Weal and Woe: Being Transgender on the Internet

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. Before I received any editorial feedback, however, the project was unfortunately cancelled. I have considered submitting it elsewhere, but ultimately 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 Old, outdated, and simply wrong-headed information thrives online, and the Internet also gives voice to people who actively and maliciously hate.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.

References

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.

Rewriting the Plot

The last few months have been harried. My schedule, such as it is, has been chaotic. Meaningful full-time employment continues to elude me (there are too many English majors and not enough jobs out there) leaving me working long hours of brain-numbing underemployment, and writing time continues to suffer as a result. My diet is derailed, I’m no longer able to see my gender specialist MD without paying out of pocket, and I have house repairs in need of doing that I don’t have the budget to do. And on top of that, I’m trying to go back to school to make myself more marketable, which brings with it more stress and debt.

I don’t bring all this up to whine, just to say: life sucks sometimes, and when it does, I don’t find the time to blog.

I hope to turn that around in the coming months, as things settle back down into a routine again and the new school year starts. But as I think about picking the blog back up, I find myself casting about for what to write about, and I wonder if there’s still anyone out there reading, anyways. I had a good run with my transition journey, but that’s practically over now; I am living life as myself, I’m happy and whole, and even though there’s surgeries in my future they’re not anything I’m going to experience anytime soon. And beyond transiton, what do I have to say that might make my writing interesting, unique, or worth sharing on social media.

I have some ideas, but I don’t know where they will lead. Should be interesting to explore though. Stay tuned.

New Skeptoid Episode: Cattle Mutilations

Just a quick update this time, to let you all know that a new episode of Skeptoid dropped this week with my name on it. It’s about Cattle Mutilations, and it’s the fourth of my eight guest turns for the show.

I’m pleased with the new episode. I think I’ve finally found a good balance in terms of scripting, delivery, and recording/post-processing. Not that I’m down on my earlier episodes, but I think think one is my best so far.

I’m debating my next script now (episode will be releasing in about seven weeks). I have a script half-finished, but it’s another UFO/aliens related one and I’ve done two of those already (three if you count War of the Worlds). I’m thinking I might go the cryptid route with the next one. Not Bigfoot, but something more local to my part of the world. More to come …

March Update

Wow. Where did February go? Can’t believe it’s March 1 already, nor that I didn’t post a thing here for almost the entire month.

The first part of 2015 will definitely not go down in my personal record books as one of the best times of my life. Money/employment continues to be a huge struggle, one that has been sapping my time, attention, and drive to write anything for free (a.k.a. “blogging”). All the momentum in my writing that I had in November/December is lost; even my Skeptoid blogging, which was often the highlight of my writing week, has been puttering out at the pace of about one article every two weeks. This week is also the one-year anniversary of the death of my father, so emotions aren’t exactly buoyant at the moment.

On the bright side, today, March 1, looks like it might be the start of a turnaround. Haven’t successfully stopped the out-of-control crash course yet, but the nose of this plummeting plane is finally starting to lift; the brakes on this out-of-control train are beginning to squeal as it approaches the canyon; the rear-end of the automobile has stopped completely fish-tailing and I’m reaching for the steering wheel. I’m still bracing for impact, though. Can’t be too careful, and something else can always go wrong.

What I need is for an action hero to step into my life to save the day. Chris Pratt, where are you when a girl needs you?

Resurrecting Transgender Science

So something interesting and unexpected has happened: Transgender Science is coming back.

For those who weren’t around: in 2013 I started a Tumblr blog where I intended to blog about science and health issues of interest to transgender people. At the time I envisioned myself being a science journalist, doing research, writing long articles, etc. I had some fun with it for awhile and it got some responses, but about a year ago it fell off my priority list and died off. No one seemed to miss it so I didn’t make an effort to bring it back. A few months ago I let the URL expire and ported all the articles back to this blog.

Fast forward to last week, where I ran across some articles I felt would have been well suited for TransSci. Since my Facebook and Twitter feeds for TransSci were still out there with followers, tossed the links on them. And to my surprise, I got some positive responses! Facebook, in particular, seemed to latch onto the posts I made — I think maybe “transgender” is a hot term in its algorithms right now — and I began to see Likes and comments on the FB page. So I found some more links, put them up, and got more Likes, more feedback.

If there are people interested, I’m going to keep posting stuff. I’m going to keep it to social media for now — no separate blog again, for sure! — and I’m not going to push myself to do a lot of writing for it. Links and commentary, mostly, with maybe the occassional article appearing on this blog.

You can find TransSci on Facebook and Twitter. Please feel free to Like/Follow if you’re interested. The archived articles from 2013-2014 are here.

Go Read This M:tG Story

I do not read Magic: the Gathering fiction normally. I don’t know who the Mardu are, I’ve never learned of the naming rituals of orcs, and I have no idea why the  brood of the Kolaghan is on the attack. But I do know good fiction when I read it, and the M:tG short story “The Truth of Names” is a pretty good read. You can read it here.

Honestly, I really, really wish I’d written this story. Also, I really want her card now. In fact, I wonder what a deck built around her would look like …

Tara’s back!

Trying to get back in the writing habit this month, and it’s been a struggle. Inspiration is a fickle things influenced by too many random variables, and the random variables have not been coming up in my favor since Christmas. As it turns out, writing is somewhere higher up on Maslow’s hierarchy than is the life I have been living of late.

I was also stuck on what turned out to be a tricky moment in The Trials of Tara Titan (hereafter TTT because why not?). It was sort of a denouement moment for the current “issue,” AND I wanted to drop some plot hints, AND I wanted to insert a new recurring character. But I’m finally done, and the new part is up. It’s the second-longest part I’ve posted.

Tara Titan 2.5: Brother Tiresias

If you read it and like it, please consider voting for it and leaving a comment. Both help me gain ranking and views on Wattpad.

 

A Statement About My Voice

I had a new episode of Skeptoid release recently, and it’s happened again: I’m getting shitty comments about my voice. I have been misgendered.  I have been told I don’t sound “natural.” I have been compared to one of the Venture Brothers. In short, let’s just say that this week has not been a good one for my dysphoria.

To those put off by my voice: I’m sorry that my voice isn’t able to sound like a cis woman’s voice. It’s not a cis woman’s voice, and so far I have failed in my attempts to make it sound like a cis woman’s voice. Voice training is difficult and so often feels futile. Everything I do in life gets judged to impossible-to-meet cis standards, and my voice is one of the worst in terms of my transition so far. It’s a tell I can’t seem to do anything about.

But you know what? It’s my voice. Stop shaming me for it. Your standards are cisnormative and transphobic, and if you don’t like my voice I invite you to read the transcript of my episodes and kindly keep your comments to yourself.

Ali’s First Christmas

It’s my first Christmas as Alison, and in many ways I have never been happier.

The blog has died down in recent weeks, but I’m not stressing about it. I’ve been doing a lot of writing, both over at Wattpad and in a private writing group where I’m blazing on a novel. It feels good.

Life just feels good, generally. My first Christmas as myself, both in my heart and on my driver’s license, is something I’ve wanted for a long time. I was so close to it last year, but it was a few days after Christmas that I came out to my kids and more than a month later before I started telling everyone. To be here now, a year later, finally whole … the feeling can’t be quantified. It just is.

Oh! And I was recently interviewed for an article in the Toledo Blaze, a thing that happened because someone read the Skeptoid article I wrote on Christmas last year. So that was pretty cool.

There are a lot of things I could be complaining about right now, job and money chief amongst them, but there will be time for that after the holidays.  I will also write more regularly on the blog again after the new year. The next few days are about my kids, my family, and my Self.

Happy holidays, everyone.