Pompoms & Power up: How Cheerleading Helped Me Become A Game Designer

This is Charli Battersby, you might know my game Kidnapped! A Royal Birthday or my current work in progress Cheerleader’s Choice.

Cheerleader’s Choice is partially inspired by my real-life experiences on an adult cheerleading team. That time of my life coincided with when I began writing for Choice of Games. Being a game designer actually helped me make the cheer squad, and my cheerleading also helped me become a game designer.

During my time on the team I kept a journal, but most of those experiences won’t make it into the game. So, I’ll be posting some of my journal entries here in the months leading up to when Cheerleader’s Choice is ready for release.

I’ll be updating this once or twice a week. The the first chapter is below:

And the most recent chapter from 4/28/23 is here:

PART 1: The Lost Episode of Square Pegs

There are sixty people in a rehearsal room in a gym on Manhattan’s west side. Earlier in the day, this room was used for children’s dance classes, and child-sized chairs are placed on one side of the room. Thirty adult cheerleaders sit on the tiny chairs. The other side holds thirty people trying out for the team. In the middle, sits a row of judges who will determine which of the hopeful applicants have what it takes to be a cheerleader.

The thirty cheerleaders aren’t in uniform. They wear t-shirts with the team’s logo; a silver crown like the Statue of Liberty. They also wear an eclectic mix of bottoms. Some are in wool pencil skirts, having come straight from work. Others wear jeans, or yoga pants, a few are in fancy dresses with the shirt pulled on over. The cheerleaders are not performing tonight, they are here to cheer for the new recruits.

One of the judges at the center table, quietly, reminds the team to smile. The people trying out are already intimidated just by being here; an army of scowling people would make it even more nerve-racking. The tiny chairs help to make them look less menacing, too.

The recruits are dressed in athletic attire. A few of them wear shirts from other cheer squads; teams they were on during college, or a competitive “All Stars” team from their youth. Some of them have no experience at all. These newcomers will have to rely on what they learned in a few hours of practice at training “Clinics” over the last two weeks.

It isn’t hard to spot the ones who’ll definitely make the cut; a couple of girls are petite and limber - exactly what’s needed for a “Flyer” (The little person who goes at the top of a human pyramid). Several of the men are tall and athletic, perfect for “Backspots” (The burly person who stands at the back of a four-person pyramid). Others aren’t especially brawny, or dainty. These people might make good “Bases,” the people at the sides of the 4-person “Stunt pod.” Each base holds one of the flyer’s feet, while the backspot holds the flyer’s calves or hips.

One girl points out that she is fluent in sign language. Does she know that the team’s first paid performance this year is at a walk-a-thon for the hearing impaired? She, and the other girl who casually mentions that she can sign, are certainly going to make the cut.

The hopefuls are brought up in small groups. They do a short dance, a simple cheer, then they form stunt pods and hoist a flyer into the air. In the first group, one girl is clearly nervous. She flubs the choreography in the cheer, then misses the final move of the dance.

Others nail the tryout, doing everything perfectly. But athletic skill alone isn’t enough to make this squad. This team is also a non-profit organization that raises funds for the gay community and AIDS charities. Everyone is asked a few questions like in the interview component of a beauty pageant. A year ago at tryouts, one woman did a great job at dancing and stunting, but wasn’t able to answer a simple question about the team’s charity work.

She didn’t make the squad.

The hopefuls are also asked about their connection to the LGBT community. The stereotype about male cheerleaders is mostly true, and every man on the team is gay (With one or two bisexuals). Several of the male recruits are flamboyantly gay (One dresses like Brittany Spears during his interview). None of them are straight. Some of the women trying out state that they are gay or bisexual, and a few speak about their work with gay charities. People don’t have to be gay to join the team, but the straight women do need to be firm “Allies.” There are no straight men present but, presumably, if one tried out for the team, he would have to be an ally to the gay community.

It takes over two hours to go through the entire process. At the end of the tryouts, the thirty members of the team do a cheer, rhythmically chanting, “We! Are! Proud of You! Yes we are proud of you!” then everyone makes their way out of the gym to Manhattan’s dark, wet streets on this rainy August night.

The tryouts are held at a fashionable gym that overlooks the Hudson river on 12th Avenue. The bus which goes from the riverfront to the nearest subway station has just pulled away from the bus stop. This is New York City, so no one has a car, and everyone walks Eastward, in small clumps, towards 8th avenue.

Two years earlier, I was one of the people trying out. The tryouts were likewise held on a rainy weekday evening in August. I was so excited afterwards that I ran four blocks to the subway in my new white sneakers, ballet leotard and cheer skirt, arriving home wet, but full of well-founded optimism.

This night, I’m one of the cheerleaders.

I wear my t-shirt with the team logo on it, and a long pencil skirt in a matching shade of navy blue. Earlier in the day, a random woman on the street recognized the team logo on my shirt and seemed impressed that I was on the team. I smiled politely, and reminded myself not to take this for granted. This is the fourth time I’ve been on this side of the tryout room, and I’ve seen hundreds of people try out, but only one fourth of them make it.

I walk slowly to the subway with a group of four teammates. One of them is a petite flyer; a doll-like woman with blond curls. Another is one of the taller female backspots; even taller than me, and I’m one of the tallest female bases. Ahead of us is a lean flyer who walks next to one of the smaller bases, discussing their recent trips abroad.

We’re all adults, but this moment feels like high-school: Someone mentions she has a date this weekend. The girls ahead of us are talking about how they spent their summer while the team took a few weeks off in July.

Boys. Summer break. Cheerleading. It’s the high school experience I never had.

Next Section.


@TheRoyalHeir – I changed the category to “Game Development”, just to let you know.

