Orlando, In The Light Of Upraised Wands

The following article discusses my experience at the New World Magischola LARP on the weekend of June 16-19. This post is not a LARP design look or even a real recap, but addresses other issues going on internally for me during this game. For those playing future runs of the game, this post may (though I am not sure) consist of spoilers. Also, this post is LONG. Please be advised.


 

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I do not pack light.

I was sitting in my bedroom, packing up a suitcase to hit the road again. I spend a lot of time on trips to gaming events and conventions, so much so that packing is nearly mechanical by now. I know what I need to bring under normal circumstances. This trip, however, wasn’t normal circumstances. I wasn’t heading for a gaming convention. Rather, I was heading to wizarding college.

I’d been lucky enough to snag a ticket to the opening weekend for New World Magischola, a live action roleplaying event run in Richmond, Virginia. For one weekend, I was going to portray Thessaly Kane, a thirty-something professor of Magical Theory and Ethics of the Arcane. Into my bag I packed my best rebel witch turned responsible professor clothes. I packed my quills, my signet ring, my wand. This kind of packing wasn’t very odd to me either. Two years ago, I’d braved a long journey to Poland to attend the first weekend of College of Wizardry, the blockbuster LARP that then inspired New World Magischola here in the US. Both were first weekend events, the inaugural, the very first. I felt privileged to have a chance to be at both. I was excited. But something had me distracted.

Only a few days prior, the world witnessed the tragedy that occurred in Orlando, Florida. 49 people were killed and 53 injured when a gunman walked into the Pulse nightclub on Latin Night and opened fire. The perpetrator’s motives were simple, though they’d be made more complex by charges of connection to international terrorist organizations and questions of mental stability. But to most of the world, the heart of this attack was the unbridled hatred that the shooter had for the LGBTQ community. This attack was the deadliest single shooter incident in history and it occurred on June 12, 2016.

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The victims of the Orlando mass shooting. Collage by Buzzfeed News/Facebook

The Pulse shooting was still on my mind two days later when I started packing for Magischola. I’d spent the days before like many others who identify as queer: in a state of emotional upheaval and disarray. I’d done my crying, shouted, vented, lay in bed unsure what to do. I kept crying some more. My mind turned, as it does, to inspiration about better ideals, about the utopias people hope for and the practical compromises we end up with. I’d been listening to Hamilton and started reading David McCullough’s 1776. I watched HBO’s John Adams, and then the musical 1776. I thought about the words “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.” I thought about the liminal spaces between those words, the gaps which we fall into when we are not men, when we are not considered equal, when these truths are no longer considered self evident to those who can pick up a gun and deprive someone of their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Of their life. Of their life.

Suddenly I wasn’t so sure I wanted to go to a wizarding larp anymore.

I questioned the rightness of going away to escape for a weekend. I’d get in a car with friends and go down to a college campus and pretend to wave a wand for days, and for a while, the world of the Mundane (as the real world is called in NWM) would be replaced by the world of the Magimundi. I’d worry about wendigos and snipes, gorecasters and house points. I was on my way to someplace far beyond democratic filibusters on gun control in the Senate and screaming fits on Facebook about the rights of people to have AR-15’s sold in Walmart for less than it costs to own a smartphone. I felt wrong for going out to larp in the shadow of a tragedy that weighed so heavily on my heart.

Plenty of people kept using the hashtag #IamOrlando in the wake of the tragedy. Lots were allies. But so many were queer people showing their solidarity to those killed. Because in the eyes of so many queer people I spoke to, it wasn’t just a gesture of solidarity. They walk the same spaces as those killed, exist in the same gap between “self evident” and “created equal” that the patrons at Orlando fell into. They are queer in America, and they were bleeding.

I was bleeding.

