A funny thing happens when you are researching a book on trans history, as I presently am. Every so often, as you putter on your draft, a weak point in the narrative emerges. Seeking to consult a secondary source, you run a cursory Google search, combining “transgender” and “book” with whatever subject matter or discipline it is that you seek to elucidate. Occasionally, the book in question exists, but more often it does not. This is when the funny thing happens: a few weeks or months after that first failed search, you search again, and suddenly the book is there—conjured by magic, or more likely, a recent shift in the publishing industry’s valuation of trans subject matter.
The first time this happened to me it was with “transgender” plus “book” plus “state identity documents”; in a matter of weeks, I produced Paisley Currah’s marvelously imaginative work of political science Sex is as Sex Does. The second time, it took a little longer—understandable, considering the scope of “transgender” plus “book” plus “internet history.” The lack of a comprehensive history of online trans life has frustrated researchers for almost two decades now. Historian Susan Stryker’s (otherwise impressive) Transgender History devotes about three pages to the subject, a massive oversight considering the probably impossible-to-overstate impact of the internet on all realms of human life since the 1990s.
Evolutions in information technology have always been especially relevant to trans people. Even before the internet, the “trans part” of most trans biographies began with a media-driven epiphany: the subject recognizing their own predicament in the sex-changing plot of a backroom pulp novel, a tabloid fixture, a daytime talk show spot, or the police blotter of the local gazette. These encounters were driven by coincidence; the internet rationalized the process quite a bit, attaching search criteria, expanding access to community discourse, and supercharging the amount of information out there, thereby increasing the odds of finding it. This shift had major downwind effects on everything from trans political consciousness to what it means to even say someone is trans. We will be writing this history for years to come, but finally, there’s a good starting point.
The Two Revolutions: A History of the Transgender Internet by Avery Dame-Griff is a delightfully readable academic work that tells a story of trans online life since the earliest days of the dial-up modem. Even today, most institutional archives are not well-equipped to preserve online ephemera. The Two Revolutions is as much a straightforward history as it is an experiment in using digital materials to tell recent history. There are few people better equipped to undertake this project than Dame-Griff, a lecturer in women’s and gender studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington; the trans son of a system administrator; a LiveJournal survivor; and the founder of the Queer Digital History Project, a scrappy experiment in internet archiving. We spoke over the phone in May of this year. Our conversation has been lightly edited and abridged for clarity.
Your book starts in the 1980s, when trans people first begin using digital technology to communicate. But let’s back up for a second. Say I’m an “average trans person,” whatever that means, before then. How am I finding information about being trans?
Often it starts with the news. Maybe you saw something about [trans tennis player] Renée Richards. Or maybe you saw a talk show, an episode of Donahue that had transsexuals or crossdressers on it, and thought, “Oh! I recognize myself!” So you go to the library and look up one of those terms. What information was there? It might have been one of the popular memoirs, like Richards’s Second Serve, or Christine Jorgensen’s book. Or maybe you’d get a medical textbook, but those often presented it as a pathology.
These were your starting places, but they were also points at which trans support groups could intervene. The Society for the Second Self (Tri-Ess) was really active in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They had this system where they produced fake cards to put in the Dewey Decimal catalog. Instead of sending someone out to find a book, it would give them information about how to get in contact. During this era, “the gender community,” as it was then called, had an incredibly vibrant print network. There were a few high-quality magazines—which you could mostly buy in adult bookstores—and a lot of small newsletters that were made using early desktop publishing software, or even mimeographed. Some support groups got twenty to sixty newsletters a month and had libraries where you could check out the back issues. They would have viewing parties, where you’d go to someone’s basement, and watch a talk show episode, and talk about it afterward.
Bulletin board systems (BBSs) were the first arguably “online” trans communities. GenderNet, out of California, launched in 1984. Each BBS was basically a central computer hooked up to a modem. Users could dial in to upload and download messages and files. I first learned about your work archiving trans BBSs from Kevin Driscoll’s book The Modem World: A Prehistory of Social Media. Before that, I had never even heard of a BBS. Why?
