Being Transgender and Playing Magic: the Gathering: An Interview with Emma Handy
Following her article on Being a Trans Woman in Competitive Magic, Emma Handy kindly agreed to be interviewed by Manaleak. We (Jason Coles and Katie Roberts) jumped at the opportunity to speak with her – it was a unique chance to better understand some of Emma’s experiences and advice for other Magic: the Gathering players. So, one Sunday afternoon, we double-checked the time difference between EST and GMT, grabbed our notebooks and fired up Skype to chat with Emma about all things Magic.
Q1. Manaleak: Thank you for writing your recent article, it was interesting and very important for male Magic players to read. We wondered what your main motivation was for writing your article?
Emma: I feel like I have a unique perspective on the subject; I haven’t been hugely successful in tournaments but have been blessed with a great platform from which to share my views. I am not up there with the tournament stars, but I am a Magic personality and can play at a competitive level. I wrote this article because I want to show that although I write for one of the biggest Magic websites, I still have to deal with these things. People have collected data on the experiences of Magic players in order to track diversity. However, this is skewed towards those who haven’t experienced it – people who experience prejudice are more likely to quit the game before taking part in surveys like these.
Q2. Manaleak: You mention a lot of ways that men and women experience MTG differently due to prejudices within the community. What do you think is the biggest way that being a trans woman has influenced your experience of the game?
Emma: The biggest factor is the Mantle effect. This is a feeling experienced by people who come from a small demographic, and makes you feel that whatever you do (such as winning or losing games of Magic) will have a large impact on your demographic. A white male playing in a feature match will be one of many, many white men doing the same. When I play in a feature match, people will think “oh, the only chick who played lost”, and this might make them think that women are bad at Magic: the Gathering. I have had people say to me “you’re good, for a girl”, which is not a compliment. In one tournament, I was playing against this guy running a Griselbrand deck; I flashed in a Snapcaster Mage and started attacking with it. He was like “I have never seen a girl make a play like that!” Women in the booth being treated as “token women” also does not help.
Q3. Manaleak: Are there any differences in the challenges faced by cis and trans women within Magic: the Gathering?
Emma: A lot of the differences are societal. For a while, I didn’t go to GPs because they couldn’t cash a cheque in my name. People have advocated a lot for things like this to be changed. You run into a lot of problems like this in Magic. One difference is that because I started playing Magic while presenting as a male and did reasonably well, I never had to learn Magic as a woman. I never had to find a friendship group in a game dominated by men as a female. Cis women, or other trans women, will have to deal with this. Cis women tend to get propositioned more by men, so being a trans woman can be an upside here!
Q4. Manaleak: You mentioned loads of experiences of inequality in your article; have you ever experienced negativity based on your gender that has been initiated by another woman?
Emma: I have had one or two negative experiences from other women. One woman did not realise I was trans, and said something unwholesome about trans women. I just removed myself from the situation. The incidents I mentioned in my article (such as having stones thrown at me) were isolated incidents; most Magic players are great. It only takes one bad apple to ruin an experience. I think incidents like these happen more often to people who have transitioned male-to-female than the other way around, because male-to-female transitioning is more common in Magic communities. However, people who transitioned male-to-female are likely to be taller than people who transitioned from female-to-male; I am fairly large for a woman so can be a bit imposing. It is harder to be imposing when you are small.
Q5. Manaleak: How much of the difficulty of being a trans woman in Magic is due to these isolated aggressive acts, and how much of it is due to the inherent biases that cause people to say things like “you’re good at Magic for a girl”?
Emma: Social aspects can be hard as a trans woman, it can be harder to travel as a trans woman. I once travelled to a tournament with a couple of people who called things “gay” a lot and were not receptive to changing their tone; I did not travel with them again. It is harder for women to break into the game, and this effect reinforces itself. If there aren’t high-level female players in the 90s, who do players in the early 2000’s go to for guidance? If there aren’t strong female players in the early 2000s, who do people in the late 2000s go to? I am one of the better female players, but still not good enough to go to the Pro Tour. The cycle continues…
“Try to befriend good people”
Q6. Manaleak: What is the main piece of advice that you would have for another trans woman struggling with gender being a barrier within Magic: the Gathering?
Emma: Play Magic online! I didn’t get Magic Online until last December, but it really helped with my technical play. It’s hard as a trans woman, you feel like there is a magnifying glass on you all the time. But if you are reasonable at Magic, people will start listening to you. However, if the gender barrier is a social one, it can be difficult. Try to befriend good people.
