“Never Too Late to Live Your Authentic Life”: Later-in-Life FTM Trans YouTube Narratives
Ash Kinney d’Harcourt / University of Texas at Austin


Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades:
Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades: “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-2019).

The growing visibility of transgender and other gender expansive identities has resulted in an increased surveillance and regulation of trans bodies,[ ((Fischer, Mia. 2019. Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.))] and media representations have followed in this example. Mainstream depictions often stereotype and objectify trans individuals[ ((Serano, Julia. 2007. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press.))] or treat them as outcasts and spectacles. In addition, these media tend to depict trans people through binary and transnormative constructs of gender.[ ((Glover, Julian Kevon. 2016. “Redefining Realness?: On Janet Mock, Laverne Cox, TS Madison, and the Representation of Transgender Women of Color in Media.” Souls, 18(2-4): 338-357.))] With a few contemporary exceptions, the complexity of trans lives is often flattened in what are predominantly white, cisgender-produced media. In contrast, YouTube has provided the ability to construct trans identities online with more trans-specific values. José Esteban Muñoz (2009) considers queer cultural production “both an acknowledgement of the lack that is endemic to any heteronormative rendering of the world and a building, a ‘world making,’ in the face of that lack.”[ ((Muñoz, José Esteban. 2009. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press, 118.))] Trans YouTube vlogs are cultural archives and sites of lived experience that embody new ways of trans being and doing that reflect this notion of world making. In my viewing of female-to-male (FTM) transition videos in particular, vloggers self-narrate their life stories and experiences, collectively comprising a more varied and complex representation of trans life that “contrary to mainstream representations of trans people, are directed toward likeminded others, offering a user-created trans male visual culture.”[ ((Raun, Tobias. 2016. Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. New York: Routledge, 69.))]

There is an abundant and insightful body of work on the psychological and educational benefits, community building and archival aspects of FTM trans YouTube. In particular, Avery Dame (2013) has explored these videos and their producers’ status as “experts” that give advice to and educate viewers.[ ((Dame, Avery. 2013. “‘I’m Your Hero? Like Me?’: The Role of ‘Expert’ in the Trans Male Vlog.” Journal of Language and Sexuality, 2(1): 40–69.))] Tobias Raun (2016) has written prolifically about the use of these vlogs for journaling, therapeutic self-disclosure, and as communal archives.[ ((Raun, Tobias. 2016. Out Online: Trans Self-Representation and Community Building on YouTube. New York: Routledge.))] Jordan Miller (2019) expanded on this archive with an analysis on the counter narratives of trans and non-binary vloggers of color.[ ((Miller, Jordan F. 2019. “YouTube as a Site of Counternarratives to Transnormativity.” Journal of Homosexuality, 66(6): 815-837.))] The majority of these videos are created and shared by YouTubers that transition during adolescence and early adulthood which is reflected in this research that is focused primarily on the experiences of trans youth. Yet, YouTube has also been a site for documenting transition stories, sharing support and building community for those transitioning during middle age and beyond.

Jack Halberstam (2005) observes that individuals whose lives do not conform to the conventional understanding of time as linear and stable are often pathologized; however, conventional notions of maturity can be disrupted by the queer temporalities and counterpublics of subcultural practices.[ ((Halberstam, Jack. 2005. In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York: New York University Press, 2-5.))] The subcultural practice of producing FTM trans videos, particularly by “late bloomers,” challenges conceptions of normative temporalities. I watched the vlogs of trans men who transitioned in their 40s, 50s, and 60s to better understand the personal and social impact of the trans cultural production in this demographic. An ethnographic approach with qualitative interviews would help bridge the non-consensual nature of the textual analysis of these videos with the individuals who share them online; until that time, I refer to these vloggers by initials rather than full names or handles.


Screen grab of the YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas.
YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas.

Similar to trans youth vlogs, individuals who transition later in life also share tips on how to dress and pass, communicate the happiness and sense of relief they feel, and speak about the importance (or lack of) familial support in their vlogs. The vlogs of late bloomers also differ from the majority of those shared on YouTube; most noticeably, their transition narratives fall outside the conventional timeline of growth and maturity, especially as puberty arrives after decades of adulthood. These vloggers identify the age they discovered their trans identity and began transitioning in the title of their videos, for example, “Life begins at 40 | 10 Months On Testosterone (FTM)” and “FtM@50+ – an Introduction.” E.N. shares his experience with a “mid-life transition” and the process of discovering his “authentic self” in his early forties. F.T.I. also describes his life as “just beginning” at 40 years of age, contemplating his developmental timeline as a man from adolescence and straight into middle age. Like E.N., T.L., who began transitioning at 50 years of age, contextualizes the theme of inner truth in his own timeline: it’s “never too late to live your authentic life [emphasis added].” This online culture operates along a temporality that literally “disrupts conventional accounts of youth culture, adulthood, and maturity.”[ ((Ibid., 2.))]

It is common for FTM trans videos on social media to depict the joyful discovery of wearing a binder for the first time or—for those that have the resources and choose to have top surgery—their post-surgery chest reveal. While the majority of later-in-life trans narratives on YouTube follow “hormone time,”[ ((Horak, Laura. 2014. “Trans on YouTube: Intimacy, Visibility, Temporality.” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(7): 572-585.))] they often focus on the development of the individual’s internal self-image over the physical changes associated with their medical transition. In one video, E.N. shares a written narrative of his discovery of being transgender followed by the process of delving “deep within my soul by peeling off many layers of my life so that I could rebuild my sense of inner self.” After briefly addressing facial hair growth and muscle mass at the beginning of a video, S.M., who began transitioning in his 50s, “wax[es] philosophical” about his career and cautions viewers about some of the language used in the community. Specifically, he rejects the wrong body narrative: “I don’t feel like I was born in the wrong body. I understand it, like I understand in some ways it’s the simplest way to share that information with other people, but… it seems a shame for me to classify my body as wrong, because it’s not.”


Screen grab of the written text from a trans YouTube video: This discovery forced me to go deep within my soul by peeling off many layers of my life so that I could rebuild my sense of inner self.
Written text from a YouTube video, “My Transgender Story.”

F.T.I. also describes coming to terms with his new “internal self image,” highlighting a sometimes less visible part of the process of transitioning—that of loss and grief—for a life lost and a life never lived. Though now in a place of acceptance, he acknowledges the pain and regret of not having experienced his 20s as a young man, explaining that he had only allowed himself to believe he was male prior to transitioning in his 40s. Many of these vloggers have also built decades-long careers, formed relationships and had children which are impacted in different ways by their transition. In Q&A videos, E.N. eschews questions about his medical transition to instead address questions about how the process affected his relationships with his wife and other family members, and T.L.’s videos include his child’s first-person perspectives on their parent’s transition. Overall, the non-linear temporalities, focus on development of internal gender identity and acknowledgment of loss and grief in these vlogs convey many of the complexities of trans life.

The narratives of late bloomers, and trans elders more broadly, are significant beyond their contributions to a growing online trans archive. Last month we commemorated Stonewall and other early protests led by queer, trans and gender non-conforming people, mostly Black and brown, against LGBTQ+ discrimination, harassment and police brutality. Yet three days before a win for LGBTQ+ rights that protect queer and trans workers, the current administration overturned Obamacare regulation prohibiting discrimination against trans patients the midst of a pandemic. At a time when trans futures are uncertain, the potentiality in the world making of these online cultural productions is essential in helping us to envision a trans future beyond survival.



Image Credits:

  1. Mainstream media trans characters over the last few decades: “Buffalo Bill” in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Brandon Teena in Boys Don’t Cry (1999), and Sophia Burset in Orange is the New Black (2013-2019). (author’s screen grabs)
  2. YouTube video of a vlogger sharing fashion ideas. (author’s screen grab; the editors have honored the author’s request not to cite the image source in advance of obtaining the creator’s permission)
  3. Written text from a YouTube video, “My Transgender Story.” (author’s screen grab; the editors have honored the author’s request not to cite the image source in advance of obtaining the creator’s permission)


References:




/r/ DeepFakes and Reddit’s Ongoing Misogyny Problem
Adrienne Massanari / University of Illinois at Chicago

Reddit meme

This week (February 5), The Daily Dot reported on a Reddit community where individuals could request (and pay for) digital porn of their favorite celebrities. Unlike the 2014 celebrity photo hack colloquially known as “The Fappening,” /r/deepfakes did not trade merely in stolen images. These were AI-created, high-quality clips of celebrities (almost all women) superimposed onto pirated porn. The community was finally banned but only after having acquired a large number of new subscribers (a total of around 90,000) and negative media coverage. /r/deepfakes continued existence was an anomaly; other platforms such as Twitter, Discord, and Pornhub had policies banning this kind of face-swapping material for some time. But such is the way of Reddit, which has a long history of allowing misogynistic and racist communities to flourish and only to taking action when negative press forces administrators’ hands.

The idea of AI-created porn presents a host of ethical dilemmas, which I’m not going to cover here. Instead, I want to explore why Reddit continues to demonstrate the same pattern of behavior when it comes to hosting communities that engage in speech and behaviors that are troubling (at best) and give 4chan’s /b and /pol a run for the category of “worst internet cesspool.

Emma Stone grossed out

If you’re not familiar with Reddit, here’s a crash course: anyone can create a community around a topic of interest (such as science, cats, or hip hop) called a subreddit, which allows users to submit content that is then voted on by the community. Stuff that is more popular as voted on by the community eventually floats to the top of each user’s front page (a curated list of material that’s popular across their subscribed subreddits). Reddit members (also known as Redditors) can also get a sense of what’s popular across the platform by accessing reddit.com/r/all. Subreddits are moderated by community members, and there’s very little intervention from the administrators in terms of what is acceptable. The few rules that do exist are mostly the result of ongoing issues with spam, bullying, sexualized images of minors, and the release of private information about individuals.

