Gamers Use the Trans Panic Defense
Content Warning: Violence towards trans-women; bigotry; gamers™, The Last of Us Part II spoilers.
“I told you I was sorry.” Those were the last words Gwen Araujo spoke before being beaten to death. Gwen was a trans woman who was murdered in cold blood after a group of men questioned her identity, forced her to reveal her genitals, and beat her. At the trial, the murderers used the gay/trans panic defense, saying that Gwen, “Had provoked the violent response.” A convenient lie to blame the victim of their hatred. The argument went that the men who murdered her weren’t responsible, murdering her was the natural response to discovering that she was trans. The defense was simple: It was Gwen’s fault. She made them do this.
On May 2, 2020, Upper Echelon Gamers published a video titled, “Last of Us 2 Could DAMAGE Gaming for Years.” In it, he argues that the game will be so terrible as to set back the acceptance of LGBT people in gaming for decades. Excuse me, in the description he wants to remind viewers that this is merely a possibility. He says that, for now, the game is merely a speculatively bad narrative with poor characters and a forced agenda. Let’s not beat around the bush, this is a pretense, a way of warding off criticism so that when he is inevitably proven wrong he can say, “See, see, I was merely positing a hypothetical, it’s not my fault it didn’t come off that way.” It’s not a complicated game that he plays — he wants all the benefits of rage-baiting viewers while holding no responsibility for anything he says. He attempts to frame the entire video as a hypothetical, but speaks with such conviction and vehemence that it’s clear he just thinks that word is a get out of jail free card for garbage opinions. Let’s look at what he does say.
Within numerous online cesspools — sorry, I meant communities — there has been rampant speculation about The Last of Us Part II leaks. While we only have a smattering of cutscenes and some context-less bullet points, internet dwellers have been hard at work patching together the least flattering image possible. The bulk of this speculation revolves around the character Abby. Abby, it appears, is the daughter of firefly doctors, the same doctors who were butchered by Joel at the conclusion of the first game. As a result of this, Abby has the long term goal of hunting down and killing Joel. Commenters reacted with shock and horror to scenes of Abby killing Joel, and later nearly killing Ellie and Dinah, but the real drama began once people began to speculate that Abby is in fact a trans woman. Why? What evidence might there be for this? Well, you see, she is muscular and — as we well know — cis-women cannot be muscular, ergo Abby must be a trans woman; the perfect marriage of misogyny and transphobia. This argument is, undebatably, garbage, but highlights a common sexist belief: “real” women cannot be strong, that is a trait reserved solely for men. If you do happen to be a strong woman, then your femininity is in jeopardy and rampant speculation regarding your genitals will commence.
UEG clearly panders to this particular crowd. He first refers to Abby as “seemingly” transgender without any actual proof or evidence or reasoning. Later in the video, he completely drops the facade of doubt and calls Abby “transgendered” without any qualifiers. He despises Abby, calling her abhorrent, abusive, disgusting (he particularly seems to relish calling Abby disgusting). We’ve seen Joel do worse, we’ve done worse as Joel; I wonder what would make UEG react with such outrage in this instance (hint: it’s because Joel is a cis man). At one moment, he describes Abby as a gorilla and eschews all gendered pronouns instead referring to her as “it”. He doubles down: “It’s disgusting,” he says, leaving it nebulous as to whether he is referring to the scene or the character. It’s not hard to see his thoughts on trans people.
The Last of Us itself occupies a special place in UEG’s heart. He waxes fondly of the time he spent streaming the game, acknowledging that it was one of the high points in his career. This care for the franchise (a franchise of one game, mind you) is why he finds the leaked story abominable. Watching Joel and Ellie, two characters he loves and cherishes, be brutalized is gut wrenching, and he finds it unacceptable. To him, protagonist is synonymous with good-guy. Whoever you play as must, by definition, be in the right. I can only surmise that, to UEG, Joel killing dozens of innocent scientists and guards at the end of the first game was the right thing to do, without any questionable morality whatsoever. The idea that their actions have consequences and that the cycle of violence they are part of is coming full circle is unconscionable. Abby, seeking vengeance for her murdered parents, must surely be evil because she is the antagonist.
