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Dragon Age: Gay Plus, Trans Negative?

You know, it's incredibly rude to have quotations around 'female.'

As with many of the writers here at the GayGamer.net castle, I've had a huge chunk of my time swallowed by playing Dragon Age: Origins. As we already have a review and sex scenes with Zevran, I wanted to write about another piece of the game across which I ran (and one more piece after that--but that includes finishing the game, which I should manage this weekend).

In Denerim, the metropolis, in medieval terms, of Fereldan, there exists a brothel you can visit called The Pearl. If you speak to the madame there, she gives you the option of choosing your preferences, whether that be male, female, a surprise, or both.

Choosing both gives you what you see in the screenshot I captured up top. So, while many of us are going YAY! about the inclusion of Zevran and Leliana, below the fold you'll read about an issue that's made me frown.

It can be difficult to write into media a character that is considered a minority and underrepresented. Among those difficulties is when finally including characters of the minority, having only a few examples tends to mean that it's the only representation players have of said persons. When that is a stereotype, it can be easy to be disappointed.

What you see above, in the brothel, is my human mage standing next to a woman who is coded as trans. Unfortunately, these trans women (both the ones in the screenshot include "female" companion), are already made known to us that they are trans by the nature of the quotations around female, as if to say, "This is no real female."

Ouch.

Now, the way this makes sense is that you are in a brothel, where such would be communicated to you. That problem is solved here, albeit in an inelegant manner. Unfortunately, the trans women across whom I've come in this game are only here, in The Pearl. It is commendable that sex workers in the game are not seen as wholly seedy or villified, but the fact that this inclusion codes trans women as only sexual fetishes and makes it appear humorous (with one companion, she quips, "Oh, don't pretend to be surprised now) makes me wonder a few things:

Are there other trans persons in this game? Where are they?

Which brings me to a bigger thought about games in general. If they include a trans person, how do they become coded? If they pass, it should never become an issue what sex they may have been at birth. Otherwise, how is the discovery handled? Had they not coded these trans sex workers before selection, would people have been insulted that they were 'tricked?'

Don't get me wrong, BioWare has done an amazing job with this game, and includes many political issues which I never expected of them (and I am a BioWare fan), but this one is an example of something I would like to see as a starting point to a more friendly, less stereotyped inclusion of the (too often ignored) T from our communities.

Particularly as the game does very well at other gender issues in the game (women that play as women, instead of just a male with woman model!), especially as it includes my favorite party companion, Shale.

27 Comments

SZK said:

Maybe it's just me, but I interpreted them to be hermaphrodites, and not transgender - especially with the dialogue choice "I'd like a little of both."

Branovices said:

I thought of them as hermaphrodites, too.

Anyway, how do you know there aren't any transgendered NPCs standing about in town? I don't remember having a chromosome scanner in Dragon Age.

bryce said:

In videogames just as in real life, I think people should do their best to follow the "if you don't have something nice to say..." rule. Putting trans men or women into a game as a joke (whether it's intentionally meant as one or not, someone should have had the foresight to know how it would be taken) is propagating the idea that it's okay to ridicule people based on gender identity, which to me is wrong.

Winde said:

Spoilers:


I thought the reveal of the origins of Shale, the golem companion, and specially the short conversation with him about how he felt about being originally a female dwarf, was as good a portrayal of a transgender character as we could realistically get.

Pabasa said:

Winde beat me to it.

*continuation of spoiler*

I agree in the case of Shale, in that while it's not exactly a female mind stuck in a male's body (it's a female mind stuck in a lump of mobile rock), it does seem to me like Shale is a transvestite, even if may not have been thought as such.

Granted, unlike trans, Shale did not complain, and even volunteered to discard her female body to stick her soul into a chunk of rock. Who doesn't want rock hard abs, really? And squish all those pigeons too.

Regardless, her femininity frequently makes an appearance, and her desire to put gems to glitter from ear to ear is definitely un-golem-like behaviour.

