Numerous transgender historians, namely Eve Shapiro of “Gender Circuits” (2010) notoriety, have discussed the global impact of the internet on transgender culture. The apparent irony that a technology created primarily by cisgendered, male scientists would serve a minority like this so well is mildly misconstrued. This would suggest that transgender individuals have made no contribution to the creation of the modern internet on any level of its interconnected hierarchy, and while the offline oppression of transgender individuals is unquestionable, employment inequalities have not entirely excluded a diversity of gender identities from entering the world of internet technologies. It can easily be seen that these technologies facilitate for a discorporated expression of the self and although this undoubtedly benefits minority individuals, this same anonymity can subject marginalised individuals to more xenophobic views than may manifest in their own offline lives.
Firstly, it is worth considering that the disapproval of transgenderism is rooted in the understanding of differences between the sexes and the staunch belief that gender, and therefore one’s role in society, is determined by this factor. Issues of transphobia and sexism within the technology industry, as well as on the internet, stem from similar issues. The gross sexualisation of cis-gendered women on the internet is doubtless, to the point that such encounters are considered many to be routine. (Fileborn, 2018). The fetishisation of transgender individuals, as well as various other members of the LGBT community, is also well documented. In the frankly titled ““Being Talked to Like I Was a Sex Toy, Like Being Transgender Was Simply for the Enjoyment of Someone Else”: Fetishisation and Sexualization of Transgender and Nonbinary Individuals” (Anzani, Et al. 2021), a study into the fetishisation of transgendered and non binary individuals, it was found that 64 percent of respondents answered “Yes” or “Maybe” to the question: “In your experience, have you ever felt fetishised?” This study, albeit relying on self-reflective data collection, provides an empirical perspective on the objectification of transgender individuals across a spectrum of gender identities. While the issue of sexism and the objectification of women on the internet is a topic worthy of discussion in itself, this essay will focus on the issues that are unique to the trans experience.
Foremost in assessing the inclusivity of transgender people in the predominantly male tech culture is an understanding of the history of the trans rights movement in consideration with that of Silicon Valley. While many big names in computing history emerged from the Hippy movement, it would be excessive to suggest that these progressive “Free Love” sentiments extended to people of all kinds. With the landmark Stonewall Riots having only occurred in 1969, the American mainstream was by no means accepting of transgender individuals, and to imagine trans people of any gender identity being warmly welcomed into Silicon Valley when it was earning its name in the production of integrated circuits in the late 1950’s, or even as residents of the Valley were making leaps and bounds with ARPANET in the 1960’s, would be nothing short of anachronistic.
This is not to suggest that this minority has had no place in the history of the internet, as there have been notable contributions by transgender computer scientists, from various areas of the internet’s four distinct cultures. Mary Ann Horton, having created the first email attachment tool as well as contributing greatly to Usenet, can be easily regarded as one of the “Techno-Elites” alongside the creators of ARPAnet who made their home in Silicon Valley, though she made her name prior to social transition (Hauben & Hauben, 1998).
Facebook data-scientist turned whistleblower Sophie Zhang, “informed” (Hao, 2021) by her experience as a closeted transgender woman, drew attention to governmental manipulation of the website’s systems (Wong, 2021), the geo-political implications of which were the topic of The Guardian’s series “The Facebook Loophole”. Examples such as these are thin on the ground, with the near absence of transgender individuals in the creation of the early internet being undoubtedly linked to the political climate of the late 20th century.
Other forum sites, notably Reddit, are host to significant trans communities. “R/Trans” is host to over 200,000 members, anonymous or otherwise. The perceived negativity of many of these spaces aside, it can be seen that anonymous forums such as these have been beneficial to the spread of information that may be valuable to gender-questioning individuals, whether this be to act as a rallying point for greater societal action or for individual gain.
