People thought my nerdy interests would change. They didn’t — but my relationship with them did.
In June 2015, I picked up the phone and dialed my old friend Rick’s number, guided by the muscle memory of having done it so many times before.
This time, the topic wouldn’t be our excitement over the new Dungeon Master’s guide or some neat piece of esoterica we had learned in Mr. Zebracki’s history class. This discussion would be much more abstract.
“I have something to tell you, Rick,” I began. “I realized recently that I’m transgender, and I’m planning on transitioning genders at some point in the next year or so, so that I can live my life a little more honestly.”
After a moment of silence, Rick said exactly what I was hoping to hear: “You’re one of my oldest friends. If that’s what you think you need to do, of course I support it, and I’ll help you however you need me to.” But he also had some questions: Would I still play video games? Would I still like Star Wars?
Rick and I bonded in high school over our mutual love of nerd culture, which we had embraced long before anyone else thought it was cool.
It started with daily after-school pilgrimages to the comic shop to buy Star Wars cards, our beloved pastime that occupied us for hours. The amount of time and money we spent on them was ungodly. As we grew older, Star Wars cards eventually gave way to encyclopedic knowledge on movies, music, anime. Rick even found a way to make sports nerdy with his encyclopedic knowledge of the history and statistics of any given game. It was more than an obsession. It was in our DNA.
Yet Rick, and many others I shared the news of my transition with, still wondered whether changing my gender presentation would affect my bone-deep love of nerd culture.
Friends asked, “Can we still talk about ‘Doctor Who’?” and “Does this mean you won’t play Starcraft with me anymore?” My dad even asked me if I’d still want to make beer with him the way we do every Thanksgiving. The nature of these questions made me realize how invested people were in the assumed gender alignment of the activities we all enjoyed together.
“Of course I’m still going to do all of those things!” I replied each time. From my perspective, I was making a change that would lighten my mood and allow me to enjoy life better. Yes, I would look different, and I would be happier, but I wasn’t concerned any of my passions or interests would disappear. To those who expressed these concerns, I may as well have been walking away from everything that made up my personality.
I realized at a basic level, they thought nerd culture was “boy stuff.”
Before my transition, I hadn’t thought much about how that attitude might have affected the girls’ experience. Now that I was moving from being one of the boys to “just like one of the boys,” I realized how different those experiences really are.
For people socialized as men, being part of a predominantly male clique is an important part of building a self-concept. It supplies men with a healthy sense of validation and inclusion. It’s that same pack mentality that gave rise to concepts like “guy code,” “bros before hoes,” and “locker room talk.” Without feeling a connection to it, some men feel they are missing out on a crucial part of life.
The essence of male hierarchy touches all cultures, as Katelyn Burns points out. So it should come as no surprise that it also touched communities I was involved with.
I, too, had been socialized to believe certain things were for men and other things were for women. Any crossover should be looked at as foreign and suspicious. I don’t blame men for these aspects of toxic masculinity that seep into the general population. It’s a part of the blueprint men are handed in youth. It’s the same blueprint I was given and lived with uncomfortably for 27 years.
Girls, on the other hand, tend to approach being “one of the guys” as something we use to get past gender barriers and just engage with the things we like.
Women tend to see the activities we participate in as less enabled by gender (i.e., “boxing is a sport for men”) and more enabled in spite of gender (i.e., “just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t be a boxer”).
Women are conscious that participation in male-dominated activities tends to be at the leisure of the men involved, and that membership in the group could be revoked at any time.
For example, if one of the men begins to pursue a woman in the group romantically and she doesn’t return his interest, her continued participation may be threatened. This becomes even riskier for women in male-dominated professions like cybersecurity — my own field of expertise. In professional settings, the stakes raise dramatically. Rejection of a man’s advances can cost us more than our hobby, sometimes it can cost us our jobs.
Often, women deal with this fundamental outsiderness by creating secret spaces where we can pursue feminine interests on our own terms, where being “one of the guys” is no longer the only key for entry.
When I reintegrated into my old hobbies post-transition, I found there were entire subcultures built by women of the group, for women. These small, isolated, and distinctive societies women created were completely invisible to me before I transitioned.
It was like finding a secret room in a house I lived in for decades.
In these women-centered spaces, topics of feminine interest could be discussed openly and out of view of the men in the group. We were shielding ourselves from having to openly remind anyone that we were women. We feared if they noticed, our passageway into acceptance might close.
I watched this happen many times online, in particularly hostile ways. Once men realized an opponent was a woman, players in online games like “Battlefield,” “Counterstrike,” or “Halo,” emboldened by anonymity, would launch into misogynistic attacks after every victory or loss, or sometimes for no reason at all. Any given round I could expect to hear sage platitudes, such as, “go back to the kitchen,” or “why don’t you make me a sandwich?” not to mention a barrage of slurs.
The nerd culture narrative is that we’re a group of outcasts who built a community to cope with the awkwardness and rejection of being a pariah in a social structure that didn’t value the same things we did. But we brought the seeds of our own inherent caste systems with us.
It perpetuated an unspoken marginalization of girls that bordered on outright contempt. It forced girls to find ways to evolve and to express themselves despite the constraints that exist when men make the rules.
Nerd culture is always going to be a part of me and my history. I wouldn’t be who I am without it, and I’m glad that I still have a place in my communities no matter what I’m wearing, what my name is, or how I look. In many places — at my local gaming store, at my friends’ houses, and in these women-centric spaces I never saw before — I’ve found the accepting and understanding community that nerd culture is supposed to be.
I’ve also realized how far we are from being that all the time, for everyone.
The road to acceptance runs directly through a minefield of toxic masculinity, and women’s participation is often tentative — and requires we leave our woman-ness at the door.
Our identities are complex. The interests of women are broad and deep, as is our capability to adapt to situations in casual and professional settings. Being the versatile creatures we are, women will always find a way into communities that interest us.
We have a chance to set aside any preconceived expectations we have of gender and fight the goblins together. We’re going to need all the help we can get.
This story first appeared on The Establishment and is reprinted here with permission.