‘A Panorama of Toxicity’: On Being a Trans Woman Online

The realities of trans women’s experience with social media remind us that a discussion about "toxicity" online cannot be contained by the artificial boundaries of “Twitter feminism.” The problem is much larger than Twitter or any number of internal activist flare-ups. It encompasses the entire online world.

A lot of #LiesToldByFemales are women claiming to adhere more closely to traditional gender roles than they actually do. Computer via Shutterstock

“If I were sixteen or seventeen years old and had to listen to that, or read things like that I would want to give up listening and reading. I would begin thinking up new kinds of sounds, different from any music heard before, and I would be twisting and turning to rid myself of human language.” —Lewis Thomas

Courtesy of a new story in The Nation magazine by Michelle Goldberg, the issue of the “toxicity” in online feminism, specifically on Twitter, has been thrust into the glaring lights of public scrutiny. Yet the paradigmatic examples its author chose have ensured that discussion has already devolved into a fixation on the most privileged participants in feminist activism.

When I wrote recently on the subject of activist rage, my chief interest was not in assuaging the feelings of the already privileged, but rather to elucidate one sector of a much wider, abusive culture that encompasses the entire Internet and the whole political spectrum therein. My big fear with the way the term “toxicity” is now being bandied about is that it will be understood as a shorthand dog-whistle to stigmatize marginalized peoples’ forthright efforts to talk back to the powerful. This would be a mistake.

Not only would that be tragic from the perspective of advocacy, but it would be a downright Orwellian misrepresentation of the phenomenon’s actual dimensions.

The realities of trans women’s experience with social media remain instructive, and remind us that this discussion cannot be contained by the artificial boundaries of “Twitter feminism.” The problem is much larger than Twitter or any number of internal activist flare-ups. It encompasses the entire online world.

Much ink, including some of my own, has been spilled on the ways that online culture is especially abusive to women as a whole. For trans women in particular, our transgender status refracts the misogyny directed at us in a particularly odious way that often leaves us unrecognizable to ourselves.

For us, the Internet is a panorama of toxicity.

The comments beneath a recent Los Angeles Times article about a new in-depth study on transgender suicide are a useful place to start. Few places epitomize the dangers of the Internet’s amoral anarchism than comments sections on many news sites, which are often poorly moderated and allowed to degenerate into all manner of belligerence. But contrary to the stereotype of anonymous youngsters engaged in all-caps tirades, liberally employing all the swear words they’ve recently learned, the comments on that LA Times piece and the personal hate mail that transfeminist writer Kat Haché held up for scrutiny on her blog betray the sober, calm, but utterly cruel lecturing that characterizes a whole strain of online culture’s posture towards trans women:

“This is not a ‘politically correct’ or popular opinion, but you have to be very screwed up in the head to … want to be surgically mutilated to playact a sex role.”

“If you want to reduce the suicide rate, you need to stop pretending that being transgendered is not a mental disease.”

“Is anyone surprised to learn that [people] who define themselves by their self-hatred and who devote their lives to poisoning and mutilating their own healthy bodies have a high rate of suicide attempts?”

These comments could have appeared just as easily on any number of other news sites that allow wide latitude to commenters to bully and harass under painfully lax and meaningless terms of service. But what links these and many other LA Times comments that Haché highlighted is their chilling calmness—the lack of swears and overt slurs is a deafening silence here—and it should serve as a reminder that online “toxicity” is not simply defined by overt displays of anger. It manifests through prejudice, whatever the tone.

The fixation on trans women’s bodies, genitalia, and reproductive choices is central to all of this, and expressed in fittingly clinical language. It is easy to imagine a young trans woman, unsure of herself and her identity, reading these comments and fearing her destiny lies in some shade of oblivion. For many years, the words of people like this, whether on television, from my father’s mouth, or in magazines, shaped the profound self-loathing that characterized my pre-coming out years. It provided the only picture of what I could be, and became the language that saw me twisting and turning to rid myself of it—and perhaps life itself.

“My body, my choice” was not a lesson I could glean from so malignant a cultural education, and I can only imagine how much worse it is for today’s young trans girls with Internet access, being barraged with this sort of thing from a thousand virtual perches.

The way trans women’s lives and embodiment are seized on by many on the Internet to advance pet arguments has been a source of perverse fascination to me for several years now. Each of those LA Times commenters saw us as some affirmation of their own small-bore convictions. In other arenas, trans women have been used by transphobic radical feminists to prop up the grander thesis that we bar the way to a genderless utopia. Meanwhile, on the religious right we are seen as a fundamental threat to patriarchal supremacy and the heterosexual nuclear family. What these otherwise disparate visions of trans womanhood share is a conviction that we are rapacious, predatory invaders who will use bathrooms for evil.

