Even in an age when sharing mundane details online is standard, it’s easier than ever to control the way others see us—until, as people often say on social media, someone’s been “exposed.” Welcome to Exposed, a monthly column where author and activist Chris Stedman invites you to get a little more vulnerable.
From the very first moment she held a controller in her hands, Merisa loved video games.
It was the 1980s, and video games had suddenly become much more affordable and accessible to a broader range of Americans. At the beginning of their heyday, it truly felt like they were for everyone; it wasn’t until the 1990s that a broad number of people starting thinking of them as “more of a guy thing.”
It was in this specific window that Merisa, a trans woman who was assigned male at birth, found herself entranced by video games and their blocky 8-bit graphics—in large part because they were one of the few things that seemed acceptable for both boys and girls to be interested in. Little did she know that her love of gaming would lead her to the space where she would first come out.
In the mid-’90s, when Merisa was around 15 years old, she started participating in an online chatroom for people interested in ZZT, a computer program with simple graphics where you could build your own games and share them with others. It was there, in those chat rooms, where everyone was just a display name, that she first came out as trans.
It was actually quite simple: she just changed her display name to something more feminine and said that if anyone had any questions, they could ask her. But no one did. The nonchalance of their acceptance—their unquestioning willingness to simply start calling her by a different name—was almost shocking. And in fact, as it turned out, there were many other trans people in the chat, too.
Online spaces—especially those oriented around creative endeavors, whether it’s a chatroom for users of a cooperative game like ZZT or the pop music stan forums of today—often allow for a degree of anonymity that appeals to queer and trans people in need of a safe space to express their identities. There is something about both the anonymity and creativity of these kinds of online spaces that often make them feel particularly safe for people looking to work through identity questions.
As someone who grew up in the ’90s and early ’00s, I too found that internet chatrooms were the first space I could come safely out as queer. Coming out online felt significantly more low-stakes; in a text-only chat room, no one knew me as anything other than an Aaliyah fan.
So unlike at school, where I later told a few friends who went on to tell others without my consent—resulting in a ridiculously dramatic scene where I literally chased two of them outside of another friend’s birthday party—I knew it wouldn’t spread to other people in my life. In a chatroom, I had greater control over my own story. And I didn’t have to worry about being rejected, as I did with family and friends. If someone was cruel or hostile about my identity, I could just close the chat window.
Like me, Merisa also found radical and much-needed acceptance on the internet. But while her experience of coming out in a chatroom was surprisingly simple, her journey to coming out offline was anything but.
Merisa initially came out as trans to her family and many of her friends in the late ’90s, during her senior year of high school. Some of her friends were supportive, but her parents refused to accept her identity. So after graduating from high school, Merisa moved to San Diego to live with her sister, a city where she could put on a dress and go to the gay bar for ladies night on Saturdays without her parents’ judgment.
But after her sister graduated from school and moved back in with their parents, Merisa was laid off from her job and had to move in with them, too. Stuck living in the home of parents who didn’t understand her, with no health insurance and only a part-time job, she felt like she had no choice but to go back in the closet. I’m going to try being a dude, she thought. I’ll do my best to make it work.
But after almost 10 years in the closet, it definitely wasn’t working. Naturally creative, Merisa loved to express herself; it was a huge part of what appealed to her about gameplay. But the closet made that profoundly difficult, if not impossible. With each passing year, she felt more and more hopeless.
During her decade living at home, however, she did have one outlet for self-expression: online roleplaying games. She got very involved in EverQuest, a massively multiplayer fantasy game where users create custom characters that work in teams to explore dungeons and slay beasts. And even though she generally played with a group of coworkers to whom she wasn’t out, she was able to play as a female character.
Because she was gaming with people who saw her as a man outside of the game, it felt subversive to pick a female character. EverQuest is what’s commonly referred to as a “persistent” game, meaning you stick with the character you create—unlike, say, selecting Princess Peach for a single round of Mario Kart—resuming play as that character every time you return to the game. Because of this, there was an assumption among many EverQuest players that men wouldn’t play a female character.
But this choice represented more than just subversion; it was also a way to express aspects of herself that she couldn’t in just about any other area of her life. It was a way to feel closer to being seen for who she really was than she could at work or home—a way to be seen as a woman, and have people engage with her as one.
Yet even though she had online games, the stress of living at home was eating away at Merisa. Sleep became increasingly evasive, and she would often get panic attacks when trying to go to bed. But one day, someone she knew from the chatrooms she frequented as a teen tweeted about a YouTube series in which people played Minecraft. Merisa found the videos soothing and discovered that watching them helped her fall asleep.
Eventually she started talking with one of the women in the videos through a chatroom she maintained. After five years of chatting they became good friends, and eventually Merisa told her she was trans and planned to transition someday. She became a confidante and resource, helping Merisa navigate and improve her relationship with her parents, and even helping her get voice practice in over Skype.
Three years ago, after Merisa had saved up enough money from her full-time job at a school district to move out of her parents’ house, she came out again and began to transition, and the two started dating.
Today, Merisa and her girlfriend run an online game community together—an explicitly queer and trans-inclusive space for people to play together, because they want to create the kinds of welcoming gaming spaces that Merisa benefited from when she was younger.
But the benefits of gaming have extended far beyond Merisa’s youth. A few years ago, when she was trying to figure out how she wanted to present herself as a woman, gameplay was hugely helpful. She knew she was a woman, but she didn’t fully know what that meant to her. Merisa didn’t have the same experimental teenage or young adult years to try out different styles of dress and figure out what works best, a period of self-definition and exploration cisgender people so often take for granted.
Gameplay gave her an opportunity to explore different things and discover what she liked. It was more than just trying on different styles of clothing; it was a way of experimenting with an overall aesthetic and with different ways of being in the world.
And even today, while she is able to express herself more fully in other areas of her life than she ever could before, Merisa still finds games to be helpful spaces for learning new things about herself and bringing different elements of her personality to the forefront.
Whether we’re regular video game users or not, I think gameplay in a variety of settings functions in this way for many of us. When I was in high school, a good friend from church hosted a murder mystery party. I was assigned the role of an undertaker, and we agreed that I should dress in a manner consistent with what we thought “goth” meant. As I was trying to figure out what to wear, I asked her if she would paint my nails black.
I was already out as queer at that point, but I still had a great deal of internalized homophobia, and I was constantly trying to prove to the world that being queer didn’t mean that I was different from everyone else. But here, in this game, was an opportunity to experiment. To try something I was curious about, something that felt subversive, under the guise of “play” and see how it felt. And sure enough, I liked it.
This may be what draws many queer and trans people like Merisa to gameplay, and surveying the number of queer people who love video games or roleplaying and tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, she’s far from alone in her interest. Games let us experiment. We’re often not as bound by the conventions and norms of our hetero- and cisnormative society.
Games aren’t escapism as much as they are a vehicle for self-expression—they’re creative, cooperative, world-building exercises where we can define ourselves and the world around us on our own terms. And with enough practice, these invented versions of ourselves can become more real than any game.
Want to get exposed? Email Chris at [email protected] with a short description of a time when you felt truly vulnerable—in either a positive or a painful way (or both).
Want more? Check out the previous installment of Exposed.