A couple months ago, a short story was published on the Magic: The Gathering website as part of the game’s weekly storyline series “Uncharted Realms”. This story was called “The Truth of Names” and starred Magic’s first transgender character, a nineteen-year-old warlord named Alesha. I was a contributor to the story, and I received an interview request from a major content website about the story, my role, and some thoughts behind the story. For reasons that had nothing to do with the content, the interview was never published, but after speaking with the interviewer, Hallie Santo, we agreed to publish the interview independently. Today is the Transgender Day of Visibility, after all, and so today seemed appropriate given that the topic is, in part, transgender visibility in gaming.
1.What is your position at Wizards of the Coast? What are your major
I’m the Digital Editor for Magic Online, which means that
I’m involved in the way that sets are implemented online. One of my primary roles
is overseeing many of the ways we present information to players in game, so I
work with the other members of the Digital Design team and several of our
programming team pretty constantly. I also help out with developing rules and
templating for the physical cards: that is, determining exactly which words to
put on cards to make sure the card works as intended, ensuring consistency in
presentation of text, etc. I also work with the Events Manager for Magic Online
to help work on the kinds of events that we offer.
As a member of Magic R&D, I also have opportunities to
work on design teams for future sets. We haven’t actually announced any of
them, though, because we work pretty far ahead. It’ll be a while before the
public gets to see non-digital stuff I’ve designed.
You were credited as a contributor on the Uncharted Realms story “The
Truth of Names.” What did your job entail, and why were you selected to
In college, I studied cultural anthropology and had a gender
studies minor. On top of that, I was an activist on queer and trans issues: I started
a trans student group on my university’s campus, I worked with a variety of regional
and national organizations, and even lobbied on Capitol Hill in DC back in 2007
for the late, lamented Employment Non-Discrimination Act. (This was before
trans protections were stripped from the bill, of course.) On both an academic
and sociopolitical level, I have a pretty good grip on queer and trans issues.
And my co-workers know that. That’s why they wanted my help getting the story
I helped start the story planning and I was one of the last
people to review it, mostly because I knew what to look for and avoid. It’s
super easy to do a trans story wrong. There’s the “Crying Game” trope, where the
story is built largely around the reveal of the trans character’s transness,
often as the climax of a seduction plotline. Then there’s also the
“Transamerica” trope, which involves focusing on how hard being trans is for
that character. Neither of those types of stories is inherently bad – I’ve seen
well-executed versions of both – but they’re not all that compelling. Worse
yet, they often use “I’m trans!” as a punchline for one of the
characters, which is pretty disrespectful to the thousands of trans people out
there leading lives that don’t involve melodramatic reveals as a part of a
And to be honest, it wouldn’t even make sense with the goals
we had set. If we believed that representation was important, and that we
wanted to present a trans character – which it is, and which we clearly did –
then the trans character pretty much needed to be heroic. The Creative team already
strives to make many of our characters relatable, aspirational, or both. The
way I see it, it would have been unfair for everyone if the first trans
character isn’t treated that way as well.
Part of my job on this story was to review it after it had
gone through the normal story-development process and help punch-up the trans
elements, make them meaningful, powerful, and hopefully carry some verisimilitude.
Some of the choice lines that I’ve seen quoted across the internet were mine or
inspired by my conversations with various members of the Creative team. I am incredibly proud, both for my colleagues
who did amazing things, and for the part I was able to play.
It’s worth noting that I was sought out because I have
interest and experience with these kinds of issues in story, not because I was
some kind of token. Although I am trans myself, when we started the process, my
colleagues didn’t know that. They didn’t know until I told them halfway through
the process, not because I enjoy melodramatic reveals, but because being openly
trans is hard, and I didn’t want to come out in the workplace until I knew it
was safe to do so. For what it’s worth, I haven’t regretted coming out at all.
Author James Wyatt called this “the most important story [he has] ever
written.” How do you feel about that?
I feel honored, honestly. That I got to be a part of this
process was a singular blessing.
My role was to look at the trans elements and punch them up
with some nuance and choice lines, but I want to stress that the bulk of this story
was James’s work. He specifically wanted the assignment.
James is an excellent writer and a thoroughly good human being.
On top of that, his daughter is trans. I’ve never met her, but if you ever
listen to James talk about her even a little, it’s super clear he loves her
with all his heart, the way fathers should always love their daughters. In our
conversations, it was clear that this would be meaningful and powerful for her,
so it was meaningful and powerful for him. And I think that shows.
For me, it goes back to my college days. At the time, I said
over and over again that my personal struggles and my activism was all worth it
if it made the next girl’s life just a little easier. Given the reaction we’ve
gotten on Alesha, I think it’s one of the most important things I’ve ever been
involved in, too.
