I realize my assumption almost as soon as I type it.
“Why do you choose to wear the chair?”
I’m in Second Life, the virtual world that allows you to configure your appearance any way that you want to. I am finishing my observations of Help Island, a starting point in the game. I have seen angels and demons, hypersexualized ideals that put Barbie’s measurements to shame, and giant spiders a dozen meters across. Snoopy walked past me just before a vampire and a bear with wings. A child sat on a step, bemoaning being evicted from a nightclub with a giant cat umbrella. Throughout these observations I have been in the most plain of basic male avatars.
Nobody spoke to me. Nobody commented on the extravagant creatures all around us.
It was not until I had my avatar wear a wheelchair in-world that I started to get comments. Sometimes they were friendly. Sometimes they were teasing – though not directed at me personally.
I thought it was strange that something so mundane would gain so much more comment in-world, so I hunted down Wheelies (slurl). It is a club and resource center started in world for differently-abled individuals. The causeway up to the club is lined with informational booths and signs for all sorts of disabilities and groups working with them. Autism, blindness, deafness – you name it, it was mentioned here.
The transsexuals I’d spoken to a week or two earlier in-world did not craft themselves to appear transsexual. Instead, they crafted themselves as their ideal gender. They wore fully female or male avatars – their target gender. This was a place they could “pass” without a second glance.
But here he was, in a wheelchair. He could appear any way that he wanted to. But he was in a wheelchair.
“Identity,” he said, after a long pause.
But I’d already heard the assumptions in my own words, and realized what he meant.
In a world where nearly every deviance in appearance is meaningless, my words insisted on making his real life less.
It might seem like the horrid homophobia, ableism, and sexism that Sharon Kowalski and Karen Thompson faced is far less now than a quarter century later. It might even be.
But in my simple, “innocent” question, its echoes still persist.
(Take the time to read another reflection by someone who wears a chair in SL as well.
It’s been awhile since I’ve been in world. But back in the day my avatar was an East Indian woman, even though I’m a white male. I did this not because I identify as transsexual or anything like that, but just because I thought it would be interesting (and also because it’s much easier to dress up a female avatar than a male one). My profile plainly stated that I was a man with a female avatar, and most people were fine with that.
There was that one time, of course, when I was approached by someone who presumably read my profile, looked at my avatar, and said, “What, are you a fag or something?”
To which I replied, “Pretty big talk for a guy with a squirrel for an avatar.”
To his credit, he replied, “Touche” and went on to someone else.
For all its visionary ideals and its global interconnectedness, SL can be a depressing hive of racism and sexism and all the other -isms which infect the real world. It took me nearly two weeks to find a skin for my Indian avatar. A friend of mine couldn’t find a decent African American woman shape anywhere. But if you wanted a white Barbie, those were available by the truckload.
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