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This is delightful! I look forward to as many stories as you’d like to share. Thank you for giving us this little glimpse into your life and inspiration.

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It’s always good to see what lead a developer to where they are now.
the dairy was a good quick read and I wish the best for your future endeavors

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This is lovely to read, thank you for sharing! It’s really nice to hear insights about how creativity and life intertwine, especially when the game is fresh in my mind :smile: I’m not much of a team sports person myself, but it sounds really nice and welcoming.


I’ve been a nerd all my life; I saw “Star Wars” in the theater on opening weekend in 1977. I was cosplaying at New York Comic Con before it was called “cosplay” (Or even “Comic Con”). I’m such a huge fan of post-apocalyptic video games that one of the “Fallout” games contains a reference to my fan-fiction. But that is a story for another day…

After four decades of this lifestyle, I had begun to embrace the introverted “Socially Awkward” stereotype. In an effort to be more outgoing, I decided to become the polar opposite of my geeky identity. And, if I learned anything from teen movies in the 80’s, it’s that “Cheerleader” is the polar opposite of “Nerd”.

At an comic book convention, I had heard about a nationwide community of adult cheerleading teams that are also charities. In New York there are three such teams as of this writing, Cheer New York, Gotham Cheer, and Cheer For A Cause. But at the time I decided to become a cheerleader, there was only one, to protect the privacy of the team members, I’ll avoid using the organization’s real name. We’ll call them “Liberty City Cheer.”

Liberty City Cheer had been around for 15 years but I had never heard about it. Even if I had heard about it, I would have been too cynical and misanthropic to join.

The team’s website informed me that they have training clinics in the weeks ahead of their try-outs. Two sessions of three-hours each, so that people can brush up on their cheer skills or, in my case, learn the rudiments of cheerleadering. Even though I had no experience, I figured that with a couple of weeks preparation, I could pass muster.

After all, I had a few things going for me. First was my spirit! I wanted to do this very badly. Not just as payback against high-school mean girls who thought I wasn’t cool enough thirty years ago. But I hoped to become a more outgoing, altruistic person. The team was focused on charity work, and if dressing up like a cheerleader was what it took to bring out my philanthropic streak, then that’s what I was going to do!

I had been aware of the team for a few months before I actually tried out. They hold tryouts twice a year and, if I’d had the courage, I could have tried out six months earlier but, I found myself thinking, “I could never do that.”

Never, ever, in a million years.

The team’s website has videos of people being thrown fifteen feet in the air. Human pyramids stacked three people high. Tumblers doing flips on asphalt streets, and dozens of dancers doing choreography in perfect synchronization like the Rockettes.

I would soon learn that there’s a bit of smoke and mirrors involved; three strong people can lift a small flyer with relative ease, assuming they have practiced the proper technique. People are placed in stunt positions that best suit their body type. Only the best tumblers do backflips on concrete (And occasionally there are injuries). The dancing is the result of months of practice just to learn a minute of choreography. And the synchronized stunts are much easier when everyone has drilled for hours, counting along to the same beats.

I didn’t know any of that before I joined the team. All I knew was that these cheerleaders seemed inhumanly amazing. Aside from the athletics, they were also beautiful. I considered myself pretty. Relatively tall, relatively thin, a cute nose, and nice eyes (Counterbalanced by my crooked teeth and broad jawline).

I also knew that my beauty was the result of artifice. I wear a lot of makeup. My tiny waist is from a corset. Opaque dance tights and high heels make my legs look longer and more toned than they really were. Carefully chosen and tailored clothing make the most of my flat chest, wide shoulders and narrow hips. The only thing about me that isn’t fake are my fingernails and eyelashes. Genetics and good nutrition make them grow fast, and strong.

The pretty brunette who was always at the top of Liberty City Cheer’s pyramids had dazzling white, perfectly straight teeth. How pretty would I look standing next to her, smiling with my crooked teeth? When I was also sweating through my makeup. No corset or tights, just bare skin exposed on my legs and belly. Would anyone look close enough to admire my long, natural eyelashes? No.

I realized that I didn’t even own sneakers. I had to order some just for this. I tried to remember my last set of sneakers… Over twenty years ago when I took some fencing lessons. Dedicated dilettante that I am, I’ve studied a little fencing, a little knife fighting, and earned a green belt in karate before turning to cheerleading. Oddly enough, cheerleading has resulted in more injuries than all those other activities combined.

Unlike my previous short-lived hobbies, I hoped this cheerleading thing would stick. At least long enough for me to wear out the new pair of kicks I had bought. “Kicks,” apparently, is what the kids these days call their sneakers.

The team’s website states that the tryouts and clinics are three hours long. I wasn’t sure I could do any kind of athletic activity for three hours. What was a slender-yet-out-of-shape geek to do? I turned to video games, of course!

Several months before I began my career as a cheerleader, I had won a cosplay contest. The grand prize was a Nintendo Wii-U. That’s the old game console with motion-sensing controllers. One of its selling points was that it could be used for exercise.

I had only been using my new game console to fight zombies (Naturally), but now I had an excuse to invest in the “Wii-U Fit” program. And… there are cheerleading games for it!

These games don’t teach much about real cheerleading, as I would learn soon enough. Mostly you just dance around your living room, waving the game controllers like pompoms. Because they were made for an older console, the song list is humorously outdated, and has hit songs from the early 2000’s. Still, it’s the kind of music that my younger teammates might have listened to in high school (On average, my teammates turned out to be fifteen years younger than me. A few were less than half my age).

In the game, I catch songs from old chick flicks, like “Legally Blonde.” There are also early Lady Gaga songs, and Katy Perry. Other songs by artists that I’ve never even heard of, but my new teammates probably know by heart. The youngest members of the team might even think of “Legally Blonde” as some really old movie with that old lady from “The Morning Show.”

The games also let players customize their on-screen character. Many games, not just ones about cheerleaders, allow players to create a unique character and meticulously sculpt their appearance. My wife, on many occasions, has peeked over my shoulder while I’m playing a game and uttered, “Wow! She looks just like you!”

So, in my cheerleading game, I make a virtual me. I get the face and hair as close as I can to my own. She even wears glasses just like mine. Most important of all, she’s wearing a red, white and blue uniform just like the team I intend to join.


I trained hard in the weeks leading up to the first of the clinics. One of these is held two weeks before the tryouts, and other is held the week before. People are required to attend at least one but, given my total lack of experience or aptitude, I vowed to attend both clinics to get as much help as I could.

After weeks of video game training, I was in the best shape of my life, and felt fairly confident. After all, I’m 5’9", that should make me an amazon among those tiny girls. I was also 46 years old at the time; surely I could make it on the team just for the novelty of being the world’s oldest cheerleader. Plus, I could regale the whippersnappers with tales of Jimmy Carter, 8-track tapes, and Yars’ Revenge.

When I walked into the first clinic, my fresh-out-of-the-box sneakers squeaked with every step. There were fifty other people trying out for a dozen spots on the team. One look at them, and my “Amazon” theory was crushed. Half of the team were burly men, and many of the women were bigger than me. A few of the women were genuine Amazons, well over six feet tall.

I was further crestfallen when a gray-haired gentleman mentioned that he had just turned fifty. A woman, who looked younger than me, mentioned that she had college-age children (Later I learned that she’s 13 months older than me). Compared to the rest of the team, I was a dainty little whippersnapper.

The clinics had a difficult learning curve, but the team was accustomed to dealing with clueless noobz. Apparently I wasn’t the only person who just woke up one morning and said, “I think I’ll go to cheerleader school today.” By halfway through the clinic, I had managed to learn a short dance routine, along with a cheer.

Then it was time for stunting. The coaches decided that my mid-sized body would make me a base for stunt pods. Within a few hours, I had actually learned how to hoist a tiny girl over my head, and toss her in the air (With the help of another base and a backspot, of course).

Most importantly, I learned how to catch the flyer safely. Sometimes, this involves getting an elbow in the face, then smiling afterwards. It’s better that the base gets a bruise, than for the flyer to break her neck. To my surprise, cheerleading was a contact sport.

At the clinic, I was starstruck to learn that the flyer I was throwing in the air was the girl I had seen on the team’s website. The pretty, petite, brunette with the perfect teeth.

She was also one of the team Captains.

It turned out that there is no “Head Cheerleader” who ruled the squad like a queen bee. Teen movies always depict an autocratic cheer dictator with absolute authority over the “Cheerocracy.” But my little flyer was just one of three captains. And there was a separate set of coaches, plus a “Membership” team, and other people for PR, finances, and event bookings. Because the team was also a certified non-profit, there were several people who handled the legal matters about that. About one fourth of the team was part of this leadership caste.

Most important to me were the people who made up the Membership department. They were the ones who would decide if I made the team.

I made it through the first clinic without dropping the Captain. But that’s a lot like walking out of a job interview and boasting, “I did not set the receptionist on fire!”

Aside from my spirit, and not dropping the Captain, another thing I had going for me was that I knew a lot about video games. I’m a dilettante about many hobbies, but video games have been a part of my life since my father brought home the first Pong machine in the 1970’s (Yup, an entire console that did nothing but play virtual ping-pong on the TV).

An Atari 2600 soon followed, bringing Adventure and Yars’ Revenge into my life. Tabletop Dungeons & Dragons replaced computer games after the great gaming crash of the early 80’s, but then the Sega Genesis and Street Fighter II got me through college, a Playstation, Macsoft games for my powerbook, the short-lived Dreamcast with its state-of-the-art 56k modem, Gamecube, Xboxes and PlayStations with assorted numerals, Gameboys, Nintendo DS, 3DS, 2DS (Yes, that’s the right order) and the Wii-U I used for my cheerleading games.

And the best game console of all… a simple desktop PC with an overclocked graphics card and processor, plus a wildly spinning fan trying to keep the thing cool.

But I digress…

Part of the cheerleading tryout was a “Showcase” where we could show the team what we can do besides cheerleading. One full minute in the spotlight to do anything we wanted.

Even in the middle of the first clinic, part of my mind was formulating a plan for my showcase. I tossed the pretty little Captain in the air, and in the split-second before catching her, I was thinking of boolean variables, character stats, and branching dialog paths.

Between the first clinic, and the day of the actual tryouts, I had two weeks. Or rather one week, six days and 21 hours.

In that time, I would make a video game about cheerleading.

Next update coming Friday March 31st.


This sounds fantastic! As a cheerleader, I am sure you know how to do the “Hadouken” and “Shoryuken” from Street Fighter. I hope that these make it into the Cheerleader’s Choice game.

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Well, I will now, Rocketmanx. Hee hee.

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Because today is Transgender Day of Visibility, here’s a section on being the only transgender person on an LGBT team.

Pompoms & Powerups Part 2
Among my many jobs (Did I mention dilettante enough times), I’ve worked as a video game journalist for a variety of outlets. But, like many of my fellow game journalists, what I really wanted to do is make games, instead of reporting on them.

With this newfound motivation, and a copy of a program called RPG Maker, I had finally done it. Charli’s Cheer Challenge was my first fully-playable game. It’s about a cheerleader named Charli who is training for the big cheerleading tryouts.

Admittedly, it’s very short, and very simple. But some of the mechanics and features eventually made their way into my upcoming game Cheerleader’s Choice.

It was nothing to compete with blockbuster games like Call of Duty, and it lacked the artistic merit of The Last of Us, but it was a finished product. And “Done” is better than “perfect.”

Plus, my game was done a day ahead of schedule, and under budget. Let’s see the next Bioshock game do that!

On the day of the tryouts, I prepared as well as I could. I did my makeup in a simple style, not too flamboyant. The long brown wig I wore was styled simply; pinned back in a half ponytail to avoid being pulled off during a stunt, or flying into my face while dancing. My long nails were unpolished. Even though I’m proud of them, I didn’t want flashy nails to be a distraction. My outfit was a simple dance leotard and loose skirt. Again, nothing distracting. My new, white sneakers were now thoroughly broken in. My bag had a water bottle, high-protein snacks, and emergency makeup for touch ups.

A separate bag held the most important thing; my laptop. On it was a fully-playable copy of Charli’s Cheer Challenge.

On the night of the tryouts, we do our stunts, our dance, our cheer. I do a pretty good job. Not great, but pretty good. When I make a mistake in the dance, I keep going, and keep a smile on my face. I have spirit! Yes I do!

Then we line up to do our interviews and present our showcases. I’m near the front of the line. My laptop is an older model that was designed for gaming. Huge when compared to the tablet computers that kids use these days. A built-in full keyboard, and a 16.5 inch screen. I hold it on my hip while waiting for my turn to do the showcase. Other people perform stunts, or dances for their showcase. A few have props or costumes for funny little skits.

But my gunmetal gray, over-sized laptop is conspicuous even in this crowd.

When my interview comes, I answer a few questions. “Yes,” I say with false modesty, “I have experience working with non-profit organizations. I was a grant writer for a theater company, and a grant reviewer for medical research projects.”

I let it drop that I founded an organization that presents panel discussions on transgender video game characters, and comic book characters.

All of my answers are carefully constructed to say, “I’m smart. I’m kind. I have a lot of varied skills. I’m active within the LGBT community. And I would normally be much too humble to even mention all this. But, since you asked…”

I know I’m not a great dancer, or a gifted athlete. I’m not the prettiest girl in the room, or even the smartest. I’m still a little shy and introverted. But… I really want to be a part of this team, and I’m waiting for the moment when someone asks me what I’m going to do for my showcase.

When prompted, I put the laptop on the floor, sit next to it, and explain that I made a video game about cheerleading. Instantly, the team scurries to get a closer look at the screen. Thirty of them clustering around the laptop.

Earlier that day I recorded a video of the game. It plays on the laptop while I talk. Some of the characters in the game are modeled after people on the team. The level design in the game is based on the real gym where the team practices. Even the room where the game’s little cheerleaders practice is modeled after the room we’re in at that very moment.

Charli’s Cheer Challenge has crude graphics. It only takes 15 minutes to play all the way through. It’s mechanics and gameplay are limited to simple dialog choices, and exploring small maps.

In 1993 it would have been a technological marvel but, by modern standards, it is primitive.

It’s also the best damned video game in the room!

A week later was the first practice for the fall “Semester” and I was a rookie cheerleader at the age of 46.

Although I doubt my game itself is what impressed my teammates. I think they were impressed by the effort that went into making it. My S-P-I-R-I-T.

The first practice was my chance to meet most of my new teammates. Only about half of the team showed up at the tryouts to cheer for us. This was my first hint that the team was not as supportive and sincere as I has assumed.

At practice, the whole gang was there, a whopping sixty-five members, including the dozen newbies that made the cut alongside me. The gray-haired man who is four years older than me, also made it.

Us newbies are segregated, and the team’s leadership goes over the surprisingly thick rulebook with us. As a non-profit organization, there are serious legal issues to be discussed. And, as representatives of the LGBT community, there is a carefully-curated image to be upheld.

As a nerd, I’m accustomed to being a loner. A rebel. Nerds are the outsiders, the omegas and rogues. Now I’ll be expected to conform. To wear a uniform. There’s not only the regular performance uniform, but also a “Practice Uniform” worn at weekly practices. We even have an “Appearance Shirt” with the team logo that we wear for charity work where the full uniforms would be inappropriate (Pompoms and miniskirts wouldn’t be respectful at a food bank).

Every aspect of my appearance is governed by the team’s rule book and by the PR department. Literally from the top of my head to the tips of my toes; my toes are always in white sneakers with socks that can’t be seen. The top of my head cannot be adorned with a hair bow. Later on, I would learn that other adult cheerleading teams have even stricter standards of conduct. Apparently people expect New York’s cheerleaders to be a bit unruly.

My long, natural fingernails turn out to be a problem too. I’m told to cut them shorter because, as a base, my nails could scratch the flyer, or the base on the other side. This is a blow to my ego; my nails are my only feminine trait that is natural. In this era of acrylic nails, I’m about the only one who still has real nails. My breasts are 10% pectoral muscle, and 90% padding. My precisely-arched eyebrows are a combination of electrolysis, meticulous plucking, and colored powder. But my nails are real! And now they have to go…

Another thing the team does in the first few practices of each semester is “Forced Bonding.” Yes, that’s the exact term the coach uses. In the corporate world this would be called “Team Building Exercises” but we’re already a team. By default. Or maybe the proper term is “Squad.”

We form a large circle and introduce ourselves. I have 64 new friends now, and that’s a lot of names to remember. Not to mention what everyone does for a living, and what their hobbies are.

It’s an LGBT team, and part of the forced bonding is talking about where we all fit on the LGBT spectrum. About half of the team are men, and most of them are so fabulously gay that it doesn’t require “Gaydar” to detect (One gentleman has the lyrics to a Kylie Minogue song tattooed on his chest).

Half of the team are women, and here is where the gaydar comes in. None of the women meet the stereotype of a “Butch” lesbian. Most of them are girly girls. A few are sporty, but only a handful of them trigger my lesbian gaydar. On social media, nearly all of the women post pictures of their boyfriends.

The straight women outnumber the lesbians by a factor of seven to one. One of the men quietly complains to me that this LGBT team was starting to become “A straight girls team,” and he quits less than six months after I join.

Among LGBT organizations, the “B” and “T” get even less attention than the “L” word. A couple of the women are openly bisexual, but they are still massively outnumbered by straight girls.

Then there is the “T” for transgender. I have a knack for spotting another transgender person. Instead of calling this “Gaydar,” I think of it as my “Trans-ponder.” This is eventually used as a special skill in Cheerleader’s Choice.

As I looked around the first practice, my Trans-ponder didn’t go off. I got the feeling that I was the only transgender person in the room. Possibly the first trans person on the team in its 16 year history.

I also began to wonder why I was on the team. Was my little video game really that good? Or did they allow an introverted 46-year-old onto the team because they needed a token transperson? This was 2017, Caitlin Jenner’s cover article for Vanity Fair had made it abruptly fashionable to be transgender, and all of the LGBT organizations were suddenly clamoring to recruit their first transgender person.

Another thing I quickly noticed at the first practice was the names.

I have never changed my name, on legal documents. According to all of my ID and documents, I am Mister Charles Battersby. So, I started using the name “Charli.” It’s close enough to my legal name, and the “i” on the end makes it feminine (And I was spelling it this way before all the cool girls on Tik Tok were doing it).

The name turned out to be a good choice for cheerleading. At the first practice, I discovered that almost all the other girls had names that ended with “i” or “ie” or “y.” There was no Cassandra, or Roxanne, or Alexandra, or Tatiana. Instead, they were Cassie, Ally, Roxy, and Tati.

Even the boys got in on this trend; there was a Scottie, an Izzy, a Manny, and more.

I figured that “Charli” would fit right in with the likes of Cassie, Allie and their pals.


Another update that addresses how people looked at transgender issues back in 2017:

It was a few more practices before I found myself changing in the locker room at the gym. A lot of people are very angry about the idea of trans people using bathrooms and locker rooms. I had used women’s bathrooms for years before joining Liberty City Cheer; even before the law allowed me to (And even in woke New York, it was illegal for me to use the ladies room until a few years ago).

But this was different. I had found myself inside the Girls Locker Room.

Before cheer practice!

I had inadvertently stumbled into a screwball sex comedy from the 80’s. Or a bawdy anime from the 90’s. I could easily imagine a group of boys wriggling through the ventilation shafts, hoping to catch a glimpse of partially-clothed cheerleaders in the locker room.

John Beluishi and the other fratboys from “Animal House” might be perched on ladders outside the windows, or an army of nerds could have hooked up closed-circuit cameras in the ceiling!

Even though I was one of the cheerleaders now, I still felt like an impostor. A geek who had infiltrated the cool kids clique. My life had turned into something from an unproduced sequel to “Revenge of the Nerds,” or a lost episode of “Square Pegs.”

But I could not dwell on the existential crisis posed by the locker room. We had work to do! Liberty City Cheer was already booked to perform less than a month after my first practice. And I had much to learn.

The stunt I learned for tryouts was called a “Prep.” We grab the flyer by their feet, hoist them above our head, extend our arms fully, then lower the flyer’s feet to shoulder height. We hold them there for eight seconds, then dip, and throw the flyer about ten feet in the air, catch them, gently lower them to their feet, snap to attention, and end with a little flourish.

And that’s the SIMPLEST stunt we do.

I will also need to learn to hold a flyer over my head by one foot. This is called a “Lib” or “Liberty.” Two bases and a backspot all grabbing onto the same tiny foot.

Plus I have to master an “Extension” where we hold the flyer over our heads with arms fully extended. This is a pretty simple stunt, but we typically hold the extensions for long periods of time, and sometimes the whole stunt pod will walk while doing this stunt.

I also have to throw flyers high enough that they have time to spin around twice in the air before landing in my arms. And that will take months of exercise to develop the necessary upper body strength.

And there’s a big dance number we need to learn for parades and large events. Along with several shorter dances called “Standards” or “Sidelines” which can be mixed together for impromptu dance routines.

And, of course, we cheer!

The team has a lot of different cheers, and I need to learn them all if I want to perform at our first event next month. The cheers have precisely-timed choreography, with the taller people in the back doing slightly different moves from the people in front. And some cheers involve “Waves” where people do different moves based on where they’re standing from left to right.

It’s harder than we make it look. The audience doesn’t see the months of practice that go into perfecting the cheers. Or in my case, weeks.

I get my performance uniform a week before our first event of the season. This is the REAL uniform, not a practice t-shirt, but a full cheer uniform with a crop top and matching skirt. And it’s my first cheerleader uniform. Something I’ve coveted for over forty years.

It fits perfectly. The size large top fits my broad shoulders and chest. The small skirt fits my slim waist and narrow hipbones. Despite the perfect fit, I still have the sense that something is wrong.

The medical term for being transgender is “Gender Identity Disorder” or sometimes “Gender Dysphoria.” Dysphoria is just a fancy term for the sense that your body is shaped wrong.

My cheer uniform caused a wave of dysphoria to sweep over me the first time I put it on.

I had worn a cheerleader uniform before, as a Halloween costume. A vintage clothing store in my neighborhood had a classic 90’s uniform; a “knife-pleat” skirt, and a “Shell” top with the word “Panthers” written on it. The top was long enough to cover my stomach, allowing me to wear a corset beneath it. The pleated skirt flared at the hip, hiding my narrow hipbones (And other things). It was the perfect style for a transwoman.

