IMVU interviews Ishikaru Tanaka, (Ishi) a long-time user who shaped his real-life transgender identity through his avatar.
Ishi’s story was discovered from the Community Center, amongst a series of Pride-themed experiences by IMVU users, and it quickly became clear that this story needed to be told from Ishi himself.
He was born female at a time when his transgender identity was not as accepted as it is today, and he used IMVU to explore himself in a safe place and practice being his authentic self.
Here is how Ishi told his story to IMVU:
IMVU: Can you shed more light on your upbringing? How did you come to identify as male?
Ishi: I grew up in the 70s… we didn’t have anybody except other white kids. My neighborhood was proof that children don’t start out [as] terrible people. Since we didn’t have any black people, we didn’t have any Asian people, any Hispanics—my parents didn’t have to have “the talk” with us, about “they’re nice people, but you don’t bring them home.” That kind of nonsense.
So when we did get a new person who came in who was black or Hispanic… they were just other kids to us. And the same with the whole trans [issue] – we didn’t have anybody like that. So if we didn’t see them, our parents didn’t see them, and they didn’t talk about them.
Now, we knew there were people of color because of television. But in the 1970s, there weren’t any trans people on television, unless it was comedians pretending to be ladies in the most horrible way. I was never offended by that, I know what comedy is, and that was all comedy, but I didn’t know what I was.
I just knew I’m clearly not a girl.
But kids, no matter what any parent ever tries, kids will always know what they are, even if they don’t know the word for it.
IMVU: When did you find out the word for it?
Ishi: At the age of 24. That’s when I met my first online transgender person.
IMVU: What was one of your first internet interactions – how did this entire conversation come about where you learned of the word “trans” and put a name to the identity?
Ishi: I was on the internet before there were pictures, it was all just text. And even back then, people wanted to role play.
So people coded systems that allowed to do text based roleplaying. The early ones were really simplistic.
[When you would log in], you were in a text-based descriptive area that [described] a room.
It was a room. You couldn’t see anything. You would see “Mary”, “Bob”, and you. You would see the inventory list of who was there, and then you would talk to each other. And we would role play different things.
I was telling myself I was role playing for fun. And I’m role playing for theater purposes. The problem was, I really, really, really enjoyed it. And I was very good at it. Because people asked, “What’s your dude name in real life.” They thought I was actually a guy because I passed so well.
And that’s when I thought no, this isn’t just fun, this is actually soul-saving for me. This is really who I am.
IMVU: How did you find IMVU?
Ishi: I found it out in the most natural way – [inter]net ads.
IMVU: How has IMVU helped you with regards to exploring your own self-identity? And how has it blossomed?
Ishi: The greatest thing that IMVU has done is it allows us to go into social situations, try out what we think we want as our representation… like I literally ask myself, “Well what kind of man do I want to be?”
What IMVU does for trans people, and did for me which was absolutely amazing, and also physically as well… I actually made a conscious choice to build my avatar not to look like my dream self, but to actually get closer to my real self, within parameters.
I learned how to be a creator not so I could sell things to other people, but so I could design clothes for myself because I was teaching myself my own transgendered-ness. Like, “What do I want to look like, what do I want to do? Let’s try out this cool outfit and I’ll paint it the way I want it.” And then maybe if I like that, I can buy one locally in my hometown, kind of a thing.
I used IMVU to actually dress and make myself, and to make my own personality in a safe space and if it didn’t work, there wasn’t actually somebody in front of me there to beat the hell out of me.
IMVU: So do you actually play out a little bit more real life on IMVU and then take it back into your actual real life?
Ishi: 100%. Well, not 100% because I still play silly characters. But my main character Ishikaru? He is me. He is the ideal me, in that he’s not the ideal that I cannot reach. I try to build him to be 10% better than I can be, and then I try to be 10% better than I am, so I become him.
He helps me become a better and better trans person. And every time he raises the bar, I meet him. And that’s how I raise myself in a trans way.
IMVU: So there is no disconnect between you and Ishi at all. Every single time you make a new approach for Ishi, it inspires how you change in real life for your own personal self. Your actual, non-avatar life.
Ishi: Yes. Ishi used to be more of a character.
But I found that when I was more authentic and honest with people, just TALK to people, people liked the real me.
I used him to test myself out. It’s like, okay I think this kind of a trans dude, or man in general, would be more interesting to be. But, I have nobody to try that out with in real life. Let’s see what happens in IMVU. And if it works, I incorporated that into my real self. It was like, “I’m going to be more like that because it worked for me in IMVU.” And it made me more interesting.
IMVU: Thank you so much for talking with me today. The last question that I have for you is, “Is there anything else that you’d like for both IMVU and the LGBTQIA community to know?”
Ishi: I guess the biggest thing the LGB… the alphabet soup community, because we keep adding letters *laughs* is that IMVU is a great place to discover yourself.
Really, the message isn’t for me, the message is for you guys (IMVU). We need you so badly. Try to find a way to find (our community) and don’t say, “We’re a great place to chat.” No. You gotta tell us exactly what’s best for us. You are a great place to discover who you are, to build that person, and to let it become your truest, and honest you.
I want to give back to IMVU for saving my life and I want the trans community to know that they don’t have to make those terrible choices. There are places that will love them for who they are.
As we continue to celebrate identities and self-expressions, Ishikaru has a few stickers on his Creator site to purchase if you are FTM (Female to Male) or an FTM supporter. Our team encourages everyone to put their specific, non-binary orientations up on your profile in every way- through badges, stickers, or simply writing them in. Sexuality is a spectrum and we’ve removed the field where we ask users to reveal their sexual orientation via a drop-down menu in an effort to allow for more freedom of self-expression.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with any issues, please reach out to the organizations below:
The Trevor Project:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: