Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Technology and Trans Teens

jlebouvier's picture

Technology and Transgender Teens

            In this class we have discussed the various ways in which society acknowledges and categorizes gender. The class as a whole has bounced back between wanting to get rid of gender binaries and thinking that the categories are necessary associations we need to describe people. The issues addressed generally focus around the exclusion and inclusion of people who do not identify with these categories. However, speaking within a college environment such as Bryn Mawr allows students to be open with comments and opinions. This freedom we are allowed is not extended to every person. In particular, young children and teens are often discouraged from speaking about gender, unless it is to acknowledge it in the historically recognized sense. Male and female each have one meaning according to many people. This view has left many questioning teens in the dark, feeling alone and abnormal. Before online forums came about, any of these teens were forced to deal with issues of gender and sexuality on their own, often suppressing any “abnormal” thoughts. In the following pages I intend to examine a number of these forums and discuss the impact they have had within the queer teen community. I also intend to discuss how participating in these forums is a similar transitioning process to gender reassignment surgeries.

            In recent years the internet has become a haven for teens. It provides a space where they can talk freely without scrutiny from parents or friends. It is especially the anonymous blogs and forums that create a comfortable environment for teens to seek answers and a community with which they can identify. As Schrock, Holden and Reid note, many of these forums include posts about suicidal thoughts amongst transgender and homosexual teens. The anonymous forums, though not accredited forms of therapy, are an outlet in which teens can seek help understanding their feelings. They create a virtual community that many users would not have access to in real life. This anonymity is a huge draw for many users looking to transition their sex. I say this because the anonymity allows a user to act as if they were a different sex without others knowing. In Turkle we see the use of MUDs as a way for people to act differently than in life. Users admit to playing characters of a different sex. Their reasons are generally to see what it feels like to be a different person. Users on trans boards are not trying to be a different person, but rather finally be themselves.

            I see the posting on trans boards to be a step similar to surgery in the virtual world, or at least as equally important in the transitioning process. In order to pass in the real world many gender modifications take place, sometimes including sex change operations. This is because most people rely on appearance and actions to decipher a person’s sex. On line these things don’t exist, or at least are not the deciding factor in someone’s sex. Instead of visual cues, people are limited to personal description, thus making the posting boards important to establish sex in a user’s virtual reality. Not only do the boards allow for a user to avoid issues related to appearance, but they also allow a user to learn to act as a different sex. It allows the user to focus specifically on personal stories to come off as a different sex before they have to deal with issues of appearance and voice tone. The forums create the perfect barrier for trans teens to ask questions, act as a different sex, and remain unknown.

 An issue I came across while looking into transgender forums was that many require a user to register. Though the registration is meant to keep out spammers and inappropriate comments, it poses a possible threat to unsure users. Giving your name or e-mail in order to sign up could be threatening to a first time user, especially someone who is not sure of their identity. Asking them to out themselves before they have even sought answers seems quite a bit to ask. Though only administrators have access to the information, this step represents much more than the typical online registration. It represents a coming to terms with issues that users have not figured out yet. Registration is not the biggest worry that users face though.

The reason registration exists in these forums is to maintain appropriate discussions on the boards. In fact most of the websites I encountered came with a warning and a list of things not to do. The warnings generally state that users should never give out personal information like e-mail addresses, name, or their place of origin. They do this because many websites include boards for a variety of contentious issues. People post hateful comments that discourage actual users from posting and make them feel even worse about themselves. Not only do people post comments, but they can take information and harass users in real life. If they know a user’s name they can track them down and possibly even physically attack them. I did not see any comments on the boards when I checked, but I believe that is because there are also site moderators online at all times to immediately remove users who post inappropriately. They remove the posts that have been flagged as harmful immediately as well. Before logging on I had to ask myself if I was ready to see the negative comments I have heard about from friends. Did I really want to think that people could be so ignorant and hateful as to post horrible things on these boards? Did I want to see for myself that the place I recognize as a haven for teens could possibly submit them to just as much distress as the real world? Of course, I ended up deciding that the benefits outweighed the negatives and took a look. Luckily, as I mentioned before, I did not come across these comments. I did notice that a lot of comments were about suicide. Users would talk about how they were uncomfortable in their bodies, but could not figure out a way to transition. They did not have a support network, and often felt depressed about having to live as someone they were not. I believe this to be the most important role of the sites. They are not only forms of therapy. They are the reason why many teens do not end up committing suicide. Other users often talk the teens, or adults, down from thinking that is the only way to deal with their problem.

My short adventure into the virtual world of transgender and queer posting sites has only furthered my view that they are a necessary part of a trans teen’s journey. These sites offer advice for questioning teens. They offer a community in case that teen cannot deal with their issues on their own. They create a safe space that allows a trans teen to act as the person they feel like, instead of the person they look like. These sites are as important in a teen’s transition as a sex change operation, as they do just as much to tell others that the teen is not who they were born as. They are the virtual version of a sex change operation. I have included a number of sites that I looked at in case any reader is interested in seeing these sites for further research.


List Of Trans Forums



1)Douglas Schrock, Daphne Holden and Lori Reid. Creating Emotional Resonance: Interpersonal Emotion Work and Motivational Framing in a Transgender Community. Social Problems. Vol. 51, No. 1 (Feb., 2004), pp. 61-81.


2) Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen. Chapter 8: Tinysex and Gender Trouble. Simon and Shuster Inc., New York, NY. 1995, pg. 210-232.



Anne Dalke's picture

Differently configured spaces

I've been quite interested to follow the links you provided to the trans forums, which you presented as all providing the same sort of service. What struck me was their very different presentations. Only the last (which leads w/ the image of the "little angel" I include here) seems aimed @ teens, with its explicit statement: "A Transgendered Teen can go through sheer hell. Who do you turn to and who do you tell?" In sharp contrast, the third one begins not with an invitation, but with a warning: "Think of the web as a bunch of strangers in a park.  Never email or post anything you wouldn't want everyone to see if it were taped up at work or school." The second seems addressed more to adults, with "Makeup &  Image tips, Relationship & Marriage related topics; Or for gentlemen and beautiful ladies out there to interect to change opinions." And the first sounds more like our conversation in this class: "We stand at the crossroads of gender balanced on the sharp edge of a knife."

In short: what you group together as "anonymous outlets," "virtual communities" where teens can "finally be themselves," strike me as very distinct places, creating less "the perfect barrier for trans teens" than a variety of differently configured spaces.

You describe this project as a "short adventure into the virtual world of transgender and queer posting sites" that has "only furthered your view that they are a necessary part of a trans teen’s journey"--but I'd like to nudge you beyond that view: How do these sites intersect with the ideas we've been exploring in class? To what degree do they support or challenge (for instance) Parens' claims that "we have disordered social practices, not disordered bodies"; Hausman's description of the "paradox of transsexuality," relying on technological intervention "to realize the being of the transsexual subject," "the rectification of an unnatural situation"; and/or Turkle's description of the "art of imagining alternatives" on-line?

Finally, I'd like to nudge you, for your next web "event," to explore some of the possibilities that the web opens to you for this sort of project. You speak of "the following pages" as if you were writing a conventional paper. But where exactly are "the pages" here? How many of them are there? A project, like this one, which is exploring the alteration of normative gender constructions, might well explore the edges of normative student intellectual work....