But my uniform with Liberty City Cheer was not at all suited to my body. It was clear that the people who designed it had never even considered that a transwoman might join the team some day.

The skirt sat low on the hips. It fit tightly, with no pleats. Rather, it was designed to hug the curve of the hip. Nothing about it augmented my masculine hip bones, or helped create the illusion of a feminine waist. The skirt was also tight enough to leave a telltale bulge in front. No matter how diligently I “tucked” there was still an outline of my “Y Chromosomes.”

The top was little more than a sports bra with the team logo on it. The curve of the shoulder straps emphasized my male shoulder bones, and the neckline made it difficult to conceal the padding in my bra.

In trans circles, people will sometimes use the term “Brick.” It’s an insult for male-to-female transexuals who make little effort to look feminine.

When I looked in the mirror for the first time in my uniform, I felt like a brick. A rectangular body stuffed into a uniform that was designed for an hourglass figure.

It also left my stomach exposed. Two months of dieting and exercise had made me relatively toned, but I didn’t have abs, and only the barest hint of an inward curve above my hips.

A lifetime of testosterone had given me much more body hair than the typical woman. This could be waxed and shaved, but not permanently removed without extensive (And pricey) lasers. In my first months on the team, I had to get up extra early to shave my torso and apply body makeup, or I’d end up with five o’clock shadow on my stomach and chest.

I would get in better shape over the years to come, and with that improved health came a more naturally feminine body. But the problem wasn’t really about my body. It was my dysphoric perception of it; a sensation that would fade in time.

Unfortunately, I only had a couple of weeks before I would have to wear this uniform in public.


Today’s update is about the first time I performed as a cheerleader. Less than a month after joining the team:

My first performance as a cheerleader was at the annual LGBT Expo at the Jacob Javits Center. The Javits is the biggest convention center in New York; the same place where New York Comic Con is held, along with the Toy Fair, the boat show, and an annual drag queen convention that coincides with the LGBT Expo.

I had been attending Comic Con at the Javits for over twenty-five years. I even had the dubious honor of being thrown out of a comic book convention for dressing as Catwoman in the early 90’s. If this had happened today, you’d be able to hear Tumblr’s servers explode with outrage about “Transphobia.”

In the cosplay community, I am moderately famous. I don’t have a reality TV show, but I’m famous enough that journalists sometimes interview me for articles. Particularly about cosplay as an expression of gender identity (In 2017 it was still a novelty to find a transgender cosplayer).

On the same day as my first cheerleading performance, a photographer from a fashion magazine wanted to shoot me in my Supergirl costume for an article about cosplay. I arranged to have the shoot done at the convention center, a few hours into the expo, giving me a chance to be a cheerleader for a while, before reverting to my natural nerdy state.

That morning at the expo hall, me and a handful of the other cheerleaders are getting ready in the ladies room. I’m touching up my makeup, and covering my torso stubble.

Lastly, I put makeup on my arms. I need to cover up the extensive network of bruises my biceps have acquired in my first month on the team.

The rushed training has left me with bruises up and down my arms. Quite a lot of them. The ones acquired in my first week of training are fading to greenish-yellow, like a banana that I should wait a few days before eating. The newer ones are green and brown; the color of a pear I should have eaten yesterday.

In practice, when I catch a flyer, sometimes I’ll get hit right in my bicep by the flyer’s hipbone or elbow. On some occasions, the other base’s hand will get caught between my arm and the flyer’s hip, this will leave knuckle marks on my bicep. By the time of my first performance, I have enough little knuckle-sized bruises on my arms that I look like a leopard.

I assumed, at the time, that these bruises were a normal part of cheer practice. And it is true that a typical cheer practice can have a few minor injuries (With the occasional broken nose). Later, I would have cause to wonder if my injuries during those first few months on the team were really accidents, or if some members of the team were trying to harass me into quitting as soon as I arrived.

But, on that day of my first performance, I was so excited to be there at all that I didn’t even question why I had so many bruises to cover up. This event was also my first chance to see my teammates looking their best. Most of the women on the team show up to practice right after work, with very little makeup on, and their hair in practical ponytails. The morning of the LGBT Expo I got to see them with the regulation hairstyles (Down, or just half-up. No Barbie doll ponytail). Almost all of the girls were wearing as much makeup as I was. In fact, red lipstick is a requirement at performances, according to the rule book.

The team began the day with a warm up. Because this was at a large expo center, we had the luxury of a backstage area. I’d learn later than we typically have to warm up in plain view of the public. On those days we have to be “on” as soon as we arrive.

The morning of the Expo, I was paired up with a new “Stunt Pod” that I hadn’t practiced with yet. At our Wednesday practices, we try to rehearse with the same people we’ll be working with at the weekend performances. Not every member of the team can make every practice so, sometimes, we have to throw together a stunt pod with whoever is available.

During the warm up I was working with a new base and a new flyer. The flyer was the tiny doll-like blonde. She’s one of the lightest girls on the team, so I felt confident. The base opposite me was one of the sportier girls on the team. Tall, but not as big as me.

I felt very confident.

Because the other base was an inch shorter than me, I had to widen my legs a bit to compensate for the slight difference in height. I assumed she wasn’t as strong as I am. After all, she’s a girl, and I have male shoulder bones. When I first joined the team, my male ego made me assume that I’m stronger than any woman who isn’t significantly bigger than me.

A second later, our stunt went horribly awry, and I was scrambling to grab the flyer as she nearly hit the ground. The other base, (As I would learn) is a tri-athlete. When we did our prep, she lifted and threw with much more force than I could muster. She pushed the flyer’s right foot harder than I pushed the left foot, so her side of the stunt flew higher than mine, and the flyer nearly landed face first on the floor.

