After I was a baby, I hoped to develop as much as grow to be a soldier. This isn’t unusual amongst trans ladies. To dwell inside dissociation is to dwell sporting armor.
After I was six years outdated within the Nineteen Nineties, I lived in a Navy city with a largely white inhabitants. I performed with the white boys on the playground, however I wasn’t white, nor was I a boy (a truth I might not understand for a few years). We performed Military; we performed Vietnam. We chased women across the playground in an odd, gender-segregated recreation of tag. My finest good friend bragged about his father’s Navy hat, citing years of service; he gloated knowingly concerning the “scrambled eggs” embellishment on the visor and the way he would have a hat like that sometime.
I wished to be a soldier after I grew up. I used to be within the closet, or maybe I contained a closet. I constructed for myself an armor to guard the sensation that I knew mustn’t exist inside me: the sensation I bought the primary time I performed Phrase Rescue for MS-DOS at age 4, the sensation of flight that arose inside me after I performed as the feminine character and noticed her hair flutter in her bounce animation. I understood by my younger expertise that this was not an allowable feeling. I created for myself bins inside bins, every padlocked.
I didn’t grow to be a soldier. However I used to be a baby who saved secrets and techniques to outlive: as trans author Kai Cheng Thom as soon as referred to herself, a “soldier in [my] soul.” And I spent a lot of my childhood taking part in soldier in Halo.
343 Gamer Begin
Launched in 2001 as a launch title for the unique Xbox, Halo: Fight Advanced and its sequels have been one thing of an adolescent rite-of-passage for a lot of suburban and concrete millennial males in america, Europe, and Australia. The Halo components was a chief match for a sure sort of masculine upbringing: player-vs-player fight with an arsenal of futuristic weaponry, a male soldier protagonist, a feminine sidekick, and hordes of aliens to slaughter.
I first encountered Halo one faculty night time in 2003. My brother and I, plus a number of of the boys in our eighth grade math class, have been invited to a recreation night time our math instructor was internet hosting at a close-by tech middle. I had heard of Halo, however had by no means performed it. I had by no means seen an Xbox; I used to be new to consoles, our household having solely not too long ago bought a GameCube after a lot begging and pleading. My brother, my instructor, one other classmate and I loaded right into a recreation of 4-person Slayer on Blood Gulch.
I used to be hooked from the primary kill. I set out from my spawn location throughout the map, stumbling throughout a rocket launcher in no-man’s-land. I discovered a drivable automobile crashed into the entrance of the opposite base. I bought in, excited to drive, but it surely was the improper aspect and I used to be trapped within the passenger seat. I turned to face the doorway of the bottom. A blue Spartan got here traipsing out. I had my rocket launcher outfitted. The imaginative and prescient of that kill is burned into my synapses with the fury of a hallucinogen journey. I went on to complete second on the leaderboard, a seemingly unattainable feat.
My brother and I pleaded with my mother and father with all our would possibly, and an Xbox and a duplicate of Halo weren’t lengthy in coming. On the time, I didn’t know that Halo had a single-player mode; all I knew was this second of multiplayer glory. Surprisingly, it was the single-player mode that captured my consideration with a narrative that hit near residence.
The Faceless Man
Take into account the origins of the SPARTAN program, which produces Halo protagonist Grasp Chief Petty Officer John-117: Within the midst of a lethal battle that each one of society has oriented itself round, a bunch of particular kids are secretly kidnapped from their households, changed by “flash clones” that die inside months. The kids are chemically castrated; cybernetic modifications take away their human weaknesses and neuter their feelings and organic impulses. Indoctrination destroys their human connections. They’re strengthened with metals and educated to grow to be exact and unfeeling weapons of battle. SPARTANs are dissociative and “hyper-lethal,” human however inhuman. They’re instruments inhabiting no matter roles they’re assigned, they usually play their roles completely. They’re little one troopers who develop as much as grow to be grownup troopers. Their armor by no means cracks—those that break within the course of are discarded. The method is deemed crucial by broader society, and data of all of the SPARTAN program entails is deliberately saved from the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants.
In some methods, it’s Animorphs with energy armor. In different methods, it’s a trans lady’s childhood in allegory.
I performed the Halo marketing campaign relentlessly, each day. I progressed via the issue settings and pored over fan web sites, just like the important neighborhood hub Halo.Bungie.org. In actual life, I used to be an ungainly teenager who hit puberty far too early, who saved working into adults and their gendered expectations, who didn’t perceive why I used to be so offended and unable to suit into the social roles and relationships inhabited by younger women and men. In Halo, I used to be a soldier in an armor swimsuit who shot acquainted aliens with acquainted weapons. My actual life felt prefer it had not begun and would maybe by no means start, for causes I couldn’t outline as trans. Within the recreation, I all the time knew the place I used to be: the safety facility in Silent Cartographer, the ultimate bridge on Assault on the Management Room. (I nonetheless bought misplaced in The Library.)
The SPARTANs’ backstory shouldn’t be current in-game. From Halo’s script, what about Grasp Chief is that he’s a particular soldier who’s unfrozen proper earlier than a pivotal encounter with alien forces. He’s a person (we presume) in armor that covers his entire physique and head. He serves no matter function the AI in his head and the troops on the bottom want of him. He’s a shell that takes orders, who takes weapons his commanding officer provides him or picks them up off the bottom. We don’t know if he has associates or relationships aside from the purely skilled relationships he develops by necessity within the means of killing aliens, mediated by a series of command. Recreation critic and developer Tim Rogers places it bluntly: “Grasp Chief isn’t a character or a individual—he’s an icon. He by no means takes off his masks, as a result of, as one in all Halo 3‘s producers mentioned, ‘if he took off that helmet, it’d be you inside.’”
For a kid like me, the concept nobody wanted to know who you have been inside was an escape. Inside, I used to be a dissociative mess. Deep inside myself, I used to be livid on the method my childhood had developed. It was filled with home battle and the burden of parental expectations for my social and profession success that I suspected couldn’t be fulfilled by the individual I used to be. I used to be annoyed by the unmistakable variations of my immigrant upbringing that held me other than my white American friends. Above all, I used to be unaware of my interior turmoil. My interior self was a black field, even to me. Frequent childhood injunctions to “comply with your passions,” the type that my friends took critically, felt unattainable to know: what passions? I assumed the phrase should be a metaphor.
Grasp Chief had no such issues. He was made to be a soldier, and due to this fact he was one. He was not anticipated to narrate to his friends; in reality, none outdoors the unique SPARTAN program may even contemplate themselves his friends. When he mentioned “Give me a weapon” firstly of the sport, it was abundantly clear what would comply with: capturing enemies. The issues of Grasp Chief’s life all walked (or crawled, or shambled) in the direction of him, and the answer rested firmly inside his proper hand. Nobody requested Grasp Chief what his passions have been; it was as meaningless a query for him because it was for me. He had locked up his emotions as a baby, as had I. He was made completely for his goal, in all of the ways in which I feared I used to be not. He was applauded for his professionalism; I used to be petrified of my emotional distance.
A Welcome Grave
Halo 2 was the primary recreation I ever preordered.
After Halo 2’s launch, my mother and father vetoed Xbox Stay. My father noticed on-line gaming as a frivolous expense after I ought to be centered on learning and turning into workforce-ready. On reflection, this wasn’t essentially an inaccurate judgment; the possibilities of a 15-year-old turning into a professional gamer have been slim (although not unattainable: my highschool’s Halo 2 event was received by a boy who would later grow to be referred to as esports star and caster MLG Bravo). Nonetheless, I spent sleepless nights cursing dashed ambition and visiting associates’ homes to get my repair of the sport’s new “matchmaking lobbies,” the place hormonal younger males playacted manhood by spewing brash, offensive trash discuss in between rounds of on-line multiplayer.
With out constant entry to multiplayer, I turned to Halo 2’s marketing campaign mode. This time, Grasp Chief was a defender of Earth and inadvertently fueled an alien civil battle. As soon as once more, all issues may very well be solved by capturing at them, by taking part in the function you got. The alien Covenant, who’re portrayed as fanatics of a spiritual cult, produce a key character who rebels towards his mission and adjustments the arc of the sequence. In distinction, Grasp Chief by no means rebels towards the machine. Because the mysterious alien corpse-being referred to as the Gravemind notes of our protagonist: “This one is machine and nerve, and has its thoughts concluded.”
