"I would upset a thousand homophobes on Twitter if it made one person feel more valuable in our community."
James O’Leary AKA Stress is a well-known name in gaming. James is a League of Legends caster, commentator and community manager for LEC team MAD Lions. James is also openly gay, and vocal about his support of Pride Month and most recently Black Lives Matter online.
GGRecon talks to James about his experiences as a member of the LGBTQ+ community in the gaming industry, what he feels can be done better within the industry to be more inclusive, and what Pride Month means to him.
GGRecon: Tell us about your experiences as an LGBTQ+ person in gaming.
The first thing is, like many other people from the LGBTQ+ community, I think at first I really didn’t have a good understanding of how I could be myself, especially being a public figure, with regards to being a caster on a Riot Games broadcast where you know there’s a lot of eyes on that, so for me I think, it felt almost as if I went back into the closet when I professionally stepped out into the limelight. I came out when I was in university to a lot of my close friends and some family initially but never really talked about it too much past then, everybody knew, and it was fine. When I moved to Berlin from Cardiff, it felt a bit like stepping back in the closet because I was like “oh how can I be myself, when I’m not even quite comfortable with myself all the time”. I think it does take quite a while to be truly comfortable with who you are. And then I’m like “how do I do that in front of hundreds of thousands of people every week on broadcast?” and I did not have that answer for a very long time, and I don’t think I even have the full answer to that now.
A lot of where that strength came from to actually be myself was through meeting my partner and coming to terms in a new city like Berlin, it’s a fantastic city for varying different gender and sexual identities. It truly is the most free city I’ve been in, where nobody bats an eyelid, regardless of how you want to present yourself - so I guess that’s a long way of saying – it took me a while. Through having the right support group around and the right environment, I feel super confident going out and saying “hey I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community and that’s who I am and if you don’t like it then that’s your problem, not mine”.
If you follow me, expect to see many voices amplified from communities that deserve to be heard, as everyone deserves to be. If that's not what you want to see, you know how to unfollow.🏳️🌈
GGRecon: Let’s discuss the above tweet. Have you received any negative feedback from this, as you do state that people can unfollow you if they choose?
A few people, but they deleted their tweets after, and then also I did get unfollowed by people. That tweets an interesting one because I also even struggled to even word that tweet, because I don’t want it to be about me at that moment, and I think that’s something that a lot of people are trying to figure out because they see a lot of strong voices talking and it’s tough to make any point about Your thoughts without you making it about You. This definitely is a time for listening, so I genuinely do not care if I lose followers, I lost followers last year’s Pride, I lose followers every time I tweet about LGBT issues, that’s something that is normal to me but for some people, that’s really scary, especially if you’re a caster or a streamer, where if you’re a freelancer and your business is propped up by the community, even if you see so many voices talking about equality and you know that’s the right thing, they’re going to hesitate for a moment, even if they do end up making the tweet. Getting over that hurdle in your own mind of like “can I do this”, that is the biggest thing that our industry has to jump over. A lot of people say “oh well my audience think this or that” and some streamers don’t exactly have the most welcoming audiences, I think for them to take a stand for something, they look at the potential financial impact, and in a vacuum, it's understandable why they’d hesitate, but we have to help people get past that point and see “look, you might get some backlash over this, but first of all it’s the right thing to do, and second of all there are people that will support you for talking about this, 100%”.
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First of all, you’re creating an environment for whatever group you’re talking about and making a more welcoming space for people who identify with those groups, so inherently you’re actually making a more inclusive wider audience. So, if you are creating a welcoming space, as long as you’re doing it sincerely, there’s an opportunity for growth, and I want to talk about that in a community sense, rather than financial. It’s important to look at the people aspect. You can really see genuinely loving communities that are growing all the time because of the way that people foster that growth. Even if you’re a, and everybody always laughs when they hear the term “straight white male” in a sense because they think it’s a negative thing, but even if you are a cis-gendered straight white male you CAN create a fantastic community around you of everybody and anybody from all different walks of life and that should be in my view what people aspire to do.
If everything that I’m doing for the LGBT+ community within esports, and also equality in general - if even one person feels that they’re more welcome from anything that I have done, that’s worth upsetting however many people on Twitter. I would upset a thousand homophobes on Twitter if it made one person feel more valuable in our community.
There are always going to people who are, to use a term in the League community, “toxic”, about it, so the “mute” functionality on Twitter is my favourite weapon against homophobes and toxic people. Same with “report”, and I never like to give anybody the satisfaction of being blocked, that gives them their little hit, you just “mute” them, and they go away.
GGRecon: How important is educating the younger generation of gamers about LGBT issues and equality issues in general? What have been your experiences with this?