Reddit has a long history of allowing its platform to house a number of racist and misogynistic subreddits. It wasn’t until mid-2015 that Reddit administrators banned racist subreddits affiliated with “The Chimpire” (which included /r/coontown, probably the most notorious member). But /r/coontown was merely a new instantiation of /r/n***rs, which was banned in 2013 for vote manipulation. Both bans were only undertaken after significant negative media coverage, despite public opposition from other Reddit members (often voiced during Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) sessions regularly held with site administrators). The same goes for the infamous /r/jailbait (a subreddit for sexualized images of teenage girls), /r/creepshots (a subreddit for sexualized images of women taken without their consent), and /r/fatpeoplehate (a subreddit that mocked and harassed overweight women). In all cases, Reddit’s administrators seem to suggest that while they, themselves, found the content of these subreddits repugnant, “every man [sic] is responsible for his own soul.

Questlove

But in several cases, such as with /r/TheFappening, it wasn’t until there was a threat of celebrities suing Reddit for DMCA violations or the possibility that underage individuals were included in the photo dump that the subreddit was banned.

However, these are only a small handful of objectionable subreddits that exist on the platform – and it’s clear that people who espouse these views find the platform welcoming. Plenty of subreddits are actively misogynistic, and some regularly make it to the front page of /r/all. These include communities affiliated with the Manosphere, such as /r/mensrights, /r/TheRedPill (dedicated to pick-up artistry and nonconsensual sexual activity), and /r/incels (only recently banned, but which hosted discussions of “involuntary celibacy,” a philosophy said to have inspired the 2014 Isla Vista shootings).

Parks and Recreation Scene

Then there’s those subreddits that merely trade in sexist memes, such as /r/pussypassdenied, which promotes the idea that women are held less accountable for their actions than men are (and celebrates moments when their “pussy pass” is denied in some way). And who can forget that Reddit still hosts a #Gamergate subreddit, /r/KotakuInAction, despite the fact that even 4chan banned #Gamergate mentions from its boards in 2014.

gamergate commentary

Not to mention that /r/The_Donald is one arguably the most popular forum dedicated to misogynist-in-chief and “alt-right” favorite.

Up to this point, Reddit’s approach mostly involves sticking their collective heads in the sand in the hopes that subreddits like /r/KotakuInAction burn themselves out and go away. This doesn’t work. These are actually really popular spaces on the platform, and as I have argued elsewhere, it’s not like the terrible denizens of /r/TheRedPill don’t also interact with more “mainstream” subreddits on the site. One of the common sentiments I heard while researching my book was that Reddit served as a recruiting ground for Stormfront (a white nationalist site), with racist memes and image macros being posted to popular subreddits such as /r/AdviceAnimals. And recent media reports suggest that Reddit may have been instrumental in the spread of Russian propaganda during the last US presidential election. So why do site administrators continue to do nothing, even when research suggests that banning toxic subreddits actually reduces the overall amount of hate speech on the site?

GIF from Community

I suspect two factors are at work here, both of which involve (surprise!) money. The first is related to Reddit’s governance structure. As a company Reddit has very few employees, and most of them are dedicated to site development and marketing rather than community moderation. Instead, they rely on a fleet of volunteer moderators to monitor content on the site. Reddit can quickly become over-reliant on moderators, as without them there’s literally no way the site can continue running effectively. This means it’s very easy for a small number of moderators to become incredibly powerful even if they’re in charge of problematic subreddits. Such was the case with notorious Redditor Violentacrez, who while running /r/jailbait regularly collaborated with the site’s administrators to keep the platform free of child pornography and other illegal content. And yet, the relationship between administrators and moderators remains fraught, leaving moderators frustrated with the lack of meaningful tools to do their jobs well.

The second reason is more directly tied to revenue. Often the Redditors who are engaged in the most objectionable behavior on the site are also the most invested and active on the site – and they demonstrate it with their dollars. During the two weeks that /r/TheFappening was live, for example, many of its subscribers purchased Reddit Gold (a subscription service which helps the site survive, as Reddit is still not profitable) as a kind of “thank you” for hacked celebrity nudes. This meant that /r/TheFappening essentially supported the entire platform for an entire month.

Simpsons character

At the same time, it’s clear that Reddit’s leaders are hoping its planned redesign will allow it to make more appealing for advertisers, and perhaps tacitly encourage these “problematic” subreddits to find a home elsewhere. One can only hope, but I’m not holding my breath.

Image Credits:
1. South Park Image Macro
2. Emma Stone
3. Questlove
4. Scene from Parks and Recreation
5. Gamergate GIF
6. Scene from Community
7. Scene from The Simpsons

Please feel free to comment.