“Computer Crossdressing”: Charting the Trans Digital Archive

Design by Silvia Wang

“The contemporary trans movement as we know it now—with all its accomplishments and failures—could not have come to be without the Internet.” This is the central claim of Avery Dame-Griff’s newly-released book The Two Revolutions: A History of the Transgender Internet. Consulting archival resources from people and organizations across the country, like the promotional advertisement (below) for the umbrella Internet organization US TOO (United Sisterhood of Transsexual Outreach Organizations), Dame-Griff outlines the formation of the trans community’s online presence. Originally printed in the July 1989 issue of a Hartford-based trans newsletter Twenty Minutes, this flier epitomizes the shift of the movement from print to digital: “A new way to unify our community. Imagine being able to communicate with other TS [transsexual] organizations across the country in a way never possible before… to end the communication gap in our community once and for all.” 

Networks of communication among trans people are of immense practical importance. To be trans is to be defined by a condition that writer Andrew Solomon calls ‘horizontal identity’—a marker that, unlike race or religion, is not usually passed down through families. Furthermore, one is not typically taught how to be trans, or how to raise a trans child, by one’s own parents. 

When I asked my mother about her experience raising a gender-nonconforming child in the early 2010s, she pointed me to a few books (Lori Duron’s Raising My Rainbow and Diane Ehrensaft’s Gender Born, Gender Made, among others) but suggested that the email chains and Internet forums she was a part of during the years of my social and medical transition proved much more helpful than these static print references. Through online groups, she could communicate instantly with other parents, seek information on doctors and lawyers, and participate actively in an exchange of advice and support. 

The Internet was also helpful for me in my own path towards transition—not as a source for information, but as a site for identity building. In Mario Kart, I chose to play as the pink-dress-clad Princess Peach; while playing Poptropica, I gave my avatar long hair and high heels. Before I went to the Internet for answers, I went for gender-bending fun. 

Online spaces, from forums to game services, can be liberatory for trans and questioning people not only because they allow them to connect across distances, but also because they offer this sort of disembodied experimentation with gender. In reference to trans icon Sandy Stone’s 1987 The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto (itself a response to trans-exclusionary radical feminist Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, published a decade earlier), Dame-Griff introduces the idea of “computer crossdressing”: experimenting with gender-deviant modes of presenting and socializing from the safety of one’s own personal computer. In their sociological project Digital Me: Exploring Possible Future Selves Online, published this year, co-authors Z. Nicolazzo, Alden C. Jones, and Sy Simms pick up on the Internet’s uniquely potent power for trans people, examining “how transgender people use the Internet, curating their digital selves in ways that could help them explore various possible gendered futures for themselves.” In the foreword, Jones reflects on their own personal experiences, remarking that “I went to the Internet to find what I could not in the books around me…When I could not find a comfortable space in my own queerness, I looked to the Internet for explanations, help, information.” And along with these factual resources, Jones found an online community centered around trans support: “intense isolation, what I felt in the real world, did not exist online. The opposite of isolation, how I experienced sorting out more of my own gender among trans folk online, felt like coming home to a house full of trans folk…through the Internet, I began to see prismatic proliferations of trans possibility and positivity.”

In chat forums, trans people created online spaces that fulfilled multiple purposes: information exchange, formation of community, and experimentation with identity. At a time before most American cities had public-facing organizations for trans people, these online forums allowed for an interconnected, international trans community. What exactly was discussed on these trans-focused forums, however, remains somewhat inaccessible. “The reality of web archiving leaves behind a necessarily incomplete picture,” writes Dame-Griff. “By design, many early BBS [Bulletin Board System] software regularly kept only a small archive of recent messages, while decentralized networks… survive [only] in dispersed bits and pieces.” The strength of early trans online spaces—that they remained private from the outside world and separate from stiff institutions—also proved a weakness for those attempting to study these communities after the fact.

Dame-Griff’s book is one attempt to piece the fragmented history back together. Drawing from resources like the Digital Transgender Archive (launched by Northeastern University professor K.J. Rawson in 2016) and the Transgender Media Lab (based out of Carleton University), The Two Revolutions traces a key period of trans history. These efforts are laudable, but remain firmly entrenched in the academy, as evidenced by its publisher (New York University Press) and the back-cover blurbs (all written by other academics).

Jamie Lauren Keiles’ Instagram account @sexchange.tbt is an attempt at something different. Billing itself as “AN ELITE ARCHIVE (1980-2011) OF THE TWISTED TRANSSEXUAL MIND,” the account posts media found through many of the academic databases referenced above, as well as through Jamie’s own independent research for a book he is writing on the history of non-binary identity. In daily posts, Jamie features flashy, profound, and funny materials, ranging from newspaper clippings to screenshots of website home screens, with limited context. There is no explicit attempt to narrativize or hypothesize—the account simply seeks to connect the contemporary trans Internet to its past.   

