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Seeing Stars: Two Cents On the Internet “Trans Trend”

This post was previously featured October 8, 2018 at Gender & Society.

In the 2014 TIME feature “The Transgender Tipping Point,” Laverne Cox – an out trans woman, and the cover model profiled in the piece – argued that rapidly-increasing public awareness of what it means to be trans has made it easier than ever before for gender non-conforming Americans to claim a trans identity label. “We are in a place now where more and more trans people want to come forward and say, ‘This is who I am,’” she suggested. “More of us are living and pursuing our dreams visibly.”

Cox is right, of course – trans people and trans identities are becoming more visible. A widely-reported recent study in Pediatrics (Rider et al 2018) reported that as many as 3% of contemporary teens may identify themselves as gender non-conforming, an estimate which triples previous assumptions; the authors offer, tentatively, that “diverse gender identities are more prevalent than people would expect” (Warner 2018). However, this increasing visibility hasn’t translated into increasing acceptance: in fact, more often than not, it’s tended to generate suspicion, with some speculating that young people may be adopting trans identity labels in an effort to “look cool” or attain social status (a phenomenon that the “gender-critical” blogosphere has termed “trans-trending”). In my recent work on the construction of “accountable” trans identity narratives, respondents voiced ongoing concern about these beliefs, worried that others might interpret their coming-out and transition process as a plea for attention. Some non-binary respondents went so far as to disavow the fluidity of their own identities in interactions with others, presenting more stereotypic or “binary” accounts of their experience than they might otherwise have favored.

Unfortunately, as trans youth have become more visible, the notion of “trans-trending” has seemed to gain public traction too. While some populations – for example, TERFs – have argued the existence of “trans-trending” for many years, it’s only recently that the phrase has entered popular discourse. Late last year, the Icahn School of Medicine recruited parents and children to participate in the first empirical study of what P.I. Lisa Littman terms “rapid-onset gender dysphoria”: adolescent coming-out experiences that occur alongside “an increase in social media and Internet use” (Littman 2017). Already – and in spite of multiple critiques decrying the Littman project as “junk science” – a community of skeptical parents has rallied in defense of the work, affirming Littman’s recognition of what they’ve termed “ROGD.” As one parent writes:

Our children are young, naïve, and impressionable…they are strongly influenced by their peers and by the media, who are promoting the transgender lifestyle as popular, desirable and the solution to all of their problems…and we are horrified at the growing number of young people whose bodies have been disfigured [by] transitioning.

The argument is that the Internet and social media play a key role in facilitating this alleged “social contagion” (Christakis & Fowler 2013). While evidence to support the “contagion” of social identities is limited, there is evidence to support the idea that some users – in particular, young users (Gross et al 2010) and users with pre-existing mental health conditions (Bell 2007) – may be more susceptible to peer influence online than other groups of users, facilitating the transmission of particular social behaviors. Similar arguments have been levied against various “extreme communities” – online spaces promoting physically dangerous behaviors (for instance, pro-ana communities). These communities are thought to target vulnerable readers, seducing them with the promise of inclusion and increased social status. Those who propose “trans-trending” argue that online spaces organized around trans identities may operate in similar ways.

However, I’d like to propose an alternative explanation: namely, that these online spaces may be uniquely attractive to trans users (and, in particular, to non-binary users – often, the users most likely to be called out as “trans-trenders”) because of the new embodied possibilities that these spaces offer them. In offline contexts, non-binary folks typically find their identities elided in interactions with others. Even if they explicitly attempt to present themselves as androgynous, others may thwart their efforts, assigning them instinctively to whichever category seems the “closest  fit.”

Yet, in online contexts, new possibilities emerge. Part of the appeal of these online spaces is the prospect of being able to represent the self in ways that would be impossible in “real time.” Users can attach durable identity labels to themselves by including identity descriptors in their social media profiles, or adding identity-specific tags to the images they post; they can create online avatars that transcend gender, or avoid creating any visual representations of self altogether; they can create and manage multiple profiles, across multiple platforms, each of which might offer a different performance of gender. The Internet enables users to “do” gender identity in a variety of novel (and empowering!) ways. As one of my respondents (Ben, a 19-year-old trans man) explained:

I think [the Internet] is really different…like, I know a lot of people that identify as trans on the Internet, but in real life, they’re in the closet completely…I know [some] trans women who are like this, where they’ll have, like, female characters online, but then in real life they don’t medically transition…because they feel like no one will take them seriously. They feel like, ‘I could never be a real girl’…I see that happen a lot…Like, people in real-life trans spaces – most of the people in those spaces are usually the people who can pass, [or] people that are better at handling social situations…the Internet is a safer place than real life is, a lot of the time.

Those who argue that the Internet has created a “trans trend” conflate correlation with causation: they presume that social media use has caused an increase in social media users identifying as trans or non-binary. In fact, however, the Internet has simply facilitated this increase, by providing trans users (and non-binary users in particular) with new, accessible, and visible means of enacting their identities for others. Trans and non-binary people have always existed – perhaps, have always existed even in the numbers they do now — but, not unlike the stars above us, we can realize their presence only once we’ve created the conditions to see them.

References

Bell, V. (2007) “Online Information, Extreme Communities, and Internet Therapy:  Is the Internet Good for Our Mental Health?” Journal of Mental Health 16(4): 445-457.

Gross, E.F., J. Juvonen, and S.L. Gable. (2002) “Internet Use and Well-Being in Adolescence.” Journal of Social Issues 58: 75-90.

Christakis, N. A. and J.H. Fowler. (2013) “Social Contagion Theory: Examining Dynamic Social Networks and Human Behavior.” Statistics in Medicine 32(4): 556-577.

Rider, G.N., B.J. McMorris, A.L. Gower, E. Coleman, and M.E. Eisenberg. (2018)  “Health and Care Utilization of Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Youth: A Population-Based Study.” Pediatrics 141(3): p. 1683-1692.

Littman, L.L. (2017) “Rapid Onset of Gender Dysphoria in Adolescents and Young Adults: A Descriptive Study.” Journal of Adolescent Health 60(2): s95-s96.

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Spencer is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Michigan — Ann Arbor. He is a Rackham Merit Fellow, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow, and an affiliate of the University’s Graduate Certificate Program in LGBTQ Studies.

Spencer’s dissertation asks how the structure and affordances of popular social media platforms — specifically, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr — help to facilitate (and to shape) individual identity projects, and how young people in the process of adopting new identity labels organize their presentation of self across these platforms. Other research interests include sex and gender, sexualities (broadly defined), embodiment, social networks, the sociology of space, and queer and feminist methods.