How roleplaying gives LGBTQ and non-binary people an outlet to explore themselves
In early 1994, I was an awkward and shy kid in middle school who had recently moved to a new town, where I had difficulty finding friends. As a way of escaping the bullying I was experiencing, I became obsessed with the newly popular AOL — and its roleplaying chat rooms, where I soon found friends and felt seen.
Over the course of the next few months — burning through all my AOL minutes every step of the way — I soon joined up with other Star Trek fans to start an ongoing roleplaying chat, where we made characters, commanded a ship (the USS Phoenix-B) and built a little home for ourselves.
That group grew, inexplicably, into a fleet of ship with nearly 150 members over the next few years. And in the process, I developed my character Tristan Wolf from the captain of the Phoenix into the admiral of a starbase at the crux of Federation, Klingon, and Romulan space.
Despite this new hobby taking up every spare minute of my free time, I was desperate to keep it a secret from everyone in my real life. The few people I told about it laughed at the idea of roleplaying Star Trek characters. I was called a nerd (this was, of course, long before that was a reclaimed term!). My parents even rolled their eyes or admonished me to stop spending so much time on it and get outside.
I marvel, thinking about it now, how this paralleled the early feelings about my sexuality, which I knew was different than other people. As I was keeping my Star Trek group as much of a secret as I could, I was also hiding the fact that I wasn’t attracted to girls — fearing humiliation even worse than what I got for telling people I was a Star Trek roleplayer!
But it felt like, among my fellow roleplayers, I was understood and appreciated. So when I came out to a few people in the group, and found the reaction was not as positive as I had hoped — one person demanded I not roleplay anything “too gay” because they didn’t want to read about that — I was crestfallen.
It didn’t take long for me to feel angry about how I was being treated, and I decided I wasn’t going to let anyone tell me I couldn’t be myself as everyone else roleplayed their own romantic storylines. On Admiral Wolf’s starbase, I tested the waters with him starting to have feelings for another man. And when the moment was right, I wrote about a temporal incident that begins just as he and his date lean in for their first kiss. And like in any good time loop, that moment repeated it self — happening again, and again, and again.
My naysayers were furious, but there was little they could do. And for the first time in my life, I won a small battle in accepting my sexuality and finding my voice. It was the beginning of a long road toward coming out.
In the more than two decades since that moment, our group has come a long way.
We’re proud and eager to welcome LGBTQ+ members. Our staff encourage players to sim what’s in their heart. On a recent evening in the chatroom, a prospective member asked if they could sim a trans character, and I watched with joy as a half-dozen members eagerly rushed in to give examples of previous trans characters — including one played by a senior staff member who transitioned during their time with us — and talk about some potential species that would be interesting to roleplay as a trans person.
Our community has become a place where LGBTQ people can explore their sexuality and gender in a safe, welcoming, and friendly way. People taking their first steps in a their journey down the path of transitioning can play a character of the opposite gender to consider how their character would think, feel, and respond to interpersonal relationships. Gay, lesbian, and bisexual players can test the waters of same-sex relationships in a low-stakes environment.
I asked our LGBTQ members to drop me a line about their experiences roleplaying, and got back some great thoughts. Here’s member Cecil:
I’m nonbinary/genderqueer. And I’m also ace. I usually have a specific character focus on the gender variant part because that’s the side I don’t have the best place to explore in my real life, unfortunately. Which is I think the part where it’s been extremely important to me. Because it’s one of the safe places I have to express those sides of me without worrying. Roleplaying is actually part of what gave me the language to attempt to sort out how I feel currently.
And DrMoon (Ensign Airik Tierney, USS Juneau):
I started participating in online sims just over 20 years ago. In the late 90s and early 00s, as an Admiral in a Fleet, I was not aware of any LGBTQ identified crew members. What attracted me was the sense of community — accepting community. The online community had various badges such as ours here (Admin, member, etc.) and they were designated by various fantastical characters — some for example to select from based on your level included God/Goddess/Guardian or Lady/Lord/Leige, etc. As you can see there were genderless options. You could also select from a multitude of non-binary gender descriptors. I was hooked.
Today, on our 26th anniversary of our founding, the community is presenting a small token of appreciation to Trek fans everywhere — our LGBTQ emoji set
These freely available emoji can be loaded into Slack, Discord, and forum software to add some queer flair to your chats: