How the internet has created a place for transgender youth to meet and explore coming out

Read or follow the coverage of trans issues, and you’ll hear some people say that teens who change gender identities are in on the fad and social media is the culprit.

As a promoter of legislation that would restrict access to care for allegedly trans adolescents, social media platforms are where trans youth are falsely ‘convinced’ that their sense of identifying with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth gender dysphoria – are valid.

These fears of Instagram, Tumblr and TikTok as fertile ground for instilling gender dysphoria in young people are reminiscent of other moral panics on new media, of the paranoia of the Victorian era that serialized stories called ‘pennies. terrible ” would cause a wave of juvenile crime at 20th century anxiety on children’s exposure to violence on television.

Moreover, he ignores the long documented history of trans youth in North America, while assuming that trans youth using media to find social support and build community is somehow a new phenomenon.

As i found it in my research on the first digital trans communities, trans youth have been online since the late 1980s. They weren’t looking for information and community because their friends were all doing it. They did it on their own.

Trans adults are reluctant to commit

For a long time, adults in trans community organizations largely avoided contact with legal minors. Although many had recognized their own transgender feelings from an early age, they feared negative reactions from parents or law enforcement if they interacted with young people who sought them out.

In 1996, physician Sheila Kirk, medical advisor to the International Foundation for Gender Education – at the time the largest transgender advocacy organization – said the organization often had to cut off contact with adolescents who contacted them, since the majority of them did not have their parents’ consent to communicate with the organization.

In one 1996 columnTransgender editor Kymberleigh Richards wrote that adult members of regional trans support groups feared angry parents would accuse them of “contributing to juvenile delinquency.”

Even Richards, who had done informal phone counseling with trans youth, felt uncomfortable talking regularly with teens without a referring doctor or online nurse.

Yet Richards hoped that the Internet could be a safe space for these young people. Since many of these spaces were anonymous, trans youth could find support and resources by interacting with adults.

Call and make connections

Some of the earliest recorded examples of trans youth exploring online trans communities date back to 1988.

Unlike today’s still active internet, the online landscape of the late 80s and early 90s varied considerably. Some people connected with others on bulletin board systems, or BBS, which were independent computer servers, are often exhausted from the home of the system operator.

Instead of an IP or web address, users connect to a specific phone number using their modem. The cost of extended long distance calls primarily limited users to those who lived in the area code of the bulletin board system. In many ways, these networks were some of the earliest forms of social media.

Others have used national subscription services like America Online, CompuServe Information Service, Prodigy or Genie. More importantly, whether you are using a bulletin board system or a subscription service, you have received your own email address.

CompuServe was one of the many subscription services where trans community groups flourished in the 1980s.
jamescridland / flickr

On CompuServe Trans-specific Genderline Forum, chatrooms or CDForum, an early trans mailing list, trans youth were able to ask questions and learn how to safely explore their transgender feelings, find supportive therapists and develop their networks.

For example, Susie, 17, a first generation Chinese immigrant living in Canada, was a regular CDForum poster throughout 1992. In her archived emails, available through Queer Digital History Project, she asked the members for advice on managing her depression and kept them up to date on the major changes in her life.

Yet most of the members Susie and the other trans youth contacted were trans adults. Once the World Wide Web – and the homepage in particular – took off, the spaces created by and for trans youth became much more common.

Become visible

Although websites like GeoCities are now an internet joke, it was an important place for trans youth to come forward and publicly identify as trans.

From the mid to late 1990s, ad-supported web hosting services allowed users to create their own websites, or homepages, featuring a variety of personalized content, ranging from hobbies and fandoms to collections. photos and magazines.

2002 screenshot of archived web directory of transgender adolescents
The transgender teens web directory was a hub for trans youth to connect with each other.
Internet Archives

Compared to bulletin board systems or mailing lists, homepages were dynamic: most homepage designers would decorate their spaces just like you would your bedroom, using an array of colors, fonts, embedded music files and animated GIFs.

The Transgender Adolescents Web Directory, established in 1998 and last archived in 2002, included links, homepages and email addresses for young people from 32 different states. These home pages contained a variety of information, from tips on leaving and navigating high school, to continuing the medical transition in adolescence.

For example, the web diary of Transgendered Teens Web Directory founder Sarah, who has entries from 1997 to 2001, repeatedly refers to her email conversations with other trans youth, who support her while she navigates her changing identity, reaching out to her parents and making friends.

Screenshot of archived TransBoy Resource Network website from 1999
The TransBoy resource network offered information and support for interviewing the children.
Internet Archives

Trans youth also created resources focused on what they thought other youth needed. On the “About” page of the TransBoy Resource Network, the creator describes being inspired by his own experience with “the potential of the Internet to bring trans people together and for the dissemination of information.”

More importantly, for trans youth who couldn’t be themselves in real life, the homepage was a space for self-expression. On their pages, they could use gendered colors and graphics without fear of going out on their own, or post photos wearing the clothes they felt comfortable in without facing physical harassment. For trans creators who had supportive parents, their homepage might even become a place to share their transitional progress, posting photos with each new personal step.

Much like today’s social media profiles, the homepage has become an ideal digital version of oneself. Over time, the growing number of pages meant that young trans surfing the web were, as teenager Dylan Jared wrote on his own page, still able to “run into people like them.”

Trans teens expand their ranks

Through these online spaces, what once seemed rare – publicly identifying as trans before becoming an adult – was quickly becoming a common experience for much of the trans community.

As trans youth became more visible, organizations felt empowered to actively advocate for their cause. Issues Facing Trans Youth were a central theme of the 2004 IFGE annual conference, although some participants were still concerned about the “ethical issues” associated with giving presentations by young people.

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Throughout the 2000s, the number of people in North America who identified as trans earlier in life grew exponentially. Now some trans-claiming clinics struggle to see all of their potential patients.

This change would not have been possible without the reach of the internet, which has shown that trans youth have always been here. Online communities have given them a place – and a space – to be themselves, without fear of being ostracized, undermined or harassed.

And it’s having the support of their peers, not a passing social media fad, that gives them the courage to come forward, yesterday and today.

About Dora Kohler

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