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Coming Out Of My Virtual Closet

The box cover for Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh

Whenever conversations pop up about coming out, I find myself confused on how to add my own story without seeming embarrassment. My real-life coming out is a hazy memory in my mind, largely because it didn't hinge on any one event. Instead, what I recall much more vividly is when I did so in a virtual game space.

The year was 1997. The game was Sierra's The Realm Online. The guild was called the Schattenjägers. I was fourteen.

By this time I had accepted that I was gay, and was in that phase where I was searching out every bit of media that could be related to such. This also meant tentatively testing out waters. I wasn't lacking in real life friends, but being in (what I considered) a small town in Tennessee meant that I wasn't exactly keen on testing those particular waters. This meant that my virtual friends (in an age before Facebook, Twitter, or even easily-accessible blogging) were the prime focus of that experiment.

It also just so happened to be a year after Sierra had released Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of the Flesh, which featured Curtis Craig, a bisexual protagonist who engaged in a same-sex kiss in an FMV adventure game.

I can't recall the circumstances behind it, but one of my guildmates happened to be chatting with me about the game. While I never played the first Phantasmagoria (my mother forbid me based on the rape present in the game), I was more than thrilled to discuss this game with someone else. As I recall the chap (whose name I don't recall, so we'll just call him Chris) was a college student at the time. I considered him among my good friends online; his being older mixed with that fact meant that more than anything, I sought his approval.

Talking about the game resulted in discussing the implications of sanity as presented in A Puzzle of Flesh. In my nervous way, I kept trying to shift the focus to the aspects of sexuality explored, which hardly narrowed down the field of my particular interest. As I stated, the protagonist is bisexual, so there were also heterosexual pairings, along with themes of S&M.

When Chris finally got around to the sexy bits of the game, he stated that it just really weirded him out. Probing, I tried to discern if the nipple piercing had been the culprit. No. The exploration of S&M? Nope.

"I just couldn't get into the head of someone who was gay," he typed.

"Oh, I could." As I typed it, my palms were itching, as they are prone to do when I'm incredibly nervous and have just done something which causes me to wonder if this will be one of those "I will regret this" moments in my life.

He looks so bland. What a lie.
Curtis Craig: he may look like a bland, bespectacled white man, but that hardly encompasses it.

It was the first time I'd actually told anyone I was gay, and what proceeded made me contemplate how I would present that fact to people, if and when it became relevant in the future. At that moment, Chris and I had defeated some Kilrogs, a demonic type enemy in The Realm, and as I walked on to the next screen, I noticed he wasn't following. The silence that followed was a pre-cursor of knowing how to proceed in future IM conversations that were beyond the normal fluff of 'Hi!' and 'How are you?' fare. Basically, I didn't know what to do or say next, so I waited.

Chris, knowing my age, was probably trying to figure out how to proceed as well: my coming out to him likely brought up questions of whether or not I was hitting on him, whether or not his previous statement had offended me, and any other of a myriad of reactions. Reactions I wasn't seeing at that time, focusing instead on rubbing my palms together and biting my lower lip.

Sierra's The Realm Online.
A picture of The Realm, one of the earliest graphical MMOs out there.

"So... how do you know?" flashed in my chat window as he walked on screen, and initiated combat with the next group of mobs. Then we talked about it, he cracking jokes to relieve the tension as we continued on through the dungeon.

Generally speaking, I don't divulge my sexuality in MMOs, unless I'm part of an LGBT guild. Yet, I wouldn't take back this experience. This was a time before I saw gay being slung everywhere as a pejorative, and while there was a sizable community playing games, it was dwarfed in comparison of what we see today. What The Realm gave me, indirectly, was a chance to overcome that immense anxiety that can result from wanting to come out, but not knowing how the other person will respond.

Had he reacted negatively, I would likely have been much more quiet about my sexuality as a teenager. At the same time, it was a circumstance where I felt the risk was mitigated in some regard. It was a place to practice the casual way of letting people know their assumptions of me as straight were incorrect.

Games have the ability to transport us to new worlds and open up different viewpoints, sharing those experiences with our friends. Due to such, it is a fallacy to imagine that our identities don't affect how we see and experience a game--our lives affect how we interpret different events, and as my conversation with Chris highlighted, how we can react to a protagonist. He may not have been able to get into Curtis's head in A Puzzle of Flesh, but he was willing to hear how I could.