I was humbled, and embarrassed. The little flyer was emotionally rattled. For her, a stunt gone awry isn’t a matter of looking bad, she was inches away from a concussion.

I spent the rest of that morning feeling humiliated, not to mention anxious when doing stunts.

The photographer from the fashion magazine texted me a few hours into the cheerleading performance. It was time for the cosplay photoshoot in my Supergirl costume.

I always wear a corset when cosplaying, but I didn’t bring one to that photo shoot; if I were to put a corset on under my Supergirl costume it would leave red marks on my stomach in the shape of the corset’s inner seams. These marks take an hour to fade away after the corset is removed, so they would be seen in my midriff-exposing cheer uniform.

The fabric of the Supergirl dress has very little stretch, and the bodice is tailored to match my corseted waist. I sucked in my stomach as I zipped it up. Again, I felt like a brick, squeezing into a dress designed for someone else’s body.

Making me feel even more insecure is that I wore a brunette wig that day. It’s a more natural look than the golden blonde wig I usually wear when dressed as Supergirl. It’s also pulled back in the required “Half up” style that keeps it out of my face when cheerleading. It’s not the big, bold blonde style that a comic book character would wear. At the shoot, I didn’t feel quite as photogenic as I could be.

The photographer was looking to emphasize the fact that I’m transgender, because the article was about cosplay and gender identity. He took low-angle shots that made my chin look big, and exposed my Adam’s apple. I knew that this would make my face look more masculine.

Several months later I would discover a full-page photo of myself in an enormous, over-sized fashion magazine. Even though it isn’t the most flattering pic possible, I was still delighted. I had done a little cosplay modeling work, but never thought of myself as a “Real Model” until that moment.

That day at the LGBT Expo, my nerdy cosplay world and my cheerleading world would collide multiple times. A drag queen convention was being held on the other end of the Javits Center on the same day as the LGBT Expo. Some of my geeky friends were there to cosplay (Cosplayers will leap at any excuse to play dress up).

A couple of cosplayers who I know walked past Liberty City Cheer’s booth at the Expo. They told me I looked “Adorable” in my uniform. But, I wasn’t sure if they knew it was a uniform, not a costume. To them, maybe I was cosplaying as a cheerleader character from an obscure anime?

Couldn’t they tell I’m a “Real cheerleader?”

Later, near the end of the day, after hours of doing dances and stunts, I was in the middle of a cheer, and I caught sight of something completely unexpected; the villain from one of my favorite video games. A monster named Pyramid Head from “Silent Hill.”

Pyramid Head is a seven foot tall creature who wears a huge, pointed metal helmet. As he lumbers through the zombie-infested town of Silent Hill, he drags behind him a gigantic butcher’s knife that’s as tall as he is.

In the game, this is a deliberate sexual metaphor. He represents the self-loathing of the game’s male protagonist. He’s a punishing force of vengeance, and he looks a lot like a giant phallus, carrying another giant phallus.

It’s not funny in the game. In fact, he’s a terrify foe, and a popular character for cosplayers. At Comic Con it’s rather common to see someone dressed up as Pyramid Head, and they often get into character, slowly dragging a massive rusty cleaver through the hallways of the Javits Center.

At the LGBT Expo, a cosplayer had worn the costume to the drag queen convention. It’s easy to see why; the overtly phallic symbolism of the character was subverted by the campy gay sexuality of the event.

I doubt that any of my cheer teammates played “Silent Hill 2” when it first released on PlayStation 2 in 2001, but I sure did, and I couldn’t resist the urge to dash away from our booth for a photo op with sexy Pyramid Head.

I was so uncomfortable with my appearance that I didn’t take any other pictures of myself that day. My bruises, my uncorseted waist, the uniform that made me feel like a brick; I forgot about all of that when I ran to take a picture with my favorite monster. I never found out who was inside the costume that day, but their representation of self-loathing helped me get over my own dysphoria.


An update about my second performance on the team, and the end of my first “Semester” as a cheerleader:

Only one week after the LGBT Expo, I had my second cheerleading performance. This was one of the team’s big annual fundraisers. They sell tickets to a “Party Cruise” on a boat with a bar and a dance floor. Then the cheerleaders and their pals cruise around Manhattan for a sunset trip.

Everyone on the team is expected to sell tickets to this, in order to maintain our good standing on the team. Yes, we get a sort of “Cheer points” for attending events, and people who fail to sell enough tickets to these things will loose cheer points (And there is a financial penalty for failing to maintain high enough “Attendance” score).

Members of the team don’t get free tickets to these events, either. We’re expected to pony up the money for our own ticket. Then we’re expected to harangue our friends into buying tickets to join us.

I was unable to sell any tickets to my nerdy friends. I was baffled by this… Aren’t nerds supposed to be obsessed with cheerleaders?

That’s certainly what teen movies told me back in the 80’s and 90’s. In retrospect, I think I could have sold more tickets to the cruise if I had said “A bunch of drunk cheerleaders will be trapped with you on a boat all night.”

When the big Party Cruise was ready to depart, only my wife and one of her friends were there. And they only came to see the cheer performance on the docks; they didn’t join the boatload of cheerleaders for high-seas hijinks.

It turns out that being trapped on a boat full of drunk cheerleaders is a nightmare for most people.

Everyone on the team was required to help with several of these fundraising events each year. And they usually involved buying something with our own money. Sometimes a boat ticket. Sometimes paying for a fancy dinner. Sometimes we were expected to sell raffle tickets.

It seemed like the team’s real fundraising plan was to coerce the new members into “Donating” out of our own pockets. I had been told that I was volunteering for a charity, but I was starting to feel like a customer instead of a volunteer.

