generally seen as such, and only rarely ‘read,’ so the risk to my personal safety is much greater in the men’s room. I’m fortunate to spend most of my time in what we call ‘protected jurisdictions’ – cities and towns where municipal laws offer greater protection to trans people, often including access to public accommodations. But there are places, even in my home state, where I could be arrested just for using the restroom where I’m not as likely to attract attention, where I’m not as likely to face harassment and violence.

That is what exclusion does. It leaves people on the outside. And the outside is a scary, horrible, dangerous place to be.

I face discrimination, naked bigotry, assault and worse every day because of my womanhood. My experiences are not always identical to those of other women. I have concerns that other women may not share, and other women have concerns that I may not share. But I think this is true of any two women you might choose to compare, not just trans women and cis women. My mother always believed in the value of community, and she taught me by example. Time and again, I saw her join with other like-minded people in common cause, whether they were feminists, homeschoolers, or activists of any kind. Our similarities are more important than our differences, and we are stronger together. There should be room in women’s space for all of us.

Sex, Gender, and D&D

UPDATE: Wizards has now posted an updated version of the poll which does not include gender-based ability caps. They have also stated that they did not intend to implement “such a pointless rule” and that they never meant to present it as a serious option. While I appreciate their efforts to set the situation right, the conversation’s been started, and my opinions on the matter stand. My original post follows.

Some time ago, Wizards of the Coast announced that they were officially putting D&D 5th Edition into development – and, moreover, that they were appealing to the fans to help them shape the new generation of their classic role-playing game. I’ll be honest: I haven’t been following the development process too closely. The announcement prompted me to officially sever all ties to 4th Edition, as I hadn’t run the game in months and didn’t really expect to run it again in the foreseeable future, but I’ve had my own projects to deal with, and I didn’t really want to spend all my time debating the finer points of D&D with the fan community. I’d see what WotC came up with, and if I didn’t like it, I’d happily stick to running the many, many other RPGs weighing down my shelves.

Sadly, in the immortal words of Veronica Mars, every time I think I’m out, they pull me back in.

(Yes, people, I do know that’s actually a line from The Godfather: Part III. I just prefer Veronica.)

Let’s flash forward to today. Monte Cook posted an article discussing the process of unifying the various editions of D&D – figuring out what they should bring with them and what they should discard. Now, to Monte’s credit, he started the article by saying that it was difficult to imagine certain things – including gender-based ability score maximums – making a comeback. But ‘difficult’ does not actually equal ‘impossible’. To make matters worse, someone at Wizards decided to go ahead and post a poll at the end of the article asking fans which features they’d like to bring back to D&D. And gender-based ability caps were among the poll options.

Which I checked the results earlier, something like 350 people had voted for the return of gender-based ability caps. That was just a small fraction of the people who had voted on the poll overall, and most of the votes were going to the other options. I can’t tell you what the results are now, because WotC has hidden them away. What I can say is this: it’s insulting that Wizards of the Coast even put this up to a vote. As Logan Bonner pointed out, the other options – THAC0, saving throws, feats, etc. – do not make half the population feel excluded from the game. They are not rooted in bullshit ideology or long-standing social prejudices.

Mr. Bonner’s own short opinion on the subject agrees with my own. Simply put, these rules have no place in D&D. Most of us know they have no place in D&D, and most of us know they’re not going to make a comeback. Opening them up to a public vote just opens a big sexist can of worms. It invites misogynists back into the conversation and that’s not going to be pleasant for the game’s more enlightened fans. It’s already been distinctly unpleasant.

We’ve all heard horror stories of groups that decided to penalize female characters’ Strength or Constitution or even Intelligence, throwing them a bone by perhaps boosting their Charisma in the process. (Because women are pretty, of course; this is our sole purpose, and women who are not attractive to men are useless. Oh, my, I just threw up a little bit in my mouth.) There are gamers who will happily argue that women cannot be soldiers, cannot be knights, cannot effectively fight. There are others who will argue that women are inherently bad at math or science, indicating an inferior intellect, meaning they can’t be wizards or scholars. Some of these people might turn around and penalize men’s Charisma or Wisdom or some such, to try and ‘accurately model’ the differences between the sexes, but more often than not, these ridiculous little rules apply only to women.

I’ve made a joke of that, in the past. Because it’s simply ridiculous on the face of it. If you were to look in the bottom of my t-shirt drawer, you’d even find an old -1 STR, +1 CHA shirt that I used to wear all the time. But the more I interact with these people, the more I realize that, no, they’re actually serious, the more I realize it’s not all that funny.