It’s onerous to understand how I felt about Halo 2’s story; in spite of everything, one hallmark of my time within the closet was that it appeared unattainable to really feel, just like the world was wrapped in gauze. What I do know is that I performed the campaigns on repeat. They felt extra actual than my each day life, which was consumed with future planning: faculty, then profession ambitions, then presumably the grave.
By 2005, I used to be conscious that my downside was gender. I had seen a provocative gender-bending industrial on TV. That commercial despatched me down a rabbit gap of search engines like google, Googling “boy turns into woman,” searching for extra transgender content material. The prospect of gender transformation made its sharp intrusion into my unfeeling life and confirmed me a glimpse of actual emotion. I used to be obsessive about transgender media for causes I couldn’t clarify. I stayed up late at night time binging it. It terrified me. In some unspecified time in the future, I used to be positive, this horrible secret would come out and destroy my profession and life prospects.
Enjoying Halo 2 turned a technique to keep away from feeling. On-line reviewers pilloried the sport’s cliffhanger ending and the way it prevented concluding Grasp Chief’s narrative arc. These complaints made little sense to me: for me, Halo was an motion to be taken and repeated, not a narrative with a vacation spot. It was consolation meals whose style mattered lower than its familiarity and security. With time, I grew keen on all of the features of the sport reviewers disliked: the abject polygons of the characters’ faces, the Gravemind’s intoned proclamations looming within the background of the motion, the convoluted alien civil battle which is rarely absolutely explicated in-game. I memorized enemy spawn areas. I began studying the Halo novels, committing lore to reminiscence. “This isn’t your grave,” the Gravemind informed me, “however you might be welcome in it.”
After Halo 2, I started to know the sequence as my refuge from the truth of my very own transness, even regardless of my lack of ability to call my id as trans. My relationship to the sequence waned, but it surely all the time appeared to resurge at any time when life gave me an excessive amount of time to consider who I used to be. Halo 3 discovered me in late highschool, within the peak of faculty software anxiousness. I caught up on Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Attain and Halo 4 in a spell of post-college unemployment, connecting with the net speedrunning scene and finally serving to to discovered the speedrunning web site HaloRuns. A lot later, throughout the COVID pandemic, I briefly rediscovered my Halo fixation and indulged my completionist intuition to get each achievement. (I had begun my gender transition by this level. My outdated gamertag seems in a speedrunning achievement in Halo: The Grasp Chief Assortment–the gamer equal of a deadname, I suppose.)
As written by Bungie, Halo’s authentic builders, the protagonists of every Halo recreation — the Chief, Halo 3: ODST’s Rookie, Halo: Attain’s Noble Six — are nothing if not devoted to their missions. They’re robust, silent, their personalities redacted, their presence itself a significant void. On the finish of Halo 3, Grasp Chief turns into a noble sacrifice in service of a better goal, a loyal soldier to the final. Having efficiently destroyed one alien enemy and reaching a tentative peace with one other, his reward is to drift marooned in deep area, caught aboard the half of his spaceship that didn’t make it via the Slipspace portal again to Earth. It’s attainable he’ll perish out right here. He doesn’t appear to really feel a lot at this state of affairs. “Wake me while you want me,” he tells his AI companion, and climbs into the armored cocoon of his cryo-chamber. It’s not his grave, however he feels welcome in it.
A Soldier of their Soul
Depersonalization is a standard phenomenon in trans folks, as attested by trans author and Youtuber Zinnia Jones’ writings on gender dysphoria. In a 2018 weblog put up, she wrote of her makes an attempt to don armor towards the world’s accidents:
Depersonalization protected me even because it killed off the components of me that made something matter on this world, as if to protect me from some catastrophic private collapse that was certain to occur… There have been instances when, feeling shamed or humiliated and with out entry to that protecting interior core, I reacted by masking myself in as many layers of clothes as attainable… [emphasis added]
Trans writers resembling Lucian Clark and Azure have recognized their trans sense of dislocation within the monstrous, or in warrior goddesses outlined by their weapons. Author and Warhammer 40,000 fanatic Natalie Reed has identified that the creation of a “House Marine” is inherently a fiction a few violent patriarchal socialization course of that strips boys of their feelings and turns them into “residing weapons.”
