Last week was sylvari week on the ArenaNet Guild Wars 2 blog. What is notable about this, beyond just looking at how they redesigned a plant-like species so as to make them neither just sexy plant-women nor somewhat monstrous seeming ents, is that they revealed the following tidbit about their gender and romance:
Do sylvari have romantic relationships?
Sylvari fall in and out of love, just like other races do. They have a romanticized view of devotion, and they're curious about passion in all its forms. There are male and female sylvari, but none has ever produced a child as other races do. Because of this, traditional human-style gender roles have no meaning to sylvari, either in their society or in their romantic relationships. Often, a sylvari's ardor is expressed with courtly zeal--emotional, empathic, personal--and is not necessarily defined by gender.
There are a few things to unpack here, and it requires sifting through one other post, about their makeup both biologically and their myths.
Given that they are plant beings, the question is of course why they even have any sexual dimorphism in their bodies. There is no definitive answer, apparently, as the post about their origins describes some theories centered around the Pale Tree (the plant that gives birth to the sylvari): one posits that being most familiar with humans led to the formation of shapes; or a more popular theory states that the corpses on which the entire species grew were that of a hero named Ronan's daughter and village's remains, which gave shape to the beings that would form.
Which means the sylvari have sexual characteristics in only a superficial, physical sense. In other words, they have the necessary bits and bobs, which explains the breasts on the females, and the beards on the males (I doubt we'll see what's beneath their smallclothes, but if we do, I'm sure Georgia O'Keefe will be an inspiration). The quotation about their romantic lives also illustrates that traditional gender roles have no real influence on their romance, but it seems to leave it open to the fact that they may have some form of gender roles--just not as we might expect them. As of yet, there doesn't appear to be enough evidence to suggest either way.
So what we have is a species that have--and importantly, acknowledge-- same-sex romances. Yet, when they check male or female next to the box asking their sex, it isn't quite the same connotation. Partly this is due to not having internal organs; they don't reproduce, as that is handled by the Pale Tree. Mix that with their Arthurian nobility (and I'd be prone to read the Minnesang and -lied tradition into that), and I imagine you'll have some interesting courtship rituals not defined by the male knight and female nobility-in-waiting scheme.
What intrigues me equally about this species is the fact that they will co-exist in a world where gender and sex does have some matter of import to other species (otherwise it wouldn't be noteworthy to mention it about the sylvari). Which makes me wonder if that will be addressed at all by the other species, and how the sylvari will respond. Since they are a new species (25 years old in the game itself), does this mean they may influence other cultures? Will other cultures eventually influence them? Their gender identity seems pretty fluid at the moment, and for anyone who is not a gender essentialist, that gives a whole world of cultures and attitudes with which to play. They likely don't even see their own attraction as same-sex, given that there is no reproductive essentialism given to their mating and love--which is not to say other species won't see it as a same-sex pairing. Given what I've seen about the discussion the writers have been having so far, I am fairly intrigued by what this might entail.
Further, the bit about their families strikes home for what I believe would be many of us:
Sylvari don't have brothers, sisters, parents, or any other familial connections. How does this affect how they bond with others?
They get to choose their families! The honorable sylvari can be extremely loyal once a bond has been created with another being. Sylvari also have strong racial attachments, not just because of the empathic links that connect them, but because only other members of their own race can understand what it's like to be sylvari. These ties may be strengthened by shared experience or ultimately weakened, like distant cousins you only see on holidays.
If done in a sensitive manner, this could speak directly to anyone who has had to choose their own families for various reasons: adoption, distance, race, sexual orientation, gender and sexual identity, and so on. Shared experience can often be a better gauge of a family than mere blood, or sap as the case may be.
The more I read and see about this MMO, the more intrigued I become. I imagine I also have my first character's species in mind. Also, given that they are willing to admit to same-sex romances for the sylvari, naturally the question follows on how other species will handle such, or if they even acknowledge it. Which also begs the question of the gender roles in the various societies and cultures in Tyria. After all, the events in this game take place well after the events of the first Guild Wars, and as we can see in our own history, a lot can change (or depressingly stay the same) in the span of a few centuries.