Commentary Media

‘A Panorama of Toxicity’: On Being a Trans Woman Online

Katherine Cross

The realities of trans women’s experience with social media remind us that a discussion about "toxicity" online cannot be contained by the artificial boundaries of “Twitter feminism.” The problem is much larger than Twitter or any number of internal activist flare-ups. It encompasses the entire online world.

“If I were sixteen or seventeen years old and had to listen to that, or read things like that I would want to give up listening and reading. I would begin thinking up new kinds of sounds, different from any music heard before, and I would be twisting and turning to rid myself of human language.” —Lewis Thomas

Courtesy of a new story in The Nation magazine by Michelle Goldberg, the issue of the “toxicity” in online feminism, specifically on Twitter, has been thrust into the glaring lights of public scrutiny. Yet the paradigmatic examples its author chose have ensured that discussion has already devolved into a fixation on the most privileged participants in feminist activism.

When I wrote recently on the subject of activist rage, my chief interest was not in assuaging the feelings of the already privileged, but rather to elucidate one sector of a much wider, abusive culture that encompasses the entire Internet and the whole political spectrum therein. My big fear with the way the term “toxicity” is now being bandied about is that it will be understood as a shorthand dog-whistle to stigmatize marginalized peoples’ forthright efforts to talk back to the powerful. This would be a mistake.

Not only would that be tragic from the perspective of advocacy, but it would be a downright Orwellian misrepresentation of the phenomenon’s actual dimensions.

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The realities of trans women’s experience with social media remain instructive, and remind us that this discussion cannot be contained by the artificial boundaries of “Twitter feminism.” The problem is much larger than Twitter or any number of internal activist flare-ups. It encompasses the entire online world.

Much ink, including some of my own, has been spilled on the ways that online culture is especially abusive to women as a whole. For trans women in particular, our transgender status refracts the misogyny directed at us in a particularly odious way that often leaves us unrecognizable to ourselves.

For us, the Internet is a panorama of toxicity.

The comments beneath a recent Los Angeles Times article about a new in-depth study on transgender suicide are a useful place to start. Few places epitomize the dangers of the Internet’s amoral anarchism than comments sections on many news sites, which are often poorly moderated and allowed to degenerate into all manner of belligerence. But contrary to the stereotype of anonymous youngsters engaged in all-caps tirades, liberally employing all the swear words they’ve recently learned, the comments on that LA Times piece and the personal hate mail that transfeminist writer Kat Haché held up for scrutiny on her blog betray the sober, calm, but utterly cruel lecturing that characterizes a whole strain of online culture’s posture towards trans women:

“This is not a ‘politically correct’ or popular opinion, but you have to be very screwed up in the head to … want to be surgically mutilated to playact a sex role.”

“If you want to reduce the suicide rate, you need to stop pretending that being transgendered is not a mental disease.”

“Is anyone surprised to learn that [people] who define themselves by their self-hatred and who devote their lives to poisoning and mutilating their own healthy bodies have a high rate of suicide attempts?”

These comments could have appeared just as easily on any number of other news sites that allow wide latitude to commenters to bully and harass under painfully lax and meaningless terms of service. But what links these and many other LA Times comments that Haché highlighted is their chilling calmness—the lack of swears and overt slurs is a deafening silence here—and it should serve as a reminder that online “toxicity” is not simply defined by overt displays of anger. It manifests through prejudice, whatever the tone.

The fixation on trans women’s bodies, genitalia, and reproductive choices is central to all of this, and expressed in fittingly clinical language. It is easy to imagine a young trans woman, unsure of herself and her identity, reading these comments and fearing her destiny lies in some shade of oblivion. For many years, the words of people like this, whether on television, from my father’s mouth, or in magazines, shaped the profound self-loathing that characterized my pre-coming out years. It provided the only picture of what I could be, and became the language that saw me twisting and turning to rid myself of it—and perhaps life itself.

“My body, my choice” was not a lesson I could glean from so malignant a cultural education, and I can only imagine how much worse it is for today’s young trans girls with Internet access, being barraged with this sort of thing from a thousand virtual perches.

