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Sunday, April 14, 2024

When Social Media Presents Only an ‘Unlivable Life’

There are times when I wonder whether I’m in denial about the perilous state of trans rights; I find my attention snapping from a lovely dinner with my polycule, most of whom are trans, to the screaming Mouth of Sauron that is social media’s endless shouting about how me and my people are all going to die. It can feel convincing; the evidence piles up with every legislative filing, from coast to coast. It’s a bleak picture made up of far more than unkind words.

In the US, we’ve watched legislators criminalize trans children and rob them of gender-affirming health care, ban us from public accommodation, and threaten the health care of transgender adults, all while angry men with guns are dispatched to any public library where a drag queen is reading to kids. Combine this with the call from the Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) to “eradicate transgenderism,” a veiled demand that every trans person should detransition or submit to some as-yet-undisclosed punishment, and it’s not the most cheerful environment in which one goes about her day as a trans woman—or for any trans person.

No one should deny the depth of the threat to everyone’s rights that this entails, and only a Pollyanna could hope to pretend that everything is fine right now. But livable life requires more than an awareness of threats—indeed, hyperawareness of the ugliness can be a threat all its own. I see so many of my fellow trans people torn apart by anguish and loneliness, with the algorithms of social media bloodlessly feeding that despair. They lead us to believe that no one is speaking out for us but other trans people—yet, this is not true. They lead us to believe that life will be impossible—that isn’t true either. The panoptic ubiquity of bad news and worse takes can create an oubliette of terror for those already living under threat.

Sociologist Laurel Westbrook calls this state of unending terror, this sense of infinite vulnerability and futility, “an unlivable life.” They analyze trans activist materials from 1990 to 2009, the long dawn of the transgender rights movement, and argue that activists’ hyperfocus on extravagantly gruesome murders—like the killings of Brandon Teena and Gwen Araujo—taught a generation of trans people that our lives were permanently endangered and unlivable. The attendant minimization of joy, Westbrook argues, leaves transgender people terrified—and, worse, “these narratives do not push people to stand up against the violence so much as run away and hide.”

Today, too much press coverage of trans people, even trans-affirming stories, still echoes the news media of generations past, ACLU communications strategist Gillian Branstetter told me. Such coverage embraces a deadly contradiction in its depictions of trans life: “Trans people were portrayed as either too dangerous to allow or, sometimes even within the same breath, as doomed people whose lives are only filled with misery and fear and violence.” This attitude definitely characterizes much social media discourse and the push-and-pull between far-right influencers and sorrowful trans people whose feeds are filled with the effluence of their rants.

There are, then, very real pratfalls to even well-intentioned emphases on terror.

“Trans joy is most necessary when it feels most impossible,” Branstetter said. “I think there’s a sense among some trans folks online that if they ring the bell loud enough, then people will come to help. And that can, combined with just the incentives that are built into a lot of these social media platforms, elevate the most alarmist takes and voices, however ungrounded in reality they might be.” 

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This is where social media’s false friendship is especially deadly. When you vent your anger and despair, it feels like you’re shouting into the compliant void, the digital equivalent of screaming into a pillow. Who cares about “organizing strategies”? You’re in pain, damn it, screw everyone else, you just need to yell, cry, scream. The trouble is that you’re not exclaiming into a void, you’re screaming where everyone else can hear it. And your words will affect them.

The insidious thing is that social media drafts us into spreading the evangel of impending doom. Social media doesn’t just show us sources of despair. It shows us living in despair. That creates a dark resonating effect, feeding back and amplified again and again, until it’s the only thing some of us can hear.

“I do wonder,” Branstetter continued, “if people are losing sight of the frame and getting lost in the picture.” The frame, of course, being social media’s conflict-driven emphasis of bad news. She added that people—especially trans people—were at risk of “not seeing the ways they’re being guided towards certain ends [by Twitter].” 

This has always been a problem on Twitter, but it’s exponentially worse now that the platform isn’t even pretending to moderate or otherwise control bigotry. For instance, I’ve noted many people reporting an extraordinary amount of far-right bigotry on Twitter’s new For You tab. I’ve not seen the same on my own, but then I don’t post anymore save to very occasionally promote my work. Still, the far-right onslaught never materialized for me. Part of that, likely, has to do with the fact that I’m not asking the platform to show it to me. But others may unthinkingly doomscroll their way into telling Twitter’s dying algorithm to show them ever more exotic sources of misery. 

