I have been active in the online transgender community for about a year and a half. In that time, I have become familiar with much of the normative behavior in these spaces. Oftentimes, people are very supportive: liking selfies, promoting creative work, contributing to Kickstarters and Go-Fund-Me’s, sharing recommendations and information.There is other behavior, however, that I find less than helpful. I will describe some of these practices, and my reason for disliking them, below.
I want to make clear that my purpose for writing is not to attack individuals. I believe that most community members are doing their best to connect with, and support, each other. To my knowledge, most trans people grapple with internalized transphobia and cis-normativity. I see much of the negative behavior as a reflection of these ingrained ways of thinking, particularly around medical transitions and diagnosis being the only path to legitimate trans identity. Though none of this behavior is completely our fault as individuals, I do believe it is our responsibility to recognize, interrogate, and try to disconnect from it.
Though I also interact with trans folks offline, online spaces are important to focus on because it is there that ideas can spread quickly among a global audience, shaping internal and external ideas about what it means to be transgender. In the following sections, I want to bring attention to some of the ways in which trans folks’ online behavior upholds transphobic and cis-normative ideas. In recognizing how some of our current practices can be reductive and harmful, I am hoping to inspire our community to act in ways that more fully undermine gender-based oppression instead of upholding it.
1: Bios with Hormone and Surgery Dates
On Twitter and Instagram, a good chunk of transmaculine folks have a bio that includes the date that they started taking hormones, usually accompanied by a syringe emoji, and/or the date they got top surgery, usually with a knife emoji. (As a note, I have not seen this norm among transfeminine or non-binary users.)
I take issue with folks putting this information in their profiles because it upholds ideas about transgender identity being reliant upon medical transition. Conflating being trans with wanting or needing medical care is troubling because it conforms to notions that trans folks are only who we say we are when our bodies are remade in the image of the opposite binary sex. These ideas continue to present barriers to trans people’s well-being.
Take legal gender marker change for example. As of 2017, all states and districts except Oregon and D.C. required a doctor’s note confirming one’s gender-affirming treatment in order to change a gender marker — from Male to Female, or vice versa — on state-issued identification. Many states have even more specific laws around what kind of treatment is needed to legally change a gender marker. Though in the early 00’s most states adopted laws to allow gender marker changes, most still require proof of sexual reassignment surgery (also called bottom surgery). On the national level, agencies shifted from requiring sexual reassignment surgery to instead asking for a doctor’s letter about some type of gender-affirming treatment in 2010.
I want to make a tangential note that a few states and D.C. have started to adopt third gender (X) options for identification that do not necessitate proof of medical procedures. This is progress for some folks in some states, but systemic barriers based on conflation of medical diagnosis and trans identity remain in place for most trans people in the U.S.
Gender marker gatekeeping related to medical procedures is a huge problem for binary trans folks because many people cannot afford, or simply do not want, the required medical care. With these policies in place, the government is telling binary transgender people that they are not really who they say they are until they check the box(es) of medically transitioning.
Although there is no ‘correct’ way to be transgender, the laws of most states say otherwise. The cis-dominated world of government has told us that medically transitioning is important to our legitimacy and, largely, we have bought in. I am not saying that folks shouldn’t share information about their medical transitions online; I think building community knowledge is useful. I don’t, however, believe that it is constructive to introduce the dates of gender-affirming care as one of the first things someone should learn about you. Transgender people are not defined by their medical transitions. I hope that the transmasculine community can affirm this statement by no longer presenting their procedure dates among their defining characteristics.
2: Comparison Photos
Before and after transition photos have long been common in online transgender communities, particularly on Instagram, but the Ten Year Challenge (in which a user posts a picture of themselves from 2009, or thereabouts, alongside one from 2019) brought their prevalence to a whole new level. While I am happy that people are proud of their body’s changes, I think this behavior also contributes to the normalization of medical transitions that produce a conventionally attractive body (read: white, thin, able, etc.) that adheres to the rules of the gender binary.
This behavior can be understood as trans people asserting their presence as their fully-realized selves, being out and proud in the face of a still largely transphobic (and at the very least cis-centric) society. But, I think that comparison photos are a particular genre of post that do more harm than good. When well-followed users share medical-transition-related content, they end up taking up a great deal of space in our collective consciousness about trans people, blocking out other expressions of transgender identity. This matters for everyone’s understanding of who makes up our community.
