When I was in high school in the late ’90s, my father borrowed my laptop—a gift from a family friend—while the browser was open to susans.org, a peer support website founded by Susan Larson in 1995 with advice articles, forums, and other resources primarily focused on trans women. Susan’s Place became a late-night haunt, making my spine tingle in a way I couldn’t explain, and it led me to a web of other trans blogs, forums, and resources on everything from DIY hormones to gender presentation.
Susan’s Place suggested there were people like me in the world, that there were words to describe us and a community existed to affirm us. It also opened up the possibility that a better world might lie ahead, one in which my struggles with gender could be a public part of my identity rather than an internal, confused mishmash of conflicting ideas.
My father opened Hotmail without noticing, averting a potential crisis. I couldn’t have explained what Susan’s Place meant to me at a time when the word “transgender” meant nothing to most Americans. Avery Dame-Griff’s 2023 book, The Two Revolutions: A History of the Transgender Internet, offers a detailed, fascinating, and deeply researched look at trans culture online that spans a swath of experience in the “gender community,” where the internet offered “space for safe, confidential self-expression … fostering relationships with other community members.”
Dame-Griff’s book begins before the internet, spotlighting confidential publications such as Tapestry and Cross-Talk, alongside support and community organizations such as Society for the Second Self (Tri-Ess) that offered advice, support, information, and a hotline covertly to both the trans and transvestite or cross-dressing (using the language of the time) communities.
The internet created a huge, dramatic shift in the accessibility of information as well as privacy. A trans woman who called a hotline or ordered a zine would leave physical evidence of her passage through trans spaces; a person who dialed an ISP and navigated to trans websites could cover her tracks. Readers could also get specific information about hormone regimens and how to access hormones, seek tips on clothing lines and businesses friendly to trans bodies, and form communities that introduced new experiences of transness.
The rise of the trans internet also ushered in a persistent debate, perhaps best exemplified by Jayne Cressap, then vice president of Alpha Rho, the L.A.-based Tri-Ess chapter, who wrote in a newsletter that “The Net can’t replace the support group.” Do online spaces matter? Are online spaces actually meaningful communities? Do the things that happen online translate to real life? Are the friends you meet on the internet “real” friends? The answer to all of these questions is yes, creating a world where, as Dame-Griff wrote, “spaces allowed [trans web users] to build queer community … a particularly important platform for trans youth, who used it to come out, claim a transgender identity, and make connections with other trans youth.”
The “artificial internet”/”real world” divide is a persistent topic of debate that reaches far wider than the trans community, with many people who are not members of marginalized groups failing to understand what it means to find a safe space online, build community, or forge connections from a rural bedroom occupied by a disabled teen or a suburban home where an an adoptee is trying to make connections with those who have shared experiences.
Communities that experience hatred, segregation, legislative attacks, violence, and politicization can find strength and safety in online communities. These spaces are vitally needed, and should be treasured rather than derided.
Today, highly visible trans people are everywhere, from Dylan Mulvaney and Elliot Page to Admiral Rachel L. Levine, and there’s a complicated and rich array of trans identities being represented. This visibility, and lively conversations about trans identity, has made it both safer (representation in numbers) and more dangerous (hypervisibility makes us easier to target) to be trans in an era with systemic legislative and social attacks on trans people—especially Black trans women.
Being trans no longer automatically means the end of a marriage or career; for some trans people, it’s no longer a secret, deeply held shame that has to be suppressed for life.
And yet, I ache for the primarily trans women in The Two Revolutions who grappled with gender even as they did not want to make gender their primary identity, as is often the case within the memoir genre. “On their home pages,” Dame-Cliff writes of the proliferation of blogs, personal websites, and other direct communications, “creators could make room for unrelated aspects of their identity, such as their professional accomplishments, hobbies, or fan interests … an interconnected assemblage of different, sometimes contradictory, aspects of self.” This evolution was only possible because of control of their online environment—to “own the goddamned servers,” as early advocates of the fan-owned and operated Archive of Our Own (AO3) put it and Dame-Griff echoes, while noting that this is something subsequent generations are losing.
Susan’s Place still exists. So does a network of personal websites, blogs, newsletters, private chats, and group endeavors. Some are abandoned, barely clinging to existence in a rapidly evolving internet that is more platform-based than independently maintained, even as it rapidly expands what it means to be trans. The compression into walled gardens means that when those gardens go to seed, the information within dies, too.
The fall of Twitter and precarity of Tumblr, the perilous algorithms of Threads and TikTok, are suppressing trans expression. And infantilizing it: Trans and other marginalized people muzzle themselves, cloaking their meaning in cutesy and sometimes alienating terms, both in tags and in the content they produce to avoid being dinged on community-guidelines violations. We live in a world of corn stars, unaliving, raci$m, and seggs, coded language that forces us back into the realm of shame and isolation.
In reading a narrative of how the trans community leveraged the internet as a powerful tool to build community, I was also struck by the need for a companion volume: Trans people literally built the internet, as queer and trans people have been ardent technologists since the beginning for a broad variety of reasons that merit exploration.
The stereotype that behind every sysop or programmer lies a purple-haired trans girl with cat ears isn’t necessarily true, but it’s not without merit either. (I can think of at least six of my acquaintances, most working for FAANG companies, sometimes explicitly to access comprehensive gender care benefits.) Trans people are creating the apps Gen Z takes for granted, the backbone that makes it possible to build community online.
It’s not necessarily Dame-Griff’s responsibility to tell this story, but I have a deep longing to ensure it is told as a generation of trans innovators slowly begins to pass into the vale, taking incredibly valuable history with them. The ephemerality of the resources Dame-Griff drew upon in his research are a reminder that transness is sometimes documented in absence—a flutter at the corner of the eye—and that it’s vital to understand and preserve this history for future generations. Ultimately, we must consider our history before we can look forward to our future.
s.e. smith is a Northern California–based journalist, essayist, and editor whose work on disability, culture, and social attitudes has appeared in The Washington Post, Time, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Vice, and anthologies such as Body Language (Catapult, 2022). They are the recipient of a 2020 National Magazine Award. They speak English, and are a member of the Trans Journalists Association and the Freelancers Union.