Live-action role play—LARP—is just like any other kind of gaming, except that it’s completely different. You still pretend to be someone or something you’re not; you still go on wild adventures in a world not entirely like the one you’re used to; there’s still someone in charge making sure that things stay consistent and, hopefully, fair. But where other forms of gaming involve a lot of sitting around, either playing a video game or rolling dice with friends, LARP demands you move around in order to act out the scenes of the game.
LARP also requires you to put on a costume—well, requires may be a bit of a stretch, but it certainly encourages costumes. It’s all in the first two words: live action. You walk around. You talk, and whatever you say, that’s what your character is saying. What you do, your character is doing. And what you wear, your character wears. You literally become your character for the purpose of the game. Some games are more extensive than others. A medieval LARP might require chain mail or doublets or other difficult costumes. A vampire LARP might involve suits or gowns, or maybe a bit of leather here and there, depending on what you play. Whatever it is, though, your LARP costume can (and generally should) be something other than what you wear in your everyday life.
Which, if you read the title of this post, should lead you to make an important connection. So let’s set LARP aside for a moment and talk about gender fluidity.
Most of us have been told and conditioned to think that gender is a binary system: a person is either male or female. This, for the academically inclined, is called the heteronormative binary, or heteronormativity. But we’ve been learning (much more so lately as the idea takes hold culturally) that gender is not a binary. A transgender person might be transitioning from female to male or male to female, but that doesn’t mean that they are always one gender and then always the other. It is possible to stop in between.
And it’s possible to not stop at all.
Judith Butler, a scholar who has written a lot about gender, talks about gender not necessarily as something we are, but as something that we perform. We are taught to perform our gender when we are young—boys do boy things, girls do girl things. We can see these messages everywhere, from the color of caps put on newborns at a hospital to the types of toys marketed to children based on their sex, to the expectations we live with in every aspect of our lives. This leads some to that dysphoria in which they know that the gender they are being told to perform doesn’t match up with the gender they inherently feel they should perform.
Other people perform different genders all the time, and I’m not just talking about being a man who does “feminine” things or has “feminine” traits. (I’m one of those, but don’t consider myself gender fluid.) I’m talking about people who identify themselves as male sometimes, female sometimes, and something else entirely at other times.
But what is that something else? That can be a hard concept to wrap your mind around. For me, I was able to understand it with logic, essentially with the law of excluded middle. If there are two genders (M and F), why can’t there be one in between (B for both)? Or one that is neither of the two (N for neither)? Or one that is a little bit male, but not completely (A for androgynous) or a little bit female, but not completely (C for . . . well, another kind of androgyny, but I’m running out actual terms)?
But even my thinking here is still locked in the binary system; it’s really hard to get out of that. Think about it: all my terms are based on either M or F. It follows, then, that there is an entire spectrum of gender roles and identities, so I’m just going to acknowledge that there’s a lot I don’t know and that I’m still somewhat stuck in the binary, and move on with my five terms (M, F, N, B, A, and C). These are all genders that can be performed, and they are all genders that someone might use to define themselves.
The trouble is that our world is very locked in the binary. And because of that, many people are uncomfortable with those who dare to break free. Honestly, there’s a lot of trouble just for those trying to move from one side of the binary to the other. The pressure to maintain the status quo, and the very real danger for those who do not (many transgender people are the victims of horrific crimes simply because of their identities), makes a lot of people hesitant to step outside of heteronormativity even if they are not comfortable in the side of the binary they have been assigned. For these individuals, a safe space in which to perform another gender can be quite literally a transformative experience.
This brings us back to LARP. Because that second part of that acronym, roleplaying, opens the door to performing as whatever you want to—including gender. That’s true of all roleplay. You can be male and play a female elf in World of Warcraft. You can be female and play a male half orc in Pathfinder. And you can be male and play a genderless Tzimisce in Vampire the Masquerade. But as much as that might be fun, it’s just a stretch of imagination. In a LARP, you have to be the character.
You have to dress up. In doing so, you might find out that you’re a transvestite, where you dress in clothes normally associated with a different gender but don’t consider yourself a member of that gender. (I don’t want to say you can be a boy wearing girl clothes, because, as Eddie Izzard said, “These aren’t women’s clothes. They’re mine; I bought them.”) Or maybe, as a male-bodied player dressing up as and performing a woman, you find that you prefer to be a woman; your character being female may feel more real to you than the character you are playing in everyday life that is male. Or maybe spending a year or two binding your breasts and drawing on a goatee makes you feel more like yourself than when you aren’t LARPing.
Of course, it doesn’t stop with the binary. Maybe you go all out with the makeup and hide any distinguishing gender features and feel free that way. Or maybe you make it a point to have breasts but also a penis (hopefully without showing anyone, if it’s a kid-friendly game . . .) and feel free that way. Or maybe you play a character who is male sometimes and female other times. That can be fun.
This isn’t necessarily about just having a lark, though. LARP can be a serious experiment. I’ve LARPed with people who crossgender roleplayed for a while before deciding to make a gender transition in their everyday lives. I’ve known LARPers who made that transition in character first so that they could play with the strange situations of knowing someone who used to be a man but is now a woman. It’s not so uncommon.
But it can be hard for others to deal with. One situation involved a player I’m going to call Jeff. Jeff made a character who kept wearing women’s clothing, even though he was very male. This was in a werewolf LARP, where hypermasculinity was more the norm, and he got a lot of weird looks and (in-character) insults. I was running the game, and I noticed that these insults seemed to be hurting him more than they normally would for in-character interactions. So I started a plot that resolved with him being changed into a female, thereby making Jeff’s desire to wear clothes traditionally meant for women make total sense within the game world. Some of the other players had trouble with it, but I knew they’d get over it eventually.
Unfortunately, it seemed that the damage had been done, and Jeff stopped playing a little afterwards. But the story has a happy ending: Jeff is now Lisa and is very happily living her life. Last I heard, she is married and has a child with another woman. I still hope she’ll come back to game, because I liked playing around her.
Another part of this story is that the people I LARP with, as a whole, were able to think outside of the gender binary and changed their view. A lot of them realized that Lisa wasn’t just dressing up “for fun” and that their jokes and insults, which had been entirely in character, had been taken personally. So a few years later, when another player, whom I’ll call Dave, announced that he was and always had been female on the inside and was going to make the transition to Danielle, everyone was supportive. And we found a way for Danielle’s character to become female, so she wasn’t pretending to be male when she came to escape the difficulties of her life. That time, no one batted an eye.
And when people come to our game who are transitioning genders, or who are escaping the binary, or who are gender fluid, they’re accepted. I ask them what pronoun they prefer, and I try hard to stick with it, apologizing when I get it wrong. Because LARP may be a place where we go to pretend to be someone else, but it’s also a place where we go to be who we really are. LARP is unique in that it offers us a chance to experiment with our identities in full, more so than just creating a female or male character in Rock Band. It lets us get dressed up, walk the walk, try different voices, and generally to play with the idea of identity without the boundaries of the real world.
It lets us be ourselves, no matter who that may be.