Lilly Contino has loved video games ever since her grandfather bought her Pokemon Blue in 1998. In middle school, she spent hours playing World of Warcraft, slipping out of the real world in which she lived as a cisgender boy named Nick and into the multilayered world of her avatar, a pigtailed robotic girl named Lilly. She was just beginning to enter puberty, and Lilly found solace in the game’s parallel reality of quests of combat. She would switch on the game and switch off her own life, which was marked by pain and a great deal of denial.
“I was just sleepwalking through life,” she says, referencing her childhood and young adulthood. “I didn’t really like myself; I didn’t really take pleasure in many things. I was always acting like there was just something wrong with me.”
Decades later, when Contino was offered the position of business development lead at online gaming platform Ryu Games, she saw an opportunity that went deeper than just professional growth. In 2020 she packed up her car and her dog, Finn, left her life in Atlanta in the rearview mirror, and arrived in San Francisco prepared to live as her authentic self for the first time.
Contino came out as transgender to her boss just a few months after starting at Ryu—and when she did, it felt right to choose Lilly, the name of that former avatar that had offered her so much comfort. She came out to the rest of her company and initiated the transitioning process shortly after. But it was the job at Ryu that gave her a safe space to live authentically in the real world.
“Coming to San Francisco to take the job at Ryu was so much more than a job,” she says. “My life is now worth living, and I’m happy for the first time.”
She refers to the process as something like a rebirth. “So many trans people are disowned by their families, or lose their jobs or friends. And a lot of times, it’s kind of like the end of your life when you come out. But it’s also, certainly in a good way, the start of a new life,” she says. “My immediate family, friends, and work all accept me and have been incredibly supportive. So I’m in this super-privileged position to be able to make a difference.”
Since Contino has come out, Ryu has grown from a small company with just a handful of employees to more than a dozen workers scattered across the globe. They’ve been writing their workplace policies in the face of the pandemic and throughout Contino’s transitioning process, resulting in an organization that is remote-first and has openly trans-inclusive policies.
Coming to San Francisco to take the job at Ryu was so much more than a job. My life is now worth living, and I’m happy for the first time.Lilly Contino, business development lead at Ryu Games
Ryu is headquartered in San Francisco, but most days, when she’s not working from home with Finn, Contino sets up shop at WeWork Two Embarcadero Center in San Francisco. Her job involves everything from pitches to administrative tasks to managing the company’s partners. “It’s a startup, so I do a lot of different things,” she says. “It’s a lot of outreach, a lot of talking to people.”
But in addition to fielding calls and questions from her own company, she also carves out time to advise other companies about how they can follow Ryu’s lead and create their own workplace environment that is fully welcoming, supportive, and inclusive for trans employees.
“As I was transitioning and figuring things out, I came out to the world,” Contino says. Her boss, close family members, and select employees were already aware, but when she went public on her social media feeds, the story was picked up by internet news outlets and social media. “It went viral,” Contino says. “It’s been life-changing because I’ve been given this platform [to talk] about my experiences at Ryu Games that I never expected. I’ve been able to help build a company from the ground up that’s trans-inclusive, and help other companies alter their existing policies and structure to be trans-inclusive as well.”
The video game industry is highly heteronormative, which puts immense weight on Contino’s shoulders. She understands that she isn’t just educating other companies in policies and steps to be more aware, inclusive, and welcoming. She is also actively trying to turn the tide, one social media post at a time.
Contino is surrounded by support from her work and her friends and family, and she also has the power of her social media platform at her back, giving her confidence to challenge those who might treat her with ignorance or disdain. But even that power doesn’t inoculate her entirely. Recently, at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, she was accused of stealing her name badge because the name on her government-issued ID card did not match the name she registered with.
“Maybe if I were someone who didn’t have a platform, or weren’t as persistent, I might have rolled over and waited for the situation to blow over,” she says. But that’s not who Contino is. Not anymore, at least.
“I went to the top of the food chain and made sure that everyone understood what happened,” she says, explaining that she alerted event leadership to what had happened and prompted them to ensure that security teams were educated going forward. Her confidence and ability to act, she says, is a sign that her honesty about her own experience is now having ripple effects. Others, she knows, will see themselves represented in her experience and feel more safe announcing who they are, as well.
“The explosion of my posts has enabled me to make a difference. And even though I’m just one human, it is very fulfilling for me to be able to help people in this way,” Contino says.
Debra Kamin is a writer in California. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, CNN, and more.