In her essay “A Maze of Murderscapes,” S.R. Holliwell wrote of her time spent taking part in Metroid II whereas homeless in a ladies’s shelter in Windfall, Rhode Island:
Digital objects [missile-doors, shrines, map tiles] have been my metropolis streets, my landmark buildings… I felt like an object myself, consultant of one thing nobody can ever know, shifting via the town the place folks handed by me as unknowable figures that intrigued me simply as I’d intrigue them. … A delight and thriller in having nowhere particularly to be and exploring the world round me. [emphasis added]
Holliwell’s remembrances level to the essential distance created by the armor of dissociation, how it may be alienating but in addition give one freedom to discover and grow to be. On the finish of the primary Metroid, Samus takes off her armor and divulges herself to be a wonderful lady. “Gotcha,” she appears to be saying, “you didn’t know who I used to be in any respect.”
It’s vital to notice that Holliwell was not writing particularly of the trans closet in her essay. The dissociative armor of the trans closet itself is most incisively described in Isabel Fall’s “Helicopter Story” (initially, and I imagine ideally, titled “I Sexually Establish as an Assault Helicopter,” a provocative riff on a transphobic meme beloved by extremely-online younger males within the early 2010s). Fall’s story follows a personality named Barb, a female-to-helicopter transsexual, and explores “tactical gender”: our gendered passage via the world and its similarities to navy indoctrination. Via its metaphor, the story explores the methods wherein we armor up, assault, and defend; our patterns of movement, exhibits of power, whether or not we announce our presence or go radio silent.
The story has since been withdrawn from publication however lives on in web archives. In it, Barb says:
My physique is a element in my mission, subordinate to what I really am. … After I joined the Military I consented to tactical-role gender reassignment.
The explanations for battle don’t matter a lot to us. We need to battle the best way a girl needs to be gracious, the best way a person needs to be agency. Our want is as vamp-fierce because the strutting queen and dryly refined because the dapper lesbian…
After I was a girl I wished to be good at lady. I wished to darken my eyes and strut in heels. … And on the identical time I resented all of it. I wished to be sharper, stronger, a new-made factor, beautiful and formidable. Did I need that as a result of I used to be taught to hate being a girl? Or as a result of I hated being taught something in any respect?
Now I’m jointed inside. Now I’m geared and shafted, I’m a being of opposing torques. The noise I make is canceled by decibel killers so I’m no louder than a girl laughing via two partitions.
[As a woman,] I used to be all the time conscious of being small: conscious that individuals may damage me. … Nobody stalks an assault helicopter. No slack-eyed well-dressed drunk punches you for ignoring the little rape he slurs at your neckline. Nobody even breaks your coronary heart: with my dopamine system tied up by the reassignment surgical procedure, absolutely assigned to mission habits, I can’t fall in love with something besides my very own goal. [emphasis added]
Fall was castigated for writing her story: some supposedly progressive commentators claimed such a deviant intermingling of gender and warfare may solely be the anti-feminist work of a cisgender man. The vicious backlash pushed Fall off the web, her story withdrawn by her request, her trans personhood retreating earlier than overwhelming power. As she informed Vox this summer season:
On this story I believe that the helicopter is a closet. … The place do you’re feeling dysphoria the toughest? Within the closet. Or so I’ve to hope; I’ve not been wherever outdoors it, apart from [in publishing “Attack Helicopter”], which satisfied me it was safer inside. … The story was withdrawn to keep away from my loss of life.
Barb’s helicopter physique is SPARTAN-117’s armor. For me, the story of Halo has this identical feeling that Fall references: the closet feeling, horrible and comforting. It’s a pleasure to be a Hyper-Deadly Vector, as are Grasp Chief and Noble Six of Halo: Attain. It’s the pleasure of armor, safety, distance. It’s the false freedom of remaining unseen and untouched.
I need to emphasize one phrase above: false. The Vox piece characterised Fall’s withdrawal as “the choice of retreating to the relative security of her authorized, masculine id.” That is a simple abstract, however “security” is way from the true image of what the closet entails. Armor doesn’t develop with the individual it protects, as any hermit crab is aware of; it constricts and smothers even because it permits one to develop. Regardless of the closet’s promise of freedom, motion inside it comes with limitations.
