Last year, a call went out for trans writers to submit essays to an anthology about trans people on the Internet. I submitted a couple ideas, had one approved, and wrote it. Unfortunately, the project was cancelled before I received any editorial feedback. I have considered submitting it elsewhere, but I think it’s just better off being posted. I’ve done some light revisions to the original draft.
As a transgender woman in the 21st century, the Internet was very important to both my coming to terms with my identity and my coming out to friends and family. It allowed me to “try on” my Self before I would otherwise have been able to; it allowed me to come into contact with amazing men and women who either were sharing or had previously shared what I was experiencing; and it opened up to me a wealth of information I otherwise would not have been able to access.
For all its weal, however, the Internet is not without its woe. Old, outdated, and simply wrong-headed information thrives online, and the Internet also gives voice to people who actively and maliciously hate. This makes the Internet a minefield for those who may be scared, uncertain, or even unstable, and an unpleasant place for even the most well-adjusted trans person.
“Trigger warning” is a phrase so commonly used on the Internet nowadays that it has started to lose its utility as an indicator of potentially troubling content. However, it is a sad fact that the Internet is full of triggers for gender dysphoria and its accompanying complications. As a diagnosis, gender dysphoria often carries with it other comorbidities, depression and anxiety chief among them. Suicidal ideation is also tragically common (Cole, Emory, Meyer, & O’Boyle, 1997; Hoshiai, et al., 2010). High ideation leads to high action, and studies have found that upwards of 40% of trans people have attempted suicide at least once their lives, with the highest percentage of attempts happening to those between the ages of 18-44 (Hoshiai, et al., 2010; Haas, Rogers, and Herman, 2014). And those are the survivors; it’s impossible to know how many people the trans community loses each year from those who succeed in their attempts. No doubt, the community loses many of its own to this most tragic of ends.
I, myself, was once one of those unstable, uncertain transgender people. For thirty-seven years of my life I had buried my dysphoria so deeply that by the time I began to admit to myself that I had to do something positive and proactive about the way I felt, I was already deep in the grip of clinical depression, and suicidal ideation had already made an appearance. When I first started looking for resources on being transgender, my hope was to find resources that would help me understand myself and my situation better. Instead, I very quickly stumbled upon sites that did nothing but worsen my already fragile mental state.
For starters, I came across sites promoting the idea of autogynephilia. Within the professional medical community, autogynephilia – the idea that transgender women are really just men with an extreme self-sexual attraction – is a widely discredited idea, as is the entire idea of Blanchard’s transsexualism typography, a “theory” designed to completely eliminate transgender identity as a legitimate identity (Mosher, 2010; Serano, 2010). It clings to life, however, both in the DSM-V (as a subcategory of “transvestic fetishism”) and on the Internet. Autogynephilia is an easy way for transphobic individuals to deny the identity of trans women (its counterpart for trans men, autoandrophilia, is far less common). For someone questioning the legitimacy of their own identity, autogynephilia is a harsh and negative idea to consider.
There were also what I later learned were sites written by trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), though at the time I felt each one was just saying the “hard truth” about myself and my identity. Like those promoting autogynephilia, these sites denied the identity of trans people; they implied that trans people, and especially trans women, were perverts and mentally damaged people who were perpetuating lies on their family and friends. Sites like Gender Identity Watch, which I distinctly recall stumbling upon early on, are actively working to deny the identities of trans individuals. GIW even goes so far as to post individuals’ birth names and to insist on referring to them by their birth name and birth-assigned pronouns. For someone who was questioning the legitimacy of her own feelings, seeing these sites confirmed the doubts I had in my heart only served to make me feel even worse about myself.
These were the specific sites that I encountered as I struggled with my identity. They’re only a sampling of the variety of websites out there denying the reality of the lived experience of trans people of every stripe.
No discussion of the hidden negative landmines of the Internet would be complete without discussing news and blog comments sections. I am firmly convinced that, if there is a Hell, one circle is made up of a never-ending stream of Internet comments sections. It is disheartening to read all of the vile, vitriolic hatred that shows up in the comments section of any story about transgender people. In my early days of exploration, stories about Coy Mathis, the six-year-old Colorado child who sparked a nationwide debate about bathroom rights, were drawing the most attention and therefore the most hateful commentary. It was common to read Coy being decried as a confused little boy and her parents as abusive attention-seekers. That was in early 2013, but even as I write this at the end of 2014, considered by many a watershed year for transgender people in the United States and around the world, it is common to visit the comments sections of transgender-related articles – even in major publications like Rolling Stone — and find people insisting that transgender people are just living out a “sexual fetish”, calling trans people “perverts”, and generally denying trans people’s legitimate identities.
