Last year, I asked my friend, Steven Pope, if he wanted to write something for Orctober on the appeal of orcs in the queer community. He wrote what you’re about to read, updated a touch for this year. The reason this didn’t happen last year was a work friend of his read it and offered to help him submit to the magazine Queery. They ultimately rejected it, and here we are, a year later with several other changes in tow. Pope’s words ring truer to me now after figuring out I was bi. Especially considering he helped it happen. We play D&D together and our characters are in a relationship. His Zakah, a homebrewed race for our DM’s setting, the Balkeshi, is big and gay and purple. Meanwhile, I was playing Gorthos as bi and polyamorous, and the two ended up getting together and it swirled around in my head enough that I finally went, “Oh.” So what started as my desire to have a perspective other than my (at the time) straight opinion, means even more now. Enjoy.
Half Orc Barbarian Queen: Queerness, D&D, and Orcs
By Steven Pope
I’m someone who spent most of his college and high school days living in a fantasy world (Hashtag Team Wasn’t Hot Until After College) and playing the game of the maladjusted and socially awkward, Dungeons & Dragons. From my early days of my nerdom, I loved Orcs. My knowledge of them is spotty, but I knew the following: I knew they were introduced as a playable race in the third edition of the game, and that they were inspired by the kinda-sorta-super-racist caricatures that Tolkien wrote about in Lord of the Rings, and that the Orc was the “always chaotic evil default bad guy” for the longest time. I know that the first playable Orc race, The Half Orc, was controversial because you were always playing a child of rape because, as stated, the orcs were the “always chaotic evil default bad guy.” They changed this later but every so often some wiseass will feel it necessary to remind me. Basically, they were a problematic mess like many things in fiction.
I’m not going to go into the psychology of why a gay man would relate to Orcs. I’ve read enough Queer Theory books to know that monsters = other = queer. I think, however, most gay men would relate to Elves, or at least the Tolkien flavored ones. Elves are pretty, elves are othered, elves are sophisticated, and they’re even called “the fair folk.” There’s a reason the term is “radical fairy,” after all. For queer men like me, however, who had a lot of self loathing, who were actually afraid of sex (embarrassing, I’ll admit) and who aren’t exactly the lithe, nimble, twink-like elf of fiction… I couldn’t relate. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t skinny enough. And to go back to Lord of the Rings, I didn’t want to be Legolas. I was (and continue to be) short and described as “harmless and cute.” I was a hobbit. I was a Hobbit who should logically relate to Elves and wasn’t sure where he belonged. But then I saw the Orcs. Orcs were proud. Orcs were loud. They were big and brawny and more similar to the men I found attractive. They owned what they were. They were what I always WANTED to be.
Orcs, to a young me, represented something more primal and angry. Less “pride parade in WeHo” and more “Stonewall Riot.” There’s a certain level of ownership in the Orc that I relate to, a certain monstrous fact that you can’t hide behind being pretty. Something ugly and punk. Orcs remind me of the fantasy equivalent of those “Not Gay As In Happy But Queer As In Fuck You” buttons I never have the nerve to wear in public. They’re the embodiment of the bull dagger, the skag drag, the leather daddy parts of being gay that aren’t all cute and ready for sitcom material. The overtly proud and overtly sexual, something that straight people get to celebrate and titter about with 50 Shades of Gray while I get notes about how I shouldn’t “bring the bedroom into it” by mentioning that, yes, I have a boyfriend. The stuff that still gets flagged on YouTube simply for existing. The stuff that was literally illegal a few years before I was born. Progressive and regressive depending on who you ask – As fun as The Discourse can be.
I lead a pretty standard life. I’m white and, as far as anyone can tell, cisgendered. I have a loving boyfriend of four years, and the relationship with my parents is okay for the most part. I have it better than a large part of the queer community. However, I’m still queer. I have to come out pretty much every day. I have to explain “that’s my boyfriend” at least once every three weeks. I have to force a smile when someone says “Oh, you don’t SEEM gay” and, for some reason, think that’s a compliment. I have people expecting me to either want to fuck them or be their sassy new best friend.
That’s why I like Orcs. That’s why I like playing them in Dungeons & Dragons and why I enjoy them so much in fiction. In real life, I force a smile and I let it go and subscribe to the norms. Orcs, however? They don’t hide it. They don’t hide anything. There’s a level of strength that I admire and and a level of justifiable rage towards not only the standard, but the pretty that I relate to on a fundamental level. I have that in me. I have those tusks and that green skin and that cold stare deep within me. Dungeons and Dragons was where I found my monster, and where I found my “kind.”
Orcs aren’t gay as in happy, they’re queer as in fuck you, and just TRY to tell a Half Orc “Oh, you don’t SEEM Orcish.”