Gaming as a queer person has evolved since the 1990s, and now more than ever it is easy to find someone to identify with in video games.

Growing up male and feminine in the Deep South, I struggled to fit into a world defined by masculinity. Southern society requires you to be performative in your gender to be accepted. That was not something I could convincingly fake even if I wanted to. I didn’t see others like me anywhere – especially in games where all characters were heterosexual and mostly hyper-masculine males. As gaming came to the forefront of my life, things began to shift in my family.

My mom left my dad when I was ten in 2000. We uprooted and moved to Hayden, Alabama to live with a man I had never met. We lived in a double-wide trailer on a hill next to a water tower that overlooked a winding country road. Eventually, my mom and this man married. While he did encourage my love of video games and books, there was a darker side to him fueled by his drug addiction. He was mentally and emotionally abusive. For a long time, video games existed as the one thing that helped me escape the world that was constantly crumbling around me. My older sister existed as a beacon during that time and my younger sister and I stayed at her house on many weekends. Gaming, however, stayed a true constant and was always there in my PlayStation or Gameboy Color.

It didn’t help that in addition to an abusive home environment, I struggled inside with being queer. One thing that stayed constant for me was falling in love with the stories told in games and the people who lived in these worlds. Getting to dive into Resident Evil’s Racoon City or Final Fantasy 7’s Midgar kept me grounded to sanity. I gravitated toward powerful, and self-assured women in games like Claire Redfield, Tifa Lockhart, and Lara Croft. These women were the heroes I needed and admired as a young queer kid. Since there weren’t any strong, queer characters in gaming at that time, bad-ass women became my role models. Looking up to these characters helped me deal with and accept my own queerness.

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I’ve noticed in this age of social media that I see a lot of queer people who also grew up with these same characters on a pedestal. In a world where young, queer men like myself rejected ideals of masculinity being pushed upon us, finding strength and solace in the strong women of gaming made us feel powerful. They influenced us in ways the archetypal male protagonists of games couldn’t. For me, women who kicked ass and thrived were awe-inspiring as I grew up in a world surrounded by rough and gruff countrymen who treated feminine people as lesser than.

After several years, my mom, little sister, and I were able to escape the Hell my step-dad put us through. On the other side of that, I found confidence in myself as a queer kid in the South who opted to treat others with kindness. I think much of that confidence came from a mixture of friends I made, my siblings and mom’s strength, and the characters and worlds I fell in love with in games. I not only accepted my queerness and femininity but fully embraced it despite a world that told me I was wrong.

As I aged into adulthood, gaming saw an influx of queer, non-binary, and trans characters. Both Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins allowed you to romance the same sex. It was extremely satisfying getting to flirt with Zevran or romance Liara as FemShep. Seeing a male character fall in love with another man left my young, queer heart giddy. It was also important that the games I played never felt like they were tokenizing characters or parading them around in an effort to be inclusive. Now, there continue to be stories that normalize the LGBTQIA experience with games like Tell Me Why, Life is Strange: True Colors, and The Last of Us 2. These games shepherd in a new generation of gamers who will almost always find someone to identify within the stories they become a part of.

Now I always look back to my rocky childhood as both a time of hardship and growth and recognize the power of women in a world where queer characters didn’t exist at the forefront yet. I am thankful for those who created Tifa, Jill, and Lara. I am even more thankful now the world has evolved and characters like Alex from Life is Strange: True Colors, Tyler from Tell Me Why, and Ellie from The Last of Us exist to nurture and soothe the minds of queer gamers who think that they don’t belong in a world that tells them they’re wrong. It feels inspiring to look toward the future with my head held high in hopes that anyone who identifies as LGBTQIA can continue to be seen, respected, and valued in everything that we do and that the world of gaming continues to grow and be more inclusive.