“Excuse me — you in the back? I think you’re in the wrong room.”
There is this hotness I feel rising through my body. It starts at my ears, then my chest, until soon I’m very aware of how uncomfortable I feel. I didn’t think the group in the lecture center was particularly big, but with seemingly every eye on me the large classroom felt filled to capacity.
I think back to a year prior, at the New York Institute of Technology. It’s 2006 and I’m sitting in the office of the dean of freshman students. I’ve just told her I don’t feel very comfortable on campus. It’s been a little more than a month since I came out as Trans and things haven’t been going too well.
I was just starting to experiment with my authentic self, but I met opposition at every turn. Whether professors openly mocked me, students committed microaggressions, or my roommates acted outright aggressive — it was hard to want to learn.
At the time, NYIT had no sexuality non-discrimination policy. Things were so bad, the LGBTQIA club was an underground thing. You had to know someone to be invited, and its members rarely met. And there I was, feeling very small in this office, finding out that the school had nothing to offer me. That, despite her role to set up freshmen for success, she was telling me I would need to make my own life jacket.
“We just don’t have a policy in place to protect students like you. I know that isn’t what you want to hear. But you can help change that. If you stick it out, you can help the administration see —”
I didn’t hear her all the way. It was like those times I would sink to the bottom of the pool when my parents would tell me to get out — when the world becomes muted but you still know what people are saying. I was in school, probably mistakenly, for graphic design. Not for public policy. I wanted to be taught, not teach others.
“No, I am where I am supposed to be,” I said, trying to speak with certainty.
It’s 2007 and I’m in a seminar for freshman orientation at SUNY Albany. Just moments before we were told “male and male identified students go to LC 20, female and female identified students go to LC 22.”
Hearing that, I felt lighter. This wouldn’t be like NYIT. They demonstrated some understanding of gender identity. Still cautious of potentially making a stir, I sat near the back. It wasn’t exactly the last row where I would stand out, but far enough back that I hoped to blend in more than anything.
“Are you sure?” Her tone was a mix of an accusation that I was lying to her and bewilderment that I believed my own words.
I didn’t want to back down. I didn’t want to dunk my head under water. “I am sure.”
“Okay, but this is LC 22. Males -”
“Yes, this is LC 22, where they said females and female identified students should go. I’m male to female transgender. So, yes, I am in the right place.” And just like that, I had outed myself to one hundred or so of my peers. The warmth hadn’t dissipated from my body – instead I felt even hotter. Every inch of me felt like it was on display, with every eye grading me on my womanhood — my acceptable amount of Transness.
Not sure if I received a passing grade, I adjusted how I sat. I rearranged my face to show “I said what I said, shall we move on?” While I wasn’t ready to be a teacher, I did give a lesson in that moment.
I often get asked why I do what I do. That or get told how “incredibly brave” I am for being who I am.
The issue is, when you’re Trans and you can’t pass — that is appear to the outside world as just another cisgender woman — fighting for your space is all you can do. It never ends up being about bravery.
I remember preparing for my trip to the League of Legends World Championship in 2016. The quarter finals were in Chicago and this was going to be my first time covering League in person. I’m talking with an interviewer in the scene who I respect about outfits I am planning to bring and any tips for working with Korean players and coaches.
“You’re going to want to lean more towards masculine. Culturally, they won’t be too comfortable if you’re wearing a dress. They’ll be too polite to say anything about it though. They just won’t be comfortable.”
As I read this advice, I am immediately taken back to Syracuse a month prior.
“Can I cop a feel,” he asks with a big toothy grin, in on a joke I’m apparently not.
“Excuse me?” I wasn’t quite sure I heard him correctly in the noisy events venue where Star City Games Syracuse was being held.
Still grinning, now gesturing at an imaginary pair of breasts in front of him, “can I cop a feel?”
This wasn’t the first time somebody thought that my appearance was some joke. I must have lost a bet. I was probably doing a pledge dare. But this often happened in smaller settings, more intimate then an event with 1,300 other people there.
“You’re asking if you can touch my chest? I just want to be sure.” He nodded. I looked at the other players I was sitting with. “Can you watch my stuff?” I got up and headed to the judge’s station at the main stage.
Despite being a judge, someone who taught the importance of inclusive spaces in Magic: The Gathering, and had a hand in changing our tournament ruleset, it seemed I was in a losing position. It didn’t click why this person, who was a sponsored and well liked player, needed to be removed from the venue. No one understood why his behavior not only made me feel unsafe but had also made everyone at my table feel unsafe.
Seeing the word “uncomfortable” staring at me in the chat window felt warm, starting at my ears again until the heat of my body made it hard to sit right in my chair. How could my authentic self make someone else uncomfortable? But that was a rhetorical question. I was the other, and that was all it took to make some people uncomfortable.
In my journey through games and esports spaces, both professional and as a fan, I have had to deal with uncomfortable feelings. Moments where I’m asked who I am cosplaying as. Moments where I’m not sure if I am being snubbed for an opportunity because I am Trans or because I wasn’t experienced enough. Moments where I’m told I’m treated the way I am because I make people uncomfortable — I should try harder to look like a woman.
I have had more than a few people tell me recently, as if our Twitter DMs were some confessional, that they had turned down my request for an interview because I was Trans.
There is this pervasive opinion, a consistent piece of advice, that you need to have thick skin to be a public facing person in esports. You need to be able to take criticism and ignore the trolls. “Don’t read the comments. Don’t interact with Reddit. Ignore the randos.” It’s almost a mantra. But thick skin shouldn’t be the currency for existence.
There is a flaw to the formula. There isn’t anything revolutionary in saying the esports space has a diversity problem. It is hard enough to find certain marginalized groups represented, whether it comes to players, coaches or those on the broadcast. And when you don’t see yourself you cling to any diversity you do see. We know that representation does indeed matter; it is hard to argue that fact with the success of films like Black Panther or Raya and the Last Dragon.
But if we’re silent in how we’re treated as marginalized individuals, what is the message we send to those who are looking to us in the space? When they barely see themselves, what happens when they see the vitriol go unchecked? We’re not the only ones who see it. Twitter and Twitch and YouTube and Reddit aren’t isolated realities.
When no one spoke up for me, I ran. I left NYIT. I let myself be browbeaten into believing that the school just wasn’t for people like me. At SUNY it took me a while to find my voice — my resolve to not be pushed out, to be allowed to occupy space. There were times I stumbled and I backed away.
I know the power uncomfortableness creates. I know what happens when you don’t have other people speaking out. You believe the words. You don’t always say anything. You don’t always dunk your head underwater. But you begin to think “how much longer do I stick it out? It is never going to change, so what am I doing here?”
The power of visibility is without measure. By being here, unapologetically, and working in full view to improve the climate of diversity and inclusion in the industry, I am doing more than just work. I am not just changing things for my clients, for Upcomer, for Enthusiast Gaming.
I am telling everyone:
Yes, this is where you are supposed to be.