Digital environments function as generative resources for trans and gender non-conforming users, many of whom depend on such spaces for both identity affirmation and emotional support. For these users, the Internet presents both a means of affirming one’s identified gender and a method of connecting with other, similarly-identified users, even when those users are geographically distant. In addition, some prior scholars have characterized the Internet as an anonymous and “disembodied” space where the salience of physical gender expression may be lessened to some degree (e.g., Turkle 1995), helping to reduce anxiety about self-presentation. However, while it is true that the corporeal body itself remains obscure in digital contexts until deliberately represented by users, this process is fraught with its own set of challenges and constraints. As new tools have become available to represent the body in digital spaces, users have become increasingly reflective and intentional in their efforts to “bring the body online,” making careful decisions about when and where to reveal aspects of their embodiment, as well as which aspects to reveal and how to represent them.
My dissertation asks how transgender and gender-variant young people (between the ages of 18 and 25) work to manage their self-presentation on social media as they navigate social transition. Integrating analysis of respondents’ online activity with in-depth, interpretive interviews (conducted at two different time points), this research assesses how respondents manage their presentation of self cross-contextually as they navigate these online spaces, working to produce the appearance of a consistent and authentic self (while defending themselves against the possibility of identity challenges leveled by other users). I ask how the affordances of these myriad social media platforms shape online presentation and expression, and whether these online identity projects work in turn to shape self-concept and gender presentation in offline spaces.
With its substantive focus on the cross-contextual negotiation of gender and gender identity claims, this research offers a more tractable analytic focus around the question of how social infrastructure informs our access to opportunities for the “doing” (or “undoing”) of gender. By demonstrating how (and under what sets of conditions) the same respondents may elect to present themselves differently from one social context to the next, this research offers us tangible evidence of how social structure comes to inform identity performance, with a clarity that would be unattainable through the post-hoc reflections offered by interviews alone (and with a level of specificity that would be impossible in offline contexts, where these identity negotiations are neither as durable/persistent nor as immediately responsive to structural changes as they are within online space).