***************

It’s no secret that I’m queer. I’ve been public about my bisexuality for years, having come out in college. But I’ve always been a private person in terms of expressing my sexuality, and that led me to shy away from pride spaces. I’d had difficulties feeling welcome as a bisexual woman who often dated men, of being misidentified as straight in queer spaces, in grappling with my own very religious upbringing in relation to my queer identity. Only in recent years through my involvement with the gaming community had I found a place to meet people and discuss queer identity with an alibi that made me comfortable to be public. Through gaming, I found a voice for my queer self. It was that knowledge that helped me go down to New World Magischola in the wake of Orlando. Because, even though in my heart I was bleeding, I knew there would be others who might be there too. Who I could speak with. Who might know what I was feeling.

And lo and behold, one of the first conversations I had upon getting into my dorm room on campus was about Orlando. In the sprawling chaos of getting ready on Thursday for the start of game, I ended up in a room full of several queer players, and the topic of Orlando came up. We wondered whether the events of the real world were a part of the modern-day magical game we were about to play. We wondered if some of the themes of bullying and prejudice that are underlying in the magical game would be de-escalated because of the events. And all the while I wanted to just jump up out of my wheelchair and shout aloud, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to play today. I don’t know what to do or what to feel. I don’t know if I want to do this.”

Instead, I promised to ask staff about the real life events question. Whether or not, as queer people, we’d in character have to deal with the Orlando event.

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Introductions in the Great Hall

So during the opening announcements I was gratified and humbled when our organizers addressed the shooting directly. They wished that we would make this a safe place to play, even when things might be hard. They offered ears to listen, whatever support was needed. I raised my hand and asked the question: were the events at Pulse in character as well? The answer was yes. I left the opening announcements to go to workshops, meant to prepare us for the roleplaying we would do all weekend. Some were about how to de-escalate a scene if it became too intense. One was about making sure to default to ‘they’ as the proper pronoun. That “created equal” liminal space seemed to be shrinking in the face of such understanding.

I went to meet with the other faculty players, and broached the subject of how to handle Orlando in character. It was decided to let student-players take the lead and organize themselves, to give people the option of opting out of interacting with such heavy real-world content. There was room in game to experience grief as a player, as a character who was queer, but there was also a space for those who came to get away for a while to not have the events revisited. There was room to breath, and I felt it, for maybe the first time in a few days.

The game had a lot of amazing, wacky, bizarre, and unreal things happen. The very first night, a freak storm hit the area that slammed down heavy winds and dropped a tornado. Trees were downed, we all sheltered in place, and we lost power. I remember racing through the night with a friend of mine from New York, trying to get to my dorm before the sky opening up and ending up stuck in the operations building with staff while the sky opened up with all its fury. We stayed mostly out of character and waited for the skies to close, and chatted about life. Here, with people I barely knew, i braved one of the things that scare me most in the world: terrible storms. And still, in the back of my mind, I had a clenching in my chest. What was I doing, roleplaying when there was so much going on back home? When I had this burning question inside me, shouting all the time: why does this keep happening? Created equal. CREATED EQUAL. WHY?

I needed a place for that screaming little voice to go. So, I did the only thing I could. I took it in character.

*********

Thessaly Kane is an Ethics professor. Her aim was to introduce ethical questions of real world importance to students. She was also a werewolf, a Lycan, bitten when she tried to defend the werewolf community from an attack by a magical hate group. Lycanthropy, you see, is a disease you can transmit to others that makes you transform uncontrollably during the full moon. Because of this, Lycans are illegal in the magical world. If someone is discovered as a Lycan, they can be hunted down by the magical police, the Marshals, and killed. They are denied proper educations, jobs, places in society. They are outcasts, hated, feared, turned away. The potion that can help them control their transformation, the Romulus Lunar Shield, is held patented by a company that prices the potion so high, it’s not accessible to many desperately in need. My professor hid what she was to get a job at a university, intent on living a normal life despite the threat of being discovered.

There were a lot of ways I could have played Thessaly. I could have had her be self-protective, hiding what she was. A more Remus Lupin kind of character, bearing the brunt of the issue of lycanthropy alone. But something in me was ticking, kicking around, shouting loudly. I was teaching Ethics. There was no way I was throwing away this chance (this shot, for those Hamilton lovers), to use the class as a place to talk about the issue of lycanthropic rights. So I built my class around talking about the rights of non-humans and started talking about lycanthropy, about the rights of those infected. I let the students talk about their feelings. I asked them what their ethics said. I even gave them homework.