A lot of these folks try to back their points up with science. Let’s be clear: there are differences between the sexes, though these differences are not always as clear-cut as people like to believe, and arguably we may need to reconsider the man/woman dichotomy and admit the possibility of additional sexes. More importantly, however, we do not yet understand what the actual differences between the sexes are – and we don’t know how many of those differences are due to nature and how many are due to nurture. For a great deal of our history, women were not encouraged to pursue careers in math or science. Women were not encouraged to engage in athletic pursuits. Women were not given the same advantages as men. And, even today, women are still treated differently, still burdened with profound disadvantages in pay, education, and career opportunities. Despite claims to the otherwise, we still live in a male-dominated world. So until we have complete social equality, until women and men are able to seize the same opportunities and compete on truly equal footing, don’t tell me that ‘science’ has proven women to be inferior. Science relies on repeated observations under controlled conditions. Our society has yet to eliminate all the many, many factors that impact our physical, social, mental and sexual development and send us spinning off into a myriad of directions.

And yet, despite these problems, extraordinary women have found their way into a variety of traditionally male careers. Are you seriously going to tell me that women can’t excel in math and science? Why don’t you tell that to Augusta Ada King, a.k.a. Ada Lovelace, arguably the first computer programmer? Or Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, United States Navy, creator of the first program compiler and the first person to come up with the very concept of programming languages? Or poor Rosalind Franklin, robbed and slandered by James Watson? Or Marie Curie, or Lise Meitner (blatantly robbed of her Nobel Prize), or Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard (who thankfully did get the credit and the Nobel Prize she deserved for her research, in 1995), or Harriet Brooks, or Jane Goodall? In fact, why don’t you take a look at this whole damn category? If these women are outliers – and in some cases, they certainly are – then I would argue that it’s because it’s really damn hard to make it as a woman in the sciences, or in any male-dominated profession, and that’s only starting to change.

Women can’t fight? Well, it’s true that there are fewer female warriors than scientists in our history – but nevertheless, they are there. There’s Renée Bordereau, for example. Or Julie d’Aubingny, the French duellist better known as La Maupin. Or the numerous women who disguised themselves to serve on both sides in the American Civil War. There’s Princess Pingyang, who led an army against the old Chinese capital of Chang’an and played a key role in conquering China for the Tang Dynasty. Then we have the ancient Norse Shieldmaidens, and the Dahomey Amazons. And that’s just scratching the surface. The role of women in war continues to expand.

But hey – let’s ignore all that. Let’s pretend for the moment that women can never be as strong or as resilient as men. Let’s assume there really are physical differences that no amount of social equality, athletic training, or physical conditioning can overcome. (I will not for a second concede that women are less intelligent, because even I, dear reader, can only put up with so much bullshit.) Here’s the thing: that should still have no bearing whatsoever on any tabletop RPG.

Here’s the thing. RPGs are escapism. While I sometimes enjoy exploring difficult themes and concepts in the course of my escapism, I generally prefer to, well…escape. To leave all the shit I have to put up with day after day behind me and enter a world where none of that matters. As I said on Twitter, the great promise of D&D – the great promise of all RPGs – is this: you can be anyone. You can do anything. You can reshape the world. When you inject sexist preconceptions into your game, you break that promise.

And that’s something I cannot abide. As a GM and a game designer, my philosophy boils down to three words: maximum player agency. Yes, sometimes you have to tell the players no, but I don’t like to start from that position. I certainly don’t want to tell them they can’t play ass-kicking female paladins or supergenius gadgeteer superheroines or female space marines fighting hideous alien bugs. And I don’t want the rulebooks we’re using telling them any differently. No, not even as an optional rule. Sexism has no place in a game intended for general release. None.

The people who want to see these kinds of rules restored to D&D are a tiny, tiny minority. I firmly believe that. I also believe they’ll never go away. That’s fine. They have brains, or so I’m told. If they want to spew their sexist bullshit around their battered tables or in their horrible little chatrooms or on their awful little forums, they can go right ahead. That’s what house rules are for. But D&D itself should not – cannot – embrace that kind of utter crap. This is WotC’s world. They have the ability to make it a world free of the sexism that plagues our own. And they should never hesitate to exercise that option.

When you’re writing a period game that clings tightly to historical accuracy, sure, there’s a place for sexism and social pressure – as a setting detail, and one that can be resisted, albeit with consequences if you’re discovered. But D&D is not a period game. It is, by default, a fantasy world with little or no connection to Earth’s history. We can accept elves and magic and dragons. We should be able to accept women who can do anything men can do.

Sexism has no place in D&D. Period. And I do not want to have this conversation again.