In “Helicopter Story,” Barb’s rising gender dysphoria poses a risk to her mission and existence. At no level in Halo can Grasp Chief put down his weapons and discuss to the aliens. The marketing campaign will all the time proceed the identical method: he’ll crash land on the mysterious ring world, he’ll battle his method throughout landscapes and spaceships, he’ll make the noble sacrifice, save the day and float off into distant area. The trans closet capabilities for us as Grasp Chief’s narrative constraints perform for him. His freedom of selection is restricted to cutscenes which we don’t management.
And regardless of the power of his armor, when his shields are depleted, Grasp Chief bleeds. The closet shouldn’t be security; the closet is a way of false safety, inside which one continues to build up injury upon injury.
On the finish of Halo 4, we see Grasp Chief’s face. Considered one of my trans comrades has argued to me that that is the second the place Halo betrays itself; in spite of everything, no matter what canon would possibly say, that’s you in there. Grasp Chief has worn this armor for the reason that starting of Halo 2 — roughly 4 years and 9 months, per canon — and that is the primary time we see it eliminated. We see technicians guiding specialised machines round his physique, unscrewing and amassing and unclamping the tons of combat-grade metallic plate. Like actual armor, it doesn’t come off simply. Like actual armor, it’s a course of that takes time and requires assist from others.
Beneath that armor, Grasp Chief was somebody I didn’t acknowledge.
Wake Me When You Want Me
I’ve spent a lot of the final a number of years studying to take off my very own armor. Hormones have helped, as has feeling extra snug in my physique. I’ve had exterior assist from therapists, associates, and family members. In that point, Grasp Chief has continued his personal journey in the direction of a distinctly male, market-oriented personhood. Halo 4 leans into the connection between Grasp Chief and his AI associate Cortana. Video games reviewer Erik Kain writes in Forbes of its “stunning, tragic love story,” pushed by Grasp Chief’s emotion-driven must discover a treatment for her incipient robotic dementia, whereas noting the sport’s “odd sexualization of Cortana.” Halo 5: Guardians (which I’ve not but performed) holds as its narrative conceit that Grasp Chief has gone rogue and should be hunted down by navy forces. In each video games, Grasp Chief disobeys direct orders from superiors with the intention to defend Cortana and comply with the place she leads. Even with out the romantic subtext, it’s clear that the way forward for Halo protagonists is one in all complicated human connections that tie them to particular canonical identities, relationships, and character traits. 343 Industries, the developer of Halo Infinite, guarantees that the times of treating the SPARTAN as an empty orders-following vessel are over; henceforth, he can have ample characterization and a “human story.”
Maybe my disconnect from the narrative improvement of the later Halo video games is easy: Grasp Chief’s builders have determined to make him an individual, and that individual shouldn’t be me. That individual is a white male soldier, very like the opposite white male troopers that populate the first-person-shooter market area. The AAA shooter fanbase skews in the direction of younger males, and builders must market their content material in the direction of their clients. They typically don’t make AAA video video games about folks like me.
Other forms of individuals (largely white males) are those who get “human tales,’’ marketable tales. Trans folks like me get allegory, allusions, and headcanons. (Sometime I’ll inform you how Halo: Attain’s Noble Six is a he/him lesbian.) We get web listicles of “trans-friendly characters” as human and actual as Birdo. So trans folks have to search out ourselves in tales that weren’t written for us. We make memes of standard online game characters saying “trans rights” whereas deciding for ourselves which characters we’ll declare as a part of the neighborhood.
Provided that actuality, I’ll take what I discovered in Halo’s story. I maintain out hope that I can come round to John-117’s new personhood, that I can study to simply accept him on his personal neutered-white-male-cyborg phrases. However I doubt I’ll bond with him the best way I did with the unique Halo video games and their faceless armored man. Whereas I suffered within the closet, I’m making an attempt to construct compassion for the child who survived that closet. That compassion extends to closeted characters. To this present day, I’m hooked up to helmeted characters and tales that don’t tie them to emotional connections. The amnesiac, dysphoric, closed-off and guarded will all the time discover a good friend in me.
nat “stylo” is a musician, organizer, author, and sometimes-gamer. She posts on social media @stylo9000 and stylo-999.tumblr.com.