Getting Gay in the Guild: the LGBT Experience on Neopets in the Early 2000s
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If there could be a Neopets historian, besides the creators and original staff, I honestly could be in the running for the job. Though Neopets began as a virtual pet site in 1999 aimed for college students, I found myself at seven years old creating an account in July of 2002.
The basic idea of Neopets is that you have some pets, you make them look pretty, you explore Neopia (the site’s version of Earth) with them, you have fun. In its heyday, Neopets had month long plots where users could solve mysteries and get rewards, participate in submission based contests, and even fight other user’s pets with their own in real time. From the hands of Donna and Adam to Viacom and then a messy hand off from Viacom to Knowledge Adventure, Neopets has lost some of its charm but just like all other sites we’re hopelessly addicted to despite knowing it’s broken, a good potion of veterans still play (I’m living proof of it despite my account being frozen five times). The site’s saving grace is the ability to talk to users through public and private forums along with private messages.
For the generation of Neopets players who played from around 2004 to 2012, there was a challenge of trying to get across what one really wanted to say to each other. This led to multiple ways of trying to give offsite usernames while avoiding the overly sensitive filters. Still to this day, I cannot give reason as to why the word “uncle” is blocked on the site. Usually, an exchange of getting an AIM or MSN Messenger username would result in a person spelling out the letters of a site like “aye-eye-em” or “em-es-en”. Then your next challenge was usernames, some of the more daring would type out the username without a care. If you weren’t so brave, you would do something like UsomewordShereEandsoonRandNsoforthAME. Each capital letter was a part of the username; everything else was fluff. We learned how to trick and work around filters, just like anybody else. Some people were really ballsy while others just got pointlessly creative. I was more of an emoticon to display what I wanted to say kind of guy while I had a friend who would curse in German, hoping that the filters wouldn’t catch her. Surprise, they usually did. Often, users handing out offsite usernames were caught by filters which led to your message or board post being deleted. The user would either be warned by an automated message or suspended by the site for a certain number of days, depending how often you did this. The suspension system worked like strikes. Every time you were suspended, your suspension was increased by a day. If you broke a rule after an eight-day suspension, it was time for your account to be frozen. I have been frozen for many things, my favorite was for “breaking too many rules.” Other reasons to be frozen was for scamming somebody out of items, using inappropriate language, buying items with real money, hacking, et cetera. This was a time was before Neopets’ created a partnership with Facebook, so even writing the words “face” and “book” next to each other resulted in filter trigger. It was frustrating but satisfying to get a username across successfully. It almost felt like a notch in the friendship belt was made if a person made an effort to give you their MSN messenger username just because of how daunting the task was. Usually one person would ask and then give out the username to everybody else in the friend group in the already pre-made offsite chat.
What was remarkable about speaking to offsite Neopets users, was that on the website, there were always borders and parameters that made it harder for us to talk about our life experiences, but once on an offsite chat client, everything would suddenly fall into place and everything could be said without making thinly veiled dick jokes while using the Quiggle emoticon. One time, a friend dramatically revealed to me that she was Jamie Lynn Spears, and I seriously believed her until maybe two years ago. (I one time even tweeted at Jamie Lynn Spears asking her if it really was her all those years ago. She never answered.) Usually though, the number one thing that I would learn about my friends I met off of Neopets was that most of them fell on the LGBTQIA spectrum. Some people were more obvious about it on the site, but since words like “dating,” “kiss,” “girlfriend,” and “boyfriend,” were flagged, it was hard to admit our sexualities when we wanted to. At that time, the “other” option for gender wasn’t available for the gender section on usernames either. Often, women who found themselves on the LGBT spectrum would have their gender marked as male to make a point, myself included, even before I realized I was part of the community.
If you consider yourself LGBT, you have other friends who are too. It’s just some weird type of magnetism. So how did a whole bunch of LGBT kids in the early to mid-2000s find each other in the giant and vast space of the Internet on a virtual pet website?
Tons of people chose virtual reality type sites to admit their secrets to the void. Though now the current site of choice is Tumblr, sites like Neopets, IMVU, and Gaia Online were the choices for a good while, or at least back when I was a dumb middle schooler. Since you never really had a chance to post a photo of yourself, there was an unspoken comfort in the anonymity that one could hold onto by hiding behind your character/icon/pet. So pretty often, if you were in the closet, you were coming out to your Internet friends first before anybody you knew “in real life.” Truthfully, if you look through old posts on my Tumblr, there are tons of posts about me realizing that I’m not completely straight. There were some nights on Neopets and old chat logs where I talked to friends about how I wasn’t really sure if what I felt was straight. Those posts however, are lost. Instead of them being in between GIFs of video games and inspirational book quotes, these sexuality confessions were posted in between the requests of if somebody could price an item while the poster was on a quest. The only way to describe the juxtaposition of a Neopets guild board and an MSN messenger chat going on at the same time would be the equivalent of a squad group chat versus a private text message that we all frequently juggle today.
Maybe it’s a habit I formed from my Neopets days, but it has always been easier for me to admit things online instead of in person. Even if I know the person in real life, it’s easier to tell them something through message instead of face to face. There is a shield of being able to think and write before you post or send something that is comforting for when you’re about to admit something nerve wracking. Even though I lack the ability to think before I speak, it’s always easier for me to type something instead of talking, which I’m thankful for.
Neopets held a kindness for me that worked almost as a vent diary, however, after a few days, my posts were lost to the virtual void unless somebody screenshotted them. When my parents decided they were going to get divorced, the first set of people I told were my guildmates. In retrospect, I probably should have given the heads up to the friends that were coming over later that night, but I knew that facing Internet friends in that moment was going to be easier than telling the people I was going to spend the night with. There was and still very much is, at least for me, that relief that Internet friends are as close as you need them to be. You won’t bump into them at the supermarket, they don’t show up to your house and ask if you want to get midnight McDonald’s, and usually that’s a bad thing, but when some kind of loss like that happens, it’s nice to know that you can dump a secret and then avoid these people by just walking away from the screen for a little while. Of course, it’s rude to leave people hanging like that, but when you admit a life changing secret, sometimes you just need to hide.
Growing up, nobody has the ability to just walk away from a situation. With being gay or trans or bisexual or whatever it is in the mix, it’s even harder to speak your mind and admit what you’re really thinking. Being on online sites with communities like this made it feel like we had some kind of power that we didn’t know that we had. With Tumblr, there is more permanence but with Neopets, things easily got deleted after an allotted amount of time. With Tumblr, you can go into an archive, see what somebody said five years ago, which is satisfying but also kind of horrifying too. (Receipts are a blessing and a curse.)
Over the years, Neopets has become lackluster and boring to me but I still find myself spending my Friday nights watching movies with guildmates and making fun of each other in a Rabbit chat. Of course, I still keep in touch with some of my golden years Neopets friends and some of them I don’t talk to anymore, but Neopets is still very much a big part of me and a big part of my coming out story. I even have met some people from my guilds and people from the Neopets Tumblr community (affectionately called the “Neotag”.) Without the help of other people similar to me, I would not have realized who I was at the time I did. Young gay kids have always been around on the Internet, you just need to know where to look for them