In the past decade there has been a great deal of advancement with regards to the rights and freedoms of the LGBTQ community. There are a number of other letters often added to this string of groups, but for the ease of readability, and audience comprehension, LGBTQ will be used for this article (at the risk of missing people out).
Marriage rights in the United States, and a great swath of films touching on the topics of homosexuality, and gender issues (without simply poking fun) have made coming out to the world a comparatively easy thing to do. Parades and marches have seen all manner of attention, and exposure (of several kinds).
What’s interesting about all of this is just how long, in spite of the struggle of American culture to accept, video games have not only contained, but bolstered LGBTQ characters. Now granted, Japan, from the dawn of video games, has had no qualms whatsoever with creating character of many different persuasions… but the number of times Japan had to change these characters to be American-friendly is fairly absurd. Finally catching up in a way, American video games now often grant characters in role playing games like Fable, or Fallout, to choose any sort of sexual preference (though this is still often done with humour, and some degree of inequality or disrespect). So hats off to Japan for its acceptance of the LGBTQ community for so many decades in the gaming community… and here are fifteen such characters, from both East and West.
Yup, Birdo from Super Mario Bros. 2 is part of the LGBTQ community. Of course the only way one would ever have known this is if one read the manual that came along with the game. But since most people likely never bothered to read the character descriptions, and were more interested in just digging right into the game itself, this fact may very well have gone unnoticed, by and large. Regardless, Birdo (or Catherine if playing the Japanese version – which makes a lot more sense for the character’s story), is a boy who “thinks he is a girl”, who preferred being called “Birdetta”. Nintendo eventually shied away from this fact, simply referring to Birdo as a girl (sometimes featured as Yoshi’s girlfriend). Now one must wonder if this was simply an acceptance of Birdo’s wish to be a woman, or a cowardly severance from the character’s bio after marketing to America. Given that there are still occasional hints to Birdo’s sexuality, and preference in certain games, it may very well be that the creators of this vivacious villain have simply accepted her wish, whilst still giving new gamers hints of her past.
In 2013, the heavy-hitting, and heart-wrenching game The Last Of US hit shelves all over the world for Play Station gamers of all sorts. Though heavy-laden with the overwhelmingly common setting of a post-apocalyptic America, this game really changes a lot about the horror, and action genres. Being a part of this list, it also happens to bolster the reality of the LGBTQ community. For instance, Joel, and Ellie (the main character, and the teen he is escorting through the wasteland) come upon Bill. This character helps the protagonists along the way, and is assumed to be gay. He makes mention of Frank, his partner (whether in survival or in romance is not entirely clear). However, Frank’s corpse is eventually found, with a note that states he doesn’t love Bill anymore. Confirming the character’s orientation, in the most depressing of ways, all gamers who have ever touched The Last of Us know this game to be especially, emotionally heart-wrenching. But there is a little bit of light in the Left Behind DLC. It transpires that Ellie might be falling for a secondary character called Riley. Towards the end of the game, they even share a kiss. Many assumed it to be simply kids experimenting (as they often do) in the only way they could in the barren wastes of the United States. Naughty Dog, the epic studio where this game came to fruition, did state that the two indeed have feelings for one another. Even the writer who created the character of Ellie, Neil Druckmann confirmed that she was created to be a gay character. But the facts of her sexuality are so far removed from the importance of the world in which she lives… a wonderful step toward equality. And now she is coming back in The Last of Us 2!
How many readers knew that one of the hottest women in Street Fighter history is in fact a trans woman? Now the concept for the character of Poison does, again, change depending on the region of game release. Initially, in 1989 for the game Final Fight, Poison was imagined as a transgender female thug. However, due to concerns from America about female fighting characters in games, Japanese creators then simply made Poison a pre-op character. This did not meet with any degree of satisfaction from the West either, so ultimately Poison and her palette swap (Roxy), were canned, bringing in two men as fighters instead. This didn’t stop Poison from making an impact though. Released in other, more popular games in the future, Poison has mad many a man and woman all hot and bothered over watching her fight. Nothing wrong with that at all. Of course, given that she is a video game character, people will read into her sexuality what they want to, and given that the developers of her character ultimately chose to leave her possible trans status ambiguous, it is no wonder that fans have had Poison at the centre of likely sexually confused debate for many years.
12. Willow Rosenberg
Surely everyone will recall Alyson Hannigan from the hit television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. She played the character of Willow Rosenberg (she also played the fun band camp flutist in the American Pie series, but that’s besides the point). Some readers may recall that, in the Buffy series, it transpires that Willow is, in fact, a homosexual. This was a big deal back in the nineties. Yeah, it was touched on in certain shows, and was either laughed off, or only briefly made mention of, but Buffy really did something more. Not only was this LGBTQ character a main character in the story, but her sexual orientation became secondary not too long after it came out that she wasn’t straight. This is the victory of such a character: not necessarily thinking about her sexual orientation all of the time, when it is not anything important that defines her as a person. From 2000, to 2009, the Buffy The Vampire Slayer game series featured Willow as a playable character. Not only that, but in the 2003 release: Buffy The Vampire Slayer: Chaos Bleeds, both Willow, and her girlfriend, Tara Maclay, are playable characters.
While it is definitely stated in the game, and in the manual for Final Fantasy IX, that the character of Kuja is in fact male, there has been all manner of controversy between gamers as to whether or not that is true. Well, definitively, Kuja is male. The reason people seem to think otherwise is due to his very slender, and relatively porcelain-like body, with very effeminate hips, and a revealing outfit that is far more typical of the female characters of fighting games like Street Fighter or Tekken, than that of a male Final Fantasy character. Then it seems that some players wonder, partially based on wardrobe, if Kuja is gay or not. One gamer on a Final Fantasy forum even went so far to say that he thought Kuja was gay due to his love of poetry and literature… This author is unaware of whether or not this gamer had ever bothered to read Tennyson, Keats, Dunn, Coleridge, Poe, or Frost, but these are all male poets, who are not, in their entirety, gay. The ignorance of some gamers is sadly reflective of the ignorance of much of the world. Given that, people’s ideas on the sexual orientation, and indeed sex of Kuja, still seem to be up in the air, in spite of the definitive information supplied by the game, for the gamer.
10. Dr. Liara T’Soni
In the 2007, award-winning game Mass Effect, the player can play as a male or female character. This is not necessarily anything new by the time this game came out, given that Fallout, and Fable had both been in circulation already for some time. In both cases, there is an option for a subplot romance and sexual encounter with the alien Dr. Liara T’Soni, a member of an all-female species called the Asari. This alien species is able to reproduce with any sex of any other species. The game received a lot of criticism for the ‘sex scene’ between the protagonist and Liara, although it was hardly explicit. The scene itself showed only brief, and fairly blurred shots of Liara’s buttocks twice in a thirty-second scene. Given that it is already set out that Liara can breed with any sex of any species, and given that one can be either male or female in the game, it should not be any shock for such a scene. If there was an inter-species, homosexual sex scene that had not the reasoning of that in Mass Effect, then perhaps the inter-species sex could be looked at as appalling, but certainly not the homosexual encounter. Not unless by the religious fundamentalists…
9. Reni Wassulmaier
The 2006 release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories presented audiences with Reni Wassulmaier. A film director, as well as a transexual. Reni started out female in form, but by the time gamers first catch a glimpse of this character, he has had three complete sex changes…and is male when met in the game for the first time. There is one mission ridiculously entitled “So Long Schlong”, where one must drive Reni to the hospital. Why, one may ask? For Reni to undergo sex change number four; transitioning back to a woman. Now of course, given that this is Rockstar, and beyond that, it is Grand Theft Auto, the attitude towards almost all sexuality aside from heterosexuality, is almost completely humourous in reference (so the game franchise is certainly not for the overly sensitive of the LGBTQ community). Reni Wassulmaier also made an appearance in the 2005 GTA hit of Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories (taking place fourteen years after the events of Vice City Stories). Now a radio DJ, Reni makes more than a few passing comments about her once being male… Indeed a confusing character to say the least.
