How Animal Crossing normalizes my nonbinary identity

Person's hands playing Animal Crossing
Photo: Shutterstock

At my dentist appointment, I hesitate before telling the receptionist my name.

“Hi, my name’s….” I anticipate having to deadname myself, stomach clenching with the lie. I used to adore my orange birth name, the iambic bounce, the smooth way my pen glided over the loopy letters in cursive. But that name is not me anymore. To ease the guilt of lying, I tell myself I am the secret agent I yearned to be as a kid and must use a false name for my mission.

“Have a seat, ma’am,” the receptionist chirps. The honorific strikes white pain in my head. My eyes wince a little, but not perceptible enough for the receptionist to see. I don’t yet have the guts to correct anyone — strangers, friends, family — who misgenders me. It’s not their fault their niceties pain me. In the southern United States, we’ve learned that politeness means referring to people as “sir” or “ma’am.” My nonbinary existence negates this social rule.

Living in the buckle of the Bible Belt, I’m cautious about who I come out to. When I’m introducing myself to someone from my liberal alma mater, I’ll say, “Hey, I’m Cricket, I use they/them pronouns.” They’ll tell me their pronouns too. In fact, some classes now start with a pronoun circle where everyone takes turns saying their pronouns and names they go by.

But out in the wild, I scan people surrounding me for signs that they are safe: edgy haircuts, shorts with dinosaur prints, subtle rainbow watch bands. I sweep the crowd for warning colors too, like the aposematism of the white stripe on a skunk: “Not I But Christ” bumper stickers, pink floral T-shirts with gold scripture in unreadable cursive, the American flag on a face mask.

I am thankful that I have yet to experience anything horrifying since coming out. I hear heartbreaking stories on TikTok, my main source of queer community, about purposeful deadnaming aimed to invalidate a person’s identity, job offers that fall through from discrimination, and familial tension that results in getting kicked out of the house. It’s enough to scare me into staying in the closet unless I’m one hundred percent sure the person I want to come out to is safe.

The dental receptionist bears no symbols on their clothing to indicate if they’re safe or not. I could correct the misspoken honorific to honor my truth and create awareness that nonbinary people exist in our conservative town. It would risk at best embarrassment or at worst confrontation. I need time to feel more at home in my new self before I can speak up in the wild for myself and my trans community. Without a word, I take a seat.

After the dentist, I loop my black face mask over my ears for grocery shopping. At the checkout counter, the scanner beeps, plastic bags rustle, and people babble behind and in front of me. “Sir. Sir. Sir!” I look up and see the cashier yelling at me.

My insides rise with curious interest. This honorific isn’t right either, but less wrong than the female version. “Sir” means this cashier perceives my outsides as something a little closer to my insides. Acknowledgment that I’m not a girl feels like a puzzle piece hovering above a possible spot where it might snap into place.

“Do you want an envelope for this?” the cashier huffs, waving an Animal Crossing birthday card I picked out to hang on my refrigerator. Animal Crossing is my favorite video game on the Nintendo Switch. My avatar lives an idyllic life on an island with animal villagers where we spend all day gardening, catching fish and bugs, and digging fossils.

I explain my reason for not needing an envelope. The cashier’s eyes widen hearing my high customer-service voice that always comes out around strangers. It’s a tone many people raised female habituate, socialized to be seen as non-threatening and well-mannered. I hate that this is my default tone.

“Oh, I’m sorry ma’am, I thought you were…. Well, isn’t this a nice card? It’ll look so lovely on your fridge.” I make a mental note to stick with the self-checkout robots.

Safe at home that evening, surrounded by rainbows in my living room, I snuggle into the couch and press “A” to start Animal Crossing. Ozzie, a koala bear, greets in speech bubble text, “Hey! It’s Cricket!” My green name, spacious with potential, free from old associations. A little firework blooms in my chest.

This English version of Animal Crossing: New Horizons leaves gender optional to the gamer. I can customize my character’s androgynous body to be as gendered or genderless as I wish. No matter if I style my character in shorts or a dress, if my hair is pixie or ponytail, facial hair or none, the villagers always see me as just Cricket. No gender attached. Because it doesn’t matter.

Maybe the world could view gender the same way. You are who you say you are, no matter your phenotype. Until you know someone’s pronouns, use gender-neutral language. Then we trans and gender-diverse people wouldn’t have the pressure of advocating for our names, our identities, our very existence.

I didn’t know a birth name could die in my hands. I didn’t know I’d mourn adjusting from a soft to a hard C, from iambic to trochaic foot, or from loopy to sharp cursive letters.

My phone trills from a corner of the couch. I pause the game and slide open my sister’s video call. I hear our mom’s muffled voice in the background through the phone.

My sister looks away from the screen and replies, “I’m talking to Cricket. They’re helping me prep for my interview.” My name and pronoun, spoken with a smoothness from intentional practice. My chest glows with a white light of love so bright I know it’s made of all the colors of the rainbow.

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