"It's always the very expected trans narrative in the newspapers; it's always some horror story," says L. Garnons Williams, photographer for the savvy trans-style Tumblr blog The Test Shot, which pairs photos of a transmasculine subject alongside a treatise on that person's style. Except instead of profiling their subjects, Williams and business partner Jamie Pallas insist that the trans folks they document write their stories themselves.
Telling our own stories is an opportunity rarely granted to trans folks in mainstream media. Misgendering, sensationalizing, and otherwise undermining trans bodies is something of an international journalistic pastime. The New York Times has done it, and so has the Guardian across the pond; the New York Post was banned from this year's GLAAD awards for particularly transphobic content, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer recently came under fire for disrespectful coverage of a trans murder victim (trans women — and trans women of color — are the most maligned segment of the trans population by far). Even the less egregious stories, the ones that reinforce binary identities or simplistic narratives like "born in the wrong body," render diverse trans identities invisible.
Like a lot of younger folks unhappy with these portrayals in traditional outlets, 24-year-old Williams and 26-year-old Pallas, who met in a real-life London support group for trans guys, found themselves drawn to social media as a solution. Pallas, interested in style blogs, rarely saw trans men represented in a context that wasn't trans-specific, and Williams' nonbinary gender identity was at odds with the macho guys they saw at the support group and in YouTube videos. They say they wanted to show diverse masculinities and trans folks engaging deeply with the infinite iterations of style and identity as they figured out their own gender identities. So they turned to Tumblr.
Even on social media, Pallas and Williams saw something missing from the way trans folks were being represented. As helpful as they can be, transition diaries on YouTube or how-to websites focused on doctors and legal documents do not reflect a dynamic, exciting culture. "I watch a lot of YouTube vlogs, and you never see a trans person doing anything other than talking about being trans," Williams says. "You'd never hear positive, lighthearted stories. In our social group, in our community, everyone's doing something interesting. It's not just, 'He's at this stage of his transition.'"
A recent Test Shot post by Harri, an androgynous ballet dancer on testosterone, alludes to a more considered, complex transition process than the simplified stories presented in magazines. "My masculinity is a queer, feminist, Femme masculinity, though I actually rarely use the word masculine/ity in describing myself at all," Harri writes. In Williams' photographs, Harri wears sparkly shorts in one picture, and a T-shirt rolled at the biceps in the next. "I'm not striving to destroy gender, just to deconstruct it and have fun with it, rather than being controlled by it."
"A lot of trans stuff [online] is either about before or after, knowledge or concealment," Pallas says — and this leads to policing and erasure of identities that don't fit the rigid story line. The Test Shot, by contrast, wants to be a space for guys to announce themselves, exactly the way they are. It's not about finding the best way to pass, necessarily. Instead of focusing on tips for blending in, it's about making yourself known.
"I think we put the Tumblr out almost as a flag to other people who are similar to come forward and talk to us," Williams says. It's worked: Williams is still exploring gender identity ("People don't always know where I'm coming from — I've got a high-pitched voice") and has had some trouble feeling seen in the past, but that changed after the two did their own test shot. Friends and acquaintances in Williams' community now "got it." "It became much easier to communicate with people, both online and off, after having made that statement — and it was a statement I was very much in control of."
For many trans people, Tumblr sites act as an antidote to an indifferent or hostile world. "You can Google 'bois,' you can search for all types of phrases and names that relate to our identity and sexuality, and you'll come up with porn," Mo Willis says ("boi," according to Willis, encompasses anybody who claims the term, which means masculine-of-center trans and queer folks of color). The 29-year-old is head of communications for the collective bklyn boihood, a group of friends and community organizers that create space, digital and otherwise, for the boi community. To Willis, the dirt of representation online wasn't reflective of everyday reality. In Brooklyn, you saw bois on the street all the time; bois talked shop on one another's couches, bois had an aesthetic and a culture all their own.
The Boihood, based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, was analog at first. They began throwing parties and informal gatherings in 2009, a group of friends looking to foster community, and they were a hit. They made a calendar and organized fundraisers for top surgery and to fund their travel to speaking engagements. But a large shift came when they moved to Tumblr in 2010, to "continue the conversation," Willis says.
"It may feel very different in 2013, but even a few years ago it was not common to have a community of gender-nonconforming folks sit down and talk about everything from relationships to sex to their own shifting identities to transitioning," Willis says. They didn't want to keep that conversation small. "The genesis of bklyn boihood really was to extend the physical space itself online."
