Telling a bunch of random internet nerds seemed the least perilous course of action, and with a handful of keystrokes, I was out.
A long time ago (but not in a galaxy far, far away), a video game was the catalyst for my inelegant stumble from the closet. As a teen, I was a regular in the online servers of Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, a thoroughly mediocre game that against all odds had cultivated a dedicated community. It was a summer's evening, and having contemplated spilling the oh-so-fabulous beans to my strictly religious parents, or to blabber to my school friends, telling a bunch of random internet nerds seemed the least perilous course of action. With a handful of keystrokes, I was out.
What happened next was unfathomable to my teenage brain. Nobody turned his or her back to the wall to avoid an imminent lightsaber bumming. Nobody immediately labeled me "Manakin Guystalker" or "Obi Wanty Knobby." Nobody launched a crafty rock at my head from the second story school window. Instead, I was greeted with a series of short but approving responses suggesting that I was brave, still welcome, and most of all, holding up the line for the next lightsaber duel—my name had been called.
Somehow this reaction surpassed even my fantasies of adulation and confetti. I was just another geek pretending to be a Jedi who happened to dig boy Jedi. In the world outside of video games, I was constantly afraid. Afraid of being outed, or worse, condemned. The guild provided a space where none of that mattered. I could indulge in the activities that most other pubescent teenagers took for granted. I gossiped with Eowyn, the German 18-year-old about celebrity crushes. I talked with candor about the stresses of constantly hiding away my true nature. An imaginary space afforded me very real, very formative experiences.
A screenshot from 'Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy'
Eventually, Jedi Academy even granted me my first taste of relationships. Buoyed by my own confession, another teenage boy known as Darth Tanner (yes, a Sith, but also seriously cute) came out to the group as well. We would spend hours together in the server, and then on AOL Messenger, excitedly devouring each other's life history, leaving each conversation more excited than the last. It didn't matter that he lived in Ohio and I in a dreary town in the West Midlands; I was experiencing a small slice of normality that all my peers took for granted, and to which my access was otherwise blocked. A life had been changed by a single game server and the kindly folk who ran it.
Needless to say, the benefits of my new online life soon spilled over into the real world; the floodgates had opened. Soon after my Jedi Academy outing, I opened up to my friends, my sister, and eventually my parents. To this day, I'm unsure how long I would have lingered in the closet, convinced of my own abomination had I not plucked up the necessary courage on that fateful day.
Since that incredible event, the relationship between my sexual preference and the video games I play has been more fraught. The world of online games helped me out of the closet, only to attempt a coup and usher me back in moments later. As I quickly discovered, the small, friendly server of a minor Star Wars game is the Shire to the rest of the internet's Mordor.
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Try logging into League of Legends, and you'll soon become acquainted with ubiquitous habit of gay bashing. When things go wrong, which they so often do in online games, the torrent of poorly spelled homophobia gushes forth. You're rarely just a "n00b"; you're a "gay n00b," or, if you've been foolish enough to jump into a North American server, you're almost certainly a "faggot." This is all before you announce that you're gay and find that kind of talk offensive. That particular mistake is only made once.
The more I came to identify with "gayness," the more I also became aware how de facto heteronormative single-player games are, and how their obsession with hyper-masculinity was so alienating. Maybe that's why I've always found silent or nameless protagonists the most fascinating, as it's possible to project the feminine aspects of my selfhood onto them without feeling like I would be personally offending the creators. Even when characters in games do have same-sex dalliances, it never felt representative of any sort of romance I've experienced. Shepard's masc-for-masc love affair in Mass Effect 3 was the kind of poor imitation of intimacy found in badly acted porn.
And yet I've been unable to forget the one video game that taught me to accept myself. So many games have delivered into my life enriching experiences that have changed my mode of thinking or gripped me with their unfettered cleverness, but in this single area, games have never since delivered.
A LDNGaymers gathering. Photo via LDNgaymers.net
And yet the world is changing, I know that. Gaming culture is coalescing with what I hesitate to call "the mainstream" at an ever-accelerating rate. As it does, more and more subcultures are brought within touching distance. The latest season of RuPaul's Drag Race featured two queens with looks inspired by anime, comic books, and video games. The cast of Game of Thrones was brought in as part of an Overwatch PR stunt. It's not the death bell for Zac Efron's career that he was photographed as part of the Electronic Arts showing at E3 2016. For the first time in the community's history, it's acceptable to integrate "gamer" into the plurality of identities that any person sustains at one time.
On the issue of gay gamers, the community still has a long way to go. Let us not mention the online event of two years ago that rhymes with "LamerLate" and the fault lines it revealed in the community's delicate psyche. For my part, I've since joined an LGBTQ society called LDNGaymers. We get together, we play Mario Kart, we debate whether Mass Effect 3 was shit or not (it was) and, most importantly, we exist happily in two spaces at once, never once questioning whether we belong in a queer, console-friendly space.
We'll be marching in London Pride in full-on gaming cosplay. The servers of DOTA 2 will likely never show me an enlightening experience as happened with Jedi Academy, but I don't care because games are once again bringing me closer to people and teaching me how to love myself.
Follow Justin Mahboubian-Jones on Twitter.