Tieflings are gay and gay is valid: dungeons, dragons, and the art of the radically normal

Alexander Stronach

Dungeons & Dragons is gay now. I don’t know when the tide changed, but if your D&D group is entirely heterosexual then something has gone wrong. Sorry hets. You can still play it, but you’re playing a gay game. Science fiction and fantasy too. We were always there (y’all seen a picture of Samuel Delaney? Poppa Bear could get it) but our conquest of the genre is complete. I’ve consulted the four winds and also Scalzi’s Twitter feed, and I know our work is done. You may stay in our lands as vassals, or be exiled to the lands of boomer literary fiction about drowning near a bach.

I’m not sure how serious I’m being, but the LGBTQIA+ community has become a much more visible participant in tabletop role-playing games in the last decade, and that visibility has enriched our games and our art. It’s the quiet revolution: our little corner of nerddom has come out of the closet. Our niche genre of collaborative storytelling is having its moment. Part novel-writing, part improv theatre, part database management, TTRPGs have always appealed to folks on the fringes of things. The big difference is that we’re finally being seen, and finally seeing each other.

Which leads to the question: is D&D gay now? It’s a funny way of framing things; women are never told that they’re reading male books, trans people are never told that they’re consuming cis content. Nobody ever approaches a wheelchair user in the Louvre and asks how she feels about enjoying abled art. There’s this core assumption in the discourse that straight white cis man is default, and every point that differs from that default is a modification at best, or downright aberrant at worst. A Male Book is just a book, a Male Song is just a song. Nobody ever pointed out that D&D was a Straight Game, but as soon as the LGBTQIA+ community became more vocal about our participation, it kicked off a crisis of identity. We shouldn’t need to have this discussion, but our framing forces us to: women are seen as defective men, gay folks are seen as defective straight people, trans people are seen as defective cis people, the disabled are seen as the broken abled. We have become pathologised. We’re caught in a loop of worthless questions: is D&D gay now? Really, who cares? Nobody ever asked whether it was straight.

Which is my way of saying: roll d20s, smash the hetero-patriarchy.

Genre-fiction, fanfiction and role-playing have always been queer-friendly spaces, because breaking from the default is part of escapism. In a society where you’re considered defective, fantasy says you’re not; since everybody and everything is weird, nobody is weird. That’s the dream for a lot of us: just going through the day without it having to be a thing. After you’ve said, ‘I’m a Tiefling warlock and my dad is the devil and my mum is Cthulhu,’ then ‘also I’m non-binary’ is pretty easy.

Pushing back against that is the genre’s aggressive conservatism, often verging onto the territory of fascism – we build these prelapsarian societies filled with heroes, where the ugly are evil, and muscular heroes deploy violence against them without conscience. We’ve seen this in the whole Sad Puppies fiasco. For those not familiar with genre-fiction infighting, the Hugo Awards are the science fiction and fantasy Oscars and, for the last several years, a group of conservative and far-right authors have abused the voting system to rig the ballots and force out PoC, queer, female and other marginalised authors. They’re losing the fight, but it’s short-sighted to assume they’re an aberration. This sort of man is a core part of genre-fiction and has been for a very long time: Robert Heinlein and Robert E Howard weren’t shy about their politics, and they’ve inspired hundreds of successful authors, even those who don’t share their politics. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian is an inextricable part of the fantasy genre and Dungeons & Dragons in particular – and it sometimes reads like a far-right fever dream. Civilisation is defended and women are subjugated; the heroes are strong and swift, the villains are camp and effete. Vulnerability is weakness, weakness is deviance, deviance is evil. It’s an exercise in fascist machismo, dressed up as escapism.

Which only makes it more amazing that D&D has become such a critical queer space. We took the fortress of the oppressor and turned it into a haven. To use the magic words that incite burning rage across half the internet, we made it a safe space. I don’t think Gary Gygax shared the politics of Robert E Howard, but it’s impossible to ignore that he was inspired by Conan – barbarians and howling wastes, queer-coded warlocks, devil-blooded deviants living out in the wilds, hoping to bring down the walls and towers of civilisation. I’m not going to pretend it started as a perfect game, nor that it has evolved into one. Mike Mearls may hang a rainbow banner on his Twitter profile, but he publicly shamed a group of LGBTQIA+ and female developers in order to protect the industry’s most notorious serial abuser. This space should not be safe at all and yet – around our tables, with our friends, with a few bottles of beer and the delivery guy on the way – we turn it into one.

Part of me thinks I should bang the drum more: burn their banners, cast down their idols, march on Hetsville blasting Carly Rae and claim their city for the Queendom. But really, I’m tired of that. I’m tired of everything being a fight. I want to live in a space where my sexuality isn’t a question, and sometimes that space is Faerûn. Your neighbour talks to the thunder god and has horns and if that’s normal then so are all the things about you that society has forced you to push down. You and your weird friends gather around a table and tell a story. It’s a quietly revolutionary act: a group of people sitting around being weird, until ‘weird’ stops meaning everything and you’re just a group of people. It’s not an act of defiance, it’s the creation of a space where defiance isn’t needed.

So much of our writing is built around our suffering; role-playing is where we come together to tell stories about hope. It’s a place where we experiment with identity, and where we build bridges between ourselves and our straight friends and anybody else who’s willing to build with us. It’s a place of community and safety. Is D&D gay now? Who cares. 

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