Tag Archives: transgender

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 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.

Screenshot: The IFGE (International Foundation for Gender Education) site circa 1999. (Internet Archive/Wayback Machine)

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.

Screenshot: The homepage for transgender resource site Susan’s Place, 1998. (Internet Archive/Wayback Machine)

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,

Amos Mac, cofounder of “Original Plumbing” zine, writer, and photographer: Transbucket. I think that’s still around.

Screenshot: the Transbucket portal, a photo dumping site, 2010. (Internet Archive/Wayback Machine)

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.

Screenshot: The homepage of Dr. Michael L. Brownstein, circa 2002. Brownstein was, at the time, one of the only doctors practicing surgeries for trans men. (Internet Archive/Wayback Machine)

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.”

The future

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.


Additional resources

The Queer Digital History Project
Trans/Active: A Biography of Gwendolyn Smith” by Sophia Cecelia Leveque
“Becoming a Visible Man” by Jamison Green
“Body Alchemy” by Loren Cameron
The Transgender Usenet Archive
“The Misrecognition You Can Bear” by Cassius Adair
“How to Understand Your Gender” by Alex Iantaffi and Meg-John Barker

Henry Giardina is a trans writer living in Los Angeles. He works at Bazooka Grooves. 

Source: Kotaku.com

Amazon’s Facial Analysis Program Is Building A Dystopic Future For Trans And Nonbinary People

In 2017, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, just outside Portland, Oregon, wanted to find a man covered in dollar bills. The unidentified man, whose profile photo showed him lying on a bed covered in paper money, had been making concerning posts on Facebook, the sheriff’s office said. So the department ran the image through a powerful new facial recognition and analysis system built by Amazon, called Rekognition, and used Rekognition to compare it with booking photos used by the department. According to Chris Adzima, a senior systems information analyst, the officers “found a close to 100% match.”

Adzima touted the efficacy of Rekognition in a guest blog post for Amazon. He had other examples of its usefulness, too: a suspect who was wanted for allegedly stealing from a hardware store, another who’d been captured on surveillance cameras using a credit card later reported as stolen. Overall, Adzima wrote, Rekognition represented “a powerful tool for identifying suspects for my agency. As the service improves, I hope to make it the standard for facial recognition in law enforcement.”

For the most part, that’s how Rekognition has been introduced and sold: as a wondrous new tool designed to keep the public safer; Amazon’s one-stop superpower for law enforcement agencies.

But superpowers tend to come with unintended consequences, and Rekognition, in particular, has some prodigious—and highly concerning—blind spots, especially around gender identity. A Jezebel investigation has found that Rekognition frequently misgenders trans, queer and nonbinary individuals. Furthermore, in a set of photos of explicitly nonbinary individuals Rekognition misgendered all of them—a mistake that’s baked into the program’s design, since it measures gender as a binary. In itself, that’s a problem: it erases the existence of an already marginalized group of people, and, in doing so, creates a system that mirrors the myriad ways that nonbinary people are left out of basic societal structures. What’s more, as Rekognition becomes more widely used, among government agencies, police departments, researchers and tech companies, that oversight has the potential to spread.

This isn’t a new problem. As Vice wrote earlier this year, “automatic gender recognition,” or AGR, has long been baked into facial recognition and analysis programs, and it’s virtually always done so in a way that erases trans and nonbinary people. Jezebel’s investigation shows that these same issues exist deep within Rekognition.

The program is designed around Amazon’s assumptions about gender identity, an omission that becomes even more disturbing as Amazon’s software gets silently integrated into our lives. On Github, a platform where software developers maintain their code, there are 6,994 instances where Rekognition and gender are mentioned together. These projects represent a future where Rekognition’s technology—and assumptions of gender—forms the backbone of other apps and programs; thousands of basic systems baked into society all silently designed to flatten gender identity. (A spokesperson for Amazon initially agreed to speak to Jezebel about our research, then failed to respond to five followup emails and a phone call.)

As Os Keyes, a PhD student at the University of Washington, writes in their 2018 study of the subject:

If systems are not designed to include trans people, inclusion becomes an active struggle: individuals must actively fight to be included in things as basic as medical systems, legal systems or even bathrooms. This creates space for widespread explicit discrimination, which has (in, for example, the United States) resulted in widespread employment, housing and criminal justice inequalities , increased vulnerability to intimate partner abuse and[35], particularly for trans people of colour, increased vulnerability to potentially fatal state violence. 

These harms have the potential to be even more insidious as the technology becomes imbedded in our day-to-day lives. What happens when you can’t use a bathroom because an AI lock thinks that you shouldn’t be there? What happens to medical research or clinical drug trials when a dataset misgenders or omits thousands of people? And what happens when a cop looks at your license and your machine predicted gender doesn’t match what they see? A world governed by these tools is one that erases entire populations. It’s a world where individuals have to conform to be seen.