While these communities appear to hold great value to the global LGBT community, it is worth discussing the close proximity to anti-LGBT forums in which these groups have existed for years. The “/LGBT/” board on 4chan is a few clicks away from /b/ and /pol/, these two being “primarily responsible for 4chan’s less-than-stellar reputation.”, as discussed in The Washington Post’s article on the subject. (Dewey, 2011) Prior to mass bannings as a result of an update to the site’s content policy in June 2020, Reddit hosted countless subreddits it now deems inappropriate to the values of the site, with new rules stating that “communities and users that promote hate based on identity or vulnerability will be banned.”. One of the subreddits targeted by this banning-spree was “r/Gendercritical”, a community with over 25,000 active daily users which has been accused of being “viscously transphobic” (Milton, 2020). This ban has since been directly connected to the creation of “Ovarit”, one of many invite-only site which ensures that transphobic individuals no-longer have to deal with sharing a platform with pro-trans people in such close proximity. While this has been considered a victory for many people, perhaps even on both sides of these discourses, it brings into question how proper debate can transpire between two communities which no longer exist on the same website. Regardless of this, the regulation of these platforms, intended to maintain a collection of communities based on a shared interest or belief as opposed to a shared hatred for a minority group, has succeeded in relocating opposing ideologies to more insular platforms of lesser cultural significance.
It cannot be said that the internet, in any conceivable way, was designed with minority groups in mind. And while this communicative technology has facilitated the consolidation of a global transgender and nonbinary community, it can easily be seen that the same tools for uniting these individuals has created rallying points for people of critical or even radical stances against them. It can be seen that the anonymity granted in certain online spaces grants queer people the ability to experiment with their identity without the anxiety of social consequence. Not only this, but such publicly-accessible forums have been used to spread information that would be valuable to queer individuals, offer support to struggling members of the community, and ultimately to raise awareness to others outside of their immediate social spaces. Recent regulatory adjustments promise a “safer” space for many minority groups online, and while this allows transgender individuals to maintain a safe online environment, it is difficult to determine whether the exodus of “Gender Critical” groups to other sections of the internet has solved the issue entirely or has worsened the likelihood of radicalisation by isolating this group from more mainstream platforms. Regardless of the minimal inclusion of this marginalised group in the creation of the contemporary internet landscape, it is clear that the transgender community has benefitted in notable ways from the technology, in spite of continuing issues stemming from the same anonymity that has made the community as strong as it is.
Anzani A, Lindley L, Tognasso G, Galupo MP, Prunas A. “Being Talked to Like I Was a Sex Toy, Like Being Transgender Was Simply for the Enjoyment of Someone Else”: Fetishization and Sexualization of Transgender and Nonbinary Individuals. Arch Sex Behav. 2021 Apr;50(3):897-911. doi: 10.1007/s10508-021-01935-8. Epub 2021 Mar 24. PMID: 33763803; PMCID: PMC8035091. Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33763803/
Dewey, C. 2014. “Absolutely everything you need to know to understand 4chan, the Internet’s own bogeyman.” The Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2014/09/25/absolutely-everything-you-need-to-know-to-understand-4chan-the-internets-own-bogeyman/
Fileborn B. 2018. “Online harassment of women driven by misogyny, fear, and a need for power.” ABC News. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-18/why-men-abuse-women-online/9666900
Hao, K. 2021. “She risked everything to expose Facebook. Now she’s telling her story.” MIT Technology Review. July 29, 2021. “She’s… tired of being in the closet as a transgender woman, a core aspect of her identity that informed her actions at Facebook and after she left.”Available at: https://www.technologyreview.com/2021/07/29/1030260/facebook-whistleblower-sophie-zhang-global-political-manipulation/
Hauben, M. Hauben, R. 2018. “On the early days of usenet: the roots of the cooperative online culture.” from Netizens: On the history and impact of usenet and the internet. Chapter 10. Available at: https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/613/534
Milton, J. 2020. “Reddit just banned its viciously transphobic ‘gender critical’ page amid vigorous crackdown on hate speech” Pink News. Available at: https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2020/06/29/reddit-bann-transphobia-gender-critical-page-hate-speech-donald-trump-steve-huffman/
Wong, J. 2021. “How facebook let fake engagement distort global politics: a whistleblower’s account” The Guardian. April 12, 2021. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2021/apr/12/facebook-fake-engagement-whistleblower-sophie-zhang
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.