Q7. Manaleak: Going back for a second to the ‘Mantle Effect’* – the feeling that your performance influences the perception of female players, what advice would you give to somebody experiencing this?
Emma: Focus on the game. I struggle with this a lot, and if anyone has a catch-all answer for this, I would love to hear it. It’s very similar to impostor syndrome and there is no easy way to fix it.
*In her recent article, Emma attributes the term ‘Mantle Effect’ to The Girlfriend Bracket
Manaleak: Is the answer to just stop caring what people think?
Emma: Exactly. You have to decide if you care at all what people think of you, and push it to the back of your mind. I have been blessed with a platform to speak, and wonderful people who care for and support me, which helps.
Q8. Manaleak: What do you think Wizards of the Coast could do to encourage women, and stop players from being s****y to each other?
Emma: I wish there was a way to enact a zero tolerance policy within local game stores. Like, if you could submit proof that a local game store condones bad behaviour, they lose their sanctioning and no longer get to represent Wizards of the Coast. But I am obviously very passionate about this, and biased. It is hard to report it. There’s one store that I won’t go to anymore; players intentionally mis-gendered me, and when I told the store owner he just raised his eyebrows at me. I just thought “have a nice day, I’m going elsewhere!”
Q9. Manaleak: What can male Magic players do to improve things?
Emma: Don’t just stand by. Tell people that discriminatory behaviour is not cool. A lot of the issue is that minorities in Magic are viewed as a class to be protected, so people don’t talk about things around them for fear that they would get offended. But you shouldn’t be saying offensive things in public at all.
Q10. Manaleak: What is your favourite thing about the Magic: the Gathering community?
Emma: The people. I met my roommates and my significant other through Magic. I can travel, I am social because of Magic, and would not be here if not for the people I have met. The person that I am is constructed by the experiences that Magic has given to me.
Q11. Manaleak: What is your favourite format?
Emma: Sanctioned or not sanctioned?
Manaleak: How about one from each?
Emma: For sanctioned, Legacy. Modern is my favourite to watch, but the games can be polarised. For non-sanctioned, mental Magic is my favourite. [Katie laughs and says she is terrible at this because she can’t remember card names well, Jason asks what mental Magic involves]. In mental Magic, you play with a stack of random cards, face down. You can play any card face down as a land. If you draw a card that costs two generic mana and one green mana, you can play it as any spell that has this mana cost except for the actual spell that you drew.
Manaleak (Jason): I’ll have to introduce this to my store!
Emma: I strongly recommend applying the Legacy banned list.
Q12. Manaleak: Green, blue, red, black or white?
Emma: Probably Green. [Katie nearly falls off her chair bouncing in happiness.] I like Blue-Green the best.
Q13. Manaleak: We noticed that you have started coaching in MTG recently, and think that’s so cool! How did it start, and how’s it going?
Emma: Someone approached me about it! I had never done this before, but it’s working out very well. I have three steady students and a few more every few weeks. I love teaching, I think I have the mind for conveying ideas, so coaching is great. But my main goal is to work in coverage.
Manaleak: That was going to be our next question, your future goals for Magic!
Emma: Yeah, I would love to end up in the booth, calling or casting matches, but it’s difficult to get your foot in the door! There’s only a couple of companies doing it right now.
Q14. Manaleak: You write a lot of great articles, do you have advice for anyone wanting to write?
Emma: Write as much as you can, and write for free, wherever you get a platform. I have never topped a Pro Tour or cashed a GP, but my pedestal comes from knowing how to market, and how to reach people. You can start a blog – I started off publishing my own stuff on Tumblr. You just have to start. An editor will not pick you up unless you are reliable, and if you have a blog spot, this is pretty reliable! Also, writing just makes you better at writing! You learn how to make ideas flow.
Manaleak: Well, good luck with everything, it’s been great chatting to you! Thank you so much for your time, it is highly appreciated.
Emma: Thank you both too, it’s been great!
From Emma’s bubbly yet frank discussion, we learned a lot about the Magic community from the perspective of a transgender woman and how gender can shape our experience of the game. As a community we should be aware of intentional and unintentional discriminatory behaviour directed at Magic players because of their gender, or any other factor such as age, race, or disability, and educate people who propagate discrimination. Building stronger, more accepting communities will generate greater diversity, and may lead to more people enjoying this excellent game that we share.
Good luck to Emma with the Magic coaching and goals to get into coverage!
You can find Emma Handy’s Facebook page here.
Thank you for reading,
Emma, Katie, and Jason