When Amazon introduced Rekognition in November 2016, it was depicted as a fun search engine—a service meant meant to help users “detect objects, scenes, and faces in images.” The product was relatively non-controversial for its first two years of life, but that changed in May of 2018, when the ACLU of California revealed Rekognition was being sold to police departments as a fundamentally different—more serious, and more powerful—tool. Amazon had been aggressively marketing the product as a potent surveillance tool, the ACLU reported, suitable for both government agencies and private companies.

It’s not just Amazon, of course: as companies, governments, and technologists tout the business and security insights gleaned from machine intelligence, public debate over the rollout of such software has escalated—particularly as examples of gross misuse emerge. The Chinese government has used facial recognition to profile and track Uighurs, a persecuted, largely Muslim minority population. In the U.S., CBP continues to tout the efficacy of biometric surveillance both on the U.S Mexico Border and within the country’s interior, where airports nationwide are beginning to roll out facial recognition based check-in.

In April of this year, Microsoft’s president said the company had rejected a request from a law enforcement agency in California to install their facial recognition system in officers’ cars and body cameras due to concerns of false positives, particularly of women and people of color, since the system had largely been tested on photos of white men. Those concerns are proving to be well-founded: last year a study from MIT and University of Toronto found that the technology tends to mistake women, especially those with dark skin, for men. Separately, an investigation by the ACLU found that Rekognition falsely matched 28 members of Congress with booking photos. 

In mid-May, San Francisco became the first city in the country to ban government use of face surveillance. Oakland and Somerville, Massachusetts have proposed similar legislation.

Meanwhile, though, facial recognition products continue to be scooped up by police departments and private companies, and used in opaque, unregulated, and increasingly bizarre ways. Amazon clearly wants to be the industry leader: the company’s shareholders recently voted down a proposal by activist investors to ban the sale of facial recognition to governments and government agencies.

The Rekognition technology, and its flaws around identifying trans and nonbinary people, arrives at a particularly bad time for those populations in the U.S. The Trump administration recently proposed a measure that would revoke an Obama-era rule that prevented discrimination against transgender people in medical settings and within health insurance. The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently proposed another draft rule that would allow federally funded homeless shelters and housing programs to bar transgender people from entry. Earlier this year, the Trump administration even tightened its definition of “biological sex,” basing it on a person’s “chromosomes, gonads, hormones, and genitals.” These regulations demonstrate how powerful and potentially violent definitions of sex and gender can be.

“When we’re thinking about imperfect systems like facial recognition there are two distinct concerns,” Daniel Kahn Gillmor, a senior staff technologist at for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, says. “One of them is that the systems might not be good enough, that they’ll sweep up the wrong people, that they’re biased against certain populations because they haven’t been trained on those populations, that they’re more likely to make mistakes or put people in certain categories based on biases that are built in.”

But on other hand, Gillmor says, “If there are no technical problems with the machinery,” which might be the case in a decade or so, “we have another set of problems, because of the scale at which this technology can be deployed.” Facial recognition and analysis, Gillmor says, “provides a mechanism for large scale potentially long-lasting surveillance” at a scale, he says, “that humans have never really been able to do before.”

That’s why the technology is a concern, regardless of whether it’s extremely accurate or extremely inaccurate, according to Gillmor. “If it’s not good enough, it’s a problem,” he told us. “And it’s a problem if it is good enough. It’s always a problem.”


To understand how Amazon’s software analyzes trans and nonbinary individuals, we built a working model. But it was unclear whether we could responsibly look into Rekognition’s gender analysis systems at all.

Researching corporate machine learning algorithms is fraught with ethical concerns. Because of their ability to optimize in real time, the act of testing a system inevitably ends up refining it. And by calling out flaws in its design, you may be tacitly condoning an update to the system rather than recommending that the entire premise of Automated Gender Recognition should be reconsidered.

And everything that we load into the program becomes part of the large Amazon’s large corpus of data. According to Amazon’s FAQ, Rekognition stores image and video inputs in order to improve their software; Rekognition data becomes Amazon’s training data. This means, for instance, that Happy Snap, a Rekognition powered find-and-seek adventure mobile app designed for kids, is likely inadvertently training the Washington County Sheriff Office’s surveillance operations. (Happy Snap did not immediately return an email requesting comment.)

You are able to opt out of this default behavior, but the process isn’t exactly easy or clear. Before we felt comfortable using Rekognition to investigate their AGR, we wanted to ensure that our research would not inadvertently optimize a surveillance system that we’re simply not sure should have existed in the first place. To opt out, Jezebel contacted Amazon’s Technical Support, who in turn contacted the Rekognition engineers. After two weeks we received confirmation that the images we would use to test the AGR components of Rekognition would not be used to optimize the system. Only then did we feel comfortable starting our experiment.

