N7 Day: How Mass Effect Helped Me Accept My Gender Identity
GaymerX is a gaming convention that takes place every year in San Jose, CA. GaymerX is a “queer space”; a convention where panels center on queer themes, but all are invited and welcomed. As a proud media sponsor of GaymerX, Unicorn Booty covers gaming issues of all sorts.
I called her Jade because of her green eyes. The eye color was the only feature I felt sure about, as I fumbled over the sliders on the character creation screen. Blush, eye shadow, cheekbones, haircut — suddenly the prospect of facing down an army of violent, cybernetic geth felt a lot less intimidating than trying to design my first female character.
The game, Mass Effect, I had borrowed from some gamer friends. The idea to play as a woman, though, was totally my own. Summer 2008, on the cusp of my 18th birthday and so-called “manhood,” and I was spending part of my summer vacation agonizing over the arch of Jade’s eyebrows. I worried what those same friends would think if they saw me — the ones that jokingly called me “fairy boy” and “fag” whenever I picked Pit or Zelda in our all-nighter Brawl matches. But the enchanting grace — the femininity — of those characters had felt right. Just like it did now, with Jade.
I gave up, turned off all the makeup, picked a boyish bobbed coif and began the game. The opening cinematic played as Jade pushed her way to the bridge, where the camera zoomed in close. Her skin pale, her hair androgynously short — I had, in a crude reverse-Pygmalion attempt, scrubbed away as much femininity as I could. But she was still a woman, and as she looked with determination into the space beyond the mass relay, I knew that she was a part of me — my Commander Shepard.
I played the entire trilogy with her — even had the courage finally by Mass Effect 3 to style her hair and soften her features. She was an Infiltrator, precise with a sniper rifle, deadly up close with a pistol and her Tactical Cloak. She took out targets when she had to and saved as many lives as she could defending against the Reaper invasion.
She was a compassionate Paragon — voiced by the incomparable Jennifer Hale. She loved her crew — Garrus’s endless calibrations, Tali’s drunken ramblings, Mordin’s singing. She loved Kaidan — and the tears I cried when she let him go at the foot of the beacon on the Reaper-ravaged Earth were a lover’s tears saying goodbye.
By the time Mass Effect 3 launched, I had come out as gay — and the same friends who called me “fairy boy” at least respected me enough to keep their mouths shut. I made more female protagonists in other RPGs. I started to feel the safety and agency that had begun with Jade Shepard.
I began overcoming fears of my gender and sexual identity in these strong women heroes. I let myself incorporate more gender expressions — in my clothing, in my mannerisms — because somewhere inside me there was the fearless commander ready to take on a galaxy literally on the brink of annihilation. Soon there was no more reason to hide the occasional nail polish, the rare instance of lipstick from the world. These small rebellions against gender norm in the real world had begun in a virtual world that did not judge me, but instead nourished my inner story and made it fantastic.
This year, N7 Day will find me on my couch firing up the old Xbox 360 and seeing Jade again. Maybe she will focus more on weapon talents over tech. Maybe she will finally decide which is her favorite shop in the Citadel. Maybe she will explore some DLC with Kaidan, speaking to him in Hale’s incredibly vibrant and tender timbre. She will always stay, however, Commander Jade Shepard — the first video game character that made me feel safe when I was questioning and makes me feel safe still.
Do you have a favorite FemShep? Share with us screenshots of your character design to celebrate #N7Day, plus what you hope to see from the upcoming Andromeda!
GX3: Everyone Games marks the third year of the GaymerX convention, a meeting of LGBTQ tabletop and console gamers with panels, meet-ups, parties and more! The convention takes place December 11 to 13 in San Jose, California. This year’s Bosses of Honor include RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Trixie Mattel, Mass Effect’s Jennifer Hale, and many, many more! Tickets are available at GaymerX.com.