The way trans women’s lives and embodiment are seized on by many on the Internet to advance pet arguments has been a source of perverse fascination to me for several years now. Each of those LA Times commenters saw us as some affirmation of their own small-bore convictions. In other arenas, trans women have been used by transphobic radical feminists to prop up the grander thesis that we bar the way to a genderless utopia. Meanwhile, on the religious right we are seen as a fundamental threat to patriarchal supremacy and the heterosexual nuclear family. What these otherwise disparate visions of trans womanhood share is a conviction that we are rapacious, predatory invaders who will use bathrooms for evil.

Both of these political forces converged on Jane Doe, a young trans high schooler who was falsely accused of sexually harassing other girls in the school restroom. Though she has received love and support from many at her school and in her family, the fusillade of online attacks sired by both extremist transphobic feminists and the religious right’s Pacific Justice Institute, has seen young Jane Doe put on suicide watch. Her personal details were posted online and spread by groups of extremists whose abiding ideological commitments kept Jane Doe’s humanity far from their sight; this teenage girl was picked apart and viciously attacked in forum after forum, news comment after news comment, until only a profoundly grotesque caricature remained.

If we cannot call this “toxic,” then the word has no meaning.

For men’s rights activists (MRAs), the cadre of reactionary men who see feminist gains as an existential threat to the existence of men, trans women are a literal embodiment of their dark theories. To them, we are men so oppressed by what they term “matriarchy” that we mutilate ourselves into being women. One prominent extremist, Paul Elam, launched an online attack against leading Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell for being a trans woman who studied masculinity. Elam believed that because she’d “cut the masculinity from [her] body like a tumour” out of “pathological hatred [for men]” and was a committed feminist scholar who critically examined masculinity, she ought to be attacked by the full weight of the “men’s movement.”

Another MRA, Jack Donovan, all but danced on the grave of the late Christine Daniels, a trans woman sports writer who committed suicide in 2009. For him, she represented “the feminist/Marxist desire to subvert the patriarchy, to craft a society where sex is meaningless and distinct roles of men and women are a thing of the past.” Still another, in a comment left on an MRA website, averred that trans women are men with “Stockholm Syndrome.”

And thus we come full circle to mainstream feminist activism. The above incidents make up the cultural swamp that breeds some of the Twitter “toxicity” now being discussed, and contributes to making even online activist spaces transmisogynist.

That sickly mire of prejudice passively informs the views of some in online queer and third-wave feminism who see trans women as oppressed, but also passé—sad sacks who are unaware of how we reinforce the gender binary with our retrograde desire for womanhood and femininity. Throughout social media, trans women must field attacks and criticisms that epitomize one of the central problems with activist rage culture, which Julia Serano and Anne Koedt have aptly called “the perversion of ‘the personal is political.’” In this way of looking at the world, trans women’s identities are an apt reflection of our political convictions, and thus every part of our bodies, every affectation, every bit of comportment, every dollop of makeup, everything we wear, is up for intense (and very public) scrutiny. Taken together, they are seen as a tapestry adding up to what scholars Suzanne Kessler and Wendy McKenna called trans women’s “inherent conservatism,” a view that remains tragically trenchant among many young cis queer activists online.

We are all things to all people except ourselves, it would seem; living metaphors for everyone else’s nightmares.

That red thread of dehumanization links these wildly disparate spheres of online endeavor.

The Internet is a core battleground since it has breathed furious new life into very old arguments, and invigorated new, dangerous collectives like men’s rights activists, 4chan, or certain cliques of bigoted online gamers.

The consequences are real, as the suicide report makes clear. Forty-one percent of transgender and gender non-conforming people have attempted to take our own lives at some point. After the badgering of a freelance journalist working for the online publication Grantland, a trans woman inventor did just that after she feared being forcibly outed by that journalist’s pen, followed by a fury of Twitter comments deriding trans women as deceivers for whom such a fate was inevitable.

Islan Nettles was murdered in front of a police station for being a trans woman and yet her murderer remains unpunished.

