Becoming Ourselves Online: Disabled Transgender Existence In/Through Digital Social Life

Above illustration: ‘Digital Social Life’ by Rocio Egio (2021)

Christian J. Harrison

Social media enables trans disabled people to discover possibilities of identity through integral connections and community building. However, life online is not a ubiquitous existence for all and is dependent upon identity and community standing. To understand fully digital social life, it is important to explore these unique knowledges held within different communities. Transgender disabled people have a unique digital social life due to their lived intersections and tensions. My own conceptions of my identity as a transgender disabled person, have only been possible through social media and my digital social life. Before we can understand disabled transgender digital social lives and their impact offline, we must first discuss the synergies and tensions between these two aspects of identity

Synergies and tensions between trans and disabled identity

Trans and disabled people share many intersectional oppressions and lived experiences, including a) being geographically isolated from shared community, b) lacking access to public accessible spaces (such as toilets), c) navigating passing and coming out around our identities in spaces where we might be rendered invisible (Slater and Liddiard, 2018).

Both trans and disabled identities are constrained by normative understandings of the body, both through gender and ability. Kafer (2013) argue that these ableist and cisnormative assumptions position disabled and trans people against what our bodies are not, rather than what they are. Our bodies are routinely the objects of medicalisation, requiring assessments and legitimisation from the medical profession, limiting our own agency and bodily understanding (Wendell, 1996; Clare, 2009)). Gender and disability are embodied aspects of identity which are made complex by this social and bodily interaction (Kafer, 2013). Removing the social barriers of ableist and cisnormative oppression would not necessarily change how our bodies/minds are impacted by our conditions and disabled/trans identities (Baril et al., 2020).

Disabled trans people have to navigate an ableist  world that does not always recognise their transness or uses their impairments to withhold transition related medical treatments, as well as a trans world that distances itself the label of disability through othering (Pearce, 2018) In additon to this, invidual impairments themselves might be obstacles to gender transition alongside gender identity and cisgenderism which can be disablling (Baril et al., 2020) Disabled trans people exist at the intersection of ableism and cisgenderism (transphobia), however despite (and because of) these complexities,  they have a place in digital social life as prosumers, creating and engaging online.

Taking an intersectional approach to marginalised online existence

Considering these nuances of disabled trans existence helps to understand the impact on individual lives, an impact which is evident online as well as offline. Distinct features of digital social life, allow for great possibilities such as the blurring of physical and virtual; public and private as well as opportunities for explorations of a fluid sense of self (Jenkins et al., 2013; Miller et al., 2016). In turn, online spaces, such as social media mediate networked communication that produces virtual counterpublics, where one can explore identity, connect and contribute to a thriving community (which has become even more vital during the Covid-19 pandemic). As Jenzen (2017) mentions in their research, trans disabled people are able to create digital space beyond the binaries and boundaries of dominant hegemony, existing in a way that they might not be able to offline, perhaps even seeing themselves for the first time which is empowering and affirming. Given the geographical isolation of trans and disabled communities, digital spaces allows for relating and fluid expressions of self where individuals can understand the possibilities of identity and gain access to resources and knowledge to help navigate a world that is not always built for them, such as doctors not knowing the impact of gender transition on individuals bodies given their specific impairments.

Digital social life for trans disabled people is also one of inherent risk and limitation. Individuals may not be able to navigate specific platforms due to lack of accessible functionality (Shpigelman and Gill, 2014). Aspects of online life that many nondisabled people take for granted, but the lack of features really impacts ones experiences online, such as having a website that is not screen readable for visually impaired individuals, no dark mode  option for readability, or the ability to stop auto play for bright flashing videos to limit sensory overload or epileptic seizures. Trans disabled people are individual in their lived experiences and needs, thus although digital life can aid us in finding people like ourselves, we might also struggle from a lack of shared experience to be able to relate to. Often times issues on social media are siloed, causing disabled trans individuals to have to compartmentalise and render parts of ourselves invisible for fear of others reactions in order to connect online. This siloing of identities and issues is a digital illustration of how passing and coming out is negotiated online alongside complexities of privilege and access. Thus, our intersectionality and the different places we exist online change how we present ourselves in that space (e.g. we might not be “out” in relation to our gender identity on Facebook because our parents see our posts and we are not safely out at home, but we might be part of a discord server where we use our chosen name and pronouns and can discuss gender transition and how it effects our impairment). Alongside harassment for our gender or disability, there are also experience of intersectionality with other marginalities like faith, race and class that individuals have to combat online. The confidence that I have to be out and visible (in relation to my gender, sexuality and disability) on all social media platforms is impacted by the fact that I as a white transmasculine disabled person pass (as cisgender) online, have not directly experienced online harassment and am out in a lot of ways offline. Therefore I do not fear what others may find out about me online (family, etc.) and how that could affect my offline relationships/experiences. For some, these online experiences of transphobia and ableism are exhausting and negatively impact mental health leading to individuals limiting what they share, sometimes halting use of a platform all together.

So where do we go from here

The malleability of digital life, has shown amazing potential for trans disabled people that allow us to develop identity, build community and gather support/resources showing our identities in different ways in different spaces (Shpigelman and Gill, 2014; Jenzen, 2017). The possibilities of online spaces to share insider information, connect to others you would not have physical access to are invaluable for the trans disabled community. However, being seen also causes inherent risk, such as restricted access, compartmentalisation of identity and online harassment. In turn, this also changes the online landscape where marginalised voices might be intentionally or inadvertently silenced and lost. Thus digital social life is an juxopositional place where one can be concurrently isolated and connected, validated and undermined. Trans disabled people will continue to carve out a seat (or bring our own) for ourselves  at the proverbial digital table, through Facebook groups, Discord servers, Dreamwidth blogs, Reddit threads and beyond. We will work to create space to become ourselves online.

Increasing accessibility of digital social life will enable increased participation and sharing of knowledge, this would take a larger infrastructure approach of working with platforms and corporations, alongside user specific developments and hacks. Connecting across identity digitally acknowledges the intersection of trans disabled identity to unite these communities to disrupt hegemonic perceptions of normality that are destructive to our bodies and selves. Utilising experience from both communities allows for the sharing of knowledge and community organising resources for the benefit of everyone. This collaboration should be extended beyond these communities to ensure that all marginalised voices and lives are seen and heard online.

Christian J. Harrison (he/him) is a PhD student in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds, connected to the Centre for Disability Studies and Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies. From a conceptual standpoint of crip theory, queer theory and the social relational model of disability, integrating trans and disability intersections, his PhD research is entitled: Becoming ourselves online: disabled transgender identity construction and intersection through social media.


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