How has the Magic: the Gathering community responded to this story? What
feedback have you received?
The majority of the feedback has been overwhelmingly
positive. Nothing we’ve ever done is universally positive, but the number of
people who have said that the story made them cry, or they feel validated
because they can see a character like them in a major game’s storyline, or even
find the courage to identify as trans for the first time… it’s much more than I
Maybe I should have expected this. I know how powerful this
story would have been for me if I had just read it, especially if I read it
when I was first coming out and needed to see other girls like me out there
being awesome. Even if it’s fictional, representation means that you have a
role model. It means validating that you have a place in this real world and a
fictional one you can only glimpse. And it’s not just trans people who like it.
We’ve gotten a lot of really positive emails that start with something to the
effect of “I’m a cis dude, but…” and it’s heartening to hear from people who
aren’t trans but care about trans issues.
Lots of people are making Commander or Tiny Leaders decks
with Alesha as their commander. That, I think, is the most common thing I’ve heard.
It helps, I think, that we included the first trans
character in a story that wasn’t a “trans story”. The story is about the Mardu
people and about how they claim their identity through victory in battle. That
the leader of this warrior culture is a self-assured, confident trans woman is a
great illustration of that cultural practice.
And that’s how it should be. Alesha’s transness is relevant
for our trans audience and anyone else who’s concerned with trans
representation. If you don’t care about trans issues, it’s sort of irrelevant
what her identity is, as long as she’s an exemplar of the Mardu tradition.
For those unfamiliar with Magic’s storylines, have we seen any other
LGBT-identified characters in canon? any other trans* characters?
Yes, there are other explicitly LGBT characters.
Last year’s setting was a plane called Theros, which was inspired
by Greek mythology. On that plane, we had two canonical queer-dude couples. One
is subtle, shown on the card Guardians of Meletis: two male statues that the
flavor text identifies as lovers. The second couple was in an Uncharted Realms
short story from last February, called “Emonberry Red”.
There are also a few characters whose experience is outside
the gender binary, though I wouldn’t call them relatable trans characters. One
was a female-identified sexless minor character from a very long time ago named
Xantcha, who was a Phyrexian newt. (The Phyrexians are one of the major
factions of bad guys in Magic.) Her physiology and resulting experience with
sex and gender are all pretty radically different from real-world trans people.
The other character is a terrifying nightmare-wielding Planeswalker named
Ashiok. Ashiok’s gender is canonically defined as an enigma, and I know a lot
of people have latched onto Ashiok as an example of a genderqueer/agender
character. I would hate to take anything away from them, but to be honest
Ashiok terrifies more than inspires me.
So in the most inclusive sense of the term “trans”, what
Kate Bornstein calls “gender outlaws”, no, Alesha wasn’t the first trans
character. That said, she was certainly the first who was created with an
experience that some real trans humans have: assigned male at birth, claiming a
female identity that accurately reflects her sense of self. And the way the
audience has reacted to her speaks volumes to that effect: she’s trans in a way
that a lot of people can connect with.
I’d also like to point out that one of the challenges to
trans representation in Magic is, well, the magic. In a multiverse where
shapeshifting magic is a real and accessible thing, it’s hard to tell stories
where a trans character’s transness could reasonably come up without the story descending
into unsatisfying wish-fulfillment. Alesha was very well-suited here, because
the colors of magic that could have given her a body to match her identity are
not part of her people’s traditions.
All that being said, those are just the LGBT and nonbinary
characters that have been revealed to be such so far. The Multiverse is a huge place, and over the years Magic
has had a tremendous number of characters whose sexual identities have never
been made explicit because it wasn’t relevant to a story that we were telling.
The only reason we know that many of our straight characters are straight is
because it came up. So it’s possible
that a great many characters are queer and/or trans and it just hasn’t come up
The last few Magic story arcs have featured several female leaders: Elspeth was
the main protagonist of the Theros storyline, and all five of Tarkir’s clans
are or were led by female Khans. Is this consistent with previous sets, or are
women seeing an uptick in representation recently?
Magic’s always had a fair number of female characters, but
certainly in recent years yes, that’s increased. Looking back at the last two
years in particular, in addition to what you mentioned, three of the five
planeswalkers in Magic 2015 were
female, and Chandra Nalaar was the face of Magic
2014. I don’t want to speak for the Creative team, because while I worked
with several of them on “The Truth of Names”, that’s not my area of expertise. What
I can say with confidence is that it’s something that they care about. The
upcoming set Magic Origins, for example,
also features three women and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar
roughly-equal proportion of women to men in Magic going forward.
Digital Editor, Magic Online
@trulyaliem on Twitter