Joshua Bastian Cole is talking about his life. “I go by Cole. I’m 32 years old. I live in Brooklyn, New York. I’m a queer playwright, dramaturge, theater and dance historian, classical revisionist and I’m also a female-to-male transsexual … I am part of the generation of transmen who came out on the Internet, which I think is a very historically relevant part of my identity,” he says.
Cole talks for a while, around 20 minutes. I didn’t know Cole and I did not interview him in person. Rather, he recounts the story of his gender transformation on YouTube. And he is not alone. For him and so many others, it would seem that the Web has acted as a transom, an educator, and survival kit when he was coming out as trans or gender nonconforming.
I happened across Cole’s video when writing my new book, Republic of Outsiders. I was devoting a chapter to gender rights activism: His first-person account is part of a wealth of such material that had proliferated online. The True Selves site, for instance, bills itself as a “forum for Generation X & Y people who are transsexual and/or transgender, who are or want to be actively transitioning in some way.” Individual bloggers arrayed across the gender continuum, such as Lisa Harney of Questioning Transphobia and those writing at the Transgender Boards, attract large groups of followers. On Tumblr, patients of Charles Garramone, a surgeon who performs mostly female-to-male (FTM) top surgeries, post sometimes graphic images of their postsurgical days: one person posted the caption “24 hours post-op/Drinking tea” to accompany an image of a transitioning person with a bandaged chest, while another post displayed the still-bright chest scars after top surgery and a third patient posted a video “reveal” of his chest being un-bandaged. There are dating sites where they can search for people to meet while also discussing in detail their stage of transition.
When I spoke to gender nonconforming people in their 20s, they told me the people they met online were far more influential and helpful as they started to transition than the counselors who advised them in person on transitioning. They told me they are going online constantly, reading forums and message boards written by people like them.
Thousands of parents of “gender-variant” kids are also meeting online: Gender Spectrum’s website encourages the idea of living in the “in between” spaces of gender.
Writing—books, lectures, manifestos, blogs, tweets—are the tools of transformation. And for those with transformed physiques that they offer up for their digital cameras, from the vantage of the computer screen, these can seem a kind of text also: flesh itself that has been edited and revised.
CLICK BELOW FOR A BRIEF HISTORY OF FEMINISM, FROM FIRST-WAVE PIONEERS TO TRANS FEMINISTS.
When Rey decided, as a teenager, to transition, he got some of his first information about being trans from the Web, where he put in search term after search term when he was in high school. I first met Rey six years ago when I wrote about his transition: he was a trans man who entered his freshman year at a women’s college and then transferred to a co-ed university. Back then, he was a college student discovering himself, writing movingly about how complicated gender identity actually is, as he did in one essay: “I have felt the pressure of the gender binary from both sides. When I was a kid, my mother made me wear dresses. . . . My dad tells me I look like Sinéad O’Connor and that I should let my hair grow out. I was never trying to be a man. I was never trying to be a woman. I was always and I am still just being myself. I was born into a female body, but my mind was more complex. The choices I was given in this world, unfortunately, were to either transition with medical intervention or just keep having to explain that my gender doesn’t match my physical sex.”
Since then, we’ve kept in touch. I would check in once a year to find out his latest developments—new jobs, new homes, new thoughts. Rey told me he was constantly surprised by how much had changed, certainly since I had first met him as a freshman, and certainly from the moment when he first had an inkling he was trans back in high school. For one thing, he said, language around the movement had shifted since then. And then there was YouTube and blogs and a whole new kind of gender fluidity, as he put it. There was an idea that was gaining new circulation, trans feminism—the idea that both biological women and trans women had to deal with the oppression of women, negotiate a media-enabled distorted female body image, and address female-specific health concerns. In this conception, a trans or gender non-conforming person would not be shut out of the larger feminist community after their transition to a more male body and identity.
“When I am with groups that are all men, I think about trans feminism,” Rey told me. “The guys would say the kind of sexist things young guys sometimes say, and it makes me really uncomfortable. I usually say something. Trans feminism is still just as important to me as it ever was.”
Rey hoped that his and others' thinking about gender-as-spectrum would move the mainstream. When I spoke to Imagining Transgender author and anthropologist David Valentine, he wondered whether younger gender nonconforming people were more fluid in their gender identity specifically because they were so Web-influenced—more protean, in part, due to the possibilities for flexible identities the Internet had popularized.
As Cole said in his YouTube memoir, “Prior to the existence of things like chat rooms and listserves and groups and things like that, I think it was very difficult for a lot of folks to find community. It certainly was the case for me that I didn’t have a lot of support in my immediate vicinity in terms of my peers or family members at the time, and I gained the most support through other folks that I found across the country and the world.”
Cole, like the other renegades I encountered when writing my book, struck me as a cultural entrepreneur of a sort, disseminating an idea of transformation to a broader public as well as consuming the idea himself: He and his peers were creating the ideas they needed. And I recognized that while they were innovating their own identities, they might also one day alter the way many people saw gender itself.