CeCe McDonald spent a year and a half in prison for defending herself from a white supremacist’s murderous attack.

A very real effort is now underway by religious conservatives in California to repeal via referendum a trans rights bill that protects transgender students; the storm of online commentary on the LA Times leaves one fearful of the results of any vote conducted under such conditions.

And the online gyre continues to swirl.

Whether it is Samantha Allen, Mattie Brice, or Carolyn Petit receiving outlandish online hatred for their feminist video game criticism, or transphobic radical feminists who “dox” trans women, out them, and expose them to career-ruining harassment, what becomes vitally clear is a considerably more panoramic picture of online “toxicity.” What bedevils activism and causes the “call-out culture” that’s been talked about so much of late is not something immanent only to online feminism, but a broader cultural problem stemming from broken cyber-ethics violently interacting with long pre-existing structural prejudices. In an online social space suffused with the conceit that any interaction there is inherently less real than behavior in the “real world,” are we surprised that rank bigotry takes flight in such a freewheeling way? The ideological kinship between online trolls who claim to be “just joking” and men who beat trans women offline in the name of “having a laugh” should be apparent.

This panoptic toxicity that now seems to follow us everywhere we go, through smartphones, email, online videos, news comments, and social media, leaves too many of us unable to see anything but a monster in the mirror each passing day. Online harassment grinds us down, but even the fear of it sees us painfully self-policing our voices, our activism, our style of dress—even our own bodies.

That, too, is toxic. And to end it, we must strike at the conditions that create it: the legal, medical, and social regulation of trans women, our lives, and our bodies.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Republican National Convention Edition

Ally Boguhn

The Trump family's RNC claims about crime and the presidential candidate's record on gender equality have kept fact-checkers busy.

Republicans came together in Cleveland this week to nominate Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention (RNC), generating days of cringe-inducing falsehoods and misleading statements on crime, the nominee’s positions on gender equality, and LGBTQ people.

Trump’s Acceptance Speech Blasted for Making False Claims on Crime

Trump accepted the Republican nomination in a Thursday night speech at the RNC that drew harsh criticism for many of its misleading and outright false talking points.

Numerous fact-checkers took Trump to task, calling out many of his claims for being “wrong,” and “inflated or misleading.”

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 Among the most hotly contested of Trump’s claims was the assertion that crime has exploded across the country.

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” Trump claimed, according to his prepared remarks, which were leaked ahead of his address. “Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore.”

Crime rates overall have been steadily declining for years.

“In 2015, there was an uptick in homicides in 36 of the 50 largest cities compared to the previous years. The rate did, indeed, increase nearly 17 percent, and it was the worst annual change since 1990. The homicide rate was up 54.3 percent in Washington, and 58.5 percent in Baltimore,” explained Washington Post fact checkers Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee. “But in the first months of 2016, homicide trends were about evenly split in the major cities. Out of 63 agencies reporting to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, 32 cities saw a decrease in homicides in first quarter 2016 and 31 saw an increase.”

Ames Grawert, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said in a statement posted to the organization’s website that 2016 statistics aren’t sufficient in declaring crime rate trends. 

“Overall, crime rates remain at historic lows. Fear-inducing soundbites are counterproductive, and distract from nuanced, data-driven, and solution-oriented conversations on how to build a smarter criminal justice system in America,” Grawert said. “It’s true that some cities saw an increase in murder rates last year, and that can’t be ignored, but it’s too early to say if that’s part of a national trend.” 

When Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, was confronted with the common Republican falsehoods on crime during a Thursday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, he claimed that the FBI’s statistics were not to be trusted given that the organization recently advised against charges in connection with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

“According to FBI statistics, crime rates have been going down for decades,” Tapper told Manafort. “How can Republicans make the argument that it’s somehow more dangerous today when the facts don’t back that up?”

“People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods,” said Manafort, going on to claim that “the FBI is certainly suspect these days after what they did with Hillary Clinton.”

There was at least one notable figure who wholeheartedly embraced Trump’s fearmongering: former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. “Great Trump Speech,” tweeted Duke on Thursday evening. “Couldn’t have said it better!”

