January 26th, 2006

Yesterday at Terra Nova I put up a short post – just some introductory musings really – on the subject of transvestitism in virtual spaces. I defined transvestitism as depicting/presenting the player through a cross-gender avatar, and tried to put together a short list of places where such transvestitism is taking place. I mentioned virtual worlds, chat rooms, forums, and console games. The end.

For me, this was a straightforward – and, honestly, timid – little piece. It aimed to answer a simple question: Where?, and promised to return in future weeks with more investigative topics.

Of course, I should have known better. Take any term that questions hetero-normative identity and apply it to members of the male gaming public, and you get a crash course in defensiveness. So, instead of getting responses to, say, whether entering a chatroom under a female-sounding name is in fact an act of gender-bending, I found the same old “How could you call me a transvestite!?!” rhetoric I had forgotten to expect.

What amuses me though, is I didn’t even have to open my mouth. All I said was, Here is the idea and here is where it’s present, and back came posters insisting “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Well, dear paranoid ones, no one said anything to the contrary, except your guilty consciences.

Someone has also insisted I stop it with the “shock-value” posts. This, I admit, troubles me more than anything. BDSM. Tranvestitism. Sex outside the accepted norm. Lions and tigers and bears! These things are not shocking; these things are us. Or, if they’re shocking, it’s also ourselves we’re shocked at.

The Terra Nova audience, by and large, is one of the most intelligent and informed around. But my oh my, what will they do when I actually try and say something about avatar transvestitism? I hardly mean to make people upset, but the making them uncomfortable… I’d be lying if I said I thought that was a bad thing.

Tags: Blog

14 Responses to “I Don’t Have to Say a Word”

  1. Sam Kelly Says:

    Well. Speaking purely for myself, and not intending any aspersions, I’d’ve preferred to see the meat of the arguments right upfront there – but then I’m too used to this sort of thing myself.

    I’m looking forward to the next few instalments.

  2. Brinstar Says:

    I can sort of understand their reaction. If I suggested to one of my male friends that he was practising transvestitism, because his in-game character in Guild Wars is female, he would be extremely offended, become defensive, and probably lash out at me with a series of very personal insults (he’s just that kind of person).

    At the same time, I don’t understand the degree to which people had become defensive. I guess people have very conservative views of sexuality, and if you suggest that they are practising transvestites, they become shocked and offended. Yet, working within your definition of the term — they are exactly that. However, it is up to them to become offended or not.

  3. Zack Wood Says:

    Yea, I wouldn’t call it transvestism. Cross-gender character-playing is certainly an interesting way to examine people’s gender explorations and choices, but calling it transvestism seems kind of random and needlessly associates it with a very specific real-life topic that makes people uncomfortable. It makes it sound like you’re playing as a male char in female clothes, or vice versa. It’s more like transgender exploration or something. Anywho, the response you got sounds crazed in any case, and no matter what you had said about the topic, some people probably would responded with YOU SAYING IM GAY!?, so nice and courageous post. At least you got them thinking and talking about it.

  4. The lurker Says:

    Admittedly, I skimmed the thread quickly, but the reaction did not seem to be a case of conservatism or homophobia. You were bringing up a topic that had been discussed extensively on the forum in the past, and the word transvestite came across as moderately sensationalistic. Many of the respondents in that thread have written about the use of on-line avatars as a way of exploring gender identity, and they have strong feelings on the subject.

    [Note: A handful of postings were along the lines of ‘sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,’ but most of the postings were focused on more substantive issues.]

    In my view, the surprisingly intense response was less reflective of conservatism about gender identity, and more of a reaction to the fact that the community had already discussed the topic widely. The two articles referenced by Richard Bartle (e.g. the Bruckman piece and the PDF by Parks et. al.) and the research by Nick Yee seems particularly relevant. Bartle could also have mentioned chapters in his own book about these issues.

    Also, I think that the phrase:” An Introduction” might have struck some of the respondents as implying that they did not already know about these debates. This might explain their intense reaction.

    Anyway, that was unusually contentious for a Terra Nova debate, and I hope you will not let the experience sour you on the forum. When the dust settles, many of those (usually more gentle) contributors will probably feel bad about jumping down your throat.

  5. Bonnie Says:

    My point in the overall isn’t to put people up in arms over the term – if there was a better one at my discretion, I’d use it. My point is just to establish a basis from which to discuss an interesting topic. Unfortunately, things don’t seem to be moving past the initial set up.

  6. Bonnie Says:

    Lurker, I understand what you’re saying: “an introduction” wasn’t meant to be condescending, but I see how it could have been taken that way. And you’re right, the topic has been covered by others; I hope to look at those studies too, in time to come. Hopefully things will go better in the future :-).

  7. Kelly Rued Says:

    Heh, not to nitpick but the TN debates of the past might not be definitive for the subject (TN posters seem to see much of what goes on there as an authorative final say on matters, which is cute… taking offense at a new writer re-introducing an old topic doesn’t surprise me with the prevailing sort of attitude over there). I’m a long time TN reader but only a very recent poster because of the intimidation/condesending factor (I do post on sex in games and a bit on SL because I have first hand knowledge I’m confident in, but it can be a very hostile forum for ideas at times, considering the academic tone). Anyways, it’s a great subject to explore more later, with a bigger focus on transgender issues (which does include and explore elements of transvestitism since many transgender people have the clothing/style/”surface” experience of transformation well before they undergo other physical manifestations of their felt gender).

    I’m very interested in transgender issues and have pre-op transgender (M/F and F/M) avatar options in all my sex game designs to give acknowledgement to the community of people living with bodies/appearances in conflict with traditional male/female body images and roles. The fact that virtual worlds allow people to live as other genders in a community with true privacy and true transformation (gender constructed indepently of all phsyical and social history the person has) opens doors to all sorts of issues… some of which probably beg discussion from sexologists, mental health workers, and transgendered people themselves (rather than game developers and the VR world analysts alone).

    Transvestitism may not have been the optimum term but reintroducing a topic like this that still has much to be explored is a good idea. Particularly where females play male characters as well. These are not “solved” issues with a broad consensus of understanding. If TN is exhausted on the topic, that’s the poverty of their interest in the matter talking- not the fault of the subject matter. It’s interesting stuff.

  8. ren reynolds Says:

    heck, peep just used to flat ignore my posts if they had anything to do with you-know-what. And yes, if it’s ever been said or thought on TN or MUD-DEV ever, you are obviously supposed to know that, coz everyone has read every mud-dev post and no one has a new view. but hey, at lest we dont talk about property all the time.

  9. Bonnie Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, Ren and Kelly. You do talk about property a lot of the time :-). I hardly claim to know it all, but I think there are ways to approach this topic that haven’t been seen before, and I would love to explore them. I know also there can often be a difference between the general readership of a site and its posters; still, it is troublesome sometimes. Onwards and upwards though…

  10. MD² Says:

    As I said there, I just think the term transvestitism is too strong (too much pathos in connotations) for what you’re describing. I think you’re right on the idea, though, whatever we call it (I like cross-gendering, for no reason I can point to, probably the sound of it :) ), study of the phenomenon opens a very interesting, meaty, part of the field, as most people have acknowledged.

    Some of the comments in Terra Nova were really interesting and on point, also. The guy saying he had unwillingly adjusted to a more feminine associated behavior just because he had taken a female avatar is one of those case where you long for actual hard data.

    In the end don’t worry for ego bashing I guess.

  11. Bonnie Says:

    Good point, MD^2 – there is also interesting stuff in there, no doubt.

  12. StateofGrace Says:

    You know, while adult conversation involves respect and tolerance of your ideas, it also means that when a large number of thoughtful and well-educated individuals with a long-standing interest in a given field telling you “we’ve covered this area before and, with respect, the consensus is that you’re wrong, and here’s why”, you don’t simply dismiss it as knee-jerk “defensiveness” or “guilty conscience”. They may be wrong, but isn’t it blunting occam’s razor a bit to leap straight to “you’re all repressed transvestites because you don’t enjoy and agree with this post!”

    After all, you’re surely the last person one would expect to use loaded and judgemental language like “guilty conscience” on the subject, reinforcing stereotypes.

    Anyway, the “you’re all homophobes” response – ad hominem if ever there was a case of it – doesn’t move your case on at all. What if you were wrong? It could happen, you know?

    I didn’t see a any responses on there that were flaming or rude, although quite a few were teasing you, like the one you mention pointing out that the post sat a touch awkwardly with the traditional “feel” of the Terra Novan community that you’ve joined.

  13. Bonnie Says:

    StateofGrace, the comments that I’m referring to as defensive are hardly the ones that merely say, We’ve looked at this topic already. As for theloaded language of “guilty conscience” – that’s exactly the point. The guilt is something these posters are bringing to the table, not something that’s being imposed on them.

  14. StateofGrace Says:

    Ok, put another way, a touch more bluntly, sometimes people are annoyed by a post, not because they have a “guilty conscience”, but because the tone of the post is arrogant and presumptive, and the poster is thoughtlessly dismissive of their responses.

    You can, of course, dismiss me as bound up in the same defensiveness as all those men you describe thus. Or you can look at their responses and think “what about my manner caused people to react like this to what I wrote? How can I behave that will provoke the same discussion as others, but without the mockery that I produced from my audience? What am I doing wrong that means that my points are dismissed and I fail to help others address what I see as important?”

    Does accusing dozens of others of something about their character and lifestyle choices on the basis of fairly flimsy evidence, whether by a startling coincidence it happens to be true of them all or not, help you to communicate with others?

    I apologise if this seems aggressive: it’s really not supposed to. And I know that a public forum isn’t the best place to post this sort of thing: most people will just do what you describe others as doing in the same situation: dismiss it. But if you go around saying about everyone who disagrees with you “I don’t need to say a word, you’re all a bunch of closet transvestites and are scared to admit it”, you’ll end up getting the same version of /rolleyes every time, and that would be a terrible waste.

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