The above picture if from Fallout: New Vegas, but rest assured that same-sex marriage was allowed as far back as Fallout 2. Now what is so interesting about that? Well, it was the first video game to have same-sex marriage, first of all. And second of all, it wasn’t a peripheral character union, by any means; it was a choice that the player got to make for their very own character. This marks the very first American video game to really give some credence to the notion of same-sex marriage. And though it is entirely optional, and the same-sex union is dependent on either the orientation of the player (or the simple choice to switch things up – which could possibly make it a more contentious issue), it is still a huge leap forward for American video games. Now Fallout 2 was released all the way back in 1998 (more than ten years after the first LGBTQ video game character out of Japan), but how long did it take for same-sex marriage to be legal across the entire breadth of the United States? It took seventeen more years, from the release of Fallout 2! It’s pretty sad when same-sex marriage is relegated only to the digital realm where things like murder, mayhem, and car-jacking are considered the norm. But now America is just that much closer to being free… for now.
The 2004 release Fable allows the player character to flirt, marry and/or have sex with NPC townspeople of the opposite, as well as, the same sex. If, say, a player decides to marry not only a female characters, but also a male NPC (because polygamy is apparently perfectly accepted in this franchise), the personality status screen will label them as bisexual. While the NPCs in the game do not treat the player with any disgust if they choose to be gay, (which first of all does mean that the digital townsfolk are more accepting than real people, and secondly does not mean that being gay is a choice) they do not get paid a dowry for marrying any male characters. Almost all female character do come with a dowry, but that seems to be part of a more deeply set sexism with regards to women being property, more than anything to do with the LGBTQ community – so that’s for a different article. There are also some quests wherein a player can choose to cross-dress, and subsequently have homosexual sex in the game. Still the butt of some jokes in the gaming world, knowing that the ability to have a gay character as the protagonist, and to even have a status at least in part recognizing the fact is a huge step forward. The subsequent Fable games are similar in nature, and even open up more prominent characters with LGBTQ back stories. There are also more missions, and more people of both sexes that the player can engage with in a variety of ways with regards to LGBTQ issues.
Certainly a well known character from the SNES smash hit, Chrono Trigger (and its less popular sequel Chrono Cross), Flea was a gender-fluid, or at the very least gender non-conforming (whatever terms one might prefer to use) villain. Flea first appears as a more masculine character in battle, but come the second encounter with Flea, he is referred to as “Diva Flea”. A secret boss in Chrono Cross, Flea sports pink hair and a skirt (much like the above picture), but wears a ‘male’ symbol all the same. In either of the games, a special item can be stolen from Flea. The item? ‘Flea Bustier’. Certainly never dull, and never allowing any one person to pin down just where to define on the gender scale, Flea has some fairly profound (albeit somewhat villainous) words for all: “Male or female, what difference does it make? Power is beautiful, and I’ve got the power.” Aware of the confusion some people seem to have, Flea cuts right through it to the more important issue: the power of Flea’s villainy.
5. Bernie Crane
Now one could hardly miss out another chance to throw in a Grand Theft Auto character, especially when he is not only a lifestyle coach, but also a veteran from the war in Bosnia. In Rockstar North’s 2008 release, Grand Theft Auto IV, one is introduced to the character of Bernie Crane (previously known as Florijan Kravić). Bernie happens to be a rather flamboyant lifestyle coach in the game. But more than that, he is a rather dear friend of the main character, Niko Bellic. Of fifteen men who followed Niko into the war in Bosnia, Crane is one of only three who managed to survive, and start a new life in America. Now if this does not make a stereotypically flamboyant character also an incredible badass, then this writer knows not what else could. In addition to the character of Bernie Crane, found in the expansion of GTA IV: The Ballad Of Gay Tony, the titular character, Anthony “Gay Tony” Prince is, as the title may suggest, gay (what a surprise). Aside from having his own expansion (which features some pretty fun game play), Tony also has a little cameo appearance in the official game play of GTA IV. Though it is still pretty clear to this author that Bernie Crane is certainly the more badass of the two.
4. Abu’l Nuquod
Abu’l Nuquod, one of the assassination targets in the very loosely historically-based Assassin’s Creed released in 2007, is strongly implied to be gay (though there are those who would argue to the contrary). Throughout the game, Nuquod believes that the people hate him because he is “different”. Just what that could mean is pretty varied, until he is shown caressing the cheek of one of his male guards during an incredibly angry tirade. In addition to this, in said tirade, he claims that he cannot serve the cause of a God who calls him an abomination. This does seem to more than strongly suggest that he is homosexual. Now one can spend a great deal of time debating his assassination. There are those who believe that it was a way to appease those uncomfortable with homosexuality by making Nuquod a target. Others believe it allows the LGBTQ community more of a way in as just normal people. After all, the protagonist in Assassin’s Creed spend the entirety of the game killing people, regardless of sexual orientation. So it is up to interpretation, but it is nice to see LGBTQ characters treated no more special than any other in a game. True equality.
3. Alfred Horner
Ah, back in the day when there were specifically FMV (full motion video) games. These games revolved around what was then incredible technology, being able to actually have live action within a story (typically a murder mystery of some sort). Either way, Dracula Unleashed was the very first computer game to give a homosexual character a speaking role. Now it could be debated that this was not done before because of an attempt to quash any gay reference in games, but given that this is among the first FMV games, and was released in 1993, it seems likely that there was no specific attempt to keep homosexual characters from speaking; this just happened to be the first game where a homosexual happened to speak. The character? Alfred Horner, who co-owned a bookstore in the game. He may not have been the most significant character in the Dracula Unleashed, but he was there, and open, in spite of any backlash that may have occurred. Bravo.
2. Sir Hamerlock
With the 2012 release of Borderlands 2, the gaming world saw an unforgiving show of the LGBTQ community, in both positive and negative ways. Though one must remember that Borderlands is not particularly known for its wonderful, and happy story arcs (though there is of course a decent amount of humour to be had). From two couples (one gay, and one lesbian) being forced to conduct vile experiments on each other (which thankfully one discovers by way of audio-log), to finding a tape that belongs to Sir Hammerlock’s ex boyfriend, this game is filled with all manner of LGBTQ characters, both significant, and insignificant. And this is before even mentioning that the character of Mad Moxxi (aptly named) is more than open about her bisexuality. In the Tiny Tina Assault On Dragon Keep DLC (downloadable content), one discovers that Axton is also bisexual. It turns out that the initial seemingly character-driven performance of Axton was a coding error from the developers, but Gearbox Studios ran with it, heavily leaning on the topic in the DLC. Oh, and that thirteen year old girl, Tiny Tina? Confirmed by lead writer Anthony Burch to be a lesbian. Daring to go so young with an LGBTQ characters speaks volumes about what the Borderlands franchise could do for the community: make it so ingrained, as to render it seamless. And Gearbox does a damned good job of it.
1. Kurosu Jun
Again, trust it to the Japanese to truly break barriers in regards to gender issues, and sexual orientation. In Persona 2: Innocent Sin, which was released in 1999, there is a playable character named Kurosu Jun. Jun is outright a homosexual, and through flashbacks, we see that he and the main character, Suou Tatsuya, gave each other gifts as kids, and made a promise to always be together (and both characters do hold on to these gifts). The wonder of the Persona series is that there is schooling, eating, working out, relationship, and then general levelling of characters in battle. Of the three relationships possible in this specific game, one of them is with Jun. What’s wonderful about this is the benefit one receives for this relationship. If Tatsuya and Jun get together, they get a “lovers” contact combo. There is also some real sensitivity, and reference to abuse based on Jun’s orientation. His primary weapons are flowers; there is a battle combo where potential lover, Lisa Silverman, puts makeup on him and complains that he looks prettier than her; and it transpires that he discovered his ability to use Personae while bullies picked on him for his looks. In Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, both male characters are heavily referenced, with regards to their relationship. Eternal Punishment also featured Anna, who is a female athlete and has a relationship with an admirer that seems to lean to the homosexual, and both of these games feature the Sumaru Genie… a defined “intersex” fortune teller. Persona has always been miles ahead in this regard. And cheers to that.