The first internet created a place for trans youth to meet and explore coming out


Follow the coverage of trans issues and you will hear some people say that teens who change their gender identities are part of the fad and social media is the culprit.

As a promoter of legislation that would restrict access to care for trans adolescents, social media platforms are where trans youth are falsely ‘convinced’ that their feelings of identifying with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth are valid.

These fears of Instagram, Tumblr and TIC Tac as a breeding ground for instilling gender dysphoria in young people, remember other moral panics on new media, the paranoia of the Victorian era that serialized stories called ‘ghastly pennies’ would incite a wave of juvenile delinquency at The anguish of the twentieth century on children’s exposure to violence on television.

Moreover, he ignores the long documented history of trans youth in North America, while assuming that trans youth using media to find social support and build community is somehow a new phenomenon.

As i found in my research on the first digital trans communities, trans youth have been online since the late 1980s. They weren’t looking for information and community because their friends were all doing it. They did it on their own.

Call and make connections

Some of the earliest recorded examples of trans youth exploring online trans communities date back to 1988.

Unlike today’s always-connected Internet, the online landscape of the late 1980s and early 1990s varied considerably. Some people connected with others on bulletin board systems, or BBS, which were independent computer servers often run outside the home of the system operator.

Instead of an IP or web address, users would dial a specific phone number using their modem. The cost of long distance calls primarily limited users to those who lived within the area code of the bulletin board system. In many ways, these networks were some of the earliest forms of social media.

Others have used national subscription services like America Online, CompuServe Information Service, Prodigy or Genie. More importantly, whether you use a bulletin board system or a subscription service, you receive your own email address.

CompuServe was one of several subscription services where trans community groups flourished in the 1980s. (Photo via Flickr user jamescridland)

On CompuServe trans-specific Kind forum, discussion forums or CD Forum, an early trans mailing list, trans youth were able to ask questions and learn how to safely explore their trans feelings, find supportive therapists and develop their networks.

For example, a 17 year old Susie, a first-generation Chinese immigrant living in Canada, was a regular poster on CDForum throughout 1992. In her archived emails, available via Queer digital history project, she asked the members for advice on managing her depression and kept them up to date on major changes in her life.

Yet most of the members Susie and other trans youth contacted were trans adults. Once the World Wide Web – and the homepage, in particular – took off, spaces by and for trans youth became much more common.

Become visible

Although websites like Geocities are now some kind of internet joke, they were an important place for trans youth to express themselves and publicly identify as trans.

Between the mid to late 1990s, ad-supported web hosting services allowed users to create their own websites, or homepages, containing a variety of personalized content, ranging from entertainment and fandoms to photo collections and newspapers.

the Web directory of transgender adolescents, created in 1998 and last archived in 2002, included links, homepages and e-mail addresses for young people from 32 different states. These homepages contained a variety of information, from tips on leaving and navigating high school, to continuing the medical transition in adolescence. spaces like your bedroom, using an array of colors, fonts, built-in music files, and animated GIFs.

For example, the web journal of the founder of Transgendered Teens Web Directory Sarah, who has entries from 1997-2001, repeatedly refers to her email conversations with other trans young people, who support her as she navigates her shifting identity, addresses her parents, and makes herself friends.

Trans youth also created resources focused on what they thought other youth needed. On the TransBoy Resource Network On the “About” page, the creator describes drawing inspiration from his own experience with “the potential of the Internet to bring trans people together and for the dissemination of information.”

The TransBoy Resource Network offered information and support for interviewing the children. (Image via Internet Archive)

More importantly, for trans youth who couldn’t be themselves in real life, the homepage was a space for personal expression. On their pages, they could use gendered colors and graphics without fear of being noticed, or post photos wearing the clothes they felt comfortable in without experiencing physical harassment. For trans creators who had supportive parents, their homepage might even become a place to share their transitional progress, posting photos with each new personal step.

Much like today’s social media profiles, the homepage has become a digital version of its ideal self. Over time, the growing number of pages meant that young trans who surfed the web were, in their teens, Dylan jared wrote on his own page, always able to “run into people like them”.

Trans teens are swelling their ranks

Through these online spaces, what once seemed rare – publicly identifying as trans before becoming an adult – was quickly becoming a common experience for much of the trans community.

As trans youth became more visible, organizations felt empowered to actively advocate for their cause. Issues Facing Trans Youth were a central theme of the IFGE 2004 annual conference, although some participants were still concerned about the “ethical issues” associated with young people making presentations.

Throughout the 2000s, the number of people in North America becoming trans earlier in life increased exponentially. Now some trans affirmation clinics struggle to see all of their potential patients.

This change would not have been possible without the reach of the internet, which has shown that trans youth have always been here. Online communities have given them a place – and a space – to be themselves, without fear of being ostracized, undermined or harassed.

And it’s having the support of their peers, not a passing social media fad, that gives them the courage to step out, then and now.The conversation


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