Exploring queer identity through Dungeons & Dragons

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Dungeons & Dragons, the most popular tabletop roleplaying game in existence, gives players a chance to create a fantastical identity and explore whole new worlds from the comfort of their kitchen tables. Under the guidance of a Dungeon Master, or DM, players can engage in battle, embark on quests or just mess around. 

For some, D&D acts as a safe space where you can test out whole new identities. Rowan Giffel, a local D&D fanatic, appreciates how the roleplaying game allowed them to explore their queerness. It’s no coincidence that they typically play D&D with an all-queer group of friends. 

“When I started playing D&D, I had recently come out as nonbinary,” said Giffel. “Playing a character that was no binary and having people use they/them pronouns was nice. Your characters also go through extreme experiences. Thinking about how those circumstances shape your character’s identity can help you understand something about your own identity.”

Most of Giffel’s character’s traits have been partially based off of their own personality. But recently, they created a character that has helped them step out of their comfort zone. 

“My gayest character is a bard ‘cowboi.’ It’s spelled B-O-I because they use they/them pronouns. Their name is Ram,” explained Giffel. “They are very charismatic and flirt with everyone, which is very unlike me.”

Creating this character was a fun way for them to explore a part of themselves that they usually keep hidden. 

Because Giffel typically plays D&D with queer folks, they never had to worry about getting misgendered or facing transphobia. They set boundaries at the beginning of every campaign to make sure everyone feels safe. 

Some of the groups they play with use what is called an “X-Card.” If someone feels uncomfortable or triggered by a certain situation, all they have to do is say X-Card. Then, the group immediately stops what they’re doing and calmly moves on to something else.

“It truly is a safe space for us,” said Giffel.

One of Giffel’s D&D buddies, Chase Curtin, agrees that campaigns should be a safe space in which queer people can explore their identities, engage with past trauma and experience wish fulfillment.

Curtin typically acts as a Dungeon Master. So he designs the maps, creates non player characters and has control over the narrative. It brings him great pleasure to watch his friends have fun and discover more about themselves through D&D. 

During one campaign, one of his players created a nonbinary character. After playing for a while as that character, the person came to the realization that they themselves were nonbinary.

“When we started playing and referring to them with they/them pronouns, they got a lot of gender euphoria out of that,” said Curtin. “Realizing that was a huge moment for them. D&D was a way for them to explore those feelings in a safe, controlled way.”

As a Dungeon Master, Chase goes out of his way to make sure that players can explore difficult emotions in a healthy, productive manner. For example, one campaign featured villains modeled after a player’s abusive parents. What could have been very triggering was instead a way to achieve catharsis. 

“We had to really talk about what was going on with their parents in the game. They got to have a very cathartic moment of killing those villains,” said Curtin. “But I had to stop the game and tell people that I was not personally misgendering this character. I had to tell them that, anytime I misgendered the player, I was speaking as their parents.”

In that campaign, all but one of the players was transgender. So, Curtin took great pains to assure them all that the purposeful misgendering was a function of the story, something that was inspired by real trauma that this person had experienced at the hands of their parents.

“It could be triggering if I was misgendering their character for the entire arc,” said Curtin. “I had to step out of the story and make sure everyone was aware of what was happening.”

When playing with his LGBTQ friends, Curtin plays what he calls “a game of tug of war” with the officials rules laid down in the D&D guidebooks. In typical gameplay, monsters only exist to be murdered. You’re supposed to kill them, take their stuff and move on to the next town.

“Monsters are unwanted and unloved. Identifying with that and showing those monsters love is a huge thing for us,” explained Curtin. “Playing with queer people, you’re going to have parties that include two tieflings, a tortle, a warforged and a tabaxi.”

Rather than play as monsters, a stereotypical D&D crew would look more like the cast of “Lord of the Rings.” Humans, elves and dwarves who slaughter whole towns full of monsters.

That’s just not how Curtin and his friends like to play.

“There’s a lot there in terms of identifying with the monstrous,” said Curtin. “Being told that you’re monstrous your whole life and then being told that you’re worth loving ... . That’s something that a lot of queer people can identify with.”

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