By Kathryn Reed
As a user of the blogging and social media website Tumblr, I know that there is a large LGBTQA+ community on this site. Many of my followers and the people whose blogs I follow are part of this community, including the transgender community. I’ve noticed how this particular social media site provides a space for transgender individuals to network with each other. Although there is, as yet, no scholarly literature about this particular online community, sociologist Matthew G. O’Neill has discussed how social media sites like YouTube are a space for transgender individuals to express their identity and provide support for other transgender people. In a chapter entitled “Transgender Youth and YouTube Videos: Self-Representation and Five Identifiable Trans Youth Narratives” that appeared in the edited collection Queer Youth and Media Cultures, O’Neill states, “Clearly trans youth have a need for artistic expression, and YouTube offers a valuable performative and discursive space, allowing the individual to become aware of their chosen gender identity.” I think that many of the concepts O’Neill discusses are applicable to the transgender community on Tumblr, on top of the unique dynamics that define Tumblr as a blogging website.
According to O’Neill, there are five basic types of narratives that are produced by transgender youth on YouTube. First, there are the transition videos. These videos consist of pictures from different stages of the transition process, from one’s birth gender through the beginnings of hormone therapy, surgeries, and eventually to one’s preferred gender. Second, there are “DIY Gender” videos, in which the individual gives tips on how to dress and pass as their preferred gender. For example, for a transgender female to male, this could include advice on how to use a chest binder to get a flatter chest in order to present as a cisgender male. Third, there are trans video blog, which are video diaries of daily life experiences. These videos can be on topics like physical changes from hormone therapy, coming out to family and friends, using preferred gender bathrooms, and experiences at school as a transgender individual.
The fourth type of narrative O’Neill discusses is the trans anti-bullying videos. In these videos, individuals talk about their own experiences with bullying and discrimination because of their transgender status and offer tips to other transgender individuals about how to cope with bullying and discrimination. Fifth and finally, there are celebrity trans video blogging videos. These are videos from famous transgender people such as Chaz Bono, who talk about their own personal experiences of being trans. These videos are inspirational for transgender youth who look up to these people as role models not just because of their celebrity status, but also because they understand what young people are going through in terms of the complexities and issues that come with transgender identity.
O’Neill states that these videos “build an empathetic online community which respects the idea that, while every trans experience is different, there is a role for ongoing non-judgmental support for each individual at each stage of their journey.” Each person’s experience as a transgender individual is different, from differences in familial support to specific bodily changes. Through these videos, people can still find similarities in each other’s experiences, which creates a network of support as transgender people realize that they are not alone in their identity and the challenges they face. The videos are a platform for self-expression and community building.
Structurally, Tumblr is different from YouTube because instead of creating videos, transgender users create written blog posts about transgender-related issues. They can choose to post pictures and videos as well, but the primary content is written because Tumblr is a blogging website. However, content of these written narratives is essentially the same as the five types of transgender YouTube narratives that O’Neill describes. These Tumblr posts act as a form of digital literature that explores transgender issues and experiences. With the “archive” feature on Tumblr, one can look back at past posts and see the progression of an individual’s narrative overtime, like a personal digital storybook. The online dimension of these blog narratives also makes them accessible to a global audience, which is not the case with traditional print literature.
Tumblr also allows for an aspect of anonymity that is not as feasible with YouTube videos. In a video one’s identity is very much out in the open unless the creator decides to use a fake name or to alter their appearance. But on Tumblr, it is easier to maintain an anonymous identity because you do not have to include any identifiable information about yourself or show your physical appearance if you do not want to. Moreover, Tumblr has the feature of being able to ask other bloggers questions anonymously. This aspect of anonymity is a good way to stay connected with the transgender online community without “outing” oneself to the world, especially if the asker is not open with friends and family about their identity, or lives their life as “stealth” to the people around them.
Taking part in an online social media community like YouTube or Tumblr does come with some risks. Online bullying because of their gender identity is a risk that transgender people face when being open about their identity in a public space such as the internet. However, the sense of community is strong enough that people still feel like they can access the online transgender community as a safe space to be open about their gender identity without worrying too much about online bullying.
Overall, social media sites such as Tumblr and YouTube are unique mediums for transgender individuals to express their gender identity, discuss their personal experiences, and provide support for other members of the trans community.