It’s difficult to overcome the momentum of algorithmic suppression, but our hearts and minds remain our own. We can defend them against colonization by hate-campaigners, who feed on our despair like some demon in a German fairy tale.

What is needed instead of ceaseless portents of doom is a constant reminder of what we’re fighting for—especially for those trans people that rely on social media to have any sense of community at all, a point Branstetter returned to frequently. It’s especially important that they be able to see what trans thriving looks like. Especially our youth. As sociologist Tey Meadow put it over a decade ago, we need “inspiration for the kids who are still here … They need stories of teenagers just like them who are safe and happy now.”

In that way, every trans person who’s ever posted a cute selfie is doing their part. But beyond that, there are weddings, graduations, parties, new homes, families, smiles, and beauty that transition made possible. It’s important for people to see, for trans people to get the reminder that their lives are worth living, and for cis people to see that our lives are more than tragedy and precarity.

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Thus, amplifying our joy is amplifying our humanity; it reminds us and the rest of the world of what our antagonists want to take away. When I hear some jumped-up podcaster on a far-right blog feign concern over our “self-mutilation” and our suicide rate, what flashes through my mind is my storyteller fiancée proposing to me by telling a tale she’d saved for years until she finally offered me her great-aunt’s heirloom engagement ring. I think of my friends and girlfriends with their dorky jokes and witty barbs, the absolutely unforgivable puns during D&D, and our embraces after shared moments of triumph. I think of the people who gave me karaoke for my birthday, or of zipping up dresses in conference hotels, of cocktails after midnight, or the trans girlfriend who’s a noir detective disguised as a punk who calls me “doll.” That parliament of memory isn’t something that fits easily on social media, but it’s real, and it has its reflections and echoes in the lives of every trans person. It’s why the most common reaction I see to before-and-after photos is: “You look so much happier now.”

But it’s not just joy that aids us. It’s resistance too. A venerable slogan used in many minority communities faced with violence is “Mourn the dead; fight like hell for the living.” But it seems as if no one—from the press, to well-meaning allies, to even Extremely Online trans people ourselves—valorizes those who do fight like hell for the living nearly enough, with platforms disincentivizing positive images that may inspire and uplift. For instance, it was a young trans hacktivist who published a massive trove of emails showing the collusion of far-right activists and legislators in enacting this wave of anti-trans laws; she’s only 23 and she helped to embarrass some of the most powerful legislators and activists in the country.

One more glimpse of public resistance can be found in Australia, where the public turned out in spectacular fashion to protest a speaking tour by a far-right transphobe, Kellie-Jay Keen. In Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, she was met with such a vigorous and colorful protest that represented the gamut of the state’s civil society, led by trans people and our allies, that even the Rupert Murdoch–owned Tasmanian Mercury covered it sympathetically with a front page of cheerful, trans-flag waving protesters over the headline “Gender Defenders.”

For terminally online transfolk, this is what we need to emphasize. For journalists covering our community, especially from the outside, this is the story that needs to be told at greater length. The Washington Post’s recent Trans in America series is a model of balanced reporting on us. But there are no better tribunes for these stories than trans journalists themselves, like Katelyn Burns or Evan Urquhart. It also means covering trans women of color as something other than corpses or posthumous hashtags, and elevating our successes early and often. In every case, the point is to remind both ourselves and the wider public that we are more than lumbering tragedies.

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The far-right’s recent obsession with TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney is a case in point. As Branstetter pointed out in a recent tweet, “She presents a very joyful vision of the trans experience, which is anathema to the fear-mongering that portrays our lives as unlivable and our inclusion in public life as a project doomed to fail. They’re terrified of her.” Whatever one may say about the exploitativeness of influencing and sponsorships and the like, the fact is that she presents an image of joyous thriving as an out trans woman to her millions of fans, and that simply cannot be allowed.

That is the truth; those are the stakes. And that’s what should be front and center—whether it’s in your shitposts or in sober investigative journalism or your instant-reaction TikTok.

It’s what makes Gillian Branstetter clear-eyed about this politically perilous moment. “I’ve spoken to the families who’ve been targeted by [government] agencies. I have listened to parents beg for their children’s lives in Federal court. I stare into the abyss of the current political situation every. Single. Day. I am not ignorant to what we face. But that’s only made it more urgent that we are being clear and holistic in our practice.” Because our lives are worth living—and that story needs to be told, algorithms, irony, and doomerism be hanged.

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