Nethack, like politics, is a humbling game.
Originally released in 1985, Nethack is still among the most uniquely complex games that I have ever had the pleasure to play. It is also the single hardest game I've played; even after a year of bashing my head against its ASCII-drawn walls I can only barely beat the first branch of the Mazes of Menace. It's not entirely uncommon to play the game for years on end without ever beating it - it is just that hard.
Anyone who wants to taste a true exercise in futility should try this game at least once. Starting a game requires memorizing a long list of commands - from (f)ight to (Q)uiver to #pray to #rub - and learning to discern @ from ) from c on the map. (From left to right: your character, weapon, cockatrice.) Once you get those basics down, the game proceeds to drop weapons, potions, scrolls, and other items without telling you how to identify them as blessed, cursed, good, or deadly. And in the ever-likely case that you do die there are no save points in Nethack: death is permanent and swift.
In a larger sense, though, I think that Nethack can teach us a lot about LGBT politics. Which is good, because with Goldgate bringing a sudden surge of trans writers to the forefront, Brown winning the Senate seat, ENDA's increasingly grim future, and the Prop 8 trial in full swing on Twitter, I've really had little of value to write about. People in higher places are covering things better than I ever could. However, Dr. Segura's testimony at the trial about the anti-LGBT national political climate and the futile excersice of playing Nethack is just too good connection to let pass by.
I have a mantra when it comes to big-ticket LGBT issues: "Either way the vote goes, politics are about to get real interesting." When things get heated, I prefer to step back and see politics as a game, as that seems to be the only way I can keep my sanity while still remaining involved. Life's too short to let my blood pressure shoot up every time LGBT needs get shot down, especially with the frequency of these let-down events. Victories of hatred of bigotry are not worth my everyday sanity and happiness; the sad truth of politics is that you win some and you lose some.
Seeing Dr. Segura's testimony reminded me of why I take this tack: LGBT issues lose 70% of the time when brought to the polls. Given that anti-LGBT groups respond to our victories by immediately organizing repeal efforts, it almost seems that any victory we celebrate should be assumed to be short-lived, and any inkling of increased freedom treated as a platform for fear-mongering and mob-justice attempts to push us back into the closet. No matter how vocal we have tried to be, and no matter how hard we try to look like upstanding citizens, we lose 70% of our fights for basic human rights and dignity. (Which, I should mention, is far superior to the 100% loss rate in my Nethack games, but YASDs don't exactly take away the rights of minorities.) Seeing that figure is a hard pill to swallow for anybody.
Maybe it's just a sign of my age, my social status, or my refuse-to-feel-inept attitude, but seeing concise proof that LGBTQ people are a politically weak class really did discourage me. I am a pretty heteronormative trans woman, all things considered, and as such my life is not exactly the shining example of "queer and fighting the system"; however, it hurts to know just how badly queer issues fare at the voting booth. I had a sinking feeling when I began hearing the "2009 is our year!" mantra that LGBT concerns would be quickly traded away for healthcare cred, and I was right. Lip service has never done us much good, and Obama's "fierce advocate" speechmaking was no exception. The same thing applies to Brown's win: it means that Dems will probably avoid LGBT needs as if they were steaming piles of manure - later relying on our short memory spans to beg us for campaign money, of course - made me wonder just how useless our advocacy efforts really are. All I can do to abate myself is realize that this Democratic defeat does the most to shake up the political spectrum, and that certainly will make the game more fun to watch.
Looking at Nethack again, I don't play because I think I'll win, or because I enjoy being frustrated. The game is frustrating if you let it be a game about winning and losing; one mistake in tens of thousands of turns can easily kill your character. The same rule applies here. I do LGBTQ advocacy because it helps get me much-needed rights, yes, but at the same time I do it because I enjoy working for a cause. To go about this any other way just invites excess heartache into my personal life.
When something like the Coakley loss happens, or politicians start ignoring the LGBT issues they gave lip service to, and the progressives commence with backbiting and finger-pointing, I tend to step back and wait until the dust settles. I'm here to affect change, not to point fingers at my allies, and I now do so knowing full well that we will lose all but 30% of the time. To put it in Nethack terms, I stand in a corner and engrave Elbereth while the progressive blogging sphere reaches its fever pitch. Our rights are important, but they're not worth more than my happiness. Yet Another Annoying Death, I say to myself, and then I do my best to enjoy the fireworks.
Dr. Segura's testimony cut me like a knife. Yes, his intention was to paint us in the weakest light possible, but his figures are really, truly disturbing. For example, one of his studies gauged "warmness" toward minorities on a 100-point scale. For most groups this number fell in the 60-70 range. LGBT people had a 49.4% mean, a full 10 points short of everyone else. (I'm sure the value would rise and drop, respectively, if LGB and T populations were parsed out, but that's my gallows' humor talking.) Let's be honest: at this point the LGBT name is "mud" as far as politcs are concerned. No matter how far we come, larger, more politicallly potent organizations are actively working to turn us back into the closet, some even going as far as to advocate our imprisonment. We fight hard political fights, but at the end we always come back to square one: People Don't Like Us, and that's enough to take away our rights.
Is it right and proper to protect one's sanity and not dream for too much, in light that we are hated so much? Going back to nethack, I've never played a game where I didn't expect to die a horrible, horrible death. As far as I'm concerned, I feel that I have to come into political advocacy with the forward knowledge that we are going to lose eventually, barring some Big Change. I just don't have the time or the energy to scream about how crappy our leaders are. I just want things to get fixed, or to know how I can bunker down and survive my life without being sideswiped by a "gotcha" aimed at the easy-pickin's LGBT community.
Politics are fun, but the results keep evading our grasp. Just like Nethack. Punishing, not fair, beatable only if you play the game absolutely perfectly and the RNG decides to play fair. Even still, one wrong move sends a great game straight into the toilet. I just hope that sometime soon I'll be able to save my pointless pursuit of victory for the @ sign on my screen, and keep hope alive that my rights will be granted sometime in this lifetime.
After all, the best part about Nethack and politics is that you can always start fresh after you lose.