Flame Con is the world’s largest convention dedicated to LGBTQ+ fandom. It returned to New York City’s Times Square last weekend and celebrated its fifth year of existence with Fire Ball, a Smörgåsbord of performances referencing some of the most popular properties in nerd culture.
Drag. Burlesque. Superheroes. Airbending. Jigglypuff. It’s a classic recipe for the best night out in ages—the Long Island Iced Tea of queer fandom, if you will. The ball was hosted by Ginger Rodger, who also did a hilarious Captain America/Bucky Barnes tribute we just loved.
Check out the video above for some of the standout acts! There’s Abel Rey’s Legend of Zelda striptease, Blvck Laé D.’s drag take on Daenerys Targaryen (complete with S&M dragon backup dancers), an extremely acrobatic interpretation of Agent Smith by Twinky Boots, and an absolutely magnificent 10-minute Avatar: The Last Airbender tribute led by Megami as Aang. It was definitely an energizing night.
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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 that are often populated by people who are still trying to figure out ways to express their gender. Often they share the commonality of wanting a space to cultivate gender expression in a way that is secretive, as they are often closeted.
Quite a few cis men are introduced to transgender women through pornography. For the most part, this is still an area where trans women are the most open and accessible. Someone who, for example, follows a porn actress like Sarina Valentina may not entirely understand that she exists beyond the context of the pornography that she produces. However, she, like many trans porn actresses, creates content that focuses on things like sissification and transgender fetishism. And in many ways, there’s nothing wrong with that. Someone like Sarina Valentina isn’t responsible for undoing transgender fetishism and it isn’t her fault. But frankly, cis men aren’t often willing to do the work into investigating the realities of transgender lives. It’s a passing interest or a fetish for them that they hide away and click off of when it’s convenient for them. So it isn’t uncommon for the men who crossdress to enter into these trans spaces with fetishism that’s doubled with a lack of understanding of trans life, that can be pretty off putting to many trans people currently in that space.
Smith: We reached out to the GLCF [Gay and Lesbian Community Forums] to create a permanent transgender discussion and resource area on the service. We designed it to be a public area, anyone could find us. We had our own keyword, which is basically the AOL version of having a URL today. People could type it in and go immediately to our area.
AOL was trying to bring in new business partners, so they brought in a start-up then known as Planet Out. Eventually, they ended up pushing us out. The way that their original agreement had been with service providers was that you’d have people use the service, AOL had an hourly rate to connect. That’s why you had all those billions of floppys and CDs that were like ‘five billion free hours.” That chunk of money, AOL would take some and the information provider would get a smaller chunk. When they created the Greenhouse Project, which Planet Out came in on, AOL got a bigger chunk of that profit. They had a better agreement with them, so they started to foster groups that could replace the pre-existing ones, so they could make more money.
Some people did go to Planet Out. This was 1998. The web has started to really come out. Some people followed us, we partnered with Gay.com and created a web presence. Eventually Gay.com got swallowed up by Planet Out anyway. In its heyday, around 1996-7, the GLCF was trying to rebrand a little bit. They wanted a flashier new look, because AOL was pushing people to have advertisers. We went though a re-branding to be called “OnQ.” During that time, AOL sent come folks out to the GLCF/OnQ offices in San Francisco. This heading into the heyday of Web 1.0 before it went boom. They sent a couple of folks out to help manage this with the transition as far as what we were going to need resource-wise and how things were going to look. In the course of all that, one of them pulled me aside during the discussions and they said, you know, we want to talk to you a little bit because there’s something that we don’t understand about the transgender community forum. I’m figuring oh great. This is going to be one of those talks. They say “well, you know, it’s a really small area and there’s really not a lot visually going on with it with it, and yet somehow you have the largest number of users that regularly come to your area on the entire system.” And I’m like, yeah, because we’re providing a direct support outlet for people that’s unavailable like literally anywhere else.
Yeah, probably but at that time we were seeing to 20,000 unique visitors a month. So 20,000 individual accounts would be hitting the area in a month and this is, again, 1996. I had reached out to a lot of the organizations that were around at the time like ICLEF which was the International Conference for Transgender Law and Employment Policy, which was run by Phyllis Fry. We set up an area for them with their own keywords. There was also IFGE [the International Foundation for Gender Education] which was a trans organization out of Massachusetts that created the magazine Transgender Tapestry. We kin tried to bring in a lot of these kinds of quasi-established organizations and give them a little chunk of it.