Ben Carson Claims Transgender People Are Proof of “How Absurd We Have Become”

Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson criticized the existence of transgender people while speaking at the Florida delegation breakfast on Tuesday in Cleveland.  

“You know, we look at this whole transgender thing, I’ve got to tell you: For thousands of years, mankind has known what a man is and what a woman is. And now, all of a sudden we don’t know anymore,” said Carson, a retired neurosurgeon. “Now, is that the height of absurdity? Because today you feel like a woman, even though everything about you genetically says that you’re a man or vice versa?”

“Wouldn’t that be the same as if you woke up tomorrow morning after seeing a movie about Afghanistan or reading some books and said, ‘You know what? I’m Afghanistan. Look, I know I don’t look that way. My ancestors came from Sweden, or something, I don’t know. But I really am. And if you say I’m not, you’re a racist,’” Carson said. “This is how absurd we have become.”

When confronted with his comments during an interview with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, Carson doubled down on his claims.“There are biological markers that tell us whether we are a male or a female,” said Carson. “And just because you wake up one day and you say, ‘I think I’m the other one,’ that doesn’t change it. Just, a leopard can’t change its spots.”

“It’s not as if they woke up one day and decided, ‘I’m going to be a male or I’m going to be a female,’” Couric countered, pointing out that transgender people do not suddenly choose to change their gender identities on a whim.

Carson made several similar comments last year while on the campaign trail.

In December, Carson criticized the suggested that allowing transgender people into the military amounted to using the armed services “as a laboratory for social experimentation.”

Carson once suggested that allowing transgender people to use the restroom that aligned with their gender identity amounted to granting them “extra rights.”

Ivanka Trump Claims Her Father Supports Equal Pay, Access to Child Care

Ivanka Trump, the nominee’s daughter, made a pitch during her speech Thursday night at the RNC for why women voters should support her father.

“There have always been men of all background and ethnicities on my father’s job sites. And long before it was commonplace, you also saw women,” Ivanka Trump said. “At my father’s company, there are more female than male executives. Women are paid equally for the work that we do and when a woman becomes a mother, she is supported, not shut out.” 

“As president, my father will change the labor laws that were put into place at a time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce. And he will focus on making quality child care affordable and accessible for all,” she continued before pivoting to address the gender wage gap. 

“Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties; they should be the norm. Politicians talk about wage equality, but my father has made it a practice at his company throughout his entire career.”

However, Trump’s stated positions on the gender wage gap, pregnancy and mothers in the workplace, and child care don’t quite add up to the picture the Trumps tried to paint at the RNC.

In 2004, Trump called pregnancy an “inconvenience” for employers. When a lawyer asked for a break during a deposition in 2011 to pump breast milk, Trump reportedly called her “disgusting.”

According to a June analysis conducted by the Boston Globe, the Trump campaign found that men who worked on Trump’s campaign “made nearly $6,100, or about 35 percent more [than women during the April payroll]. The disparity is slightly greater than the gender pay gap nationally.”

A former organizer for Trump also filed a discrimination complaint in January, alleging that she was paid less than her male counterparts.

When Trump was questioned about equal pay during a campaign stop last October, he did not outline his support for policies to address the issue. Instead, Trump suggested that, “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.” Though he had previously stated that men and women who do the same job should be paid the same during an August 2015 interview on MSNBC, he also cautioned that determining whether people were doing the same jobs was “tricky.”

Trump has been all but completely silent on child care so far on the campaign trail. In contrast, Clinton released an agenda in May to address the soaring costs of child care in the United States.

Ivanka’s claims were not the only attempt that night by Trump’s inner circle to explain why women voters should turn to the Republican ticket. During an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Manafort said that women would vote for the Republican nominee because they “can’t afford their lives anymore.”

“Many women in this country feel they can’t afford their lives, their husbands can’t afford to be paying for the family bills,” claimed Manafort. “Hillary Clinton is guilty of being part of the establishment that created that problem. They’re going to hear the message. And as they hear the message, that’s how we are going to appeal to them.”