In the current environment of online games, I'm not sure I would have dared the same thing I attempted back in 1997. I find that a shame.

9 Comments

franko said:

great story -- it's also a good illustration of just how much what we say in online chats can influence someone else. i would have been like you: if that was my first experience, and the other person had reacted negatively, i would have retreated further into my closet as well.

i have come out to some friends in the game i play, but it took me a year of knowing them before i let the information out, and even then it only came out via personal emails and such with some of them while outside of the game, and i just trusted that word would spread and the chips would fall as they may on their own. i have not lost a single friend or regretted it. i credit it to the younger generation's sheer comfortableness with the ideas of different sexualities, despite the language seen in game chats and teen culture in general to the contrary.

credit also must go to everyone who is older who took the steps to come out. the old slogan IS true: visibility IS strength.

Wins said:

Thank you so much for sharing this story! The first time coming out is hard for anyone at any time, and it was great that you found a way through an MMO. I personally came out to my math teacher via AIM's... no the original AOL Instant Messenger!

I definitely know the itchy palm feeling, especially when you can't see the other person's reaction and the time you're waiting for their response (any response) seems to be forever.

Thanks again for sharing!

kaei said:

Thanks for sharing. I feel somewhat grateful that 'Chris's' response, while perhaps not perfect, wasn't an immediate, hateful, juvenile one that you see all too often. Wherever 'Chris' is right now, I hope he's at the very least reacting with the same level of tact he did 14 years ago and helping to foster a non-hateful environment for gamers like you.

Chris said:

Awesome story! And now I want to play Phantasmagoria!!!!

Talarian said:

The Realm. Wow, that brings back memories. It's apparently still going O.o

Baldguy64 said:

Wow, great story and thanks for sharing. I loved both of the Phantasmagoria games, especially the second as it had a gay character. I was actually 33 in 97 and had been out for years, but I was so thrilled to play a game with a gay character.
I am new to xbox live and would be thrilled if there were any glbt groups on there. I just think it would be so much more fun that way. Not a hard core gamer at all, but trying to learn. I'm too used to the original nintendo controller with two buttons and a directional pad, using the xbox controller sometimes frustrates the hell out of me. Hell, I started with the atari 2600, and that had less control than the nintendo!

Noah D said:

Thank you for this story. I first came out over a conversation on Aol Instant Messanger. It was to my best friend. I remember it like it happened yesterday. I was playing Pokemon Ruby and he messaged me. We chatted about random stuff before my brain even caught up with my fingers I typed "What would you say if I told you that I'm gay?". I hadn't hit send yet, and I sat there for a moment staring at the words. I hit send and then had the itchy palm period of eternity waiting for his response.

His response turned out to be him testing that it was actually me, and when I proved that it was he was like "cool man. wait. is that why you giggle at straight porn?" His acceptance relieved the hell out of me, especially because he came from a really religious family in a small Texas town.

Hamwize said:

Great story. I think what you said about not daring the same thing these days resonates in my mind. I'm not gay, but I can imagine trying to come out to an Xbox live CoD clan. On the other hand I have heard of 'gay' WoW guilds and such, but I always felt like that kind of segregation is a step backwards.

Necrosiris said:

In response to Hamwize: I think it isn't fair to characterize the self-segregation as backwards. I have done a lot of thinking and talking on the subject, but I think that the self-segregation serves an important purpose of creating a safe environment. As long as people don't rely on such self-segregation too much of the time I think it ends up doing a lot of good (with too much being open to a lot of discussion and debate).

And girls who like girls who like rumble packs!

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Necrosiris on Coming Out Of My Virtual Closet: In response to Hamwize: I think it isn't fair to characterize the self-segregation as backwards. I have done a lot...

Hamwize on Coming Out Of My Virtual Closet: Great story. I think what you said about not daring the same thing these days resonates in my mind. I'm...

Noah D on Coming Out Of My Virtual Closet: Thank you for this story. I first came out over a conversation on Aol Instant Messanger. It was to my...

Baldguy64 on Coming Out Of My Virtual Closet: Wow, great story and thanks for sharing. I loved both of the Phantasmagoria games, especially the second as it had...

Talarian on Coming Out Of My Virtual Closet: The Realm. Wow, that brings back memories. It's apparently still going O.o...

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