His overarching argument is this: Abby will be such a terrible character that she will set back the acceptance of LGBT people in media for decades. By showing a trans woman hurting characters that we already care about, he argues, the game will increase animosity towards other minority groups. If only, he cries, the character were intelligent, well written, smart — traits that, of course, he doesn’t believe a trans woman could possess — then maybe people would open up a little, and hate minorities just a little less. But of course, she won’t be any of those things because she simply cannot be. He believes that by showing a trans person exhibit negative emotions you are only proving bigots correct in their prejudices — I wonder how he has such a window into the mind of a bigot. It is also worth noting that, if his suggestion is true, then we should, as a society, be absolutely disgusted with all men. After all, are men not the vast majority of villains in video games? If portraying someone with any particular identity in a negative light results in the hatred of that group why then is UEG not disgusted with Joel? The answer isn’t hard to find: hetero, cis, white, and male don’t count as identities in his worldview. They are the default and as such need no justification to exist. Anyone bearing those traits is as representative of the whole as is convenient for any particular argument. Anything else — trans, gay, non binary, female, black — is a monolithic group that will be demonized at every possible opportunity.
He couches this argument in another: they — e.g. SJWs, feminazis, any other convenient straw men — believe that video games can influence culture. UEG denies this, claiming that it is an utterly false belief, yet still decides to dive deep with the assumption that it is true. On the one hand, he says, it’s absurd to believe the media we consume can affect our thoughts. On the other, it is awfully convenient for his argument to allow it to be true while claiming it isn’t. Look at that, he’s drawn another get out of jail free card: he isn’t really arguing that The Last of Us Part II will set back LGBT representation, that’s ridiculous! But, if that were possible, then you LGBT weirdos better watch yourselves or you’ll regret it. He has it both ways to allow for vaguely plausible deniability, but his core beliefs are abundantly clear: no, this game probably won’t set back LGBTQ representation by decades, but it sure will rile up regressive bigots which is great for clicks.
UEG also offers a plot substitute that would get a C- in grade school. After Abby nearly kills Ellie and Dinah, the player should be able to control Ellie again, who would hunt down and murder Abby. Then, some previously unintroduced character would be implied to swear vengeance against Ellie. He emphasizes that this character should be innocent: this has the interesting implication that Abby, an orphaned survivor of a group who was trying to save humanity, is most certainly not innocent. In a story that ostensibly seems to focus on the impossibility of escaping the cycle of violence through further violence, he advocates for a new ending in which the player feels catharsis — he uses that word specifically — by killing another character. An eight year old could see the flaw here: if you want to tell a story about the horror of revenge, you can’t make the audience feel good for getting revenge. To him, the only thing that would make up for being forced to play as a (potentially) trans person would be later being able to murder that same character.
He speculates that The Last of Us Part II, “Might very well go down in history as an origin point for further animosity and polarization while being used as an example for why diverse characters should not be allowed to exist, and that’s a truly terrible thing to become.,, you create a lightning rod example of why future titles who attempt any inclusion at all should be curb-stomped….” He uses fake concern as a bludgeon to force people into what his worldview deems acceptable. He blames the game he has created in his mind rather than the gamers who are already spitting venom at the possibility that there may be a trans character in their beloved franchise. He uses violent language to heighten the threat and scare under-represented people into silence.
In saying this, he absolves bigots of all responsibility. If minorities want to be respected, to be treated like people, they simply need to be model citizens. Do and say exactly what I believe you should, behave in a manner I deem appropriate, and then maybe — over time, you know we can’t rush things — you will come to be accepted. Curtail your identity to fit within my comfort zone, and I might just treat you like a person. If you don’t — well, I warned you didn’t I? If you want to exist and not follow my rules, then whatever happens next is your fault. You made me do this. This is an explicit threat that he offers up as his conclusion: fit within the narrow role I allow for you, and I’ll forget about you. Step out of line, stand in the spotlight, raise your voice, feel anything, and I will kill you. He ends by reminding viewers that they should keep an open mind, after spitting vitriol for twenty minutes.
Gwen Araujo would have been thirty-five today if she hadn’t been murdered by people with the same mindset as UEG and his viewers. Today, the gay/trans panic defense is still legal in forty-one US states.