Amazon provides developers with detailed documentation for how to build a facial analysis and recognition system using their Rekognition software—a troubling fact given how easily such technology can be weaponized. We used this documentation to build a version of Rekognition that compared the gender predictions and confidence thresholds across hundreds of photos of nonbinary, queer, and trans individuals with binary ones.

Our nonbinary and trans dataset was sourced from the Gender Spectrum Collection, a stock photo library of trans and gender non-conforming individuals created by Broadly, a former Vice subsite focusing on gender and identity.

Zackary Drucker, the photographer and artist who shot the photos for Vice, explains to Jezebel that the stock photos were created “to fill a void of images of trans and nonbinary people in everyday life. Stock photographs have always neglected to include gender diverse people, and that has further perpetuated a world in which trans people are not seen existing in public life.”

For our purposes, the GSC also helped us draw a very direct comparison between how Rekogition treats gender-conforming versus non-conforming individuals. We sourced our binary dataset by using the captions from the Broadly photos to identify visually similar photos of gender-conforming individuals on Shutterstock. For instance, if a photo from Broadly’s dataset was captioned “a transmasculine person drinking a beer at a bar” we would scrape Shutterstock for photos of “a man drinking a beer at a bar.”

We fed these images through the Facial Analysis functions of Amazon’s Rekognition software to retrieve each individual’s predicted gender score. Gender is assigned with a binary Male or Female variable and an associated confidence score for the prediction. 

Of the 600 photos we analyzed, on average Rekognition was 10% more confident of its AGR scores on the Broadly dataset than the Shutterstock dataset. However in spite of these confidence scores, self-identified transmasculine and transfeminine individuals were misgendered far more frequently. Misgendering occurred in 31% of the images that contained a self identified trans person. Meanwhile, misgendering only occurred in 4% of the images in the Shutterstock dataset of binary individuals.

Interestingly, misgendering was also inconsistent across individuals. Broadly’s dataset contains multiple photos of the same people; there were instances where Rekognition’s AGR correctly gendered a person they had previously misgendered.

Though our data sets were admittedly limited, the difference in how Rekognition performs on a data with trans and nonbinary individuals is alarming. More concerning however is that Rekognition misgendered 100% of explicitly nonbinary individuals in the Broadly dataset. This isn’t because of bad training data or a technical oversight, but a failure in engineering vocabulary to address the population. That their software isn’t built with the capacity or vocabulary to treat gender as anything but binary suggests that Amazon’s engineers, for whatever reason, failed to see an entire population of humans as worthy of recognition.

Alyza Enriquez is a social producer at Vice and a nonbinary person, who participated in putting together the Gender Spectrum Collection and is featured in some of its photos. They weren’t surprised to learn that Rekognition doesn’t recognize nonbinary identities.

“It’s obviously disconcerting,” they told us. “When you talk about practical applications and using this technology with law enforcement, that feels like a dangerous precedent to set. But at the same time, I’m not surprised. We’re no longer shocked by people’s inability to recognize that nonbinary identity exists and that we don’t have to conform to some sort of category, and I don’t think people are there yet.”

Morgan Klaus Scheuerman is a PhD student in information science at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He and his collaborators have been conducting a large-scale analysis of how individuals of different gender identities are classified, correctly or otherwise, in AGR systems, particularly large-scale, cloud-based systems like Amazon and Microsoft.

Scheuerman’s research with his collaborators and his advisor, Jed Brubaker, an assistant professor in the Information Science department, found many of the same issues that we identified. They, too, struggled with whether it was ethical to test AGR systems at all. “We were going to analyze a specific system, and we decided not to,” Scheuerman says, “because their TOS said it was going to retain these images. We had to do the same tradeoff: what is the benefit of this research versus the impact it could have? Even if you can take your data back out, it’s probably embedded in the model already.”

In their lab, Brubaker and Scheuerman and their collaborators look at all kinds of areas of uncertainty, where tech systems struggle to respond adequately to the shades of grey in people’s lives. “We look at gender, death, breakups — scenarios where system don’t understand our social lives appropriately,” Brubaker explains.

Those shades of grey are often disregarded outright in building new technologies. Scheuerman points out that AGR, with all of its problems, is the continuation of a vastly oversimplified classification system that’s existed for a very long time, one that sorts people into “male” and female” and has very little room for any other identity.

“Even as people become more aware of differences in gendered experiences, there’s still this view that when that difference occurs, it’s an outlier,” Scheuerman says. “Or the term that engineers use, an ‘exception case,’ a ‘boundary case.’”

