When DistractedElf decided to transition, she worried that it could be the end of her stream. It was a big change, and she figured a lot of her audience would be pissed. But she couldn't deny who she was. "I can't pretend I'm not trans," she said.
DistractedElf first started streaming on Twitch after she returned from teaching English in China. When she returned to Canada, where she's from, she didn't really know what to do with herself. She decided to post a video a day to YouTube -- then she heard about Twitch.
"The reason my name is DistractedElf is because I used wear elf ears and a blonde wig when I streamed," she told me during an interview. "I'd do the Legend of Zelda-style thing. That was my gimmick."
At the time, DistractedElf was, in her words, "a straight white guy streamer" just playing League of Legends with friends. By the end of her first year, she only had around 1,000 followers. Eventually, though, she struck gold in the form of EA's now-defunct MOBA Dawngate. She started streaming the game almost exclusively and became one of EA's streaming partners. Soon, she was regularly pulling hundreds of viewers per stream while also receiving insider info and goodies from EA.
But Dawngate was fighting an impossible battle. It struggled to find anything more than a dedicated niche against the likes of League of Legends and DOTA 2. The axe was looming, but the uncertainty gave DistractedElf a chance to reflect.
She realised she'd been debilitatingly depressed for a couple years, but she didn't know why. "I was a horrible person," she told me. "I was a sad person. While that may not have come through on camera all the time, there were some pretty nasty times. Like, kill myself times. Two attempts over the course of those years. I didn't know what was wrong. I was just depressed."
She didn't feel right with herself, and it was killing her. She began to think she might be trans. One day while streaming, she put the pieces together.
"There was this moment where I was [doing a promotion] that was like, 'We're going to do crazy shit for viewer goals, so if we get to 250 people I'll do this thing or whatever,'" she said. "I ended up in a costume. As I was getting kitted up I was like, 'I want to do this all the time. This is way better. Oh god, I'm realising things about myself.'"
At first, she worried about the potential career ramifications of transitioning. She'd attracted a sizable audience, but she knew they were mostly straight dudes, so she played things like wearing women's clothes as a joke. "I was like, 'This is going to influence the stream, which will be problematic for my career.'" After some deliberation, though, she realised she didn't really have a choice. She couldn't just not be herself.
DistractedElf began transitioning toward the end of her Dawngate days. The game's development team was very supportive, as were her most vocal viewers. But after she made it public that she was trans, subscriber numbers dropped. She expected anger and incredulity, but instead, many viewers just let without a peep.
"It's amazing how much that number goes down," she said, "and people disappear without saying anything at all… Nobody was caps-lock raving. That's not the thing. It's just that, if you're on Twitch, you're going to watch someone who makes you feel comfortable. You're going to watch someone who you can just laugh with or enjoy their game play or whatever. If you're not comfortable with that person, you're not going to be able to do that, and so you go watch something else."
"There are so many choices," she added. "I don't begrudge those people the choices they made, but I would like to talk to them about why they made it. That's just the world we live in."
Those early days were painful. Twitch chat started asking a lot of questions DistractedElf wasn't fully prepared to answer. Her stream got raided by 4chan. They wanted to make her cry. Meanwhile, DistractedElf went through what she called an "awkward puberty." She didn't have a map or a sagely advice-giver on call. She had to go it mostly alone.
"It was a rough time," she said. "I wanted to start my transition, but I didn't know anything that I needed to know to do that. I didn't know how I should have been acting. My voice was all wrong, my look was all wrong."
It wasn't all bad, though. She began to see a change in her community. Core members became sensitive to what DistractedElf was going through. The vibe of chat changed. Unfortunately, not everybody was on board with that.
"One of my lead moderators from before I transitioned, he was my best friend and we started the stream together," said DistractedElf. "Then it got to this point where he went, 'I don't like your chat anymore.' I went, 'Why?' He was like, 'They're all so sensitive about all these things.' I'm like, 'Whatever. They have a right to be sensitive. I'm sensitive about things I wasn't before. I understand things a lot more. I'm not this arsehole guy anymore.'"
DistractedElf and her old best friend don't talk anymore. It's a sad situation, but she's accepted it. Overall, she's in a much better place than she was before, and she's trying to give back. Her community had her back even when things were at their darkest, and she wants to create an environment like that for other people who are where she was when started out: confused and lonely, faced with hundreds of forking paths.
"I always let people know that if they have problems or they want to ask questions, I am totally open about this stuff," DistractedElf said. "You ask me personal questions about, 'How was this aspect of whatever?' I'll be like, 'Yeah, actually it was like this.' I just do that on stream occasionally. We've had some really deep conversations in my chat while I'm playing games. Definitely there are some people who are coming in being like, 'I think I'm trans, what do I do? How do I start?' I try to refer them to the right places to be and the right stuff to do because I did it the one time. I know how awkward and how horrible it can feel when you don't feel right."
While it was difficult for DistractedElf when she began her transition, she's happy she streamed through it all. She has a record of the whole process, something she can show people who don't understand, or who might need guidance.
"There are definitely some trans people who don't want to look back at who they were and just want to deal with where they are now," said DistractedElf. "I get that. But for me, it's really useful having my Twitch archive. Plenty of people can show you before and after photos, but I don't know anyone who can say, 'Here's the 365 days in between those two pictures in video.'"
DistractedElf acknowledges, however, that everybody takes their own path, and her advice is hardly gospel. "I am decisively female," she said. "I fight very hard to get that classification, so to speak. There are some people who don't want to be defined or limited like that, though. That's also totally cool."
Still, she hopes that, if nothing else, she can help inform people who might not otherwise have a clue about what it's like to be trans. She said on bad days, she's gotten the same basic or offensive questions 20 times in less than 24 hours. Most of the time, her moderators and community zap the worst offenders, but she tries to be patient, because she knows that not everybody has the bandwidth to sit down and repeatedly explain things to people who can come off as wilfully ignorant.
"The internet breaks down boundaries of politeness, I think," DistractedElf said. "A lot of my goal is to bring that back into the discussion and make sure that whoever is asking doesn't ask that to the next person who will not take it as calmly as I do, and maybe it will hurt them or ruin their day. For me it's just, 'LOL. OK, pat on the head, let's sit down and have a conversation about why that was wrong.'"
DistratedElf recognises that she's fortunate to be able to do that, but she still maintains a single, cardinal rule in her streams: don't be a jerk.
"There is a level of shithead that I'm OK with just dismissing offhand if they get too bad," she said. "Nobody is too valuable. At least, nobody is too valuable to let myself be abused."