Local Scene: Women in Games Boston

I ended up giving my first Local Scene post over to the GLBTQA Gamer Meetup I’m currently organizing, but I’ve actually been planning to talk about interesting Boston-area events for a while now, and the Local Scene category was pretty much invented so I could talk about Women in Games Boston. Organized by the amazing Courtney Stanton, WiG is a monthly event at one of my favorite local pubs, The Asgard, designed as a safe space for women and allies connected with the game industry to get together, talk about games, and share news about job openings, upcoming events, and various other social groups. In practice, it’s really open to most women and allies of women, whether they’re actively employed by the game industry or not – developers, testers, writers, community managers, and other game company employees, yes, but also students and people in between jobs. In fact, I’ve met a few people at these events who aren’t really in the gaming industry at all, but nevertheless share an interest in gaming and women’s rights and women’s issues and make for perfectly lovely company.

My friend Katie and I have been attending these meetings since September, and just a couple days ago, Women in Games Boston made its triumphant return from the 2011 holiday break with a fantastic night of good food, good company and great conversation, as well as a full presentation from Heather Albano, author of Timepiece and game designer for Choice of Games, a company that makes wonderful interactive fiction adventures. (Honestly, Choice of Games deserves its own post, but I have to say I’ve been trying out all their products and I particularly enjoy Choice of the Vampire and Choice of Romance/Choice of Intrigues, recently collected in an omnibus edition for the Kindle.) Ms. Albano had quite a lot to say on the way gender and sexuality impacted their game design, and their struggle to balance maximum player choice with the demands of the genre, and her notes on the design process and the revisions they made based on feedback from beta testers and active players were absolutely fascinating.

From the relative gender neutrality of Choice of the Dragon, to the decision to allow a complete gender swap in the C.S. Forester/Jane Austen-esque Choice of Broadsides (in brief: you play an up-and-coming naval officer fighting wars and seeking romance, but you can choose to play as either a male or female character; if you choose to play a woman, the Navy is exclusively female, and the men of this world occupy the domestic sphere), to the creative substitution of gender roles with a completely different array of social roles in Choice of Romance and Choice of Intrigues, the solutions were inspired and intriguing but far from perfect. Ms. Albano was perfectly willing to admit as much, and showed good humor throughout, even as she pointed out areas in which the team had, perhaps, failed somewhat and areas in which players perceived failure due mainly to their own assumptions. As an example of the latter, she recounted player feedback from Romance and Intrigues pointing out that, male or female, your character predominantly plays the ‘woman’s’ part, just as characters in Broadsides predominantly play the ‘man’s’ part, regardless of sex. In Romance and Intrigues, though you can act boldly, though you can scheme and manipulate, you are the one who is courted, not the one who does the courting. You are the consort, not the queen, nor the lord, nor the wealthy merchant. You can have a profound impact on society, but you hold little tangible power. Some players objected to that, feeling that they should be allowed to go courting. Other players have commented in the case of this game and others that there is little to no substantial difference between the male and female roles in Choice of Games’s offerings – and to an extent, they are right, though I honestly prefer it that way. Maybe I’m saying this because I’ve been spoiled by Mass Effect, but with some exceptions, I play games to escape the pressures of gender roles and other societal constraints, not to suffer those constraints all over again.

And, of course, there were players who complained about the ability to play a gay character in all those games, arguing that there ought to be social consequences to such relationships, up to and including execution. Again, I prefer games that allow me to escape that grim reality (which is, sadly, still a reality in some parts of the world – the storm raging in Uganda springs to mind) rather than games that force it upon me once more. There is certainly room for games that explore these topics, that educate players on the real horrors of homophobia, misogyny, separate spheres and other social constraints, but I don’t think we need to address them whenever women or gay people or minorities are involved, and I am glad to see that the people of Choice of Games apparently feel the same way. (The exception to the rule is Choice of the Vampire, which is written with historical authenticity in mind – it begins with the Battle of New Orleans and currently carries the player through the Civil War, and the credits for the game feature a bibliography! Naturally, if you pursue a same-sex relationship in the 19th century, you must keep it hidden; but even in the case of Vampire, there is no risk of discovery and summary execution. The dangers are noted, but the game assumes you take certain precautions. Choice of Broadsides, based as it is on Regency romance and Horatio Hornblower novels, takes much the same approach; homosexuality is frowned upon, but the game assumes a certain amount of discretion.)

I won’t try to sum up the whole presentation – if nothing else, I certainly don’t remember all of it! Hopefully Ms. Albano will put it online in some form at some point. I will instead say that this is exactly the sort of thing you can expect from WiG guest speakers: a thorough yet entertaining exploration of a truly fascinating topic. In October, Matthew Weise from the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab spoke about gender politics in horror/slasher games; later this month, Alexander Sliwinski from Joystiq will be offering a crash course in handling interviews and getting coverage for your game. And, of course, there’s also the awesome people, the good food, and all the conversation and networking you can handle. If you’re a woman in the gaming industry in Boston, or a friend of women in gaming, I seriously recommend this event.

I’ve already reserved my ticket – make sure you reserve yours.