The “edge cases,” Scheuerman says, are often disregarded when building new technologies because, as he puts it, “they make things more technically difficult for people to accomplish. So we have this system whose main task is to identify gender. [S]tarting with a clear binary is technically the most feasible. But then when you say we want to include nonbinary, that makes the entire task obsolete. Basically, the data that you’re using then makes men and women no longer fall into a specific category.”

Brubaker, Scheuerman’s advisor, points out that AGR is also engineered towards how gender looks, not how people experience it.

“The systems have a strong bias towards how gender is presented, not how it’s experienced,” he says. “These are systems whose only way of understanding the world is through vision. They just see. That’s all they do. So if you think of gender as something that can only be seen, not self-reported, that’s a very narrow, particular, and in some cases very bizarre way to think about gender.”

Zackary Drucker, the photographer who shot the photos we used in testing Rekognition, said our use of the photos is “further evidence that the collection has utilitarian purpose in the world far beyond what we may have imagined. On the other hand, it’s so alarming that technology may be used to identify people.”

There’s this element to trans and nonbinary people just throwing a wrench into the system that disproves its accuracy,” she added. “If this system is equally confident that one person is one gender or the other in different situations, that’s evidence that this technology is as false as the gender binary.”


In the past, Amazon has responded to critiques of its product by arguing that critics fail to understand the nuances of the tech. In a response to a New York Times article, for instance, Amazon stated: “Facial analysis and facial recognition are completely different in terms of the underlying technology and the data used to train them. Trying to use facial analysis to gauge the accuracy of facial recognition is ill-advised, as it’s not the intended algorithm for that‎ purpose (as we state in our documentation).”

More specifically, facial analysis is meant to predict human attributes like age, emotion, or gender, whereas recognition is about matching two faces. Our investigation, focused specifically on the gender predictions from Rekognition’s facial analysis algorithms. Automatic Gender Recognition (AGR) is a subfield of facial recognition that seeks to identify the gender of individuals from images or videos.

Researchers have historically built these systems by analyzing the frequency of a human voice, looking at the texture of skin, measuring facial alignment and proportions, and analyzing the shape of breasts. AGR systems, in other words, have been designed under the presumption that gender is physiologically-rooted wherein the body is the source of a binary gender, male or female.

This design shortcoming has real consequences, and the problems will only be compounded as they’re added to other surveillance systems.

This isn’t just about calling out the evident biases of Amazon’s engineers. The real concern here is that these biases are so deeply embedded into the very structure of an institution as powerful as Amazon, which deploys technology for our schools, businesses, and governments. As writer and educator Janus Rose points out, “If we allow these assumptions to be built into systems that control people’s access to things like healthcare, financial assistance or even bathrooms, the resulting technologies will gravely impact trans people’s ability to live in society.”

Rose points out that AGR has already been used to bizarre effect:

Evidence of this problem can already be found in the wild. In 2017, a Reddit user discovered a creepy advertisement at a pizza restaurant in Oslo, which used face recognition to spy on passers-by. When the ad crashed, its display revealed it was categorising people who walked past based on gender, ethnicity and age. If the algorithm determined you were male, the display would show an advertisement for pizza. If it read you as female, the ad would change to show a salad.

The problem is, in other words, both larger and more intimate than just how it might be used by police. We can envision, for instance, a world in which this AGR system implemented in an office in the form of prohibiting someone of the “wrong” gender to enter a bathroom. With this technology, it’s entirely possible that a trans individual would unable to use a single bathroom in the building.

We reached out to all the companies using Rekognition for facial analysis as listed on Amazon’s information page for the product. Only two got back to us in a meaningful way. One was Limbik, a startup that uses machine learning to help companies understand whether their videos are being watched, and by who. They told us that Amazon’s binary gender settings posed a problem for them: “We have noticed this as an issue for us, as the better we can tag videos with proper tags the more accurate we can be with predictions and improvement recommendations. It would be best if we could get this type of information as it would help us categorize videos better and help with prediction.”

Without that information, Limbik added, they have to specify to customers what their analysis, using Rekognition, does and doesn’t do. “Since Rekognition only returns a binary value for gender, we have to make sure that, to customers, we specify that it is biological sex that is examined and not gender specifically and that it isn’t perfect. We have internal conversations about this issue and have discussed remedies but as we can have upwords of 1000 tags connected to a video coming from other Rekognition services, our internal tagging methods, manual human tagging and other methods, we haven’t found a good way to address this.”

Arguably, no one will find a “good way to address this,” or one that even remotely repairs the potential harms that Rekognition could do to vulnerable populations. That Amazon is pushing software like this at a time when trans rights are under full on assault by the Trump administration indicates that Amazon, intentionally or not, is working against the interests of some of society’s most vulnerable members. This is not a theoretical concern. It’s an urgent one, and the dystopic implications of how it might be used are getting more real every day.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified Os Keyes as a PhD. They are a PhD student.

Source: Kotaku.com