I’m Rachel (she/they), an ace and genderqueer book nerd. I’m a librarian by education, working for a library software company. In my free time, I read and talk about books, including co-hosting a Tolkien podcast (@toreadtolkien), and I watch lots of sports. You can find me on Twitter over at @sir_rachel!
How long have you been playing D&D? What has your experience in the TTRPG world been like?
I’m a bit of a latecomer to D&D. It’s something I’ve always known I’d enjoy, but it wasn’t until four years ago that I started playing regularly with a group of friends.
The group members have shifted slightly, but I’m now in my fourth campaign with the same DM. That’s been a lot of fun, since the more we play together, the more both DM and player are able to develop a rapport that makes for a better adventure. We also all love frustrating our DM by continually refusing to actually get on with the plot.
You identify as ace and gender-wobbly. Have roleplaying games helped you explore or express your queer identity?
D&D has been a fun way to “play” with gender. My relationship with gender has always been tentative at best, especially in terms of outward presentation. I’m still not certain whether I identify as nonbinary or agender, or just some variety of genderqueer. How I feel about gender is continually evolving, so I love getting to pick up different genders and put them on for a while in a fictional world. Of the four main campaigns I’ve played to date, two of my characters have been female and two have been male. Each of these characters has let me showcase a bit of a different side of me, both in terms of gender and in terms of personality. I can’t always change how people perceive me in reality, but I can definitely spend a few hours being a burly dwarf or a half-orc with a personality that is basically just Geralt of Rivia. Or I can go the other direction, playing a human noble, presenting extremely feminine for a while. Each character fits a bit differently, but they all contain a piece of me.
We’ve also made sure the campaigns are a safe space, and there’s no pressure or emphasis placed on sexual or romantic relationships. It’s entirely up to the players, and in general our campaigns have had very little to that effect (we’re usually too busy shopping, refusing to get on with the plot, or taking way too long to solve puzzles). So often we can be bombarded with sexual content in the media, and it’s nice to have a space where I don’t have to focus on my asexuality.
You are one of the co-hosts of So You Want to Read Tolkien. Lord of the Rings is my most enduring fandom, so I was really excited to jump into your podcast. Did this project shape your opinions of LotR in any way? Did you learn anything as a result of digging into the books with your co-hosts?
Yes! I got into Lord of the Rings when I was young, reading the books right before the movies came out. Lord of the Rings has been a huge part of my life for, well, a very long time, but I hadn’t fully reread the books until we started the podcast.
This was a hugely different reading experience for a number of reasons. The first is that we started out reading The Silmarillion, which I had never read before. While bits of it can be a slog, I’m so glad to have read it. There’s so much cool lore, and so many interesting stories tucked in there! It also then becomes fun getting to play “spot the reference” when reading the other books.
The other fascinating part was how different the experience was reading at a slow pace, only one or two chapters a week. Most of us know that Tolkien’s pacing is a bit (ahem) adventurous, and he loves talking about geography way too much. This can be hard to appreciate when reading the books at a faster pace, and it’s easy to skim through those sections. Getting to slow down and focus on those sections was wonderful, because there are some very beautiful passages that I’d otherwise not have appreciated.
Do you have any queer thoughts or headcanons about Lord of the Rings?
Legolas and Gimli were definitely the first couple I ever shipped, before I even realized that’s what I was doing. That said, my co-host Caitlin on So You Want to Read Tolkien brought Aragorn/Frodo to my attention. While it’s still not my preferred ship, I have to admit, there are some pretty great lines toward that effect.
Also, we already knew this, but jeez does Tolkien not know how to write women.
Rachel, you have also been participating in Project Shakespeare. I see pictures of your group on Twitter, but I don’t actually know much about it! Can you tell me a little about the project, and in particular, whether costuming yourself as various characters has helped you explore your gender?
Project Shakespeare is the wonderful brainchild of Abby and Rachel. At the start of lockdown, Abby had the idea to do a readthrough of Shakespeare on Zoom. Each Saturday night, a group of us would meet and read a play. We did almost all of his plays (twice!), which of course means some masterpieces and some… uh… weird ones.
I’ve always loved wearing costumes, so of course I showed up to my first play (The Tempest, where I played Sebastian) with a drawn-on villain mustache. Most of us are either women or non-binary, so naturally we had to play characters of all genders. From a theatrical perspective, this was fun because it meant getting to play roles that we wouldn’t normally ever be cast on stage (or would only be cast in an intentionally gender-diverse production). While I appreciate gender-diverse productions, there was something special about getting to play male characters as male.
I got to draw on beards and wear suits and ties; I bought my first binder. I played villains and ghosts; I died a lot of times and used a lot of stage blood. I got to play some of Shaksepeare’s most iconic leading men: Prince Hal/Henry V, Julius Caesar, Richard II, Coriolanus. I felt my most powerful playing some of these roles and getting to inhabit their masculinity (well, we could have an argument about Richard II here, but that’d take several thousand words).
But at the same time, I also played some of my favorite female roles. It had long been a dream of mine to play Lady Macbeth and one of the witches, and I got to check both of those off the bucket list. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and played one of Shakespeare’s most overtly feminine characters, Ophelia. I wore my prettiest dress and wore a flower in my hair. After spending so much time embodying Shakespeare’s male characters, it was a reminder that “Oh, this is me too.”
More than anything, getting to explore gender by way of so many characters helped me embrace being outside of the binary, both in my head and how I present myself.
What nerdy interests are you most excited about right now?
I’ve gotten into playing video games over the past several years, and let me just say how wonderful it is to have so many opportunities to choose the PC’s gender, and how many games let you romance queer ships. I’m working my way through Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey right now, and the only character choice I’ve made for my Kassandra is that she’s a huge lesbian. Also gotta give a shoutout to Zagreus and Thanatos in Hades!
Do you have any recommendations of queer nerdy content that you would like people to know about?
- She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan: queer historical fantasy I absolutely loved.
- Books by E.K. Johnston: I love all of E.K. Johnston’s books, but I especially want to mention her newest, Aetherbound, which is Arthurian in space, as well as The Afterward, which is a direct response to classic male fantasy. Lady knights!!!
- I also want to shout out all the queer sportswriters out there, but especially Meg Linehan of The Athletic, who does incredible and necessary reporting on women’s soccer
Thank you, Rachel!