Writing Trans While Being Cis

Above: an abstract illustration of Detective Grosvenor, a middle-aged, stern woman with plant buds growing out of her face.

Above: an abstract illustration of Detective Grosvenor, a middle-aged, stern woman with plant buds growing out of her face.

Last night, I attended a talk on queer game jams by Kirsty Fraser. Sat next to me were two men who had heard about the talk online and decided to show up with the sole aim of disrupting it. Partway through the talk, one of the men raised his hand. When Kirsty paused, puzzled, he snatched the moment and opened with a “Sorry, but I’m just struggling to understand…” before proceeding to harangue the entire room with the various issues he perceived with the ‘queer agenda’. Several times, the words “well, as a gamer…” were used unironically.

I mention this because it highlights the reason why I feel it is necessary for people who do not identify as queer to show their visible support for people who do. If queer people were met by either hostility or passivity by all non-queers, it would be very difficult to blame them for feeling like the rest of us don’t care about their wellbeing.

Six months ago when Richard and I (both straight, white, cis men) began the conversations which would lead to Ring of Fire, we were both fairly insecure about how to feature characters and do something meaningful for the LGBTQIA+ community. Hell, we still are now to a lesser degree, hence why I’m writing this blog post to give a rationale for our announcement.

At the time we discussed simply avoiding the issue, and talked at great length about how we might be able to do it justice. The easy solution seemed to be “let’s hire a queer person to do the queer bits of what we make”. No problems there, right? Except we couldn’t hire anyone, we had no money, and we were scoping the first prototype to be something that just the two of us could achieve. So we had this problem: without the labour of a person in the community, what can you do with your art to show compassion?

At some point I can’t recall, I decided our protagonist was going to be trans. This was something I really wanted to do justice, and it excited me as a writer because it was outside of my comfort zone, but we knew that we could always chicken out and make her a cis woman or a “default human” man (as the brilliant Henrike Lode described in a talk I attended) if things got iffy. We decided that as soon as we could afford to we would hire a sensitivity consultant to make sure we weren’t being total doofuses, and we still think this is an important thing to do.

As I undertook my research into trans issues and culture, my biggest concern shifted from writing a terribly clichéd trans person (something people like me have a habit of doing) to writing one which appropriated transness for my own commercial gain. I can’t explain quite how I reached it and the thought is certainly not original, but after a lengthy process of rumination, my conclusion for how I might feature queer characters and potentially even queer themes without appropriating was this: just tell the story you originally wanted to tell, with respectfully-written trans people featured in it.

To be explicit, this means that the story isn’t going to be about coming out just because the protagonist is a trans woman. It isn’t going to be about dysphoria, or having part of who you are denied by others.

Therefore in our imaginary solarpunk utopia being queer is normalised, making it feel natural to include  without turning it into a central conflict. We would like it to be a chill little detail for folks to enjoy, and not to be played as a major theme or forced marketing beat (although the highly politicised nature of the topic may well make it a key talking point around the game whether we’d like it or not).

Above: Concept art from Ring of Fire of London in the year 2062 with lush green overgrowth spread out across its utopian skyline.

Above: Concept art from Ring of Fire of London in the year 2062 with lush green overgrowth spread out across its utopian skyline.

Instead, our game is going to be about savage murders in an ecologically sustainable utopia. It’s going to be about how much individual intolerance society can tolerate, and how people become radicalised.

Our protagonist will not be grappling with her transness; she will simply be trans, and that’s that, but her knowledge of transness and queer history might give her unique insights or opinions into certain situations (such as thoughts on extremists). Writing her is going to be an iterative process in which I listen to people who have that same knowledge, and take their advice to make Grosvenor as well-observed as I can.

As Far Few Giants expands and Ring of Fire goes into full production, we would like nothing more than to be able to feature more queer people (and all minorities for that matter) on the team. Certain terms of our funding will put quite restrictive geographical limitations on some roles, which may in turn allow us to do less of this than we’d like, but our diversity goals will be achieved eventually.  We’ll go wrong too; I’m sure I’ll make plenty of mistakes in writing Detective Grosvenor and growing a fledgling team. This is one reason why we wanted to announce what we’re doing early: we're saying this now rather than keeping it a secret so this character is in front of the people she's representing, and we can make this an iterative process of listening and learning. We also have the plan laid out above to mitigate and catch mistakes using sensitivity readers and thorough research, we are dedicated to being open and earnest about our mistakes, and most importantly, we will always listen to and learn from queer people when they tell us we got it wrong.

Perhaps, in this way, we might write a character that is respectful and representative of trans identities, and we might make progress with achieving our company’s diversity goals by the time we’re thinking about our second game.

Oh, and it’ll be a big “screw you” to those guys at last night’s event.

- Tony

Special thanks to Nic Freeman who gave invaluable feedback over the past few months, both during the process of forming these thoughts as well as putting them into the words above.