One audience for these well-followed accounts is cisgender people in general. With limited exposure to the trans community, cis folks likely hold a lot of incorrect assumptions about us. These may include that only medical treatment can legitimize one’s gender and that trans people can only have binary identities.
Unsurprisingly, transition comparison pictures are the most-liked posts for many popular trans accounts. An easy explanation for this is that these posts do not challenge ingrained notions about the gender binary. They show trans people at their most palatable and conformist, an interesting and harmless phenomenon. Whereas before pictures often present their subjects as outwardly gender non-conforming, after images reveal someone who has been made easily readable as a man or woman through hormones and/or surgery.
Though trans folks who aren’t medically transitioning do post photo comparisons, they do not show this level of dramatic non-conforming to conforming change that inspires a sense of order. Therefore, these images receive fewer likes and less visibility than counterparts from jaw-dropping hormone-fueled transitions.
The people in binary medical transition pictures often go from pushing the boundaries of the binary to falling firmly within them, implying that trans people want to transition so we can look like everyone else. While this is a goal for many people in the community, the proliferation of these posts conveys a false message that all trans people can, should, and want to conform.
A trans online community in which comparison photos prevail as one of the most viewed types of content sets an expectation for cis viewers that they need not expand their world view to treat trans people with respect. Rather, the narrative of these images says that trans individuals are the ones that need to do all the work to gain legitimacy for ourselves, and the way to do that is through a binary medical transition. This messaging leaves binary trans folks who don’t pass and non-binary people out on a limb. Oftentimes, cis folks around us need to do a little mental work to address us by our correct name and pronouns. It is all the harder to convince them of the importance of showing us this respect when part of the dominant trans narrative says our goal should be to pass as a binary gender, thus not burdening those around us with non-obvious names and pronouns.
Nothing exemplifies cis folks belief that passing is among all trans people’s ultimate goals more than the fact that I continue to hear them say, “I couldn’t even tell you/they were trans!” in hopes of giving me and other trans folks a high compliment. To cis people, the best trans person may be the one who doesn’t cause any discomfort, but for trans people, the ways in which we fully express ourselves are highly individualized and not always conformist. Trans folks with large social media platforms should aim to make more space for our community’s variety to shine through so that cis folks can get a more accurate view of who we are.
It is also important to consider that popular trans accounts are influencing those who are questioning their assigned gender at birth. When I was starting to come to terms with my gender identity, social media was one of my main sites of learning. This is common particularly among teens and adults isolated from out trans people.
YouTube was my preferred platform for learning about the trans community, and I remember an overwhelming presence of transition comparison videos among the popular content. It took a while to run into any videos made by non-binary people and, like on Instagram, there was (and is) little representation from folks who aren’t medically transitioning (or of disability or fatness, etc.) among popular accounts. The effect of this deluge of transition timeline videos and comparison photos is that it can be hard for a non-binary person, like me, to discover their place in the community. When you’re still curious about if you might belong to a group or not and you don’t see someone that very closely mirrors your experience, you may end up concluding that the group is not for you.
Thus, who the trans community makes visible matters both to outsiders and potential new members. It also matters to members of the community as not seeing oneself reflected in media can negatively impact one’s mental health and sense of belonging. Comparison photos and transition timeline videos are two examples of binary trans people taking up a disproportionate amount of space. In order to remedy this situation, we must not following trends that make binary medical transitions more visible at the expense of other trans experiences. Those with high follower counts must use their platform to link to trans folks with more marginalized identities. Non-binary people and those not medically transitioning are the most salient groups to discuss in relation to comparison content, but we also must keep an awareness of who is and isn’t visible when it comes to race, (dis)ability, and body type, to name a few examples.
3: The “Do You Need Dysphoria to be Trans” Debate
This is, to my knowledge, currently the most debated topic within the online trans community. I find this discussion very troubling because folks are taking it upon themselves to define what being trans means for others. It shouldn’t be anyone’s place to say if another person has the right to identify as transgender or not.
Of what I’ve seen, many trans people with large followings come down on the side that you need dysphoria to be transgender. According to my experience and accounts on SJWiki, most vocal people on this side of the argument are young white trans men. They often call themselves transmedicalists, though those on the opposing side (like me) refer to them as truscum. Central to their point is the idea that there would be no need to transition if you didn’t feel discomfort with your body. The thought that their own experience is the only way to be transgender shows a lack of humility and imagination.
Attempts at gatekeeping within our own community can be understood as a continuation of bounary drawing by cis medical providers that goes back decades and continues today. Trans people have a history of being kept from transitioning by stringent medical and psychological testing based on normative ideas about what trans-ness looks like. Not conforming to expected behavior can have serious consequences. Famously, transgender man Lou Sullivan was repeatedly denied surgery in the 1970s because he was gay, breaking a stereotype that trans men transitioned in order to adhere to heterosexuality.
Gatekeeping is more regulated today, based on diagnosis of gender dysphoria. In order to receive gender-affirming care, one must fall in line with what dysphoria should look like. Based on the DSM-5, this involves meeting at least two of six criteria which reference discomfort with one’s gender and a need to be seen as the “other” gender. The World Professional Organization for Transgender Health (WPATH) Standards of Care recognize a larger diversity of trans identities and gender expressions that may not fit the DSM’s mold while asserting that these individuals also deserve the care they seek. Unfortunately, insurance companies, and many providers, go by the more-rigid DSM.
There is also the continued transphobic background static (turning to loud noise with the actions of the Trump Administration and its supporters) that says that no one is really trans, we are all mistaken. I understand the internal barrier creation as a flawed defense mechanism against outsiders trying to erase trans people from existence. Unfortunately, in trying to assert legitimacy, some trans folks have ended up harming their own community.
Binary and passing transgender people, like the one’s who get thousands of likes on their transition comparison content, have it relatively easy to be accepted into mainstream society. As explained above, their presence does not inherently disrupt the gender binary or cis comfort. It is trans men who fit these categories who I have seen promote the ideas that some people are just identifying as trans because they think it’s cool (controversial and not largely supported) and/or that you need dysphoria to be trans (seen as much more acceptable). These assertions can be understood as attempts for conformist trans folks to gain acceptance for themselves at the expense of the rest of us.
We can analyze this behavior through the lens of respectability politics. The concept, coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in 1993 to talk about the history of black women in the baptist church, involves intragroup rule-making with the goal of conforming to mainstream society. This is in contrast to the more radical and transformative path of challenging society to respect a group’s differences. Adhering to respectability politics means those who are willing and able to comply may gain respect while leaving behind their (ex-)community members who do not. As I read from Twitter user @hologramvin, transmedicalism is also colonialist in that it centers a white Western definition of transgender, delegitimizing genders from other cultures that have long existed without need for our type of medical transitions.
Where binary passing, and otherwise privileged, trans people should be advocating for rights and respect for everyone else, they are abandoning those who don’t easily fit in in favor of reaching for their own comfort and assimilation. Though I am non-binary, I inhabit many other positions of privilege and am continually working on how to use my visibility to stand up for everyone in the community. We must all make space for, and support, everyone who identifies as transgender. There is so much anti-trans sentiment in the world, and I wish that hate within our community was not adding to the problem. It is no one else’s place to tell another person how they can/should identify. If the trans label makes sense for someone, they should be able to use it.
Because I see the trans community from the perspective of a non-binary, agender person, my main critiques here have been about the centering of the binary trans experience. These, however, are certainly not the only issues we have related to the centering of certain trans stories over others. For example, I am white, thin, and able-bodied, all characteristics that are very visible within the online trans community (see my #Nonbinaryisntwhite post for more on this topic). I want to end by promoting trans folks who inhabit other marginalized identities. It is my hope that this will help readers further expand their notion of what it can mean to be transgender, so that all our experiences are seen as legitimate and worthy of respect.
Aaron Phillip, a disabled gender non-conforming black trans woman and model.
Nic Masangkay, “a Filipinx, queer and trans poet, music producer, and singer-songwriter based in Seattle.”
Ebo Barton, “a Black and Filipino, Transgender and Non-Binary, poet and educator.”
Alok V. Menon, an Indian-American “gender non-conforming performance artist, writer, and educator.”
Jon Paul aka Jonathan P. Higgins, a non-binary queer black person working education and social justice.
This is no means a complete spectrum of trans identity, but a place to start. I encourage you to do your own exploring and learn from a wide variety of trans voices.
[Read a continuation of my thoughts about trans community norms here.]
You can follow Alix on Instagram and Twitter @alixwuzhere.
If you liked this piece, in lieu of compensating me, click the link to donate to the Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network and/or support the trans folks listed above in the conclusion!