BBSs are so interesting. It was a very robust culture, but it could be fragile. Except for the largest boards, many BBSs were essentially one computer in somebody’s house. Because they ran on a phone line, some of them were only on really late at night, when folks weren’t using the phone. If a BBS got wiped out, let’s say a hard drive died, everything was gone. It was also hard to fund. If at some point that became economically unfeasible, and you couldn’t find someone to take it over, you just unplugged it. A year later, you might say, “I need space on my hard drive. Let me delete all this old stuff.” Folks were not thinking, “These will be future archives that we need.”
We still don’t know if there is an intact archive of a trans BBS somewhere out there. Most of the material you reference in your book comes from stuff that was reproduced in gender community newsletters. What do we know about how people used these systems? To what extent did this new technology alter the information-seeking journey of our “average trans person”?
Early gender BBSs served many of the same functions as support groups: social communication, file hosting and file sharing, transition-related resources. You could have immediate access to all that information, but that’s presuming you could connect in the first place. To dial in, you had to have the number, which was usually circulated within community newsletters. So the folks who knew about these systems were largely folks who were already in the community. There were definitely people who recognized the potential of some of these early spaces, but digital communication didn’t really become mainstream or highly active until it became a thing within American culture more broadly.
Which brings us to your chapter on AOL. I found this part of the book really interesting because it foreshadows a lot of the tensions between social media platforms and trans users today. Trans users put internet companies in a double bind: we spend a lot of time online, but we also represent a threat to a brand’s public image. Can you talk a little bit about perceptions of “online safety” in the early 1990s and how that situated the trans user?
Today, we talk about services like AOL or CompuServe or Prodigy as “the internet,” but these were basically souped-up BBSs. You were dialing into a proprietary system that was fully controlled by the company, which meant the company had an incentive to maintain control over its content. AOL was trying to figure out how to win the beating heart of the American market that is the family, which at the time was hearing everywhere about this new thing—“the web,” “the internet,” “the information superhighway”—that you needed for success. AOL was designed for people who didn’t understand any of that. Its slogan was, “So easy to use, no wonder it’s number one.”
As this is happening, you also see trans folks connecting. The AOL approach to dealing with the threat these users posed was to ban the terms transsexual and transvestite on the grounds that the very words represented an adult concept. (Transgender wasn’t on their radar yet.) This led to a long back and forth between trans folks and AOL. Every step of the way, users were kind of asking the system, “Can you give us this?” Online community was contingent on the largesse of corporations.
The success of AOL began to shift the demographic makeup of the internet, bringing more kids and more non-technical users online. How did this impact the trans community?
Prior to the mid-1990s, the people in trans community spaces, online and off, were generally in their thirties and forties. It was difficult for youth to get in contact, and the adult trans community was very hesitant to talk to youth. They were afraid of being accused of child endangerment. In the mid-1990s, as the computer shifted from a technical object to a home appliance, it became “the family computer,” and you start to see queer and trans youth reaching out to each other. Suddenly, a trans kid can make their own homepage and use that homepage to find and start emailing with another trans kid.
Email is not like a physical letter that comes in the mailbox that someone else can open. You can have a secret second email account that your parents don’t know about, that you log in to at night when they’re asleep. It gives people a new kind of privacy, and this is sort of the great innovation of the internet, for all trans people, but especially for trans youth, who have even less control over their communication.
OK, let’s step out of the timeline for a minute and talk about “social contagion theory,” or the idea that the internet “makes kids trans.” I’d argue that this is just a symptom of a bigger fear about the ownership of children, which is why it so often co-occurs with panics over public schooling, but anyway. I do feel that there is some aspect of transness that has changed with the internet: the earliest trans users came online seeking information, already knowing in some sense that they were trans. As users came online younger and younger, their desires and sense of self were increasingly formed in conversation with what they saw online. In other words, the internet became part of the trans epiphany. At least, this was certainly true for me.
I understand the impulse to rebuke right-wing social contagion theories, but I find the most common rebuttal—that there is a fixed, ahistorical experience called “transness,” and that the internet simply condenses a process that took longer in the past—to be equally inane. To what extent do you think the internet has actually altered the thing we call transness? Or maybe, what is the nuanced way to talk about the growing number of self-identified trans people without relying on either moral panic rhetoric or an ahistorical oversimplification of the category?
The internet has certainly expanded what we understand the experience of transness as. For many years, what it was to be trans was very tightly linked to the two dominant narratives that were available: either, “We are the transsexual folks,” who have one very specific experience, or, “We are the heterosexual crossdressers,” who have another. When the two groups were sort of pushed together in the 1990s as the gender community, there was this dominant narrative of division, but the variation within and between these groups was actually much wider than what the perception was in the community at the time. If nothing else, the internet has expanded how we understand those possibilities.
So what you’re saying is that the category “crossdresser,” for instance, almost certainly contained a lot of ambivalence and tension and conflict, but because it was one of the two available frames, as articulated through Jerry Springer or whatever, it was harder for people to see the multitudes. Online, we have such a finer degree of precision for articulating different subject positions.
Yes. To the extent that “the internet makes you trans,” it is because it gives you room to explore all of that nuance in a way that you could never in your daily life. Take “nonbinary” in the way we understand it now. Had the term existed twenty or thirty years ago, there were certainly folks who might have used it, but that wasn’t the framework they had. They had one of two umbrellas to choose from—crossdresser or transsexual—and we don’t always see the nuance of their daily life because maybe it wasn’t recorded.
That’s the other thing: suddenly we have so many more trans people writing about their experience. The freedom to explore is now much more deeply embedded within trans identity, whereas previously, it was much more circumscribed. The internet opened up the idea that there will be many kinds of transness, and we could think about the idea of being trans in many, many complicated ways.
Like, feelings which previously might have lived and died as an inchoate vibe can now be explored at depth for a relatively low cost?
Yes. Previously the cost could be very high—divorce, getting fired. Now you can have a private account or a group chat or a Discord.
OK, getting back into history. After the so-called “burst of the dot-com bubble,” you have this chaotic period—maybe 2001 to 2006—where tech people are flailing to figure out the next profit model. What does the trans internet look like during this transitional time? How is it different from Facebook or Twitter or all the stuff that comes after?
There was a period where almost all of your social interactions online were folks communicating either one-on-one, or in shared spaces like a forum or a message board or a chatroom. Now with social media, the experience is focused around the individual. It’s disincentivized to have separate accounts where you can essentially have some privacy about your identity. You might still interact in group spaces, but that’s not the center. You are the center. You are supposed to be one coherent person moving through the web because separate identities do not work in favor of a data-driven, ad-focused system. In other words: How do you sell stuff to somebody’s trans “finsta” versus the account where they have their main identity? How do you make sense of that data?
Part of why I think Tumblr became popular with trans users is because it offered this pseudo-anonymous space at a moment when the online self was becoming increasingly public and consolidated. Some of the most interesting stuff in your book is about the tagging architecture of the site. On Tumblr, when you tagged something #trans, for instance, it was entered it into public conversation, alongside everything else tagged #trans. How did tagging impact identity discourse?
There are archives that are retreating as we speak. A lot of trans history was made on LiveJournal and now that information lives on servers that are likely in Russia.
The thing with tagging is that it assumes we can treat language as data. On Tumblr, it took all these folks who had different opinions about what it meant to be trans and sort of forced them into the same space around a term. When an individual was forced to encounter an understanding that didn’t match their own, it created this feeling like, “No, this is what trans is. I am what trans is. You are not what a trans person is.”
