How to be a Trans Ally in Tabletop Gaming — An Interview

Synopsis from Ian McKenzie

I’m going to level with you. I am one of the worst types of bigots; the type of bigot that genuinely thinks they are not a bigot. That being said, after reading a book called Radical Honesty by Brad Blanton, I developed a skill that the world so desperately needs these days — the ability to be honest with one’s self. In the time since reading that book, I began to better understand all of the ways that I was passively hurtful toward many people. That being said, I did actively try to be an ally to those that have it more difficult than someone like me. But, I was the type of person that needed things to be explicitly spelled out for me. This interview serves as a tool for those that try to be allies, but do not necessarily have the developed skills to do it as fluently as others.

After a conversation with another one of the House of Bob members, they helped me formulate an extremely succinct TL;DR for this interview. It really comes down to two things:

  1. Don’t be a jerk.
  2. Don’t take it personally when you’re called out for being a jerk. Being called out isn’t someone’s attempt at putting you down. It’s them offering you an opportunity for redemption — take that opportunity and thank them for giving it to you.

I had this idea to write a blog post about making an inclusive space for trans people after you mentioned an awkward interaction with some folks you had in an online tabletop gaming session. Does stuff like this happen often? How could something like this have been avoided?

No matter what platform you’re playing on, or who with – either online or in person, with strangers or with old friends – there’s always room for unintentionally awkward interactions. 

I’ve been lucky enough to play with people of a lot of different gender identities over the four or so years that I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs. And for the most part, it’s been handled incredibly well, by DMs and players alike. But occasionally, there will be moments that can make people around the table uncomfortable. Misgendering characters or players is the most common problem. This can feel insignificant to some people but is a very common microaggression directed at trans people, so being mindful of using the correct names and pronouns is very important. 

In general, making sure that you are respectful and able to adapt and apologize if you mess up, is the most important thing. 

For some people, they don’t know anyone that’s trans, and may not even fully understand what it means. What are some online resources that you would recommend for us to get a crash course?

There are dozens of resources out there for people hoping to educate themselves, so I’ve compiled a few useful ones! 

Glaad, the LGBT media outlet, has a useful FAQ about transgender people and even has some tips on how to be a good ally. 

Stonewall is a historic organization (named after the Stonewall riots) that supports LGBT people and has a useful glossary of terms that one might not be familiar with. 

Another good way to learn about trans people is to read their stories – every trans person’s journey is completely different, and there’s no one experience! Here are some articles by trans people and their loved ones: 

Transgender stories: ‘People think we wake up and decide to be trans’ 

What I’ve Learned From Having A Trans Partner 

The toys and clothing question 

Coming Out Stories from Trans and Non-Binary Teens 

If you don’t know any trans people, there are lots of people online who will be willing to talk and answer well-intentioned questions, on platforms like Reddit where you can start an open conversation. 

Even with online resources, we may still have questions and we’re not sure how to ask. If someone at my game was trans and I had questions, when would be a good time to ask, and how can I differentiate between what is appropriate and what isn’t? (For example, what is **too** personal of a question)

As a general rule, if you wouldn’t ask a cis person the question, then don’t ask a trans person the question! Nobody wants to be asked about their genitals by an acquaintance, regardless of their gender. 

It depends a lot from person to person. Some trans and non-binary people welcome questions, no matter how invasive, whereas others can find any questions potentially upsetting. Asking a person’s name and pronouns is a good habit to get into, but beyond that, you probably don’t need to ask anything else if you’re just gaming with a person! 

If you have further questions – about what is appropriate at the table, how to best support them, and so on – the best time to approach a player about these is probably not at the table. You don’t want somebody to feel like they’ve been put on the spot or in the limelight. In these situations where you want to check-in, it’s usually best to have this conversation one-on-one, the same way you would any other conversation that could be a little bit awkward, and be ready to listen and learn. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that it’s always within a person’s right to shut down a conversation if they are uncomfortable or don’t think your questions or tone are appropriate, so make sure that you’re being mindful of the other person’s comfort. 

Can you tell me about some times where people made awkward comments? If it isn’t obvious, how can players avoid this from happening?

As I said, the most common problem that trans players probably experience at the gaming table is probably misgendering. Sometimes, a person’s voice or appearance might not easily align with their pronouns, which is why it’s important to make sure you don’t assume a person’s gender or pronouns based on appearance alone. 

But further than that, it’s very possible to be transphobic in less noticeable ways. Bioessentialism, or gender essentialism (the view that gender and sex are innate, immutable, and solid, rather than fluid, personal, and changing; that men and women are inherently different), sneaks into our language regardless of our gender and is not only transphobic but sexist as well. Not all men are tall and masculine; not all pregnant people are women; not all warriors are buff men; not all healers are waifish girls. 

Think about the way that you perceive gender in games. Why does this brave paladin have to be a man? Why does this kind of cleric have to be a woman? Let your characters, and the characters around you, defy gender norms and boundaries and let them be celebrated for that, rather than seen as lesser. Be mindful of your own prejudices, and try to adjust the way you think by adjusting the reality in your games. Normalizing things in games is a great way to normalize them in real life. When you get used to using singular “they” pronouns for the elvish tavern owner you befriend, you’ll be in a better position to use them when meeting your non-binary co-worker. 

What are some tips you can give to game masters to make their game more inclusive?

There are lots of ways to make your table more inclusive! 

For starters, if you’re playing with new people, it’s always a good idea to go around the table at the start and say your name and pronouns, as well as your character’s name and pronouns. Even if you’re playing with people you know or mutual friends, it’s a good habit to get into, especially if you’re playing a game where a player’s character’s pronouns may not match their own. 

In addition, whether you have trans players at your table, make sure to treat any trans/gender non-conforming issues with respect. Habits are built when you’re around other people, so letting transphobia take a seat at your table will enable transphobia in the lives of yourself and your players. Shut down transphobic language and jokes, let your players explore characters outside of their own binary in a non-judgemental way, and foster an atmosphere where gender exploration is seen as a positive instead of a negative! 

Another way to encourage good habits is by including trans and non-binary characters at your table as NPCs. This can be either relevant to the plot or not. I’ll include a couple of examples of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming characters I’ve included in my games at the end. 

You can also include gender variety into your worldbuilding. 

If dwarves don’t have the same sexual dimorphism that humans do, why should they have the same gender binary? Maybe all dwarves use the same pronouns. 

Elves choose their own name when they reach adulthood. Maybe up until then, all children are considered gender-neutral, and they choose their own pronouns alongside their names. 

Halflings are typically a very communal group of people. Maybe halflings see gender as something divisive, and all choose to share the same set of pronouns. Or, maybe they gender as something unique to each person, and celebrate different gender expressions and pronouns with gusto! 

Maybe particularly devout clerics adopt the same pronouns as their god, as a sign of respect. Maybe an archfey patron can steal a person’s pronouns in the same way they can a name. There are dozens of ways to introduce gender diversity into your games in a way that will make your players think about gender as something other than just “man” and “woman”. Some might not work for your table, so play around, float ideas with your players, and see how you can make your table more interesting, exciting, and inclusive. 

What are some tips you can give players to make the game more inclusive?

Players have as much a responsibility to ensure an environment is friendly to the other players as a game master does. Calling out fellow players when they say something problematic, making sure that everyone around the table is comfortable and that you’re all supporting each other, is incredibly important. Encourage other players 

Is there anything else our readers should know?

Being a good trans ally is a matter of listening, being supportive, and challenging transphobia where you see it. Don’t let your friends and acquaintances get away with being prejudiced in your presence, even if it’s “just a joke.” Bigotry is never a joke and has immeasurable consequences for marginalized people all around the world. 

Look after each other, be vigilant, and, most importantly, be kind.