In the late 1990s, when she was a teenager living in a highly conservative part of Texas, Emily Day stumbled onto an internet message board full of trans people talking about their lives.
“That was the first time where I was actually seeing other trans people talk. It wasn’t some fictional depiction. Scrolling through that message board, actually getting to see people’s experiences, I got that feeling, like, ‘Holy shit, this is everything I’ve felt my entire childhood,’” Day said.
The people on the message board (who were, in Day’s recollection, primarily women) were discussing the struggles both big and small that factor into everyday life as a trans person. And they were mostly anonymous, their legal identities hidden so they could better explore the people they actually were.
In the years to come, Day would experiment with her own anonymous online profiles as she slowly fumbled toward coming out and beginning her transition in the early 2010s. She had public personas on sites like LiveJournal and Myspace in her former name, but she was much more active and made more friends through the accounts she created under a woman’s name and persona. By the time she talked to me for this story, she’d updated all her accounts to have the name Emily Day. She was out and living her life as a woman, a life she documents with some regularity on Twitter.
The use of online spaces by trans people to create anonymous identities that better match their internal selves is as old as the internet itself. You can make a real argument that trans people popularized the very idea of adopting anonymous identities online in the early 1990s on then-popular Usenet listservs. And in 2020, there are many more platforms to use for creating a new digital self than there were when Day stumbled onto that message board.
But few platforms have been as successful at building a space for that kind of experimentation as Twitter and Reddit, where many trans people (though mostly trans women) create pre-coming out accounts that they often begin to use more and more as their legal identities cease to feel as real to them. (Hey, look, here’s mine.)
To many, the internet might seem a horrible wasteland of people shouting past each other on one side of the political divide and creeping fascism on the other. But in small pockets of social media, support, love, and community can be found among those with marginalized identities, and especially among trans people fumbling their way toward publicly coming out. I wouldn’t be here if not for the friends I found on trans Twitter, and the same goes for any number of other LGBTQ+ people who’ve found friends and maybe even hope online.
Why trans women, in particular, are drawn to anonymous Twitter and Reddit accounts
Anonymity has always been part of queer spaces. In the 1950s, organizations like the Mattachine Society, designed to promote the rights of gay men, frequently saw attendance from men who would use pseudonyms. And long before the rise of the internet, magazines and other print publications were allowing queer people to connect anonymously via personal ads and other forms of communication.
“[Queer anonymity] has played a role in shaping activism, but I think most importantly it’s helped people deal with the power that silence and oppression have over individual lives,” said Dr. John Erickson, who has written extensively about queer anonymity in religious spaces. “Without anonymity and the ability to overcome it, even in affirming religious organizations like the Metropolitan Community Church or in activist movements like Act-Up, we probably wouldn’t be where we’re at today.”
As gay and lesbian identities move more and more into the American mainstream, however, trans identities have become more likely to inspire people to create anonymous digital selves. The big reason to use an anonymous Twitter or Reddit account is to protect one’s identity in the hope of exploring a new one. This is perhaps why anonymous social media accounts that people gradually start to use more than their “real” accounts so frequently belong to trans women. (I have found no reliable data on this, but the scholars I interviewed for this article said my observation matched up with theirs.) Our culture so punishes “men” who engage in anything remotely feminine — with shaming and teasing at best, and violent retribution at worst — that finding a space to try on one’s female self is necessary.
And that’s just in Western countries, where trans identities are often at least tolerated. In many countries, where trans identities are literally illegal, online anonymity is the only way to even begin to better express one’s true self.
Abbi, who is American, self-accepted her trans womanhood in early 2020 and began a Twitter account in June. She mostly lurks, occasionally posting replies to other trans people, but even the act of reading trans Twitter has helped her, she says.
“I really deal with ‘Am I really a woman?’ doubts like that a lot. It can be easy to slip into a despair of, ‘No, no, that’s not really me.’ But then interacting with or even just reading people on Twitter, I get the exact opposite feeling, of ‘No, this is me.’ And that’s really helpful,” Abbi said. “A lot of times, I find that other people put into words things that I’m feeling and haven’t quite found the words for yet.”
Rhonda S., who self-accepted at 58 and similarly lurks on Twitter, said she is most struck by the ways in which younger trans women have a passion and anger that inspires her as she begins a transition later in life than they did.
She’s also found that so long as she stays active primarily on so-called “trans Twitter” (the corner of the social media service where trans people compare notes and support each other), Twitter’s reputation as a vast hellscape starts to feel overstated.
“So far, I haven’t got any heat from anybody, because I guess I don’t post enough,” she said. “Twitter is supposed to be so angry, but for me, so far, it’s more of a safe space than I thought it would be.”
Rhonda’s interactions with trans Twitter largely mirror my own. I’ve been subject to massive harassment on the platform, but only on my main account, which is under my real name, and only after I publicly came out. My “anonymous” account, under a pseudonym I only use for that account, has largely been a haven of polite interaction and discussion with other trans people since I started it in spring 2018.
It occasionally feels like I broke myself. I had a system that was running smoothly, even if it made me really sad, and now I don't.— Emily Sandalwood (@SandalwoodEmily) April 1, 2018
What a first tweet!
Twitter, like all social media platforms, has pockets of support and good feelings, and I found it notable that when I first came out, the two social media spaces where I found the most support were Twitter and Reddit, long branded as terrible places for people who aren’t cis, straight, white men. But Twitter’s and Reddit’s friendliness toward “men” suggests that plenty of trans women, who are, after all, assigned male at birth, are using these platforms pre-self acceptance. Hence, after self-acceptance, they continue to use them, just in communities that exist at once as part of and separate from the Twitter and Reddit mainstreams.