Of course, none of this even addresses the other big risk trans people face when they go online: the very real possibility for targeted harassment. The Internet is such a potentially wonderful place to come out, especially if one is in a life situation that doesn’t allow the open expression of one’s gender identity; however, that coming out comes with the risk of exposing oneself to those inclined to abuse and attack. Cyberbullying and cyber harassment are widespread on social networks, and there are some people out there who view transgender people as a particularly choice target for harassment. While I have been fortunate thus far not to draw much direct harassment online, I have witnessed countless other trans men and women, those who put themselves out there, who speak up, who stand out, and I have seen them targeted for all sorts of online abuse, from crude insults to directed harassment to outright doxing. The Internet offers up the unique combination of a free voice and total anonymity, a combination that enables many stalkers and abusers of the trans community.
For myself, the encountering of all this Internet negativity came along at the worst time possible. These sites and comments added weight to the already sinking feelings of my depression, and they provided justification for my suicidal ideation. Eventually, ideation became intention, and I quite literally found myself on the precipice of suicide. While these negative, delegitimizing sites were not the primary factor in my near-suicide, I assure you that they were inside the maelstrom of my emotions, lending credence to my doubts about myself and the value of my life.
I am fortunate in that I survived my darkest moments; but I wonder, had I encountered less hate and delegitimization online, would I have come to that low moment? Or would I have begun saving myself a little sooner?
The good news is that more people are writing nowadays positively about transgender experiences and issues online; in addition, more people are searching for transgender resources, allowing the word transgender itself to finally push to the forefront ahead of terms like transsexual and crossdresser. The old sites are out there; the outdated resources still lurk; the TERF sites remain popular and therefore survive in the rankings; but they all do so with more competition from better, transpositive sources.
In addition, the comments section phenomenon is beginning to lessen. More and more websites, in recognition of how a vitriolic comments section can reflect negatively on their site reputation, have been taking steps to curb the problem. Most sites nowadays require some sort of registration in order to comment, and many have switched to a Facebook-driven comments system that, at the very least, requires hateful commenters to put their own name on their words. Many sites also moderate comments; while not a perfect solution, this can help control the more offensive comments to some degree. An increasing number of sites have even decided that it takes too much effort to properly police comments, and they have taken a significant step of eliminating comments sections altogether. Each of these changes is a welcome development in the fight against transphobic content.
While things are getting better, there’s still plenty of negative, hurtful content on the Internet. What is the recourse for this? We cannot simply make the bad sites go away. What we can do, though, is be active and be proactive. We can participate in transgender conversations online, interact with our fellow trans people, and generally put ourselves out there as positive examples of what being trans really means. We can identify and support, though feedback, word-of-mouth recommendation, or financial contribution, the transpositive resources that exist online. If we meet someone who is just starting to transition, we can point them to those resources that will give them the information they seek and the support they require. We can tell them there’s help out there and you’re not alone. And, we can warn them about the sites they should not trust or the people they should be wary of.
We can also create new resources. Every new transpositive resource created on the Internet potentially pushes an old, transphobic resource further down the list of search results. New resources are also needed because some of the exiting transpositive resources are depressingly last-generation, touting ideas of hiding and stealth and warning at exactly how horrible being an open trans person is.
We need to create resources, and we need to maintain those resources — and I do mean maintain. Links die, sites move, new sources arise all the time, and a resource list that is full of 404 links isn’t helpful at all to someone who has nowhere else to turn.
While we certainly cannot eliminate the negative side of the Internet, we can all do a part to accentuate the transpositive side. The Internet is, without a doubt, one of the biggest things to happen to culture in my lifetime, and I have no doubt that on the whole it has been a significant net gain for the trans community. While hatred, ignorance, and transphobia aren’t going to go away, we can, as a community, do our best to marginalize, discredit, and talk over those views.
Cole, C.M., Emory, L.E., Meyer, W.J., & O’Boyle, M. (1997). Comorbidity of gender dysphoria and other major psychiatric diagnoses. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 26 (1): 13+.
Haas, A.P., Rodgers, P.L., & Herman, J.L. (2014, January). Suicide attempts among transgender and gender non-conforming adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention & The Williams Institute. Retrieved from http://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/AFSP-Williams-Suicide-Report-Final.pdf
Hoshiai, M., Matsumoto, Y. Sato, T. Ohnishi, M., Okabe, N., Kishimot, Y., Terada, S., & Kuroda, S. (2010). Psychiatric comorbidity among patients with gender identity disorder. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 64(5), 514-519.
Moser, C. (2010). Blanchard’s autogynephilia theory: A critique. Journal of Homosexuality, 57 (6): 790–809.
Serano, J. M. (2010). The case against autogynephilia. International Journal of Transgenderism, 12 (3): 176–187.