I’ve been openly queer for about as long as I’ve been a larper. After my first trembling steps on the Swedish sandbox fantasy scene back in 2004, I was hooked, and have played about a hundred larps since then. And like many larpers, I enjoy historical larps. Still, I often struggle with the feeling that historical larps aren’t really made for people like me.
There are a few reasons why. One approach to historical larping is a conservative perspective on history where the focus is on “male narratives” and Great Men of Power. It is the larps about soldiers, kings, and politicians, often told in a way where women are simply not present at all. These larps were a staple of my first decade as a larper, and many of my first feminist battles on the larp scene was about whether female players could be kings and soldiers too.
Another approach is larps with a women’s history perspective, where designers chose to keep the narrow gender roles and sexist fiction, but focus on “female narratives” centered around private matters, marriage, and housekeeping. Both of these uses of history tend to make me, a queer female player, feel deeply alienated, because people like me rarely exists in either of them. In this essay, I make an attempt to explore how it affects players like me and why that is actually a problem. Both because it is problematic larp design, and because it is a problematic use of history.
Part One: Were There Any Women in History?
The first thing we need to remember is that there is no neutral history. If this thought is new to you and you want to explore it in more depth, check out this great article by Mo Holkar about class and gender representation, which includes a toolbox for how to do it in historical larp. A quick summary is that everything we know about history is filtered through the views of the people who wrote the sources, and more often than not they were people of power, focusing on what they themselves found meaningful to tell about.
But this is also true for historians: what aspects of history that get the focus in research, what you learn in school, watch in fictionalised forms on Netflix, or that is considered important is also heavily biased from the perspective of the people who made that research, those textbooks, or movie scripts. Thus, even when we just try to get a brief overview of a historical subject through some hits on Google, a high school textbook, or a Wikipedia overview, we will probably get a pretty conservative version of history, filtered through the lens of men in power. And this has bigger consequences than you might be aware of at first sight.
In her feminist classic The Second Sex from 1949, Simone de Beauvoir argues that the core of the female experience is that of being percieved as the Other in relation to men. Man is the norm, Woman the exception. As most of us are probably aware, gender roles are arbitrary and change with time and culture, and thus answering the question of what it essentially means to be a Woman is almost impossible. According to Beauvoir, Woman is a socially constructed role — you aren’t born a woman, you become one — and what defines this role is largely that she is not a man.
What this means is that we as a culture have a tendency to assume that women are whatever men are not. If men are brain, women are body. If men are professional, women are private. If men are violent, women are nurturing and so on. This tendency is also commonly seen in history books as well as in daily conversations and Wikipedia articles, where men are more likely to be described by professional roles (king, soldier, professor, author, farmer, shoemaker, doctor, priest) while women get defined through their private relationships to men (wife, daughter, mother, sister, spinster, courtesan, mistress). Thus it can sometimes be easy to read a history book and think that there simply were no women involved in economy, technology, or the political conflicts of the past. And if we make larps about women historically, it must be something different than making historical larps about men.
This is not necessarily true. In her book Mother of Inventions (2021), Kathrine Marcal explores how this othering of women has the consequence that many great ideas are overlooked because we live in a sexist society that gives men more credit than women, and generally considers men’s achievements more important to tell about than women’s. Female inventors, working women, women’s ideas and needs get overlooked because of the male hegemony in our society, where being a woman must be something different, and less interesting, than being a human.
I believe that if we reproduce the idea that women simply did not do anything of historical importance, we buy into this sexist myth. The natural counter-argument is of course that “women were more oppressed a few hundred years ago, so unfortunately they didn’t have as much agency as men did,” but it is not like this focus on men is absent in today’s society. I can simply look back at experiences from my own youth as a larping woman. I have seen many competent women being credited as “helpers” after doing just as much work as the male “organisers” of larps. I have also met many female larpers being introduced as someone’s girlfriend, while male larpers who just happen to be in a relationship with a larping woman for some reason still get to be defined with their name or what larps they are associated with. Since we are in fact aware that women exist and do creative work in the larp scene today despite these sexist patterns, is it really so hard to imagine the same about women in the past?
Another important point that Marcal makes is how our tendency to take arbitrary character traits and assign them the label feminine hurts everyone. Her book is full of examples of men being forced to prove that they are real men by e.g. carrying their suitcases instead of rolling them, or driving loud and dirty petrol cars instead of silent and clean electric ones, as the latter were considered feminine. Treating women’s experiences as something inherently different and separate from men’s experiences also forces men to distance themselves from a big part of what it means to be human. By this logic, we can consider e.g. romance plots or an interest in fashion and costuming girly, despite the fact that all men wear clothes and all heterosexual love stories contain at least one man.
Changing the Perspective
Conservative history, with its focus on white men of power, has been challenged throughout the 20th century in academia as well as outside of it. Women’s history draws attention to different roles women have played throughout the times and focuses on female narratives; people’s history focuses on the ordinary people instead of the upper classes; queer theory deconstructs ideas of gender and sexuality; and postcolonial history switches the perspective from the colonisers to the colonised. The above mentioned article by Mo Holkar gives plenty of examples of larps in this tradition, re-telling historical events from the perspectives of women or the working class. I am borrowing terminology and ideas from all of these fields, even though my primary focus in this article is my perspective as a queer woman.
But re-writing history with the Other as the protagonist comes with its own challenges. Part of why Othering is such a powerful oppression strategy is because it allows dominant groups to clump all people who do not fit the norm together into the marginalised position of the Other, and define them by what they are not instead of what they are. As we try to switch the perspective and tell the story of the Other, a common trap is to still treat them as the homogenous group they never were, keeping the variations within the group invisible. And so we get stories about upper class women to challenge those about upper class men, or stories about colonised political leaders challenging the colonisers.
It is easy to say that we should be aware that there were other people in history than heterosexual white men of power. It is also easy to describe someone as non-male, non-white, non-rich, and non-heterosexual. Unfortunately, a larp character described like that will also be non-playable, as there is nothing in there explaining how they would independently view themself. In Marxist and post-colonial theory, these people are known as subaltern – people excluded from the hierarchy of power and institutions of society, denied agency and their own voices.
In her 1985 article Can the Subaltern Speak?, Gayatri Spivak challenges the idea that it is even possible to re-write history from a subaltern perspective. Despite our best attempts to understand what life was like for marginalised people throughout history, we can not know for certain. Their voices are absent from most of the historical source material, and our stories about them, if they even exist, are filtered through the perspectives of people with power.
The tragedy of the lost subaltern voices struck me pretty hard at a recent larp, Snapphaneland (Göthberg, Elofsson Edgar & Lundqvist 2022), which was set in a village during the 1660s Scanian War. My character, Stine, had multiple marginalised identities, all of which were understood through these negative definitions. A middle-age unmarried housemaid, she did not have any family or home of her own. The female gender role was defined through being a wife and mother, which left Stine as somewhat of a non-woman. She was non-heterosexual – not interested in relationships with men, and did not have a strong sense of national identity, thus being both a non-Dane and a non-Swede in the political conflict between the countries. And while I admit she was a hard character to play, I am also not sure I can blame the organisers for this. There must have been plenty of people like Stine in Skåne in the 1600s, excluded from most of the institutions of society. And their voices are lost to us. Maybe the most fair thing I can do to do them justice is to admit that I have no idea how they thought about themselves and their lives? I can guess, but I actually have no idea.
Part Two: Collective Memory and the Danger of the Single Story
The year is 2003 and I, a baby queer, often go to the public library after school. I am 13 and LGBTQIA-representation in mainstream media is not a thing, but I have learnt how to search for tags in the library catalogue. I read every single young adult book tagged with homosexuality. Almost all of them center around the fear of coming out, getting socially ostracized, harassed, or abused. As a young teenager, my Single Story about queerness is that it is very, very difficult.
The Danger of the Single Story is a phrase by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from her 2009 TED Talk. Adichie says that human lives and cultures are made up from a multitude of stories, and that when we only get to hear one of them, we easily reduce people into stereotypes. She argues that the problem with the Single Story is not that it is incorrect (queer people sure are more likely to be subjected to violence, and women sure have less power than men in a patriarchy), but that it is incomplete. When we reduce the many stories of a person or a group into a Single Story, it strips them of their dignity and their right to be seen as full human beings. The Single Story focuses on differences, making it harder to relate to other people as humans like ourselves. An effective way to oppress subaltern people is to tell a single story about them, and make that the only story.
In my first decade or so of larping, queerness is generally not present at all. And when it is, it is usually through variations on the same single story. Queer equals gay, and it is off-game to be gay, because gay people didn’t exist in the Old Days. Sexuality is all about making babies, so of course homosexuality doesn’t exist. Or, we want to make this fictional culture a bit more evil and gritty, so let’s add a death penalty on being gay. You can play gay anyway, of course, but if anyone finds out you will be ostracized, harassed, and abused.
In 2012, two of my heterosexual friends have just fallen in love and play a couple in the larps we attend. Me and my girlfriend never get to play a couple. Because of these homophobic larp fictions, we chose to play straight characters. After one larp I write a blog post about the amount of microaggressions I’ve felt forced to play the entire larp, because in this kind of setting, it is a matter of life and death to prove that one is not homosexual, and how this has affected me as a queer player. The blog post causes a 250 posts long thread on the larp campaign’s Facebook page, most being aggressive comments directed towards me. The most baffling criticism is the way too common “all larps can’t suit your personal taste, Anneli.” At that time, I have still never gotten to play a queer story without the violent oppression narrative. The Single Story about queerness hides the multitude of other possible queer stories we could tell instead.
“But, maybe,” you think, “This has nothing to do with contemporary homophobia. That is just how it was historically. Organisers can’t be blamed for writing sexist and homophobic narratives into the fiction when history was in fact sexist and homophobic.”
Well actually, no. As queer activist and historian Samuel Sjöberg (2019) has shown, the attitudes to LGBTQIA people throughout Swedish history are much more complex. The stories about abuse and oppression are there, and I know that there are players who enjoy them, but they should not be treated as the single story.
In recent years more larps focus on queer people in historical settings, a development I love that gives us more opportunities to play a multitude of stories. Some examples are Häxorna på Ästad Gård (Edman 2016) and Vedergällningen (Edman 2019), Oss Imellom (Hatlestrand & Edland 2015), Cabaret (Arvidsson, Fladvad, Sandrén & Waern 2014) and Violetas (NotOnlyLarp 2022). Still, these don’t seem to be considered “mainstream” historical larps. Still, queer history is something different from human history, just like women’s experiences are still considered something different than human experiences.
And in actual fact, this has everything to do with contemporary homophobia. As French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs argues, our collective memories about history are actually not about the past but about ourselves. We use history not to remember any random past, but to form group identities (on a macro level like national or class identities, but also on a micro level by identifying with e.g., a subculture or a family) based on a shared history.
Kaisa Kangas makes a similar point about larping other cultures in her talk Experimental Anthropology. These games do not give us the experience to live in another culture, just like historical larps does not teach us about the actual past. But through juxtaposition, they can give interesting new perspectives on ourselves and our own culture, what we are and what we are not.
When we are aware that history has the function of building group identities, what we choose to remember and to forget, whom to include and exclude, is a highly political choice.
I think this is probably why the fact that I can rarely play queer female characters with relateable plot lines in historical larps affects me so strongly. It doesn’t only say that people like myself did not exist in history (which they did), but also that our contemporary understanding of meaningful stories and our shared group identity as historical larpers does not include people like me. And that is why I so often feel like the Other, or frankly like an alien, after historical larps.
Part Three: We Were Always Here
So, what is there to win when we do historical larps without diminishing women and erasing queers? The time has come for me to address Just a Little Lovin’.
In his article Play the Gay Away – Confessions of a Queer Larper, Eric Winther Paisley describes the strong experience of playing Just a Little Lovin’ (Groth, Jacobsen, Edland & Grasmo, 2015). By putting gayness in the foreground, he describes how the game instead allowed him to play around with other aspects of his queerness, creating challenging, deep and emotionally fulfilling experiences. I was at the same run of JaLL 2015, and for me it was a transformative and mind-blowing experience.
By centering LGBTQ-narratives and offering a multitude of ways to portray them, Just a Little Lovin’ was the first larp that allowed me to play a character that was queer in a similar way to how I myself am queer. I have played it twice, both times as bisexual polyamorous women in the Saratoga friend group, and it has given me the chance to explore aspects of my own queerness that I’ve never seen anything even close to depicting in other larps. These larps have created a sense of belonging and strong positive feelings in me, something along the lines of relief, validation, and empowerment. This is not the article for delving deeper into how these can be achieved, but I recommend Jonaya Kemper’s works on emancipatory bleed, The Battle of Primrose Park and Wyrding the Self, as they are really interesting and useful further reading.