The bklyn boihood Tumblr is full of reblogged stories, videos, and photos affirming bois of color. "Tumblr is a vision board, a space to collect the most electrifying and affirming images and snippets and links and conversations on the web," Willis says.
Like other trans and queer Tumblrs, Willis' is most concerned with making the invisible visible. And Tumblr, with its vast network of intersecting communities — with followers from West Africa to Brazil — allows people to engage deeply with the boihood, even to get to know them offline, or just stop by and see some cool images.
"Tumblr is an individual universe — it's a really safe space, and its format allows for people who aren't on there or don't understand the nuances of Tumblr culture to look and see and dip their toe in the water," Willis says. "We're trying to create a space to go. If you don't see yourself anywhere else online, come here, maybe you'll see something that makes you feel something."
Twenty-nine-year-old Reina Gossett credits Tumblr and social media with changing her own trans narrative. "For a long time the ways that I was sharing and engaging with other trans women of color was over the fact that we were being disproportionately killed," she says. "I know so many dead black and Latino trans women — it's something that is just real. I think that had a huge impact on my psyche, feeling that the trans women of color that I know who are like me, sharing similar kinds of experiences, are facing death daily," she says.
Gossett's Tumblr blog is fairly personal; it's flooded with archival footage and photographs of trans activists like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, powerful quotes by CeCe McDonald, political calls to action, and photographs of her with trans activists she admires like Janet Mock and Isis King.
Gossett was particularly interested in bringing trans history to a platform that could make it viral. "A lot of the lives of trans people of color — specifically trans women of color, drag queens of color, people who identified as transvestites, transsexual — were only accidentally archived," she says. Gossett's role as a trans archivist largely grew out of her job: She has researched trans history in her community-organizing job at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a New York legal aid and advocacy organization for low-income and people of color on the trans spectrum. When she began her transition, she didn't know a lot about trans history, which is not uncommon, given the relative lack of information available. Like Willis and The Test Shot folks, she wanted to create space — and so she did. "I have a very strong desire to fill the void," she says.
Gossett, who's surrounded by trans activists, wants to make her real-life community standard for other trans women of color. So far, the responses she's received have been positive — from the trans elders whose stories she's shared to the younger trans women just discovering them. "When your relationships are reflected and held up in community, that's really a meaningful thing for people who have been navigating isolation and trial and emotional violence for a long time, especially trans women of color who are low-income. That's so meaningful."
Gossett says she has been transformed by her experience connecting trans history to her body, and sharing that connection with the world. "Internet tools like Janet Mock's #girlslikeus and Tumblr create this belief that we're not just victims. We have power, we have agency over our lives. It really went from me finding the trauma story in being trans to the power of resiliency story in being trans, and now moving toward the joy of being a trans woman of color."
Slowly but surely, Tumblr is creating a new dialogue surrounding what "trans culture" really means. Gossett still gets frustrated when she sees people reblog images of voguing or quotes from Paris Is Burning who have "no relationship" to it, but she's also grateful that the heightened visibility of transfeminine culture, curated and collected by Tumblrs like hers, has highlighted its existence. "I'm like, 'This is our culture! This is something that we're doing and we're making happen!' And it's a powerful thing, regardless why the person reblogged it. This is who we are."
Virtual reality isn't perfect, but it is an opportunity. Trans Tumblr users accept the reality that once you launch an image into your feed, you have no control over where it will end up. The Test Shot once found one of their photographs of a trans man on "Fuck Yeah, Women in Blazers." (Horrified, they contacted the administrators to take it down — they obliged.)
But by and large, finding affirmation and community online is a first step toward translating it into real life for many trans people marginalized by sensationalism and violence.
Willis recalls a kid from Singapore who came to the bklyn boihood party back in April who'd chosen to go to college in New York after discovering the collective's Tumblr online: "It was really cool to see someone I didn't know volunteer their time, be from somewhere else in the world, and say that part of the reason why they're in New York, period, is because of the work that we're doing. It's not just about bringing folks to New York. It's conveying that we're creating that safe space in the real world via our online space."
"We're finally getting a sense of trans culture," Pallas says. "We have the opportunity to change the understanding of what it is to be trans. You don't need some institution to do it for you. That's because of social media."