*Shale finale spoilers ahead*

It does seem that Shale actually is unhappy with her ability to squish all things soft into a pulp, as in the end, she conveyed to my character that she desires to go to Tevinter Imperium to try and see if she can ask the mages there to restore her to her former squishy self. So I guess she probably does feel out of place in a body of a golem, as it's not what she feels is right.

*spoilers end*

Overall, my personal opinion is that Shale does sort of represent a trans (not in your everyday sense, of course), and it's unlikely to have made so as an insult. Obviously there are that see her differently, but this is my own interpretation.

I really don't think we should get up in arms about this issue of making "females" prostitutes funny. Of course it might strike a chord, but I doubt this is a negative connotation stuck just to make fun of trans. It's not perfect, but rarely anything in this world is. Heck, I myself find RuPaul's Drag race a bit demeaning considering that they're emphasizing that drag queens live to only lipsync or wear fancy dresses, while I've got one trans buddy who doesn't match that description.

mixvio said:

Drag queens aren't the same as transgendered people. Drag is a form of entertainment, like a costume party. Someone who likes doing drag does the over-the-top costumes for entertainment purposes; they're not necessarily transgendered.

So, yes, drag queens live for outrageous outfits and performing synchronized dances to songs. That's pretty much the point of it. It's perpetual Halloween. Without quoting To Wong Foo here, there's a difference between the two. :P

orangewaxlion said:

I like the hermaphrodite notion but I haven't played the game yet.

I mean if they were to have a successful MtF procedure somewhere within the world concept of the game, then effectively there's not any in-game reason for this to really be coming up. In most situations I can't find an excuse for the game to proclaim "wait, your female comrade was born a man!" It may be plausible that someone could interpret all the NPCs as once the opposite gender if they wanted.

Plus to some extent I just figured any recognition at all might be a bit of a boon even if it's slightly a gag, and I can't tell from the context whether or not this is an option that only comes up if someone were to actually pursue it or if it's just there from the start.

That said, the whole trans thing in games seems like a touchy subject. I basically only have two coming to mind, that Bridget kid who I think may be just a boy who crossdresses as a slutty nun and Birdo from Super Mario Brothers 2. Just glancing at the characters I was totally okay with just assuming they were female but I'm not sure if it's in poor taste or demeaning of MtF transfolk, particularly as the latter is like a giant gape mouth monster that murders dino/bird children by spitting eggs at the lead.

And the whole brothel angle just throws me off in conjunction with computer graphics. Some people honestly do seem to be into crossdressing as just a role play thing if not actually think themselves transgender and that caption in the game could just spell it out rather than people assuming it's just a particularly ugly female character model rather than a tell-tale drag queen.

Pabasa said:

Apologies for my ignorance Mixvio, as I did not separate the two before we had discussion.

However, that mistake only counters my last point, while the rest still stands. Shale is still a dwarf female mind stuck in a rock and decides to go female in the end. If you are looking for representation of the transgendered here, shale could be one, though for many it might be stretching it.

I *do* however would like to question why is wrong to label pre-op transgendered females as such, since they are, really, not yet females. In a whorehouse it's definitely something that needs to be made known to the client, I think. You don't want to turn this into The Crying Game.

Yes, it vilifies transgender prostitutes, but damnit, it's vilifying male and female prostitutes too.

mixvio said:

Yeah, I wasn't addressing the rest of the Shale thing, just the difference between someone transgendered and someone who's a drag queen.

Regarding pre-op, within the transgendered community, the surgery itself isn't always necessarily the determining factor of gender, either. I've known many transgendered people who only wear opposite clothing and prefer to be addressed by that gender, or are on hormones but nothing further, and have no intention or option to undergo surgery. It's still a very difficult procedure and irreversible and for a lot of people it's not much of an option when they're happy to express their gender without such a radical change. Some people do need the surgery but others don't. Gender isn't really black and white, as is commonly misunderstood even within the LGBT community.

When it comes to gender it's generally best to defer to the particular definitions that the person in question has determined for themselves instead of trying to put them under the umbrellas we've created for them.

Pabasa said:

Yes, you're right, of course. It's definitely up to the individual to define what they want to be known as, and what gender they want to be recognized as.