Blaque: One of the first resources that I remember was a place called “Susan’s Place,” an online forum where trans women came together to help each other with resources and create community among each other. However, while this was a great resource, it felt like a space designated mostly for trans women who were older, white and married with kids. The average poster on the forum had experiences that, while parallel to mine, were also quite alien, as a woman of color who transitioned quite young.
The website is also one of those spaces that subscribes to the term “transexual.” A term that many consider to only be relevant when the person being described has had bottom surgery and has, in their view, completed their transition. This may not entirely be something that makes everyone feel comfortable and can certainly be alienating to people with other perspectives or views of their gender.
Susan’s place is similar to other online spaces (like TrueSelves) where they have a process for who actually gets to post on the forum. It’s fairly insular. However, the website itself was a great resource for finding your endocrinologist, ways of changing your legal documents etc.
Smith: We did have a fairly diverse forum for its time. Everyone one there had to have kind of at least enough financial wherewithal to have a computer and pay for an internet connection in the 1990s. So you can you have like either geeks that had their home brew systems that they’d created and logged into or someone who has the finances to afford to pay for all of this. So you did have you didn’t have necessarily a lot of people that didn’t have some money behind them.
Blaque: Through YouTube was the way I ended up connecting with a lot of trans people. One of the earliest trans YouTubers I remember was this woman named Grishno [an early trans YouTuber who shared her entire transition process on the platform starting in 2006]. She’s been making vlogs since forever. She was one of the first people to do a lot of trans vlogging in the way we’re familiar with now. We saw her go through the process of changing her name and burning her birth certificate. In our little corner of the internet, it was a big deal. After her, you saw a bunch of other people connect, and there started to be a network.
Seeing is believing
Ashlee Marie Preston, media personality & civil rights activist: My first experience of the internet was when I was a freshman in high school. It was the first time I felt connected to the world at large; independent of the structured environment my mother maintained. The entire internet felt like my backstage pass to an uncensored life.
Dame-Griff: A lot of people don’t think about the development of the homepage as being important, but I’d argue that we don’t get the modern trans internet without the homepage changing and allowing trans folks to think about how they could present themselves digitally.
Dame-Griff: We had sites like FTM transition, Transster, which eventually became Transbucket, Hudson’s FTM Resource guide,
Dame-Griff: Before Tumblr made the tags more searchable, the word “transgender” brought up basically nothing but commercial fetish porn.
Kayiatos: Google didn’t exist yet, so I asked Jeeves about female-to-male transsexuals, which was the terminology back then. I found two websites: one was called Transster, and you had to apply to get a login, they’d vet you, and the moderator would approve you. All it was was disembodied surgery shots and information about the three surgeons who did top surgery at the time, which were Michael Brownstein,Beverly Fischer,and Charles Garramone. The site existed for only a few years. I don’t know how long it was there, but I know that when I looked in 2004, it was gone. It was the only place where you could see many pictures of surgeries. For phalloplasty, there were two or three pictures. All of the doctors for bottom surgery were based outside the U.S. Mostly in Belgium, I think. That was the only visual representation.
Mac: I would lurk on LiveJournal and not post. I found links to people’s personal websites. I found a lot of trans guys and transmasculine guys that way. They would document their transition, like literally every hair that grew on their face. Receipts for every syringe ever purchased, every surgery, everything. They wanted to give a full sense of how much money all of it cost. At the time, I didn’t have a community really. I was more interested in reading other people’s stuff. There was a trans male meet-up at the LGBT center that I lived by in New York. But there were some guys I knew from LiveJournal that I met in person, but I never told them. That kind of thing. I remember there was one guy who was very active who was more genderqueer. His name was Johnny. There was another guy who had a very active presence and was in a relationship with a much older guy. It was one of the first times I saw a trans guy living a happy life and being in a good relationship.
Blaque: Xanga was a big platform for me when I started out as a blogger. I largely created a Xanga out of my desire to get away from my other friends who were blogging at the time. I didn’t want them to see all of my personal posts. When I started as a blogger, I had a weird relationship with trying to, on one hand, be very open about everything, while staying anonymous.
