“Our dreams are a second life.” ~Gerard de Nerval
by Flor Nachtigal, rez magazine
Let me say this first: it has taken me two and a half years to get to this point. The point where I could write this, and I still went through a few weeks of writer’s block before words would come. So, you’ll understand the matter is close to my heart.
When we started rez magazine, we set out to cover Second Life culture, as many aspects of it as we could capture. And yet one phenomenon, central to SL culture, is shrouded in silence and secrecy, hard to talk about without pointing fingers and violating the SL TOS. I’m talking about SL residents using avatars of the gender other than their Real Life gender. In particular, men in female avatars. Their traces are everywhere, mostly on the RL tabs of profiles. Women will say they are voice verified, men will demand voice verification. Women will often demand the same from other women. We have groups out there that claim that having an avatar of the opposite sex is only acceptable if the RL gender is clearly stated on the profile. And we have groups who claim that voice filters are weapons, and that they will voice verify their members via third party services.
So, what’s going on? I’m not sure if anyone knows exact numbers. I’m not bothering with estimates either. I think it’s unknowable how many residents use avatars of the opposite sex. What I can say with confidence is that there are many, and I know more than my share. I know this because I started that way, a RL man with questions and doubts about his identity, behind a female avatar. Now, some 900 days later, the picture has changed. I’m a transsexual female in RL and say so SL– I have come out on my profile. I can’t abide the silence anymore. We have to talk about this, and we have to talk about this as a huge problem. The huge problem is caused by another aspect of SL culture. I’ll state it bluntly, not trying to hide my anger: Second Life is a meat market, where lonely men fuck bored housewives. There.
If you get close to a woman ‘played’ by a man, is yoursexual orientation called into question?
So we have creative, feeling, caring valuable people in our midst who are essentially asked to sew yellow stars onto their clothes, so that others, that very vocal majority, do not have to face their own fears. Like the weirdness of knowing that the person behind the avatar is not what the avatar suggests. The fear of intimacy. If you get close to a woman “played” by a man, is your sexual orientation called into question? Does that make a straight man gay, does it really turn a lesbian into a victim of male rape? Why this pressure?
In my personal experience the pressure makes telling the truth a lot harder. I remember being asked point blank what my actual gender and sexual orientation was. I was not asked nicely; the actual words were “I need to know”. And they came from a man who made contradictory and implausible claims about his age and occupation. Aside form being rude, how do I even answer that? In Second Life I’m female. Transsexual to be sure, but female. In RL I’m transsexual, well on my way to being a woman. I self-identify as female. I was born a boy, lived as a man, I have a Y-chromosome. What is my true gender? There are a lot of possible answers. In SL, I will always tell you I’m a woman, and in RL it will not be long now.
As for sexual orientation, that becomes even murkier. The entire concept makes sense only if the genders of both partners are unambiguously clear. If the genders are different, if a woman is attracted to a man, she’s heterosexual. If a woman is attracted to a woman, she’s a lesbian. Easy, so far. But I have seen avatars of at least four genders in SL, and that is before RL gender even enters the equation. So, the relationship between a woman and a shemale or a hermaphrodite is lesbian, heterosexual, or something else?
Because of my own history, I tend to think of RL men with female avatars as transsexuals in waiting. I certainly was, and I know of others who cannot or for some reason will not make the journey in RL, but have a need to live this part of their identity. If such a transgendered woman is drawn to a man, how does sexual orientation feature? This question is not unique to SL; it plays out in RL in much the same way. There is an older school of feminists who think of transsexual woman as homosexuals who mutilated themselves. Being transsexual myself, this notion makes no sense to me whatsoever. To be a homosexual man, I have to be a man first, and I’m not. I have bought into being a woman to the full extent possible, in both RL and SL. Should I be drawn to a man, I would see it as a heterosexual relationship. How my male partner (whatever his RL gender) might see it, I can’t tell. The same goes for attraction to women. Remember that I self-identify as female, with all the consequences that brings.
Transexuals are simply men and women, albeit with
somewhat unusual biographies.
Now here is the food for thought: Transsexuals in both worlds tend to be invisible. Like with gays and lesbians decades ago, some of the invisibility is due to discrimination. Some of my transsexual friends in RL prefer not to be known as transsexuals in their communities for fear of discrimination. However much I dislike it, I have to admit that the discrimination is real and sometimes crippling. But unlike gays and lesbians, transsexuals don’t usually aspire to lifestyles that are visibly different form the social norm. Once the physical transformation and the adaptation to living in the new gender are complete, transsexuals are simply men and women, albeit with somewhat unusual biographies. This simple fact means that transsexuals are not terribly visible, often not even to each other. It also means that by the very nature of being transsexual, they are unlikely to speak out as loudly as gays and lesbians do. Instead, there is the danger that others speak for and about us, essentially robbing us of the right to define ourselves, the right to tell and interpret out own histories as we see fit.
For a long time my RL tab said “I tell my own story in my own time, and to people of my own choosing.” Even though I changed it, I still firmly believe I have that right. I’ve not come out to appease the bigots. The reason I did come out and the reason I write today is simply to make this one point: We are here, in RL and SL. We are courageous, afraid, full of doubt and hope, creative, resilient, ambiguous, beautiful, clumsy, and a threatening enigma to those who don’t know us. Above all we are here, and we are not going away.
Second Life is the place where we can live and explore this other, new identity in our lives, and for me it is also the place where I found wonderful friends who saw me through very dark times. It is time that the frightened majority acknowledged us. It’s not only us who have to question ourselves. All the rest of you do too.
Illustrations by Cat Boccaccio