Money was tight with me when I first joined the team. My job at the time was “Video Game Journalist.” Which sounds very interesting. It makes for good chit-chat at cocktail parties. “Who me? Oh I’m a video game journalist. Why yes, yes I do, in fact, get paid to sit around all day playing video games.”

Which is not entirely accurate… Most game journalists are doing it on a freelance basis. And we usually get paid a small fee to write an article about a game. We also get free admission to video game industry conventions, and to parties held by media companies. Those can be fun and glamorous, but…

But glamorous launch parties are not “Fungible Assets.” One cannot pay the rent with champagne, or pay the electric bill with a tote bag that has some corporate logo on it. My experience in making “Charli’s Cheer Challenge” left me wondering if I could get a job making games.

A job that paid actual money, not prestige and glamor.

For years I had been earning a little money working on fan-made video game projects. I wrote the scripts for Shoddycast’s animated “The Storyteller: Fallout” webseries. It had over a million followers on our Youtube Channel, and was quite popular “In the Back When times” as our protagonist says.

These projects were fun to do, and they paid a few bills. However, I wanted to work as professional game developer - with a paycheck big enough to not only pay the bills, but also have enough left over to buy tickets to cheerleading party cruises.

My game “Charli’s Cheer Challenge” was hardly a Game Of The Year contender, but it proved that I can finish a game. Even a short, simple one. It also showed that I can please a target audience too; after all, it helped get me on the cheerleading team.

This game went to the top of my new resume, and I set about a new round of job hunting, I finally got a nibble from a certain company that needed writers for text-based games.

For those of you who stumbled across this forum while googling “Cheerleading video games,” Choice of Games makes “Interactive fiction.” Our games have no graphics or sound, just the written word. They’re like a novel where the player gets to choose what their character says and does at the end of each page, and these little choices influence how the story plays out.

It’s like Netflix’s “Bandersnatch” but with written words. Or, for my older readers, the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books from the 80’s, but on a computer.

Or, for my even older readers, like “Zork” but on a better computer.

I pitched Choice of Games several ideas, and (After a few revisions to my 20-page design document), and I had a job making my first commercial video game,“Kidnapped: A Royal Birthday.”

It’s part “The Princess Bride” and part “A Game of Thrones.” Players control a pretty princess (Or charming prince) who is kidnapped and imprisoned in a tower. A band of inept-but-well-intended heroes comes to rescue you. Hilarity ensues.

It was voted the 6th most underrated game by Choice of Games. A dubious honor, of which I am very proud.

And I couldn’t have done it without “Charli’s Cheer Challenge.” And I would never have finished that little game without having the goal of becoming a cheerleader.

Within a few months I had become a cheerleader, and a professional video game designer. But then it was time for the hard part. Actually making a 150,000 word interactive fiction. And learning to get along with the mean girl clique that ran the cheer team.

The cheer season ends in November each year, with a big party where the team honors the charity we’ve been sponsoring that year. The team rents a room in a restaurant, and we get dressed up in formal wear, then hand over a giant check.

This party is a rare chance to see my teammates outside of cheer events. There are little cliques that socialize with each other away from practice; the inner circle even adopts a few rookies each semester, but I’m not one of them.

Members of the team are expected to pay for our own meal at the year end party (Of course). All of the money the team raised is going go to the charity, not a free meal for the volunteers who raised it. To their credit, the team really does raise money for non-profit organizations. And the inner circle makes sure to pose for lots of photos with that giant check.

When November 20th rolls around, the woman who runs the PR team doesn’t make any social media posts about Transgender Day of visibility. I had only been on the team for three months at that point, and didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes, so I didn’t complain. Surely, I assumed, this was an oversight. Surely, I thought, when March rolls around, she’ll honor Transgender Day of Visibility. Surely.

Four months after I joined Liberty City Cheer, I was performing at the team’s last outdoor event of 2017. 7:00 am, in Central Park. A very cold December morning. The event was a race to raise money for an HIV charity that delivers food to homebound sick people. The first chapter of Cheerleader’s Choice is loosely based on this day. I try to convey through the game’s text the dismal feeling of a cold, damp park in early hours of the morning.

I was already very disappointed in the team, even before the thankless end of year party and the snubbing of Trans Day of Remembrance. But this performance in the park helped me remember the good that we do. Not just raising money for non-profits, but also making the volunteer runners feel a little more motivated in this frigid weather.

By 8:30 in the morning, the team is “Warmed up” in the figurative sense. I’m still freezing, but I’ve had a chance to practice the stunts and cheers we’ll be doing for the next three and a half hours. The people participating in the charity race are starting their loop around the park, while we chant “G-O! Go New York! G-O! Let’s Go!”

Most of my mind is focused on remembering the words and moves to the cheers. “Does this end with one arm in the air, or both?” I ask myself as I dance.

None of it comes naturally to me yet. Not after a mere four months. Making it even more difficult is that part of me is thinking about computer code, statistics, and narrative design. I’m in the early stages of designing “Kidnapped: A Royal Birthday!” and now my days are split between learning cheer routines, and learning to make computer subroutines.

By 11:00 am, we have moved to the finish line, and are cheering for people as they come to the end of the race. During another round of “G-O! Let’s Go!” a woman approaches the finish line. She is surrounded by friends and family, and leans on a walker as she literally walks the walk-a-thon. The squad cheers for the big group and, for a moment, I lock eyes with the woman using the walker. At that moment, I’m cheering just for her, and she quickens her pace a bit.

Last month, the team handed over a $20,000 check to a non-profit organization, but at this exact moment, I’m focused on cheering for this one person.

My video game will take more than two years to make. But I’m happy to do the work, and optimistic. Because, now, there’s a little voice inside my head always cheering “G-O! Go Let’s Go! G-O! Let’s Go!”