In June of 2015 I picked up the phone and dialed my old friend Rick’s number, guided by the muscle memory of having done it so many times before. This time, the topic wouldn’t be our excitement over the new Dungeon Master’s guide or some neat piece of esoterica we had learned in Mr. Zebracki’s history class. This discussion would be much more abstract.
“I have something to tell you, Rick,” I began. “I realized recently that I’m transgender, and I’m planning on transitioning genders at some point in the next year or so, so that I can live my life a little more honestly.”
After a moment of silence, Rick said exactly what I was hoping to hear: “You’re one of my oldest friends. If that’s what you think you need to do, of course I support it, and I’ll help you however you need me to.” But he also had some questions: Would I still play video games? Would I still like Star Wars?
My friend had some questions: Would I still play video games? Would I still like Star Wars?
Rick and I bonded in high school over our mutual love of nerd culture, which we had embraced long before anyone else thought it was cool. It started with daily after-school pilgrimages to the comic shop to buy Star Wars cards, our beloved pastime which occupied us for hours. The amount of time and money we spent on them was ungodly. As we grew older, Star Wars cards eventually gave way to encyclopedic knowledge on movies, music, anime. Rick even found a way to make sports nerdy with his encyclopedic knowledge of the history and statistics of any given game. For us it was more than an obsession. It was in our DNA.
And yet Rick still wondered whether changing my gender presentation would affect that bone-deep love. He wasn’t the only one; I found this reaction common for many of the people with whom I shared the news of my transition. Friends would ask me, “Can we still talk about Doctor Who?” and “Does this mean you won’t play Starcraft with me anymore?” My dad even asked me if I’d still want to make beer with him the way we do every Thanksgiving. The nature of these questions made me realize just how invested people were in the assumed gender alignment of the activities we all enjoyed together.
My reply was always the same, “Of course I’m still going to do all of those things!” From my perspective, I was making a change that would lighten my mood and allow me to enjoy life better. Yes, I would look different, and I would be happier, but I wasn’t concerned that any of my passions or interests would disappear. To my friends and family who expressed these concerns, I may as well have been walking away from everything that made up my personality.
Where did this idea come from? We had plenty of girls in our circles when we were younger — there were girls playing with us whenever we sat down for a game. And yet, the fact that I would be transitioning had thrown an urgent and devastating curve-ball into the systems of some of my oldest friends. For the first time, I realized that at a basic level, they thought that nerd culture was “boy stuff.” Before my transition I hadn’t thought much about how that attitude might have affected the girls’ experience. But now that I was moving from being one of the boys to “just like one of the boys,” I realized how different those experiences really are.
Now that I was moving from being one of the boys to “just like one of the boys,” I realized how different those experiences really are.
For people who are socialized as men, being part of a predominantly male clique is an important part of building a self-concept. Being a member of a tribe supplies men with a healthy sense of validation and inclusion. We see the importance of this male tribalism on full display in team sports. To be chosen last during team selection is the greatest mark of masculine inferiority that could have been suffered by a boy.
The idea of “brotherhood” is axiomatic to our understanding of how all-male brigades fought their way through both world wars. It’s that same pack mentality that gave rise to concepts like “guy code,” “bros before hoes,” and “locker room talk.” Without feeling a connection to it, some men feel that they are missing out on a crucial part of life.
As Katelyn Burns points out, the essence of male hierarchy touches all cultures. So it should come as no surprise that it also touched communities I was involved with. I, too, had been socialized to believe that certain things were for men and other things were for women, and any crossover should be looked at as foreign and suspicious. I don’t blame men for these aspects of toxic masculinity that seep into the general population. That’s what’s given to them. It’s a part of the blueprint men are handed in youth, the same blueprint I was given and lived with uncomfortably for 27 years of my life.
Girls, on the other hand, tend to approach being “one of the guys” as something we use to get past gender barriers and just engage with the things we like. Women tend to see the activities we participate in as less enabled by gender (i.e. “boxing is a sport for men”) and more enabled in spite of gender (i.e. “just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t be a boxer”).
But we are also conscious that our participation in male-dominated activities tends to be at the leisure of the men involved, and that membership in the group could be revoked at any time. For example, if one of the men begins to pursue a woman in the group romantically and she doesn’t return his interest, her continued participation may be threatened. This becomes even riskier for women in male dominated professions like cybersecurity — my own field of expertise. In professional settings, the stakes raise dramatically. Rejection of a man’s advances can cost us more than our hobby, sometimes it can cost us our jobs. As long as this dynamic exists, we can never truly be “one of the guys.”
Often, we deal with this fundamental outsiderness by creating secret spaces where we can pursue feminine interests on our own terms, where being “one of the guys” is no longer the only key for entry. When I reintegrated into my old hobbies post-transition, I found that there were entire subcultures built by the women of the group, for the women of the group. These small, isolated, and distinctive societies that women created were completely invisible to me before I transitioned, but when I returned to nerd culture I found myself added to secret chat rooms and invited to events just for the girls.
When I reintegrated into my old hobbies post-transition, I found that there were entire subcultures built by women, for women.
It was like finding a secret room in a house I lived in for decades. In these women-centered spaces, topics of feminine interest could be discussed openly and out of view of the men in the group. We were shielding them from being grossed out or bored — periods, eew! Fashion, ugh! — but more than that, we were shielding ourselves from having to openly remind anyone that we were women and thus inherently different. We feared that if they noticed, our passageway into acceptance might close.
I watched this happen many times online, in particularly hostile ways. Once they realized that an opponent was a woman, players in online games like Battlefield, Counterstrike, or Halo, emboldened by anonymity, would launch into misogynistic attacks after every victory or loss, or sometimes for no reason at all. Any given round I could expect to hear any number of sage platitudes such as, “go back to the kitchen,” or “why don’t you make me a sandwich?” not to mention a barrage of slurs. And female streamers on twitch.tv spend almost as much time fending off jerks as they spend talking about the game.
The nerd culture narrative is that we’re a group of outcasts and rejects, who built a community to cope with the awkwardness and rejection of being a pariah in a school social structure that didn’t value the same things we did. But we also brought the seeds of our own inherent caste systems with us, which in many ways perpetuated an unspoken marginalization of the girls that in some cases bordered on outright contempt. It forced the girls to find ways to evolve, and to express themselves despite the constraints that exist when the men make the rules.
I’ve found that the road to acceptance runs directly through a minefield of toxic masculinity.
Nerd culture is always going to be a part of me and my history. I wouldn’t be who I am without it, and I’m glad that I still have a place in my communities no matter what I’m wearing, what my name is, or how I look. In many places — at my local gaming store, at my friends’ houses, and in these women-centric spaces I never saw before — I’ve found the accepting and understanding community that nerd culture is supposed to be. But I’ve also realized how far we are from being that all the time, for everyone. I’ve found that the road to acceptance runs directly through a minefield of toxic masculinity, and that women’s participation is often tentative — and often requires that we leave our woman-ness at the door.
Our identities are complex. The interests of most women are both broad and deep, as is our capability to adapt to situations in both casual and professional settings. Being the versatile creatures that we are, women will always find a way into communities that interest us. Whether we get there with the help of some awesome men or in spite of the worst men, we are armed with an understanding of where each of us is coming from. With that in mind, we have a chance to set aside any preconceived expectations we have of gender and fight the goblins together. We’re going to need all the help we can get.
Other recent stories include: