An Oral History of the Early Trans Internet
Speech OnlineThis week, we’re looking at the state of free speech on the internet, how we got here, and where we’re going.
Trans people have existed since the dawn of time. The internet has not.
Driven by a need to find community and speak freely about our lives, trans folks were able to find each other online. The trans internet grew out of the activism of the previous decades, when trans women like Anne Ogborn fought and put themselves in harm’s way to make sure that later chat forums and meet-ups could exist, online and IRL.
Before the internet became the public entity of the World Wide Web, trans folks had limited means of connecting online. Companies like AOL could police language and topics of discussion by banning certain words in their terms of service. And since only trans folks with the means to pay for internet service could have access to these channels, the privatized internet was already a privileged space.
But for people who were used to seeing themselves represented as murder victims or fetish objects, finding a home online was a way to tap into the diverse world of trans identity that simply wasn’t being shown or celebrated anywhere else.
Later, chat rooms and forums gave way to platforms like LiveJournal and MySpace, early, long-form versions of what Facebook and Twitter would eventually become. At the height of LiveJournal, roughly 2004-2005, trans folks could use the platform to write privately about their lives, share stories with friends, and be open about the realities of transitioning. And before sites like OkCupid, Grindr, and FetLife, trans folks had to depend on bulletin board sites like Craigslist and chaser-friendly platforms like FTMlover.com to pursue love and sex online.
Since the late 90s, we’ve also been able to raise awareness online about violence against trans people and fight anti-trans legislation. Through her extensive community work online, Gwen Smith was able to create the Transgender Day of Remembrance, fueled by the community’s need to remember and mourn our dead.
Greater connectivity still presents concerns about privacy, safety, and bullying. But for the most part, we’re growing.
Before the internet
Avery Dame-Griff, Ph.D., professor, researcher, and curator of the Queer Digital History Project: Before the internet, one way [trans groups like Tri-Ess] would make themselves known is that you’d also have card catalog systems at the public library. They had a whole campaign where they would create fake dewy decimal card systems that members would sneak into the actual catalog. They had all this specific trans and cross-dressing topics so that when the people got to the catalog, they’d be redirected to their local chapter.
Anne Ogborn, activist and educator: You used to go to the library to find the few books about trans subjects. The Autobiography of Jane Fry was one. But every time you’d try to check one out, it would be missing. Either another trans person had gotten there first and stolen the book because they were scared to get outed or have it on their record, or a transphobic person had come and stolen or defaced it.
Dame-Griff: There’s a really painful story about a person who had joined a Tri-Ess chapter at that time and had been getting mail delivered to their personal address. They ended up committing suicide. The Tri-Ess chapter kept sending it to their address until the person’s mother actually had to say, “please stop sending us this stuff.” This is the stuff that the internet totally eliminates. You just make sure you have a second email address and you’re good.
Alex Iantaffi, author of How To Understand Your Gender and Life Isn’t Binary, speaker, therapist, and creator of the “Gender Stories” podcast: I was born in Italy in 1971. When I first started thinking about coming out, I had no access to the internet, there was no Google. I had not seen any representation of trans and queer folks while growing up. Then, in 1993, when I was 22, I moved to the UK. I had only started using the internet for email the year before.
In the UK, I was exposed to openly queer folks. I started to think seriously about coming out in the mid-’90s. I was in an abusive relationship at the time and going through this very harrowing search for who I was, trying to find some freedom to explore that. I found these helplines that I would call when my former partner was out of the house. I would call from the landline to try and figure out resources, to talk to somebody. I remember them giving me a list of support groups and LGBTQ-friendly places. Many of those places would be bars. At first, I felt intimidated. I spent several evenings across the road at the local gay pub when I finally got out of my relationship. Then somebody on the helpline told me about First Out in London [London’s first daytime LGBTQ+ venue, opened in 1986.]. That was the first queer venue I went to. I made contact with other folks and started coming out. Queer presses were big then, too. There would be newspapers you’d find at the bar with all sorts of ads and events. I started volunteering for an LGBT youth group as well, but a lot of queer community still formed around pub culture in London at that time.
Private to public
Jamison Green, author, educator, leader in the movement for Trans Health and Rights: From 1988 to 1991, I was working at Sun Microsystems. Before that, I was working at Paperback Software International. I was already in the industry, and I had the internet. But I was painfully aware that most people in the trans male community had no computers. Even Lou Sullivan, who started the FTM support group in San Francisco in ‘86, didn’t get a computer until probably ‘89 or so. He hand-wrote most of the FTMI letters and had carbon copies. He was meticulous about correspondence. He was also one of the founders of the then-called Gay and Lesbian Society of Northern California. So he wasn’t connected to the internet and just used his computer as a writing tool, like most of the guys in our group. When I was putting together the FTM newsletter [part of FTMI International] it was really important to me, going all the way through the nineties, even though more and more people were getting connected from ‘95 forward, that there were so many who were not online that we had to keep the newsletter as a copy. Yes, we could digitize it and put it out on the web at some point, but we had to keep that physical format. In ‘93, I met a guy from Texas who had started an online bulletin board for trans men. His name was Aaron. A few people used that service, it wasn’t terribly active. That was the first trans male thing that I was aware of that had the intention of reaching out. Then AOL showed up.