Both of these political forces converged on Jane Doe, a young trans high schooler who was falsely accused of sexually harassing other girls in the school restroom. Though she has received love and support from many at her school and in her family, the fusillade of online attacks sired by both extremist transphobic feminists and the religious right’s Pacific Justice Institute, has seen young Jane Doe put on suicide watch. Her personal details were posted online and spread by groups of extremists whose abiding ideological commitments kept Jane Doe’s humanity far from their sight; this teenage girl was picked apart and viciously attacked in forum after forum, news comment after news comment, until only a profoundly grotesque caricature remained.

If we cannot call this “toxic,” then the word has no meaning.

For men’s rights activists (MRAs), the cadre of reactionary men who see feminist gains as an existential threat to the existence of men, trans women are a literal embodiment of their dark theories. To them, we are men so oppressed by what they term “matriarchy” that we mutilate ourselves into being women. One prominent extremist, Paul Elam, launched an online attack against leading Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell for being a trans woman who studied masculinity. Elam believed that because she’d “cut the masculinity from [her] body like a tumour” out of “pathological hatred [for men]” and was a committed feminist scholar who critically examined masculinity, she ought to be attacked by the full weight of the “men’s movement.”

Another MRA, Jack Donovan, all but danced on the grave of the late Christine Daniels, a trans woman sports writer who committed suicide in 2009. For him, she represented “the feminist/Marxist desire to subvert the patriarchy, to craft a society where sex is meaningless and distinct roles of men and women are a thing of the past.” Still another, in a comment left on an MRA website, averred that trans women are men with “Stockholm Syndrome.”

And thus we come full circle to mainstream feminist activism. The above incidents make up the cultural swamp that breeds some of the Twitter “toxicity” now being discussed, and contributes to making even online activist spaces transmisogynist.

That sickly mire of prejudice passively informs the views of some in online queer and third-wave feminism who see trans women as oppressed, but also passé—sad sacks who are unaware of how we reinforce the gender binary with our retrograde desire for womanhood and femininity. Throughout social media, trans women must field attacks and criticisms that epitomize one of the central problems with activist rage culture, which Julia Serano and Anne Koedt have aptly called “the perversion of ‘the personal is political.’” In this way of looking at the world, trans women’s identities are an apt reflection of our political convictions, and thus every part of our bodies, every affectation, every bit of comportment, every dollop of makeup, everything we wear, is up for intense (and very public) scrutiny. Taken together, they are seen as a tapestry adding up to what scholars Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna called trans women’s “inherent conservatism,” a view that remains tragically trenchant among many young cis queer activists online.

We are all things to all people except ourselves, it would seem; living metaphors for everyone else’s nightmares.

That red thread of dehumanization links these wildly disparate spheres of online endeavor.

The Internet is a core battleground since it has breathed furious new life into very old arguments, and invigorated new, dangerous collectives like men’s rights activists, 4chan, or certain cliques of bigoted online gamers.

The consequences are real, as the suicide report makes clear. Forty-one percent of transgender and gender non-conforming people have attempted to take our own lives at some point. After the badgering of a freelance journalist working for the online publication Grantland, a trans woman inventor did just that after she feared being forcibly outed by that journalist’s pen, followed by a fury of Twitter comments deriding trans women as deceivers for whom such a fate was inevitable.

Islan Nettles was murdered in front of a police station for being a trans woman and yet her murderer remains unpunished.

CeCe McDonald spent a year and a half in prison for defending herself from a white supremacist’s murderous attack.

A very real effort is now underway by religious conservatives in California to repeal via referendum a trans rights bill that protects transgender students; the storm of online commentary on the LA Times leaves one fearful of the results of any vote conducted under such conditions.

And the online gyre continues to swirl.

Whether it is Samantha Allen, Mattie Brice, or Carolyn Petit receiving outlandish online hatred for their feminist video game criticism, or transphobic radical feminists who “dox” trans women, out them, and expose them to career-ruining harassment, what becomes vitally clear is a considerably more panoramic picture of online “toxicity.” What bedevils activism and causes the “call-out culture” that’s been talked about so much of late is not something immanent only to online feminism, but a broader cultural problem stemming from broken cyber-ethics violently interacting with long pre-existing structural prejudices. In an online social space suffused with the conceit that any interaction there is inherently less real than behavior in the “real world,” are we surprised that rank bigotry takes flight in such a freewheeling way? The ideological kinship between online trolls who claim to be “just joking” and men who beat trans women offline in the name of “having a laugh” should be apparent.

This panoptic toxicity that now seems to follow us everywhere we go, through smartphones, email, online videos, news comments, and social media, leaves too many of us unable to see anything but a monster in the mirror each passing day. Online harassment grinds us down, but even the fear of it sees us painfully self-policing our voices, our activism, our style of dress—even our own bodies.

That, too, is toxic. And to end it, we must strike at the conditions that create it: the legal, medical, and social regulation of trans women, our lives, and our bodies.