We all saw virtual reality as the logical next step in gaming — and why wouldn’t we? Console manufacturers and game developers are always pushing for innovation and increasingly immersive experiences, and the idea of skipping past the television screen and jumping straight into the body of a video game protagonist in a fantastical world was a very exciting prospect.
In the end, virtual reality proved game-changing for a number of industries, not just gaming. It’s used in therapy and even military training in some cases. Those stuck questioning their own bodies are also using it as a temporary reprieve — a way to experience life in the body they wish they were born in without the risks of coming out in public before they’re ready.
“It reminds me that some people are actually good in this world,” one person told Digital Trends.
One of the best examples of virtual reality being used to help gender-questioning and transgender individuals is the meme machine that is VRChat, a virtual hub similar to the now-defunct PlayStation Home or the advertisement heaven that was Second Life.
VRChat is a virtual gathering place for players (with or without a headset thanks to its desktop client) to socialize. It’s a sandbox simulation that allows them to build and play on virtual land. You can also import 3D models and interact with other players in a large variety of ways. That level of creative freedom is what draws people in, and the ability to be who you want to be encourages people to seek out the expensive equipment needed to virtually experience what it would be like to be their ideal self.
Just about anything you can import to the game can be your next avatar. This level of freedom is the reason many VRChat gameplay videos are a mishmash of copyrighted character models, famous faces, and classic improv comedy competitions. For gender-questioning individuals, it’s a way to temporarily alleviate the dysphoria they experience with the body they were born with and instead inhabit one that more closely resembles who they really identify as. Sure, you’ll see plenty of busty anime girls, Muppets characters, and odes to popular memes on your travels through its weird and wacky community-driven worlds, but for some, the avatar they use serves a much deeper purpose.
I visited various Reddit groups like /r/asktransgender, /r/VRChat, and /r/transgamers to find players who discovered themselves through virtual reality, or used the VRChat virtual playground as a way to safely explore their feelings without the potentially humiliating and sometimes even violent ramifications of presenting as their true gender in the real world.
For those born with dominating sex characteristics like broad shoulders, a petite frame, or a chiseled jawline, presenting as their true gender in an unforgiving society is a challenge that isn’t easy to overcome. Donning a VR headset, however, is a safer way to gain the insight and perspective they need to affirm or refute their questions and doubts to ultimately make an informed decision about a social transition that could have life-long implications.
Zambina, a closeted MtF (male-to-female) transgender student, deemed VRChat “the best” at offering these gender-affirming experiences because it allowed her to “be treated as a girl.” Zambina shares a bedroom with her younger brother and can’t come out to her family through fear of losing her scholarships and college acceptance by some potential retaliation from her parents.
As for her brother, she says she has “been his role model forever” and doesn’t want to risk disappointing him. So, when she occasionally gets some time to herself, Zambina logs into VRChat to be the girl she truly is inside. “…others almost always assume I’m a girl because I don’t talk and mostly write/dance around, which they read as female” she explains. “It’s so therapeutic to look in the mirror and see a girl, even if it’s virtual.”
VRChat wasn’t an egg-shattering experience in itself. Zambina already knew she was transgender. But she says it “definitely helps alleviate dysphoria” and reinforces her “desire to transition.”
Then there’s KS, a trans-masculine/non-binary person in his mid-20’s. “I’ve pretty much questioned my gender my whole life,” he said. “When I turned 18, I found the term non-binary and kind of just instantly knew that was it, that was me.”
The term non-binary refers to people who don’t identify as “male” or “female.” Some individuals may be gender-fluid, identifying with a combination of both masculine and feminine traits, while others may choose not to identify as any gender at all. These are only a couple of examples, of course; many people have their own unique identities that ultimately do not fall into the male/female binary.
Upon joining VRChat with a friend they were already out to at the time, KS “didn’t want to deal with the misgendering” caused by his regular voice, so he used a voice modulation program to “experience what it would be like to be read as a male from the get-go.” This worked almost too well, with KS being called out as a biological male playing a female character when they changed their avatar.
Facing real obstacles
Skye, a MtF transgender person, sadly didn’t have a perfect experience with VRChat. We’ve heard plenty of horror stories of keyboard warriors harassing people over the internet, and poorly moderated internet games certainly don’t help fix that part of society.
Questioning her identity as a transgender girl from the age of 14, Skye got involved with VRChat in the middle of 2018. She wouldn’t talk much in-game through fear of being harassed, but she managed to make friends very quickly despite being socially awkward.
Fast-forward a week and one of her new “friends” had lured Skye into revealing her sensitive situation. Little did Skye know at the time, she was being recorded, with the evidence then used to blackmail her.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Skye would go back to VRChat. There, she met a “lovely lady” who invited her to Fallen Realm, a compassionate Discord group of other LGBTQ individuals. “I came out to the people there… they all support me,” Skye explains. “I met my now IRL partner on there.” While it was a turbulent experience at first, Skye managed to foster friendships — and even a relationship — by embracing her true self online. She told us, “It reminds me that some people are actually good in this world.”
When hyper-social virtual spaces like VRChat are too much for someone questioning their gender identity to handle, where can they turn? That place for Mika, a transgender woman who is actually out to her family, was Bethesda’s undying Skyrim.
When you can’t count on other humans to gender you correctly or use your preferred pronouns, a scripted single-player adventure like Skyrim can fill the void. “I remember when first playing Skyrim VR,” Mika recollects. “Going into the Warmaiden’s Shop in Whiterun… The shopkeeper greeted me every time with, ‘Now you, my girl, have definitely come to the right place.'” referencing how NPC’s will, without fail, respond with the correct pronoun for your character’s gender. “I distinctly remember that throwing me for a loop,” she said.
Mika says her family frequently misgenders her, so it’s the “subtle things” like unquestioning and unwavering video game code that help.
This isn’t to say that VRChat and VR spaces are the holy grail of safe gender expression and discovery. Just like in the outside world, it can be hard on people who don’t fit the status-quo, and role-playing your true gender online isn’t always going to be met with positive encouragement. But there are supportive communities and genuinely understanding people to befriend in these places. People who don’t care about how you look or sound, or how far from your avatar you happen to be in real life.
Whether you’re interacting with people online in VRChat, Star Trek: Bridge Crew, and RecRoom, or saving the region in Skyrim VR, virtual reality offers those who aren’t ready or unable to open up to their family and friends, the chance to discover and explore their feelings before making the life-changing decision of coming out for good.