Cassius Adair, audio producer, professor, writer, and researcher: The format of the newsletter is really easily replicable in the format of the newsgroup online. So early chat and forum platforms like Usenet and AOL were popular. There’s a lot of shared dialogue in the early ‘90s between print newsletters like FTMI [an FTM newsletter and community started by activist Lou Sullivan in 1986] and the digital cultures out there. People who were making radical zines like Toronto’s GenderTrash, their work was being debated in the forum scene. Then there are people like Dallas Denny in the nineties who are hanging out in the newsgroup but running their own IRL organizations. People were on there being like “is ‘transgender menace’ too radical?’ Like, “are those people all making us look bad?” Today we’re used to all the radical leftists on Tumblr, but in the climate of the ‘90s, the political bent of who was online was a little bit to the right of, say, the Transsexual Vanguard. To me that’s about who has access. Military, state, and corporate employees. At that time, you had to be an institutional affiliate to be on the earliest wave of the internet. It wasn’t a public access entity until 1995. Before that, if you have trans people online, you’re looking at—most of the time but not always—a privileged caste. So people are like “you’re doing these radical political things, and we just want the right to have a transgender forum where we can actually use those terms and not be trolled all the time.”
Rocco Kayiatos, cofounder of “Original Plumbing” zine and creator of Camp Lost Boys: I went on the 1999 Sister Spit tour, which played at the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. I was a nineteen-year-old, butch-identified person who had no idea that trans men existed. At a certain point, we went across the way to Camp Trans, the protest camp. I met a trans guy for the first time and was disturbed, shocked, horrified, and totally obsessed with him. Once the tour ended, I tried very hard to research the existence of other trans men. I met one young guy in San Francisco. I found Loren Cameron’s book Body Alchemy. In 2004, there was another book called The Phallus Palace by Dean Kotula. But I can’t tell you how obsessed I was with Body Alchemy. I wore that book out. I showed it to my family, and he was making another book called Man Tool: The Nuts and Bolts of Female-To-Male Surgery about bottom surgery. [Cameron] had a really beta sort of website. He posted pictures of himself and other guys who medically transitioned.
Dame-Griff: We’ve always wanted to see ourselves. This is why Loren Cameron’s book was so important. It was a book of photos of us that looked good.
Gwendolyn Smith, activist and founder of the Transgender Day of Remembrance and of “The Gazebo,” an early AOL chat room for trans women: Even in the ‘90s we’d already started to make fun of that “born in the wrong body” trope that was out there.
Green: Gwen [Smith] was the leading light at AOL. She was there all the time, active. I checked in every now and then, also with [GenderTalk Radio founder] Nancy Nangeroni, who was doing some stuff with internet radio. She was a mover and shaker in that regard as well. She was making sure people knew about the news and getting opinion pieces out there, not just her own opinions but people in the community.
Ogborn: Gwen [Smith] started doing online activism kind of as I was winding down. We overlapped. The Gazebo was after my time.
Smith: The Gazebo [an AOL forum for trans women] was named in honor of Lauren D. Wilson, a woman who had committed suicide before we started it. She’d said she wished there was a place we could all go to just hang out together, and that’s what it became.
In the early days of AOL, you couldn’t have a public chat using the word “transsexual” or “transvestite.” They’d find you and switch the forum to private, and no one would be able to find you. We had to be clever about it. There was a chat called “Christine Jorgenson” that threw them off the scent for a while, then there was one called “Virginia Prince.” They would always find us and shut us down, even when we started using terms like MTF and FTM. AOL had these people searching for banned words and they would eventually find us. So we took action. I wrote to the head of AOL in ‘93 and ‘94 asking them to remove the ban. It was a group effort. In 1994, [former America Online CEO] Steve Case had ended the ban in response to us. By 1995, we had the forum. The Gazebo stayed online until about 1998. After that, it existed at Gay.com until around 2001. Then we were kind of scattered to the four winds.
Dame-Griff: Bulletin Board Systems [BBS] provided that kind of immediate access. That’s why that system is revolutionary. Before that, you had to get connected to either one of the national LGBT publications—and that was dicey, that could out you—or connect to a small, regional group. Those groups maintained libraries of information, they had books and photos you could have access to. They did video nights, where you’d get a VHS and watch it in someone’s basement. So the internet really allowed people to get the information they needed without exposing or outing themselves.
Adair: Part of my research has involved this issue of categorization and finding out to what extent all trans words are subcategorized as “alt” or, in other words, pornographic…What I understand from Susan Stryker’s work and other activists from [that time] is that a lot of the folks who were doing that activism were really intersecting with sex work communities and a lot of other marginalized communities.
Green: The labels were all different then. People either felt okay in a space or not, regardless of the label. Or they accepted the label for the purposes of communicating in that space.
Smith: In terms of care, John Hopkins had a Gender Center, so did John Hopkins. They were the places that people were largely going for trans care at the time. It became known as the “university system.” A large portion of that dealt with these rules set by the universities. Like, you couldn’t associate with other trans people. The focus in those systems was really on “blending in.”
Ogborn: If you want to understand the period I was active, you have to understand the New Women’s Conference, also known as “Rites of Passage.” It was a yearly event that had a weird history. There were some trans support organizations that were kind of patronizing, but they helped you get through your transition. They were concerned that some people weren’t “going ahead with their lives and blending in.” That was a worrisome thing to them. This was the times, you know. It was run by a crossdresser named Ari Kane. So they had a conference just for post-op women. Fine. Then he shows up and wants to be at the center. The first evening, he gets in the hot tub and it’s this awkward moment. He’s not being sensitive to us. The next morning, [writer and teacher] Rachel Pollack and I asked him to leave.
Kat Blaque, YouTube creator, speaker, and artist: Crossdressers often feel misunderstood. Many of them live in a way where they are actively hiding that they wear women’s clothing; sometimes as a fetish, rarely as an expression of their gender identity. Because of this, they often feel a degree of comfort in online trans spaces tha