The issue in this post however, is that VorpalBunny does not like the connotation "female" being made obvious to the player character: "as if to say, "This is no real female.""

My argument is that, in a brothel, due to the fact that transgendered females are (post-op, specifically), really not quite female due to their lack of the female reproductive system. You really do not want customers to buy a female and get one with a penis. You might get your brothel burned down or something.

Unfortunately mixvio and my discussions seems to have veered away from the topic at hand. Apologies for digressing.

So yeah, the author asked if DA:O had any other positive connotations of transvestitism in the game, and while some have discussed that the prostitutes might be hermaphrodite, I'm just sayin' that Shale can be taken as an example of an implementation of a trans.

T said:

It's nice when a part of the GLBT community that isn't affected by something tells you that you shouldn't be "up in arms" about it because it's "not so bad".

Sure it isn't.

For you.

For a lot of actual trans people, pre-op or post-op, stuff like scare quotes around the gender to joke that it's of-that-gender-but-not-really is pretty hurtful.

Luckily it was something I avoided, due to never checking the Pearl out. But seriously.

Phill said:

While I do think that Dragon Age is a "Gay Plus," it's got its flaws even there. Notice that while there are exclusively heterosexual characters, there are no exclusive homosexual characters.

But rather than make it so, I would prefer that they'd made all characters bisexual. That the audience interested in homosexual romance is give Zevran and no alternative is a bit disappointing. If a "straight" player doesn't like Morrigan, they can always go flirt up Leliana. I was not given such an option. I've talked to many players who fell in love with Alistair but could not pursue the romance because their player-character was male--even though at some points it feels like Alistair is showing interest. Zevran is a bit of a stereotype: promiscuous elf twink. But even then, all he can talk about is his female conquests. A bit of a turn-off, if you ask me.

BioWare made the effort to pander to a wider sexual audience--but they failed in two important ways: equality and diversity. Not that they haven't still made a big step for representation in games.

Nexus said:

I'm sorry, but scare quotes?
Just because they add quotes to a word, doesn't mean it's automatically meant as an insult or joke.

Now I'll admit not having seen any of this, so I can't give a fully informed opinion. However it seems to me that they might have added the quotes just to diferentiate. They wanted to show that they added the option for transexual or transgender (I don't know if the game is precise on which of the two the person is supposed to be). So they made sure that is was clear that the option was there. If they hadn't added quotes, how can you tell that it isn't just a female companion?
The desire of transexuals to be the gender they change to not withstanding. If you want representation, you have to be able to tell you're represented. I doubt these prostitute side-characters have much story to them that allows you to verify their identity through non-visual means.

Of course like I said, I haven't actually seen how it is portrayed. Nor do I work at Bioware, so I don't know in what spirit it was intended.

NaviFairy said:

"Drag queens aren't the same as transgendered people. Drag is a form of entertainment, like a costume party. Someone who likes doing drag does the over-the-top costumes for entertainment purposes; they're not necessarily transgendered.

So, yes, drag queens live for outrageous outfits and performing synchronized dances to songs. That's pretty much the point of it. It's perpetual Halloween. Without quoting To Wong Foo here, there's a difference between the two. :P"

I think this is an important point to keep in mind regarding this part of the game. The way I saw it, the characters at the Pearl were drag, not trans. It is a brothel, which is meant for sex as a form of entertainment. They are not trying to live their lives as women, or at least I haven't seen any deeper characterization in any of them to suggest that they see themselves as women. They are dressing up in a role to appeal to clientele as a form of entertainment. I don't think it's a good idea to always assume that any character that cross-dresses is trans, especially in a brothel-type setting.

CuddlyManBear said:

I think it is wrong, but i still find it hard to fault a game that tries to include GBLT. Bio Ware tries... Has Nintendo?

JustinAD said:

I completely agree with Phill. Making some exclusively hetro but NONE exclusively homo; it's 1 step forward and 2 steps back. I had a male character, had a 'relationship' with Zevran and some of the conversations I had were...well, made him sound like he much perfers women and he has sex with men because, in what I drew from it, is just a plain debaucherous, hedonistic, assassin.