I think part of what makes Just a Little Lovin’ such an important game for many queer players is that it is a historical larp that offers us to be part of that collective memory. On the surface, JaLL is a story about the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1980s New York, but in reality, it is a story about the queer community. For players like myself, and many others I have spoken with in the growing group of alumni, it offers us a sense of belonging by placing our current lives and identities in the context of a queer community and a queer history. It tells a story that takes place a decade before I was born, yet it feels like a story about people just like me. The result is magical.
When players with marginalised identities are offered a place to exist within the historical larp setting, we get reminded that people like us have actually always existed. And this is not just about painting a truer picture of history by distancing ourselves from the limiting perspective of men of power, but about allowing our identities and our stories to be included in the universal experience of being human.
Conclusion: Let Go of the Conservative Narratives
Historian Howard Zinn (Holkar 2017) writes that when we see the history of any country presented as the history of a select privileged few, it conceals fierce conflicts of interest between the people with power and the people without it. These can be executioners and victims; masters and slaves; capitalists and workers; dominators and dominated in race and sex. Zinn argues, in the words of Albert Camus, that in such a world it is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.
One of the beauties of larp is that we can embody a character and see the world through their eyes for a short time. But that makes it even more important to consider whose eyes we chose to view the world from; whose narrative we reproduce when we make historical larps; and what parts we chose to erase. I believe that when we reproduce conservative uses of history in larps in which men of power are the obvious protagonists; women are tied to the home and children; queer people and people of colour either don’t exist at all or are reduced to the Single Story of being the oppressed Other; we risk ending up on that wrong side.
I have tried to show you that just because women and queer people have been silenced throughout history, it doesn’t mean that we never existed or did anything worth remembering. But more importantly, I have tried to show you the importance of representation and why it matters, to avoid the dehumanising and one-dimensional Single Stories.
I love historical larps, and I wish more players like me got to enjoy more of them without feeling alien or erased afterwards. And of course I do not speak for all women or queer larpers, but I have had that conversation with many more people after larps than anyone should be comfortable with. When we make historical larps we shape our collective memories of the past. We chose what is important and not, whom to include and exclude, and what stories to treat as universally human instead of Other. And these are highly political choices that have very real consequences.
de Beauvoir, Simone. 1972 . The Second Sex. Trans. H. M. Parshley. Penguin.
Holkar, Mo. 2017. History, Herstory and Theirstory: Representation of Gender and Class in Larps with a Historical Setting. In Once Upon a Nordic Larp… Twenty Years of Playing Stories, edited by Martine Svanevik, Linn Carin Andreassen, Simon Brind, Elin Nilsen, and Grethe Sofie Bulterud Strand, 161-166. Oslo, Norway: Knutepunkt.
Kangas, Kaisa. 2015. Experimental Anthropology. Nordic Larp Talks. February 12.
Kemper, Jonaya. 2017. The Battle of Primrose Park – Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity. Nordiclarp.org, June 21.
Kemper, Jonaya. 2020. Wyrding the Self. Nordiclarp.org, May 18.
Marçal, Katherine. 2021. Mother of Inventions: How Good Ideas Get Ignored in an Economy Built for Men. William Collins.
Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda. 2009. The Danger of a Single Story. TED. YouTube, October 7.
Paisley, Eric Winther. 2016. Play the Gay Away – Confessions of a Queer Larper. Nordiclarp.org, April 15.
Sjöberg, Samuel. 2019. Att Queerläsa Historia. Lecture at Prolog, February 26, 2019.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1988. Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, 271-313. Macmillan Education: Basingstroke.
Snapphaneland. 2022. Mimmi Lundqvist, Alma Elofsson Edgar & Rosalind Göthberg.
Häxorna på Ästad gård. 2016. Karin Edman aka WonderKarin.
Vedergällningen. 2019. Karin Edman aka WonderKarin.
Oss Imellom. 2015. Tor Kjetil Edland and Fredrik Hatlestrand.
Cabaret. 2014. Siri Arvidsson, Staffan Fladvad, Alexis Sandrén and Annika Waern.
Violetas. 2022. NotOnlyLarp
Just a Little Lovin’. 2015. Written by Tor Kjetil Edland and Hanne Grasmo. Produced by Anna Groth and Fleming Jacobsen, 2015.
Cover photo: Photo by squarefrog on Pixabay. Image has been cropped.