Practically since its inception, the internet has been a place for transgender people to build community, with early forums and message boards allowing this tiny portion of the general population to find each other across wider geographic areas.
Twitter has always been spotty about enforcing its rules against transphobic harassment.
Today, much of that connection-building and organization has shifted to Twitter. But the internet age also brought many oppositional forces: No longer confined to abstract and insular academic debates, anti-trans folks found a much wider audience, as well.
Twitter has always been spotty about enforcing its rules against transphobic harassment, making it a double-edged sword for trans people. But nonetheless, trans Twitter has thrived. With news that billionaire Elon Musk will take over the platform, that may change.
Earlier this week, I asked my trans Twitter followers what they thought of Musk’s takeover. Many said they would stay and fight, but most said they are already looking for another social platform on which to congregate. Musk’s personal views on trans people aren't what seemed to rankle folks most, though they were a big factor. Instead, it’s his potential for loosening the already lightly enforced rules against transphobic harassment.
Musk has a history of making snide and often bigoted tweets about trans people. Queer journalist Nico Lang recently tweeted a thread showing the times Musk has mocked trans people. He’s not an anti-trans activist or anything, but it’s clear where his sympathies lie in the “trans debate.”
Under Musk, Twitter’s anti-trans harassment rules may be completely wiped out. Even worse, he could require identification verification for all Twitter users, which he alluded to in a recent tweet.
This is the true path to driving trans people off of Twitter. Many trans people who use the platform are using it, like I once did, to explore how it feels to exist online with a new identity. Many others simply can’t afford to get their names and state IDs updated with their correct names and genders.
Authentication of users would likely force trans people to use their legal names on Twitter, just as Facebook did with its “real name policy.” Ironically, the Facebook policy is likely part of why trans Twitter flourished; anyone on Facebook could successfully get a trans person’s account suspended by reporting it as an impersonation. Facebook would then lock the account and require the user to send photocopies of their government ID matching the account information in order to unlock it. If the user’s ID didn’t match, the account would effectively be gone. A similar policy on Twitter would likely wipe out most of trans Twitter like a Thanos snap.
When I heard about the finalization of Musk’s takeover, I reflected upon my own experience with Twitter as a trans person. I first joined Twitter to keep up to date on soccer news and follow live tweets on the U.S. national team and Major League Soccer’s New England Revolution games with other fans. Back then, I was deep in the closet and didn’t really know any other trans people.
Over time, I started following trans people, starting with trans soccer fans and some of the more well-known trans writers, such as Parker Molloy. Here were people doing the things I had always thought were impossible for me, and they were just like me. Suddenly, the obstacles to my potential transition seemed less and less daunting.
Eventually I started another Twitter account, in secret, concealed from my family and friends, in order to explore how it felt to exist as a trans person online. At the suggestion of my therapist, I started writing essays about my thoughts on transitioning and gender in early 2016. Thanks to Twitter, many of those essays went mini-viral, and people actually started following me.
In spite of what he says, Musk clearly does not understand how free speech is protected.
Six years later, I have over 67,000 Twitter followers and have had bylines in most of the major U.S. publications. I owe much of that success to trans Twitter. Just as I looked up to others earlier in my transition, many trans people have since told me I was their example of what a successful transition looks like.
In spite of what he says, Musk clearly does not understand how free speech is protected. If a space is so hostile to the mere existence of a specific population that that population flees, a free and high-minded exchange of ideas is effectively blocked. It’s the tolerance paradox, which states that tolerating intolerance will eventually result in intolerance winning in the end.
My only hope is that Musk, once he takes over the company, sees potential monetary value in the vast number of trans people who use Twitter. In the end, though, I don’t think the safety and well-being of trans people is high on Musk’s priority list right now.