While it's hard for me to call any of this progress, I can say it is, at the very least, a step in the right direction.

Also, on a similar (sorta) topic, I beat the game last night (after only 80 hours!) and for those who have know what it looks like, but the text that tells what happend to everybody and everything, when it got to me it said I was a woman. It read (maybe spoilers):

"As for [my MALE character]'s companions, they went their separate ways. When Diagoro [that is my MALE character] finally left Denerim to continue HER(?!?) travels, Zevran went with HER, electing to remain with the WOMAN(c'moooon!!) he loved......"

I had to read over it a few times to make sure I saw it correctly, I even took a pic of it with my phone for proof. Has anybody else had this happen?

Pabasa said:

T,

It's a brothel. Have you watched The Crying Game? Would a pre-op trans like to be punched in the face because she didn't make that fact known earlier and the client discovers she's doesn't have the right equipment?

If it was in any other situation of course it'd be wrong to be labelled as such!

But look at the situation! And you haven't even been to the Pearl! I'd hate it if I hired a male prostitute and found out he has the female anatomy down there, wouldn't you? I'd definitely like to let it be known to me before I pay a bit.

Look at the picture first will you? Seriously.

Cubo said:

I fear that my opinion on this is going to get me flamed, but I think that people are looking too much into this. While I'm sure some people may be offended by the "female" quotes, I would imagine it to be more of a nod then an outright insult. No, it isn't 100% politically correct, but it's realistic. People use slurs all the time, but very few people mean it as an insult.

There are a precious few GBLT characters out there. This is likely because in proportion to the entire population, there are precious few GBLT people. The fact that Bioware has even decided to allow flirting with another man is inspirational. If every minority had to be shoehorned in with 100% perfect political correctness, it would feel fake.

FurryGenesis said:

I find it rather silly that anyone who sees the quotation marks around the word female can take it as anything other than simple clarification. It's not insulting in any way, and there are actually two "female" companions - the one to the left of the first is also labeled the exact same way, if you mouse over her.

There is absolutely no back story for any of these prostitutes in the context of the game, other than that they appear before you when you follow a certain dialogue choice. Because of the obvious possibility of some straight boy not looking close enough, there needs to be some visual clarification in the form of text. That's all this really is.

Without more information, I'm not sure how anyone can find this offensive in the least. And in addition, considering how little representation we get in the gaming industry, I'm rather appalled that anyone could find anything included in the gay sub-plots to be offensive in the least. BioWare is ages ahead of anyone else, and the "we want it all right now" attitude is just serving to make the LGBT gaming community look selfish and self-righteous.

Zevran is not the way he is - hedonistic, flirty, a whore - because he's bisexual. He's that way because of his background. He was sold into slavery at a very young age, and lived in a whorehouse before that. He watched girls and boys his age being treated like sex objects from a very young age. There's plenty of story justification for why he is the way he is, and I believe David Gaider when he says that this isn't the way gay relationships are seen by BioWare or himself (he wrote the entire subplot) - it's just the way Zevran is, and I think it fits him as a character perfectly.

Now that's not to say I necessarily like Zevran as a character - but that's the point. We're not supposed to like everyone in these games. And I think the fact that there's so much emotional response to these characters means that - guess what - BioWare did their job, and they did it famously. They got us involved in the story, and passionate about the "people" we play it with. I think they deserve huge kudos for that.

As Mr. Gaider has said publicly, it's extremely difficult to get resources for writing and developing romantic relationships at all in the game - they're seen as "optional" and "unnecessary" by gaming executives, who spend millions of dollars to develop these titles.

Just trying to say...let's take it one step at a time, and not expect the world to change in a day....or one game.

WTH said:

I find it rather silly that anyone who sees the word fag can take it as anything other than simple clarification. It's not insulting in any way, and there are actually fags around.

I WONDER why people object, truly.

"I'm rather appalled that anyone could find anything included in the gay sub-plots to be offensive in the least. BioWare is ages ahead of anyone else, and the "we want it all right now" attitude is just serving to make the LGBT gaming community look selfish and self-righteous."

