Communication Currents

Managing Transgender Identity Online

June 1, 2016

When André Cavalcante of the University of Virginia took a graduate school seminar about transgender identity, life, and politics, his curiosity about the role that technology played in the everyday lives of transgendered people began to grow.

Before the Internet era, popular transgender representations in the media were scant, and they generally provided disparaging portrayals. Serious information about transgender life was available only in niche media on the margins of society. But, the age of the Internet has provided people around the world with the ability to connect with other like-minded individuals. Using a case study that provides close analysis of what it means to transition gender in online environments, Cavalcante explores the relationship between technology and transgender identity.

Jen, a male-to-female transgender individual, began her gender transition at age 16. While her mother was supportive, her father was not.

“He did a big flip-flop when I was about 8 years old. He took all my toys and outfits he considered feminine and threw [them] out. He said, ‘it’s not cute anymore’ and my mom was hands-off and didn’t stop him.” Jen’s toys went from Barbies and a dollhouse to GI Joe and a machine gun. From that age, Jen was socialized as a boy. So, when she resolved to transition gender in her teen years, both small decisions about jewelry, and major life decisions regarding hormone therapy and how to present as a female in public, required deep thought and research.

At the time Cavalcante conducted his fieldwork, Jen was a 21-year-old transgender woman who was living in the suburbs of the American Midwest, where she was born and raised. She agreed to participate in Cavalcante’s research. In a voice recording from one of Cavalcante’s projects, Jen explains that she turned to digital media and online platforms to create an everyday life consistent with her with her female identity. Summing up her transition and the progress she has made, Jen concludes, “I did it all online.”

Jen’s matter-of-fact attitude about the role of the Internet in her transition process caught Cavalcante’s attention. Her ability to transition gender as a teenager and, even more, to do it “all online” was facilitated by very recent communication technologies and dynamic shifts in the media and information environment.

The Internet was “ready-to-hand” for Jen, or, in other words, readily available, participatory, and even taken for granted. One online resource Jen used was a website called Susan’s Place.

Susan’s Place as Counterpublic 

For Jen, transitioning brought up many questions, but no one in her immediate life could provide answers. So she turned to the Internet for assistance. Susan’s Place served as a “counterpublic,” a special kind of public that caters to the marginalized and disenfranchised. The public is a self-organized group that revolves around discourse and communicative exchange. It is created and maintained by members who have faith in its purpose and whose active participation sustains it over time. The public can create new worlds, social relations, and forms of citizenship and belonging for those who participate, but it also has distinct rules and boundaries, which can create social exclusions. This is where counterpublics come in. They are formed in opposition to more “dominant publics.” 

Throughout her transition, Jen used Susan’s Place as a counterpublic, a crucial, ready-to-hand resource. She learned about issues related to gender language, hormone treatments, surgery, law, and politics. When she could not find what she needed, Jen posted questions on the site’s forum and received nearly instantaneous feedback. She also responded to other members’ posts and began discussion threads of her own.

Susan’s Place as a Care Structure 

Susan’s Place also served as a care structure for Jen. “It kind of felt like a second home,” she said. As a fundamental resource of and for a human being, care can be organized, mobilized, and strategically deployed in and through “care structures.” Because of the marginality and precariousness of gender variance, living as a transgender person requires reliable structures of care and concern; such structures make the management of everyday life possible.

Those who transitioned before the Internet was readily available relied on the care structures of transgender support and advocacy groups as well as their pamphlets, which let them “be themselves” in ways only care structures can allow. In the Internet era, care structures have migrated online, making them more widely accessible.

Complications When “Doing It All Online” 

From time to time, even today, the Internet is not always ready-to-hand. For Jen, when her parents divorced, she and her mother faced periods of financial difficulty. During these times, the Internet and cable services were the first things to be sacrificed. To access high-speed Internet, Jen would visit the local LGBT community center, taking two buses and walking for 20 minutes to get there.

On another occasion, Jen served as a voice model for a speech therapist making an instructional YouTube video for transgender women looking to alter their voices. Though she assumed the audience for this video would be small, a college classmate apparently found the video and began sending Jen harassing emails.

Lack of Internet access and risk to one’s safety are just a couple of the complications that transgender individuals face when “doing it all online,” Calvalcante explains, noting that this approach offers both challenges and triumphs. The task for researchers, he says, is to discern and revise what it means to transition “all online.”

About the author (s)

André Cavalcante

University of Virginia

Assistant Professor