Like Dame-Griff, Jamie has faced his own frustrations while navigating the archive. “There’s just a huge quantity of material,” he told me in a Zoom call in October, “And a lot of it is on sites that are really, really hard to access because they’re poorly archived or they’re not really searchable, or it’s just a big web of broken links.” Because of these difficulties, the majority of the conversations and posts on these forums and websites remain out-of-reach for scholars. “We have a lot of access to medical narratives of transness, and we have some access to political organizing going on in the late 80’s, early 90’s,” explained Jamie. “But like the actual thing, where trans people start organizing sort of self-reflectively as trans people, we have very little access to any of that.”

In many ways, @sexchange.tbt is an attempt to make the academic research of scholars like Dame-Griff accessible to trans people worldwide. The account became active in January 2023; by now, the account has over 20,000 followers, and a follower community that tunes into live videos and competitions like the “Most Transgender Name” award (‘Lilith’ won, with honorable mentions going to ‘Finn’ and ‘Kai’). The late-90s and early-2000s ‘proto-memes’ that Jamie posts, often in the form of comics or graphics, feel as contemporary as they are funny. One user commented on a February 16th post of a 1996 comic strip that “seeing a trans meme that feels modern, but in the format of a newspaper comic, is going to have me requiring outpatient care for the next week or so.” 

To Jamie, this is exactly the point. While trans-focused 2010s were often attempts to ‘clean up’ the image of transness for the sake of political gains and increased representation, earlier archives reveal a trans aesthetic that is both racy and fun. “So much of my idea of what trans people were like was shadowed by this very corny image of Obama-era aesthetics,” commented Jamie, who’s 31. “I remember being scared when I was transitioning, thinking, ‘will I ever meet another trans person who’s sexy that I want to sleep with?’ Because my idea of trans people was so sanitized and squeaky clean and they always existed in conversations that didn’t have other trans people in them.” The account, Jamie claims, is part of a broader consciousness growing in trans communities: “trans people are realizing, it’s not just that we can exist but we also can have culture.” Digging up and sharing these archives plays an important cultural and political role in the online trans community: it grounds the group in a specific history, a structured aesthetic, and a shared language.

This return to a pre-2010s aesthetic and rhetoric has colored contemporary conversations on trans terminology. “I’ve really noticed that people are returning to using ‘transsexual,’” noted Jamie, “because it’s a word that cis people feel they ‘can’t say’ and [trans people] kind of have a desire to distance conversations within the community from public conversations about representation politics or moral panics over topics like trans women in sports.” Just as early trans online movements sought to create forums open to trans people but separate from often-hostile society, Jamie noted a current “desire to have a ‘trans word’ that only trans people can say, that names… the messier elements of transness.”

Transsexual is not the only word reentering the trans lexicon in online spaces. The name of Jamie’s account @sexchange.tbt (“tbt” referring here to ‘Throwback Thursday,’ the Internet trend of sharing nostalgic posts once a week that started in 2006) is a tongue-in-cheek reclamation of the term ‘sex change,’ which has largely been replaced with the term ‘gender affirmation surgery’ (GAS). Discussing the username, Jamie referenced a tweet that lamented this linguistic shift because, unlike GAS, ‘sex change’ was a “sexy and glamorous” word.

The reclamation of these old terms that are only to be used by an ‘in-group’ has allowed for the creation of a specific trans Internet aesthetic, one marked by subversion of simplistic and outdated models of transness. In pop star Chase Icon’s breakout single ‘SRS’—an acronym for ‘sexual reassignment surgery,’ another early synonym of GAS— she brags of her “custom made cunt” and samples Lady Gaga’s iconic February 2011 response to an interview question about her genitalia: “maybe I do [have a penis]. Would it be so terrible?” Promoting her new album this October, Kim Petras, a trans woman singer, posed for a photoshoot in hypermasculine drag. These camp performances of gender, resembling those posted on Jamie’s account, playfully rebel against contemporaneous nuanced conversations on fluidity and non-binarism. 

Of course, this creation of a self-consciously performative trans aesthetic does not fit the entire community; no verbal or visual language can. “I don’t think it’s like a linear thing in which categories become better able to articulate desires,” commented Jamie. “I just think people sometimes chance to be alive in a moment in which the categories are working for them or not.” In conducting his own research, Jamie spoke to many women, now in their 60s, who identified strongly with labels like ‘butch’ and ‘genderqueer’ that are no longer as commonly used. “These people hit periods in which the language of the moment worked better for them and they’ve hit periods in which it works worse. Many of them hated being called ‘lesbian,’ they liked ‘genderqueer,’ and now they are annoyed by ‘non-binary.’” A cohering aesthetic in online trans spaces likewise has the potential to connect, but also to alienate, members of the community. 

But even for those who do not find their identities represented in past or contemporary trans discourse, access to archival material can serve as a point of departure from which to understand oneself. Trans existence is predicated on the severing of one’s present identity from one’s past, an assertion of selfhood that is defined in the negative: I am not that which I was. Knowing what one is not—how a certain label or form of embodiment is at odds with deep parts of the self—is facilitated by a shared, if flawed and ever-changing, language of gender as it has been constructed on the Internet. 

Just as trans identity is both grounded in and defined against the past, so too must the trans movement engage meaningfully with its own history. The backward-looking work of trans academics, social media administrators, and Internet celebrities—collecting records of trans discourse in all of its racy, offensive, contradictory fun—is an essential step in the construction of a trans future. 

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