Strawman and completely beside the point. Just because you happy gays got your representation doesn't mean us transfolk have to shut up.

Of course you're happy, you got what you want, and as evidenced by your postings, you don't give a damn about what others want.

How arrogant can you be? THIS is what is really wrong with the GLBT community - as long as you get what you want, everyone else has to shut up. Because god forbid other people that aren't you are treated as humans. God forbid.

Nexus said:

@ WTH

Fag is an insult. Quotation marks are not. They are a way of pointing something out in written language. Your copying of FurryGenesis' argument makes no sense.

What is more, you don't actually respond to his point about there being no other way to tell they're trans people.
Would you rather have no reprisentation, because you don't know it is there?

I'll gladly support the fight against misrepresentation of trans people in games and the like, but I just don't see it here.
Quotation marks are not an insult.

dawdle said:

Scare quotes have a long history of de-legitmizing lgbt concerns. For example, writers will refer to state recognized gay unions as gay "marriage," in quotes, as a way of diminishing these partnerships compared to heterosexual ones.

In this case I disagree with the idea that there was no other way to express the difference between the natural born female character and the trans one, and thus the quotes around "female" have the appearance of being the kind of scare quotes that serve to attack the community. I personally don't think that was Bioware's intention at all, and assume that Vorpalbunny's post was simply pointing out the ways that small, seemingly inconsequential choices in language can lead to misunderstandings.

That said, WTH and others, please keep further discussion respectful, and avoid making generalizations about broad swaths of people.

Kiri said:

"Maybe it's just me, but I interpreted them to be hermaphrodites, and not transgender"

Maybe they are intersex (intersex people prefer that term over "hermaphrodites"), but that is no reason to deliberately misgender them.

"Anyway, how do you know there aren't any transgendered NPCs standing about in town?"

That's not the point. When the only _visible_ trans people are portrayed as "freaks" who exist only as fetish objects, the common narrative stating such is reinforced. Positive portrayals of trans folks are super important because they humanize us.

"I really don't think we should get up in arms about this issue of making 'females' prostitutes funny"

Last Friday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance, on which we remembered trans people who were murdered. Many of them were trans women who were sex workers. I'm not saying this Dragon Age brothel will directly cause that sort of violence, but surely you can see how it can reinforce the prejudice that does cause it.

"I *do* however would like to question why is wrong to label pre-op transgendered females as such, since they are, really, not yet females."

Because it's dehumanizing. Rightly or wrongly, our understanding of what it means to be human is still strongly tied to gender. Ergo, to suggest that a trans woman is "fake" (as putting quotes around "female" does) is necessarily to suggest that she is a subhuman freak. Yeah, yeah, I know--she's not "physically female" in the strictest possible sense, but that's not usually a hair most trans people and allies are interested in splitting. I do realize that the precise anatomy is important where sex is involved, but that's still no reason to deliberately misgender a trans woman and thus, indirectly, call her a freak.

"Would a pre-op trans like to be punched in the face because she didn't make that fact known earlier and the client discovers she's doesn't have the right equipment?"

This exact reasoning has been used by several assailants and murderers of trans people to try to get off the hook or get their sentences reduced (the "trans panic" defense, it's often called). I'm sorry, but this is victim-blaming at its most heinous. It is never, never okay to dehumanize and assault people, regardless of "the situation".

"Would you rather have no reprisentation, because you don't know it is there?"

Would I rather have no representation than negative representation? Well, yes, frankly. Because even though a lack of representation won't help combat transphobia in society, at least it won't make the problem _worse_.

As for all the comments that "this isn't insulting in any way", your saying it's not so doesn't make it not so. It is for us, not anyone else, to decide which representations we feel insulted by.

Tobi said:

To Nexus and the others who don't think scare quotes are an insult.

First, please keep in mind that you are not the target of this insult. Just because you don't feel or see it's sting doesn't mean it isn't there. You're hearing from multiple people telling you it is an insult. I can clarify I've seen it used to intentionally cause harm on multiple occasions. In fact, most of the occasions I've seen it used in this context has been to intentionally cause harm. White folks don't get to claim that "colored person" is not offensive just because they think so. Similarly, non-trans people don't get to decide what is and isn't an insult to trans people.