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Hand-written student essays for Magical Ethics II

And it was hard. It was so hard to listen to a conversation about the rights of people to be free, to live, in a society. It was hard to hear a discussion whose parallels to issues in the queer community were so startlingly clear. The issue of lycanthropy being infectious and segregating the population based on that echoed eerily to the issue of AIDS in the 80’s and the bigotry aimed at those infected with HIV. The question of segregation, registration, sterilization, and finally annihilation all ended up discussed. All the while I sat back to let the student players discuss, and argue, and only pushed the conversation along where needed. But inside my chest there was that little voice, pushing against the confines of my character, urging me on. Play this to the hilt, it said, and see where it goes.

I probably would have balked at pushing the storyline too far. Realistically, it was becoming emotionally hard to push those buttons, to hear people speak about bigotry so openly and not want to shout. But I was playing a professor, and restraint was needed. I probably would have gone easy on myself, focused more on other plot… if not for another player who was caught up in the Lycan story arch too. Their name was Jaiden in character and they were a Lycan student, who was forcibly outed and targeted by other students as subject of a non-consensual medical experiment. Several students believed they could cure lycanthropy and wanted a test subject. They wanted to try it on Jaiden.

It’s important to note here that this plotline, though dealing with non-consensual medical testing on a person in character, was consensually agreed upon by the players involved. Everyone was on board and even excited to tackle such a difficult storyline and see where it went. And I was front row. Jaiden’s plight drove Thessaly Kane, a werewolf in hiding, into action. Where she might have stayed hidden otherwise a while longer, Professor Kane wouldn’t let Jaiden be outed alone. She wouldn’t let her stand alone against whatever happened. It lit a fire inside her that she’d long since thought gone, one that was driving me crazy as a player too. She knew she could be arrested or killed. But that old saying from 1776 bounced around inside my head: give me liberty, or give me death.

Yet all the while I was terrified. I was afraid that in character the storyline would go dark. That in the end, bigotry would win out. Jaiden or Thessaly would be killed. The vampire characters also in hiding would be hurt. That their fellow students and faculty would turn against them. That darkness, even in a magical world, would win. I stared into that liminal space, into the space that led back to all that hurt and rage from the real world, back to the 12th and everything it had brought up in me, and I silently said a prayer for a happy ending.

And for once, the LARP gods were kind. Because a happy ending is what we got.

When Jaiden was outed, I watched their entire house rally around them. Voices rose up: “If you want them, you have to go thru me.” When I stood in front of a Marshall to defend another Lycan they’d come to kill, I looked around and found nearly three dozen students standing around me. One by one they stood beside me, around me, and we said that the Marshall would have to go through all of us. We recited our names, and said they’d have to kill us first.

Little cracks in my heart started to heal.

I saw players and characters struggle with but ultimately embrace using a neutral pronoun all weekend. I saw players defending one another when bigotry about class (Unsoiled heritage versus Mundane born) was an issue. I saw students in my Magical Ethics class change their minds about their accepted conservative views and start talking with others. I saw them challenge one another, stand up for each other, fight against bad actions that would hurt others. Stand up for their convictions. I saw people stand up.

And I thought about Luis Vielma, the 22-year-old  who lost his life at Pulse that night. He worked at Universal Studios Orlando on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. He was a Gryffindor, and by all accounts a wonderful, sweet nerd. He lost his life that night at Pulse for being out enjoying music with his friends. He loved Harry Potter. And I wondered what he might have thought about a weekend with wand-waving on a college campus.

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Luis Vielma, 22. May his memory be held high.

I thought about the tribute given him by his co-workers and park attendees who stood, wands upraised, as Universal Studios shut down the ride to commemorate their loss. In the shadow of Hogwarts castle, people celebrated the life of a young man who was gone too soon.

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The tribute at Universal Studios Orlando. Photo by: USAToday.com

Sometimes, our tributes come where they can. Sometimes they live inside the magical spaces we create. Sometimes, they’re enough to give us a little solace for the nightmares we experience in the real world. And sometimes, they provide a catharsis you didn’t expect, plan, or even understand you needed. In my fellow players, I found the solace I needed to remember that light in dark places exists once more.

*********

On the last night, thanks to a loophole in the school’s rules, the faculty was able to push through a law that allowed Lycans, vampires, and even chupacabras to study and teach at New World Magischola. It was the culmination of two and a half days of facing down bigotry, of keeping quiet and living in-character in fear. Of that little rabbit inside my chest kicking every time I heard something said that was bigoted. Of living in the closet again.

As I stood up out of my wheelchair to step behind the podium at the school ball and make the announcement, my hands were shaking. I looked out on the faces of students and told them that those hiding would be able to come out and study in safety and peace. I outed myself as a Lycan in front of the whole school, and said that though the fight wasn’t over, not by far, in New World Magischola we had carved a place of safety.

And the cheering was so deafening, so joyous, I nearly broke down crying right there.

Because in that moment, we did carve out a space of acceptance. We said that in our fictional worlds, at least, we could make a beautiful moment happen and celebrate the right for those who were locked away to come out in safety. To be who they were and have the same chances. To be open with their friends and colleagues. To have a home. In our tiny fictional space, we made light out of darkness. And that liminal space between “created equal” and “life” seemed to close, if only for a little while.

The night ended for me in a shouting match with one of the other professors, one who believed Lycans were dangerous and should not be equal. If the conversation had happened earlier in the game, I think I would have been cowed in character, afraid to move forward, afraid of being found out. Instead, Professor Thessaly Kane raised her chin, looked her opponent in the eye, and told him that she was his equal, and always had been. That theirs was a world forever changed, and if he wanted to stand against everyone and the forces of history, that was his choice. But that the time for his bigotry had passed and she would never stand aside for him or anyone else anymore. His time, she said, was over.

And when I turned away, head high, I could not stop smiling.

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*********

I’ve been home for over twenty-four hours now. I’ve come back to my messy room, my pile of work. I’ve come back to Facebook fights over progressive ideas and conservative ideologies. About whether or not what happened in Orlando was terrorism and governmental bi-partisanship blocking gun control laws. I’ve come back to a world where those gaps I keep thinking about in between those self-evident truths are still wide enough to be nigh-abyssal, ready to swallow whole hope if you look into them too long.

But then I look into my suitcase, still yet unpacked, and see the essays written for me by students in my Ethics classes (of course I gave them homework, what kind of professor wouldn’t?). I read these hastily scrawled essays about the ethics of bigotry against lycanthropes and what each student would do, if they had the power, to change the world. And I think about that moment at the Ball, and realize that for a little while, in a fictional place that only lives for a few hundred people pretending to be wizards, we did.

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Epic post-larp bedhead

2 Comments

  1. I am sitting here, at work, reading this when I shouldn’t be, trying to hide the fact I am crying like a fool. I, too, am queer and often feel completely overwhelmed when I hear about things like what happened in Orlando. They’re so distant to me, yet so close, and I feel unable to handle or deal with my feelings on the situation. I couldn’t even cry.

    Then, like you, I went to New World Magischola. I learned more in those days than I think I have in a long time, about the wrong and right things to do when it comes to handling these kinds of situations. About how this generation is fighting back, harder than ever, to make the world equal. How I almost cried when an entire room of people stood up for one outed person, daring the world to take them on as well. Equals.

    Sure, there were outliers, and there always will be. But one of the things I said about why I missed Magischola so dearly was because it felt like I had the chance to actually make a difference. By playing my character as open about her species as a Loup-Garou, I realized that one by one, I gave other players, and therefore characters, support to be open, too, until they felt safe and did so. Maybe I can’t change the world, but I can change something smaller, and many small things make something big.

    Thank you for this article, for playing beside me, and putting to words something I’m not sure I could have.

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