“I’m sure they thought nothing about trans people when they were doing this study, but a colleague told me about some survey or research that found that when men were seeking help, they looked on Reddit, and when women were seeking help, they asked Facebook,” said Jen Jack Gieseking, an assistant professor of geography at the University of Kentucky and author of the book A Queer New York: Geographies of Lesbians, Dykes, and Queers, 1983-2008. “But how do you know the real gender of who’s going where? Are there more trans men going to Facebook groups [which are usually private] and more trans women going to Reddit groups [which are usually public]? How does the format work? What kind of dialogue works to make you feel like someone’s listening to you and you feel heard?”
The surprising history of trans anonymity online — and how it may have popularized digital anonymity for everyone
Harassment against trans women does exist on Twitter and Reddit, and plenty of trans women maintain private spaces in which they can discuss things out of the public eye. (Chat services like Discord and Slack have been particularly useful in this regard.) But the ways in which trans women use Twitter and Reddit, especially, have historical resonances.
Cassius Adair, a visiting assistant professor in the department of media, culture, and communication at NYU, has studied the ways that trans people used the early internet by reading newsgroup posts on Usenet (a sort of hybrid of an online message board and a Google Group but with far, far more chaos) from the early 1990s. What he’s found suggests that trans women, specifically, may have been one of the chief forces in popularizing anonymous identities online.
In the Usenet days (roughly the 1980s and early 1990s), the vast majority of user accounts were tied to professional email addresses, usually for people working in government, military, or academic positions. Though Usenet had practical, professional applications, people mostly used it to talk about things they had in common — favorite TV shows or hobbies or, yes, trans identities. And those professional email addresses almost always revealed the legal names of the people they belonged to, which made it difficult to discuss any topics that might require the delicacy of anonymity.
That lack of anonymity made discussion of topics important to trans women (transition, navigating dual identities, where to buy large women’s shoes, etc.) career-threatening for any trans woman who did attempt to have those discussions. In his research, Adair has found very few examples of closeted trans men or non-binary people using Usenet in similar fashion — no doubt a reflection of how the sorts of people who would have government, military, or academic jobs at the time were typically assigned male at birth.
In the early 1990s, however, a few Usenet users discovered a workaround. A server in Finland (set up by a person whose identity still isn’t known) would act as an email relay service. Users could email a post to the server, which would then submit the post to a desired Usenet discussion group under an anonymous string of numbers and letters.
Trans people were not the only people who wished for online anonymity — other queer people, people suffering from trauma, and people in abusive relationships did, too. But the need for anonymity among trans women was so pointed that use of trans women’s Usenet discussion groups skyrocketed after that first anonymizing server was invented. And usage of those groups would fluctuate in line with the periods when anonymizing servers were available (because there were eventually more servers, even though they would sometimes go offline, targeted by Usenet administrators).
These early Usenet posts were very nearly the invention of online anonymity as a widespread thing, and the discussions those posts created closely mirror the discussions about online anonymity we have today — and almost exactly mirror the ways that trans people still use anonymous social media accounts.
“Some people are saying, ‘Hey, we really need things like anonymizing servers, even if it’s not built into the platform.’ And other people are saying, ‘No, this is going to just cause a culture of unaccountable speech, of harassment. Anybody can post anything. You can’t stop Nazis spreading hate all over the place. There’s no accountability,’” Adair said. “So it’s really like very similar conversations that you see now about the affordances and limitations of anonymity online. And trans people are in their little forum, saying, ‘Oh, thank God for this anonymizing service. This is what’s allowed me to be myself.’”
LGBTQ+ people have always congregated in communities that allow for anonymous interactions. Indeed, the use of digital spaces to conceal legal identities is just an extension of the ways that queer people throughout history have tended to congregate in cities, where it’s easier to slip away from the person it says you are on your ID. But digital spaces allow for so much more anonymity than living in a city, and so much more connection with people who are just like you.
“Anonymity in the city allows us to feel liberated, to not be marked out as different, but to live in a space of difference. So it’s not just the anonymity but the fact that there are so many different kinds of people,” the University of Kentucky’s Gieseking said. “How does that translate onto digital spaces? There are a lot of people who are in places where they still don’t feel safe, or they might be quite young. I think during a pandemic, people are trapped in places. I think a lot about the students who didn’t go to college this year who were so excited to come out. ... They use digital spaces to fill in the gaps to make their lives whole in ways that they can’t in their physical life.”
Emily Day looks at the world of trans social media now and sees it as leaps and bounds beyond what she experienced when she stumbled upon that message board as a Texas teenager. Now, trans social media spaces really are achieving the much-heralded dream of creating an internet where people can form communities of support and friendship — ones that are private enough to facilitate real friendships but public enough to welcome in anyone who might stumble upon them in a moment of need.
“When I found the message board in the late ’90s, [being trans] was very much super taboo. It was really difficult for a lot of us to find those spaces. You had to look around. Nowadays, it’s a lot more acceptable,” Day said. “Social media is sort of radical, at least as far as finding a community. A trans person in Iowa can find a community of various trans people throughout the world. And in that regard, social media has had a big hand in where we are now. Transitioning and coming out can be an isolating experience, but not quite as much when you have social media. It definitely helped me.”