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Freeing gender expression through activism and also in online amusements

Naomi Clark, 30, is an Asian-American trans woman who volunteers her time as part of the collective that guides the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. The group advocates for freedom of gender identity and expression in a broader context of social justice and anti-poverty work. SRLP recently announced that coincident with its fourth anniversary this month, the group’s founder, attorney Dean Spade, will step down as head of the group, allowing the 30-member collective to assume full control of the organization’s future. While Spade will remain a collective member, SRLP will depend on a fully non-hierarchical governance structure to set policy and oversee the legal and other services it provides members of New York’s trans community.

In addition to her work with SRLP, Clark has been at the forefront of Internet technology and content development, particularly as a computer game producer and designer, a field where women and people of color, let alone trans folk, are a distinct minority.

Christopher Murray: What is a game designer?

Naomi Clark: I have a pretty central role in coming up with concepts for new games. I am the person who decides what the rules for the games are, like, when you pass go you get 200 dollars instead of going to jail. I head up teams of people who write the programming for a game and who create the art and music.

CM: How did you get into game design?

NC: I had worked on game development and testing in the early days of the Internet both professionally and as a hobbyist. I worked at Logo, the big toy company with the little plastic bricks, designing games for their Web site. About five or six years ago, I was working as the editor of an online magazine when content was king. This was at a media company that was looking for new ways to use the Internet and I worked with a team that developed a game called SissyFight2000. I work now for GameLab that makes downloadable action games.

CM: Is a game designer a particular kind of human being?

NC: It’s getting to be a pretty diverse group actually. Until recently, game design was a small, narrow field where everyone making games were the same small group that were playing games. In the last five or 10 years, it’s broadening considerably. I’m still one of a handful of female game designers. There aren’t that many queer people. It’s a constant challenge to bring the perspectives of those groups and of people of color into the gaming world. Diversity is important to keep the industry from stagnating and keeping to this narrow channel of entertainment for adolescent and post-adolescent guys.

CM: Your game, SissyFight2000, enjoyed a great deal of popularity in gaming circles. Part of that was about the tools you identified for players’ interactions, like cower, grab, scratch, tease, and paddle.

NC: The idea behind SissyFight was that we wanted to model a game about conflict where you would have to make alliances and friends to survive. But we wanted to do it in an arena that was totally different from the usual swords and sorcery or shooting aliens with a gun type of game. So what we ended up with was a game about the kind of emotional conflict that happens on school grounds.

There were several women on the development team for this game and we reflected how instead of physical roughhousing, girls will often engage in popularity contests or teasing and switching girls to the outside of social groups. That can of course be equally as devastating as a struggle for dominance that is based on physical violence. The game turned out to be really popular and not just with females. There turned out to be a lot of guys who played the game, of all different ages.

In the game, everyone takes on the role of a little eight-year-old girl and you are encouraged to be mean and nasty. But the funny thing we found among people who played the game a lot, they succeeded when they created strong social bonds. Alliances and maintaining a lot of friendships was key. You need to have people who have your back.

CM: How did you get involved with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project?

NC: SRLP’s founder, Dean Spade, and the people who came together to help him responded to the huge need for services that was apparent for the trans community, in housing, anti-discrimination work, and for medical and health-related things, to name a few. The community really needed absolutely everything.

Dean was speaking at a forum at the LGBT Center talking about employment discrimination cases and I attended to support a trans friend who had been turned down for a job based on her gender identity. Dean and I bonded about connecting trans liberation to other social movements, not just gay rights, but issues of class, racism, and poverty. I helped put together SRLP’s first Web page. Eventually, a collective structure was developed that would be run by a group similar to those we wanted to serve.

CM: Can you explain more about the collective structure?

NC: It’s crucial to a lot of our work. It means that we’re not a top-down organization. We don’t have a group of directors or a managing director who dictates what policy is. All those decisions about priorities and work are made collectively. We work in teams that communicate with each other mostly via e-mail. I’ve been surprised at how effective it is.

A lot of people think these kinds of structures that make decisions by consensus can take a long time to get things done. But we’ve actually been able to make decisions about delegation that really help. For instance, I work mostly with the public education team of SRLP and we are responsible for putting out brochures about knowing your rights and being aware of the current state of the law, say on employment discrimination, coordinating public speaking, and the Web page which is http://www.srlp.org. We hope that our way of doing things can survive well beyond any one member of the collective.

CM: How is SRLP’s work important to you personally?

NC: For one thing, I’m directly affected by all the things we are working on. I’m a trans person of color. I’ve dealt with a lot of the bureaucratic and systemic ways in which the government and other institutions try to pigeonhole trans people.

Personally, I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve had access to things like education, a stable source of income, and a career doing the sorts of things I like to do. I’ve been able to evade a lot of the more serious collisions with the institutions that really plague huge proportions of our community.

I look around at other trans people, especially those who are low-income, and see how they are slipping between the cracks, especially when many of the institutions, like those involving immigration or the welfare system, that should be helping them, instead move them around like objects.

CM: How do you blow off steam?

NC: I play video games! Not necessarily violent ones. I’ve been playing a lot of music games lately. It’s a whole genre where you can play a toy guitar or dance on a special digital touch-sensitive pad. Those are great for stress reduction. I also do that stuff for real!

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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