I’ve had so many players and people in esports that come from various different countries, say to me “you’re one of the first openly gay people I’ve ever met” and they ask me a few questions and I always try to foster an environment where that’s completely fine. Especially when we’re talking to young people who come from countries where its more hostile to be LGBT, some places where it's still illegal, they’ve never met somebody who openly says “yeah I’m gay” so they just have a million and one questions, and I would rather take the time and answer those questions, and help bring them to a place where it’s completely fine because it is. I’ve never come across a player who in the end has been anything but understanding and willing to learn, so that’s a really positive thing in my personal experience. It can take a little time for education and help, but people get there in the end, for the most part, I think people are a lot more willing to be understanding than we give them credit for.
I was so happy last year with the campaign that then Splyce now rebranded to MAD Lions playing in the LEC, we also have a CSGO team that we picked up since, but last year in the LEC for League of Legends in Europe we did a campaign with ILGA Europe, which is a group that works with the European Union and governments, and they create, every year, a Rainbow Road Index, which basically just ranks countries based on their equality rights, and advocates with governments for equal rights. Last year we released a not-for-profit jersey, so every single penny the jerseys raised past production costs we donated to ILGA Europe, and our players even wore that on stage, we changed our yellow to rainbow for the day. That’s one thing that I’m super happy about with our parent company OverActive Media, at every turn it’s like “hey we need to make sure we’re inclusive, we need to make sure this is us as a company”.
GGRecon: Do you think the gaming community still needs to make changes on a wider scope to be more inclusive?
Yeah, I think so, is the short answer. The longer answer is – yeah we’ve done some good things already, and I don’t want to lose sight of what we have done, I think there is always going to be work that needs to be done, because as far as we’ve come in strides, and I don’t normally like breaking up Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender issues separately, but I think for this conversation it’s worth separating a little bit. I think we’ve done really good work so far when it comes to sexual orientation and that side of identity, but I think there is so much more work to do and we’re realising it now that we’ve got past these first steps of equality, we’re realising that our Trans community is so underserved. That’s what I mean by “there’s always work to be done”. Just because I, as a gay man feel more accepted than I have done in the past, I don’t think a whole lot has been done for the Trans community, and I think that’s one area where even the rest of the LGBT community can listen and can hear “what is it we can do to help”, and it’s not always obvious to everybody. We’re always going to have work to do because even I personally struggle like “how I can make the communities I work in more inclusive to the Trans community” because that’s something that I passionately believe in, but I’m also not as aware of the specific issues of people with varying different gender identities, I’m just not as acutely aware because they’re not issues that directly affect me, so I need to be better and do that work.
Everybody talks about creating an environment that diversity and inclusion is a core area in, and everybody should have that, where it doesn’t matter what your gender or sexuality is, you have everybody around you and it’s just normal to talk about and that’s ok and everybody’s fine and we can be accepting, I think that’s a very rose-tinted spectacles version and I don’t, unfortunately, think we're ever going to get to that point because people will always have counter opinions.
I try to keep in mind with everything that I do that touches on LGBT issues where there are so many people that don’t have a fortunate basis around them, a foundation that they can rally on and use for strength and that’s the one thing that I really wish our community can rally around, not only on gender and sexual identity and LGBTQ+ issues, and I mean I’d be remiss for not talking about some of the racial issues that we’re seeing right now, for me that’s one area that although the gaming community does get a bad rep for a lot of things, there are so many valuable and strong voices in the community that are underserved and aren’t heard as much, and I think this is one of those almost revolution moments where I think people don’t need to be afraid to speak up for equality anymore, and I think in the past people have been because “oh maybe it’s not about me, or maybe people won’t like what I have to say” but I think the sheer volume of everybody talking means people that aren’t supportive of equality are going to get left behind, because there are so many more people in the world than that elite exclusive group of people who never want to share and don’t want people to be equal, that’s such a small minority of people that are going to get left behind if they don’t have an about turn on at least accepting people as a minimum.
A lot of people have felt a lot of pain in 2020, especially whether it’s the LGBT community or the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s a lot of pain. I really hope that there is positive change that comes from this and that is lasting change because too many people have been hurting for this not to stick.
I’m really happy to be able to have this platform, and it took me way too long to realise I could use my platform for good, and that I didn’t have to be afraid of doing that. Even though I stopped casting on the Riot Games broadcast about two years ago, I still have this platform and I can still use that in the other work that I do with the MAD Lions community, and we’ve got such amazing fans and members that are from all across different gender identities and lots of people from all around the world, many different backgrounds, that are welcome in our community, and that’s something that I’m proud to say.
Images via Riot Games | James O’Leary