What Else We’re Reading

Vox’s Dara Lind explained how “Trump’s RNC speech turned his white supporters’ fear into a weapon.”

Now that Mike Pence is the Republican nominee for vice president, Indiana Republicans have faced “an intense, chaotic, awkward week of brazen lobbying at the breakfast buffet, in the hallways and on the elevators” at the convention as they grapple with who will run to replace the state’s governor, according to the New York Times.

“This is a party and a power structure that feels threatened with extinction, willing to do anything for survival,” wrote Rebecca Traister on Trump and the RNC for New York Magazine. “They may not love Trump, but he is leading them precisely because he embodies their grotesque dreams of the restoration of white, patriarchal power.”

Though Trump spent much of the primary season denouncing big money in politics, while at the RNC, he courted billionaires in hopes of having them donate to supporting super PACs.

Michael Kranish reported for the Washington Post that of the 2,472 delegates at the RNC, it is estimated that only 18 were Black.

Cosmopolitan highlighted nine of the most sexist things that could be found at the convention.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked, “Where are these contributions that have been made” by people of color to civilization?

News Politics

Former Klan Leader on Senate Run: My Views Are Now the ‘GOP Mainstream’

Teddy Wilson

David Duke has been a fervent support of the Trump campaign, and has posted dozens of messages in support of Trump on Twitter. Duke has often used the hashtag #TrumpWasRight.

David Duke, convicted felon, white supremacist, and former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, announced Friday that he will run for U.S. Senate in Louisiana, Roll Call reported.

Duke said that after a “great outpouring of overwhelming support,” he will campaign for the open Senate seat vacated by former Republican Sen. David Vitter, who lost a bid for Louisiana governor in a runoff election.

Duke’s announcement comes the day after Donald Trump accepted the GOP nomination in the midst of growing tensions over race relations across the country. Trump has been criticized during the campaign for his rhetoric, which, his critics say, mainstreams white nationalism and provokes anxiety and fear among students of color.

His statements about crime and immigration, particularly about immigrants from Mexico and predominantly Muslim countries, have been interpreted by outlets such as the New York Times as speaking to some white supporters’ “deeper and more elaborate bigotry.”

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Duke said in his campaign announcement that he was the first candidate to promote the policy of “America first,” echoing a line from Trump’s nomination acceptance speech on Thursday night.

“The most important difference between our plan and that of our opponents, is that our plan will put America First,” Trump said Thursday night. “As long as we are led by politicians who will not put America First, then we can be assured that other nations will not treat America with respect.”

Duke said his platform has become “the GOP mainstream” and claimed credit for propelling Republicans to control of Congress in 2010. He said he is “overjoyed to see Donald Trump … embrace most of the issues I’ve championed for years.”

Trump in February declined to disavow the support of a white supremacist group and Duke, saying he knew “nothing about David Duke” and knew “nothing about white supremacists.” He later clarified that he rejected their support, and blamed his initial failure to disavow Duke on a “bad earpiece.”

Trump’s candidacy has also brought to light brought many incidents of anti-Semitism, much of which has been directed at journalists and commentators covering the presidential campaign.

Conservative commentator Ben Shapiro wrote in the National Review that Trump’s nomination has “drawn anti-Semites from the woodwork,” and that the Republican nominee has been willing to “channel the support of anti-Semites to his own ends.”

Duke took to Twitter after Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday to express his support for the Republican nominee’s vision for America.

“Great Trump Speech, America First! Stop Wars! Defeat the Corrupt elites! Protect our Borders!, Fair Trade! Couldn’t have said it better!” Duke tweeted.

Duke has been a fervent Trump supporter, and has posted dozens of messages in support of Trump on Twitter. Duke has often used the hashtag #TrumpWasRight.

Duke was elected to the Louisiana house in 1989, serving one term. Duke was the Republican nominee for governor in 1991, and was defeated by Democrat Edwin Edwards.

Duke, who plead guilty in 2002 to mail fraud and tax fraud, has served a year in federal prison.