Please consider that perhaps the simplest explanation is that you are ignorant of an issue you have not personally experienced rather then assuming that all trans people in this conversation are being irrational.

Second, you seem to think that scare quotes are the only way to differentiate between trans women and non-trans women. No one's saying that there shouldn't be an indication that they are trans. They could have been labeled "Trans female companion" or "trans woman companion." Or, while a bit ungendering, they could have gone for the easily understandable "transgender companion." I mean, if Fable 2 can have a "transgender potion," why not?

And, finally, if you still think that scare quotes are never used to impugn the veracity of their contents, well, it's a real indication of how incredibly "considerate" you are as a "person."

Nexus said:

Hey, I never said it was never used that way.
I said it isn't automatically used that way.

Sure in a perfect world, everybody would simply use the term transgender (although I would assume transgender people would rather be seen as the gender they try to emulate and not be labelled as transgender). But guess what, this isn't perfect world.

And don't forget this game isn't solely aimed at the GLBT market. Your common straight gamer might not know what Trans female companion means. Bioware has to take that into account.

And I don't need to personally experience something to have an understanding of it, thank you very much.
That's what intelligence and empathy are for.

Also, could we stay away from borderline insults please?

Tobi said:

You're right, I'm sorry for the borderline insult. But I must say that I find your belief that you know how trans oppression works better then trans people do far more insulting. Is it too much to hope for that if I cut out my insulting behavior you'll cut out yours?

There are plenty of things in a game that the common gamer might not understand. I didn't know all of the herbs in Oblivion. If you're interested to know, you can always look it up.

But do you really think that saying - transgender companion - is going to be any more obtuse then saying - "female" companion? Do you really think that it is impossible to come up with a descriptor that is both understandable and not insulting?

The quote marks inherently mean that what you are looking at is something other than female, that perhaps this is a person who calls themselves female but that's not really what they are, and that's incredibly insulting. Intentions are irrelevant. With a large enough audience, there will be people who will automatically see it in this light. And it really isn't a stretch to say that when you put quote marks around the gender of a trans person and not around anyone else's it is always having the impact of marking that person's gender as less valid.

It's true that some trans people would rather not be known as trans and just by the gender they are (we don't "emulate" a gender, which again implies that it our genders are less valid than non-trans people's genders). However, being known to be trans does not invalidate your gender -- it's the transphobic cultural response that does that, and that's not universal.

And when it comes to media representation, I would say that most if not all trans people would prefer a character to be identified to the audience as trans than for the writer to be the only one to know (obvious exceptions for horrifically negative portrayals such as silence of the lambs). And again, there are ways to do that that aren't insulting. The complaint here isn't that the people are identified as different, but that they way they are identified as different simultaneously marks them as inferior.

Xenia said:

Well, firstly, I think it's cool that homosexual romance is possible in the game... though I do wish Morrigan was an option for female characters, 'cause I think she's pretty hot, both in appearance and attitude. :)

As far as the brothel goes... I haven't found it yet (I've only been playing a few days), but from what I've read, I'm not sure how I feel, exactly.

Putting a trans NPC into a brothel is either A, making a joke, or B, serving a particular fetish.

Of course I can only speak for myself, but I don't particularly feel "trans"; I consider myself female, and my friends treat me so (even if they do occasionally slip on the pronouns; excusable after 10+ years for most of them, referring to me as 'he'). I expect that any potential partner will likewise consider me female, pre or post surgery. Because if not... well, then the impression is that they're only out to serve a fetish.

So that's why I think the inclusion of the crossdressing NPC is either a joke - a bad one, whatever the spirit it was intended with - or, it was an attempt to address a particular fetish, without any consideration for transpeople at all.

So I think overall it's more a disservice to us, which will likely only reinforce stereotypes that we're just crossdressers or some other form of fetishists.

It'd have been better to just not include that character at all, and rest content with the step forward that including the possibility of homosexual relations in-game brought about.

And girls who like girls who like rumble packs!

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