The GTA series has become a staple within gaming culture, with its testosterone-fuelled violence tempered by shrewd and often witty cultural commentary.
However, the games’ lack of inclusivity for the LGBT+ community has brewed controversy, and has often been marred by serious and offensive missteps, which Rockstar will need to work hard to make up for if they hope to regain the trust of the queer community.
Since 1997, the games have been infamous for their use of violent and criminal themes, busty strippers, and fast and furious driving. Created by David Jones and Mike Dailly, the series named after the criminal act of stealing or attempting to steal a motor vehicle has become one of the highest-selling games sold worldwide.
Since then, the series has grown to encompass seven main titles and nine side games, all featuring plenty of gang warfare, crime, violence, drugs and corruption. From Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas to the latest offering of Grand Theft Auto V Online, the highly political game has often provided sharp social commentary and incisive looks at problems of race, culture and wealth: often in the form of radio bulletins that play while you’re cheerfully mowing down pedestrians.
But despite that, the game series has suffered from a damning lack of queer inclusivity. From giving zero acknowledgement to the transgender community or their rights, as well as failing to include same-sex relationships amongst its protagonist and antagonist characters, the GTA universe has barely touched the surface when it comes to the LGBT+ community.
One of the biggest missteps is definitely its fourth episodic expansion pack Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony.
Telling the story of Luis Fernando Lopez, a Dominican former drug dealer-turned-bodyguard and best friend of Anthony “Gay Tony” Prince, a nightclub magnate and high-status socialite in Liberty City, the 2009 instalment followed Luis’s efforts to help Tony overcome various problems, including drugs, debts, disputes with Mafia crime families, and attempts on both of their lives.
Despite the game’s title and the fact it received positive reviews from critics – even topping Complex‘s ranked list of ‘The Coolest LGBT Video Game Characters Ever’ – Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony provided an outdated and pretty much non-existent representation of the queer community – with blog sites even describing the expansion as “the straightest Grand Theft Auto ever“. Yikes.
Heavily based on American entrepreneur and co-owner of the New York disco Studio 54 Steve Rubell, Gay Tony runs the gay nightclub Hercules in the game. Matching Rubell’s real-life characteristics of being a party animal, having a cocaine addiction and being paranoid and stressed about running a club, his business antics are the central focus in the plot.
Whilst it was clear that he was obviously not closeted (with a name like Gay Tony), the character’s sexuality was never explored, with many players feeling like the game’s title was just a way to imply that his raunchy lifestyle of running a nightclub was “gay” and in some way taboo.
The game was in all other respects thoroughly heterosexual, focusing on Luis Lopez being a ladies’ man with missions involving booty calls as well as the use the of sex workers – all of whom are female.
Then we get onto another, even more offensive and appallingly stereotyped character: The Psycho.
This trans NPC was almost entirely constructed from hurtful and offensive stereotypes aimed at entertainment purposes. For example in Vice City, The Psycho’s storyline mainly featured the character being obsessed with the game’s band ‘Love Fist’; the mission was to protect the band from The Psycho by killing her. This caused major and understandable controversy between Rockstar Games and the trans community, given the appallingly high homicide rates the latter face.
“The Psycho” – Rockstar Games
Unfortuntely, this absolutely rock-bottom portrayal of trans people in GTA isn’t limited to just one character.
From Vice City to Grand Theft Auto: V, the most visible transgender people in the games are the sex workers who are often located outside bars and clubs, and who are constantly misgendered and objectified. For instance, in GTA V, whenever a player approaches one of the sex workers on the street or outside the bar, your character would say: “Hello, sir. I mean, madam. I mean, whatever”.
You can find another example of this sort of portrayal in both GTA V and its online addition in the form of the character Peach; who is a stripper at the Vanilla Unicorn. She is voiced by a male actor, insinuating that Peach’s character identified as transgender. As pointed out by fans of the game, Peach is the only stripper in the club who cannot be taken home by another playable character to have sex with.
In short, there’s no doubt that the GTA series has a lot of representation, but it’s almost entirely unwelcome and offensive.
With Rockstar being tight-lipped about GTA 6, it’s hard to know what to expect from the next game. With players convinced the next instalment will take place in Vice City, GTA‘s famous alternative take on Miami – plus a handful of rumours circulating that players will be able to play four different protagonists, with one being female, they’re definitely keeping us on our toes.
Let’s hope the next instalment finally gives the LGBT+ community the representation it deserves.