The option from there was either to argue or to create new words, which is fine, but can you get those new words adopted? If you can’t, you are essentially talking to a very small group of other users, and the term is not going to go anywhere. This has been a problem since time immemorial, since the very beginning of trans folks calling themselves a community: “You only get one word. You all have to live inside this word, and you all have to magically come to agree on a definition.”
If you hang around in trans world for more than three or four years, you’re bound to see this conversation repeat itself. Why does it feel so doomed to recur?
These language changes started happening in digital spaces at a time when there was very little archiving. When Dallas Denny dedicated the National Transgender Library to the University of Michigan, she said that she was inspired to found it when she started getting involved in the community and realized that we have a terrible sense of our own history. Transsexual folks in the 1970s and 1980s, and even into the 1990s, were discouraged from staying involved with trans community after they transitioned. For crossdressers, you didn’t want to be public because being public presented huge risks to your employment, your family, your marriage.
As trans people started coming out more, it was during a period when there was little impetus to archive. But this is a problem with recent history writ large. Ian Milligan, the head of Archives Unleashed, an internet history project, wrote History in the Age of Abundance?: How the Web Is Transforming Historical Research, a book about working with Geocities as an archive. He has this great quote about how 9/11 is becoming history, and you can’t write about 9/11 as history without a web archive, and that archive is so different from a traditional print archive that it requires new methods. For trans folks, the same thing holds. You can’t write about these changes without a digital archive, but these archives don’t really exist, and to the extent that they do, they require a really different understanding of how we think about history and how we make sense of what matters.
New methodologies can’t come into being fast enough for people to make use of an archive that barely exists in the first place.
There are archives that are retreating as we speak. A lot of trans history was made on LiveJournal and now that information lives on servers that are likely in Russia. The owners have zero interest in preserving queer content produced twenty years ago. They could just pull the plug and say it’s costing them money and nobody is using it. Because some of this stuff is not official communication, existing institutions may have limited impetus to archive it. Or they may not know if they can archive it, because archiving violates terms of service. There are big legal and ethical questions about doing this work.
Say more about the ethical questions.
I’ll give you an example. An archive of one of the earliest online trans mailing lists, spanning 1988 to 1993, was donated to the Queer Digital History Project. This is the earliest archive of trans communication that I’ve ever encountered that wasn’t printed on paper. Presumably nobody who posted to it was thinking, “Oh, this is eventually going to be an archived document that researchers will want to look at.” It was just some private communication.
So now you have this push and pull about what the expectations were at the time and how to think about the document now. Sharing presents all these risks to the folks who posted: Are they stealth [not entirely public about their trans status]? Did they reveal something that would potentially out them? Did they share vulnerable things that they might not want shared with folks outside the original intended audience? It may be that when they were sharing they were using a different name than the one they go by now. There is no backchannel for getting back in contact with these folks. On that particular mailing list, they weren’t even calling it an “email address.” They were using ARPANET.
Contemporary platforms present other issues. Someone might have a username they’ve been using forever. Now, you can stick that username into a search engine and bring up all their content, like, “Back then, you went by CatLover7, but now you work at such-and-such job.” A lot of folks on LiveJournal were so much younger. They were posting at times when they were very vulnerable. It would essentially be like sharing someone’s journal they wrote when they were thirteen.
The trans internet is expanding every minute. I feel panicked when I think of someone in the future trying to make sense of it all. Are there things we could be doing today to create a better archive for the historians of the future?
It’s hard because I also believe very much in the right to refuse to be archived. I feel like every trans person should have the right to say, “I don’t want this preserved.” That said, I am interested in what it could mean to have a federated system, something that includes the ability to archive content, or archive content but make it anonymous, or to say in advance, “I don’t want anything archived.”
Like a last will and testament for your social media account?
Yeah. We want systems that plan ahead for their own closure. Social media companies assume that they will continue to exist, but we know from history that they won’t. AOL was a huge force in American life for years. Now, AOL is a punchline about the email address Grandma has.