Kayiatos: There was also FTMTransition, which was just a guy who I believe was my age who was based out of Boston. I think he would get care at the first Trans Youth clinic, which was Fenway. The site was basically what YouTube ended up being, but in photograph form. He’d show his progression. I think he was a teenager at the time. That was the first time I ever saw what it would look like to medically transition.
Mac: I would say that the majority of people I grew up following online, who were documenting their transition, are really hard to find now, because a lot of them are stealth. They’re living in random small towns, they weren’t big city guys. They had a very A to Z transition in mind, and once they “completed” their transition and put it all up online to share with other people, they would just go dark.
Blaque: I used to run a relatively successful private Facebook group for Trans Women. The only real commonality we all had was that we were transgender and it was a space for us to post and vent and express. Sometimes we’d post selfies of ourselves, sometimes we’d ask for advice, sometimes we’d just vent. It was really a place for us to support each other, but like a lot of trans spaces, it was not free from drama and it’s the drama that ultimately made me relinquish my control of that group and leave. I also felt like I no longer needed it as a space.
For a while, that was an incredibly important space for me in a time where I felt like I was alone. But as I gained more confidence in myself, I found that I didn’t quite have the same need for it.
It’s fairly common for trans people to disappear from the internet. I’ve been a blogger for over 10 years and I’ve seen a lot of people leave the platform completely. For some, that might have been out of a desire to remain or be stealth. YouTube, for a while, felt like an incredibly insular platform where people didn’t really have an expectation of being seen or heard by everyone. As time went on, however, trans people started to become viral in online conversations. It became important for some to remove their content to avoid attention.
Green: I was on the web at work, so my focus was on face-to-face community stuff, talking long distance with people globally and working on political projects that would get legal changes happening. I wasn’t as active on the web in terms of being a content producer, other than doing the occasional interview, until I was asked to do a monthly column for Planet Out. As the publisher of the FTMI newsletter, that was the focus. It was a lifeline for a lot of people. Expanding it into the web was something I was interested in and concerned about. But I didn’t want to forget the people who had no access.
Adair: I started identifying as FTM during the Tumblr era, when everyone was leaving LiveJournal to come to Tumblr. It’s an interesting period in terms of experimentation with what a social blog is. I was too late for that, even. It was about 2009. It’s definitely not the earliest Tumblr era, but it was a moment when a lot of trans folks on Tumblr were interacting with one another regularly in a way that’s more akin to a chat room or LiveJournal. I kind of aged out of that scene quickly. I was never around YouTube, either. I’m sure I made some perfunctory transition videos, but that’s it. Around that time a lot of us were college-educated, a lot of us were trans-masc but not all of us. Many were white but not all of us. Now we’re all sad boys in therapy.
Preston: I came across other trans people on MySpace. I remember seeing some of the girls and intuitively knowing they were trans but I never really made a big deal about it. There were also girls who knew that I was trans as well. Sometimes they’d ask and if I disclosed they’d pay my compliments and vice versa. Most of us weren’t out because we were trying to stay under the radar then.
Dame-Griff: I came out ten years ago. I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama and I didn’t know any other trans folks there. It was a case where I had a friend who was a German trans man who I’d been talking to. Through my conversations with him I was able to know myself. My contact with him and a lot of other trans folks was through the internet. I came into the work by being interested in the fact that the internet appears in trans history, but this is the problem with web history in general— it’s like, ‘and then the internet happened.’ But we want to know what the longer narrative is. I was of the LiveJournal and forum generations. I had always been an internet user, so I was already kind of pre-built to go there. But even then I kind of knew it wasn’t always like this. So that knowledge inspired me getting into this field of research. The further I got in, I realized that you don’t get where trans folks are on the internet now without having folks who built spaces or earlier platforms that got us to that point.
Mac: I remember using Craigslist for dating. And for casual hook-ups. That was in the early 2000s in San Francisco. OkCupid and Manhunt later on. Craigslist was intense. You’d post what you were looking for and let the emails roll in.
Blaque: We do have platforms that exist for us now, but they’re still more about sex than dating.
Smith: When I started the Transgender Day of Remembrance, it was because I wanted to honor all those people who had been so disrespected in death and reclaim their stories. I’d started looking for obituaries of trans people early on, and I’d gotten used to using different search terms. Because in those days, not only would the victims of crimes be misgendered, they’d be referred to as either “bearded ladies” or “men in dresses.” You’d read something like “a man in a dress was found dead on the street.”
Green: Grassroots activism has definitely been facilitated through the internet. You can sit in the privacy of your own home and participate in discussions and sign petitions and forward on information. That makes things happen faster, it builds momentum. That’s been really important for our movement. The nitty gritty of getting stuff through the powers that be, institutions like insurance companies or WPATH.
Blaque: A big difference between now and then is that when I was coming up, a lot of the stories you heard about transness were kind of the same sort of thing of like, “I found out that I was transgender, I started my transition. I took my hormones. I got my surgeries, I disappeared entirely and I’m living stealth.” That was the goal for a lot of people, and that was a little bit more attainable in a society that was completely ignorant of transgender people.
Iantaffi: Sometimes parents are like, “Oh, my child is trans because of Tumblr.” No, trans people have been around forever, the internet didn’t invent us. It just gives us this empowering access to community. That’s so different from how it used to be.
Smith: I’d like to see more of our history recorded online. Trans history goes so much further back than what so many people seem to realize. And some of the history from the last 70 years or so is still living with us. And a lot of those people are still around with us. I’d like to have a place where we can hear there people talking about what they experienced and what they went through and what they built. Because we lost a whole bunch of people in the 30s and 40s, but then we see a resurgence of active, visible trans people starting in the 50s, 60s, 70s, and 80s. There’s a lot that’s been chronicled, but there’s still so much more.
Ogborn: It took us all a while to realize that this was a political struggle. It had been framed as a personal issue for so long. While it was clear that we’d eventually need to do activism, it wasn’t obvious at that moment [1986.] My concentration was on community support. Creating groups and that kind of thing. [Writer] Dallas Denny and I sometimes crossed paths. She was trying to work with care providers, and she said we needed to work inside the system. Dallas created a system called AEGIS. One of Dallas’ sayings was “trans activists do all the activism they can afford.” Because you can only do so much. So you found yourself [with] a full-time or more than full-time job while you were going through transition. Usually, people could only sustain it for a certain amount of time, and that was the case with me.
I started in Lawrence Kansas, thirty minutes away from Kansas City. I had my first job there working as a woman. Once I’d moved to Kansas City, I ran a transsexual prisoners program, I ran a support group. There was “Crossdressers and Friends,” which was a large crossdressing group. It wasn’t really fulfilling for people who were actually transitioning. So I started my own group, the “Kansas City Gender Society.” There were six people in the group. As far as I know, I’m the only survivor. They didn’t all die, but their lives blew up in one way or another. We’d meet in my house. I had an apartment and was happy to have people there. We were just figuring out how to stay alive.
Later on, we started another group. GDS, or “Gender Dysphoria Support.” That grew to be more than a dozen people coming to regular meetings, and another twenty who would drop in. When I left Kansas City, it was still going on. I had a trans woman lover at the time and they would continue to meet at her place. I moved out when we broke up and went to California. She stayed there and they started meeting at her house until someone took it over. Last I heard, it was still going. It’s probably dead by now. But last I heard, in the mid-nineties, it was still going.
In those days, something funny would happen when you’d get a group of trans women together. Somebody always had to take charge, create an agenda, have speakers and all that. It became hard to just sit and form community. It’s hard to say to a group of trans women, “let’s go out to a restaurant.” People didn’t want to go out in public. Everyone was struggling. I was basically the first non-closeted trans woman I knew.
Dame-Griff: In terms of the long, queer historical arc, all this has happened incredibly fast. Trans people have always longed for visual platforms.
Preston: I’ve seen a vast improvement in the way trans people interact online [in recent years.] I don’t see as much cattiness and tearing down of one another the way it was when many of us were encountering each other for the first time. Trans visibility in the media, our murder rates, and the governmental erasure taking place under the current administration has made us rethink our relationship to one another, rearrange our priorities, and now the internet has become the most effective tool of organizing and mobilization within the transgender community.
The internet gave voice to a historically muted community. By sharing our stories openly and unapologetically, we were able to form safe spaces which validated and affirmed our identities. We are bound by our shared experiences, and the internet has become a tool to help us grow our community and our chosen families.
If you tuned into the Overwatch League’s Friday games, you probably saw dozens of esports fans decked out in rainbow garb or flashing LGBTQ-themed signs as soon as the camera turned their way. It was Pride Day for the Overwatch League—a day that Overwatch publisher Blizzard put on for fans to “come together for diversity and inclusion,” they said in their announcement.
But Korean fans who tuned in saw something a little different: a business-as-usual Overwatch League broadcast with no pomp or circumstance.
According to two Overwatch League insiders with knowledge of the broadcast, leading up to last year’s Pride event, American and Korean Overwatch League broadcast professionals discussed how the celebration would come off to audiences in Asia. For “cultural reasons,” said a source, Blizzard’s Korean team and regional broadcast partners made the decision to minimally broadcast expressions of Pride Day at Blizzard Arena last year. It’s possible these reasons are related to South Korea’s conservatism on LGBTQ rights. According to a 2017 Gallup poll, nearly 60 percent of the country is against same-sex marriage, which is not legal there. (In the U.S., only about 33 percent of people disapprove.)
This year’s Korean and American broadcasts were different as well, with the American one celebrating Pride and the Korean one strangely, well, not. Fans’ signs weren’t prominent, and according to two people who know Korean, there was little or no mention of Pride Day on the Korean broadcast. Korea’s Pride Day broadcast did not appear significantly different from normal, but the hype and expressive Pride Day celebrations in Blizzard Arena do seem to be played down, something two sources say was, at least last year, intentional. Blizzard did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment.
“We didn’t shoot the arena any differently than we would on any other day…We didn’t go out of our way to avoid signs, fans, atmosphere,” the second insider explained of the American broadcast. “Our Korean partners were aware of the event that [was hosted] in the arena and were allowed to make whatever decision they felt was appropriate for their broadcast based on that info.” The insider added that “We gave the regional leads and their broadcast partners the autonomy to present their portion of the program as they felt best.” The broadcast out of California is the master broadcast, and most of what is added to or deviates from it is done in local markets. For example, each team has different casters, graphics, and desk segments.
Last year was the League’s first Pride event. “We’re excited to get into the spirit of diversity and inclusion throughout the day,” read Blizzard’s event description. In the Blizzard Arena, fans expressing support for queer individuals carried signs reading “Gays into the iris,” “Bi Pride,” “Play of the Gay” and “Hi gay, I’m Dad.” In the foreground, casters like Chris Puckett wore rainbow wristbands. This year, the Pride Day broadcast was even more direct in its celebration. On the livestream, Puckett says, “Today is Pride Day and we are celebrating the mutual support between the Overwatch League and the LGBTQ community here at the Blizzard Arena…The Overwatch League prides itself on welcoming fans from all walks of life regardless of background or lifestyle. Today, we want take a moment to acknowledge some of the biggest fans in the LGBTQ community.”
On Blizzard’s merchandise site, the company sold Pride pins to benefit the Trevor Fund, a suicide prevention organization for young, queer people.
Overwatch League also celebrated one dedicated queer fan in a video. Of Blizzard, he says, “It’s great they’re upfront. Ther’s a lot of queer space in this game. I think it’s great that the Overwatch League, as a new organization, is being part of the vanguard celebrating Pride so openly. Traditional sports are not as forward with their Pride events as the Overwatch League. I think that makes Overwatch League stand out.”
Although it makes sense for Blizzard to cater to what they believe their audience’s tastes are, one insider says that if Blizzard wants to be a force for change, they might have to make bolder decisions. Overwatch’s most prominent character, Tracer, canonically dates a woman. Yet in 2019, as game companies finally begin to better represent the people who play their games, it can be hard to tell whether these moves are fueled by market analyses or genuine enthusiasm for fans’ multivaried backgrounds.
Said the insider, “I think the message of Pride is, ‘Hey, you are not alone. Nothing is wrong with you. You are welcome here.’ It is for all those people who are told otherwise. People who doubt their own feelings and thoughts. To say it to only America or EU doesn’t help that kid in Korea or China. A leader stands up. Either Blizzard is leader on this subject or it is cheap marketing.”
Steven Universe has always been invested in queer representation. Rebecca Sugar and her team have worked to present the lives and loves of LGBTQ+ people in ways comprehensible to kids and palatable to censors, building a story about found family and the freedom to love who you want out of a space opera about sentient gemstones and a gregarious magical child.
But in the latest arc, the show has told a more specific story, one that speaks to me very personally. It’s not just a metaphorically queer story. Instead, it re-positions all of Steven Universe as a metaphorically trans one.
Steven Universe has always been preoccupied with identity. Who is Steven, and what relationship does he really have to his mother, Rose Quartz, who gave her existence (and her gem) to allow him to be born? How does he live up to his mother’s legacy, and what does that even mean? The recent revelation that Rose is actually Pink Diamond, heir to an interstellar empire, makes those questions even more intense, and much of the show’s runtime has been spent with Steven learning to come to terms with who his mother was and wasn’t.
The latest arc, taking place on Homeworld, changes the terms of that conversation. When Steven enters the world of the Diamonds, he’s not seen as Pink Diamond’s descendant. Blue, Yellow, and White Diamond don’t even know what a descendant is. Gem society has no children, no parenting, not even any boys. Instead, by their understanding, Steven literally is Pink Diamond, either faking it in a strange disguise or suffering from some sort of amnesia. According to them, the human boy Steven Universe doesn’t exist. He’s just a persona. A mask.
For transgender viewers, that framing of the relationship between Steven and Pink might strike a nerve. It certainly did with me. For a lot of us, being trans looks like a complete change in persona—a new name, a new appearance, even a new personality. A gender transition (for those of us who do transition) can, over time, render you unrecognizable, an entirely different person in the same spot where the old one stood. And even those of us who don’t transition can take on significant changes—a new name, new pronouns. One of the quintessential struggles of trans-ness, then, is getting other people, especially people from our past, to understand and accept these new changes. And, in some cases, to even believe they’re legitimate—that you are, in fact, who and what you say you are.
The interactions and experiences Steven goes through during his time on Homeworld are strikingly similar to the struggles of a trans person facing an unaccepting or misunderstanding family. He constantly struggles to get the people around him to use his name—they insist on calling him Pink Diamond. Blue and Yellow regularly express bewilderment when Steven indicates that he’s not Pink in any way, or when he behaves in any way differently from their preconceptions about her. What’s worse, Yellow and White Diamond both express a belief that Steven isn’t, well, real. That Pink is still Pink, somewhere in there, just playing one of her “little games.”
The trans subtext comes to a head in “Change Your Mind,” a special that’s as much about the Diamonds learning to accept Steven as himself as it is about the Diamonds learning how to heal their broken family. As Blue, Yellow, and eventually even White come around to Steven’s side, they also come around to respecting his identity—in one fantastic moment, Blue tells Yellow, “I believe she prefers to be called Steven.” (Okay, she got his pronouns wrong, but we can maybe overlook that due to Homeworld literally not having any men. She’ll get there.) Both Blue and Yellow begin addressing Steven as himself, and when Steven confronts White Diamond, this is the issue raised to the surface.
White insists that Steven isn’t a real person and—in a rhetorical gesture that’s bound to be sadly familiar to a lot of trans viewers—suggests, instead, that he’s just an expression of Pink’s own psychological issues. This culminates in her straight-up removing his gem in an effort to prove her point. Soon after, the gem reforms, not as Pink Diamond or Rose Quartz, but as Steven. And when White asks where Pink is, this reformed Steven Gem roars, with a justified fury: “She’s gone!”
They’re gone. In that one scene, Sugar and co. manage to illustrate the struggle of a trans person trying to demonstrate to their family that, yes, I am who I say I am. I really am a girl. Or a boy. Or non-binary. In reality, we can’t tear our insides out and present them to the people questioning us. But I know I’ve certainly wished I could, just to end the doubt. And there are some people who, like White Diamond, are unlikely to listen to anything less.
“Change Your Mind” ends with one of the simplest, but most important songs in the whole series. In it, Steven sings a message that seems aimed at every queer or trans kid who can’t find the acceptance they want. He sings:
I don’t need you to respect me, I respect me
I don’t need you to love me, I love me
But I want you to know you could know me
If you change your mind
When I was a kid, there weren’t any shows on television with such vivid, and moving, trans subtext. I’m glad kids growing up today have this one.