Let’s take a look at ways to communicate about trans issues online with strangers who show an anti-trans bias.
Far too often, I see postings from trans folk that begin with things like, “Don’t read the comments” or, “Trigger Warning (TW)”.
Trans folk can be far more sensitive than your average Internet savy folk. The reasons for this vary but to oversimplify, let me just say that trans folk are far too often victims of violence, sexual abuse, bullying… etc. in real life. The suicide rate for trans folk is ridiculously high. The murder rate. Rate of being assaulted. Harassment. Unemployment… etc. The amount of subtle discrimination we are faced with each and every day can be overwhelming.
It is no wonder the trans community will circle the wagons from time to time and try to protect their own. Damn near any member of the trans community knows at least one trans person who was either murdered or committed suicide.
To label something with a *Trigger Warning or to say, “Don’t read the comments.” is a way for trans folk to communicate about our darkest issues without sending a fellow trans person into an unintended dysphoric bout.
Today, I will discuss the opposite. What is it like when you DO read the comments? What is it like when you ignore the trigger warnings? Why is it important? How can we have higher success rates in online discussions? Why should trans people stand up for themselves?
I have been researching this post since, well, since I first logged onto the Internet. Really though, I have had this post in mind for over a year now because of all the news stories leading up to, and following the Bruce Jenner interview (which was what it was billed as before she came out) which gave me plenty of opportunities to chat with folks on Facebook comment sections. Now we have these terrible new bathroom laws to talk about. It doesn’t look like trans issues will be out of the media spotlight any time soon, and someone has to speak up for trans folk in spite of all the trigger warnings.
I had a few rules for this experiment:
1: I only used the Facebook comment sections on, “Reputable” news feeds. I couldn’t be the only pro-trans person who dared to comment.
2: I would turn on notifications and follow the comment thread as much as possible.
3: I would try to out myself as trans whenever it might fit into the conversation. Sometimes without provocation of any sort.
4. I would work to communicate with anyone, no matter their beliefs.
Facebook seemed like a good place to work from, mainly out of apathy. You get a plethora of news stories to comment on and, I did not want to register on a bunch of different websites in order to talk with people. Also, people are less prone to use aliases on Facebook. That suggests they may be more likely to behave as they normally would with a stranger, although anyone’s behavior is typically worse online. Almost all of us have a little bit of a public profile on Facebook as well, so sometimes I could glean more info about the person I was engaged with in the hopes of improving my communication with them. I rarely looked at a person’s profile unless they were really being troublesome.
Facebook also has a system for people to report posts, which I will get into later. It comes in handy in the most interesting of ways.
In the end, I learned some huge lessons about how to better communicate amid overt bigotry. Here are my findings. You may not like them all, but they certainly work for me. That does not mean they all work every time. They just work a higher percentage of the time than other tactics I have tried. Let’s face it, getting someone to admit they are wrong online RARELY happens.
And do I follow these rules all the time? Absolutely not. It is the Internet. Sometimes I want to let of steam or let my hair down. Having a mature discussion with bigots online is exhausting and sometimes I just said, “Fuck it!” and ignored my own rules. But I know that when I do this, at best, I will only be preaching to my choir which does little good in the grand scheme of things.
I look at interacting with anti-trans posters like a salesman looks at potential customers. You use your best tactics and know they will only work a certain percentage of the time on a good day. When a new tactic is found to be more successful, I switch to that tactic. No salesman expects to sell everyone that walks in the door. They just want to sell more than the average salesperson would. They want to beat their last record month.
Also, posting on public boards is a lot of smoke and mirrors. I sometimes lie about personal experiences if it works more often than telling the truth. If people believe it is true, and it gets them to think, it may in fact be the truth I need to be telling. In many ways, having an online discussion with a bigot is very much an act.
Humans are very good at pattern detection, so if they see two or three trans people misbehaving online, they are prone to thinking we all act that way so, if you out yourself online in a comment section, in a way, YOU REPRESENT ALL OF US, and your behavior reflects upon all of us. It is vital that some of us go out of our way to be exemplary.
What I am going to walk you through will take at least a few hours of continuous discussion each time you attempt it. It does not happen with a quick post. It requires patience and diligence. This is a slow game approach.
Ok, without further ado… here is my favorite system.
1. Play to your audience.
Ok. Someone makes a post you disagree with like say, “All trans folk are mentally ill.”
How do you reply? Are you going to get through to this person? Probably not. They have their mind already set and yet, their point is inaccurate and should be corrected for others to see.
So, make a calm post quoting the DSM-V, the diagnostic manual of mental disorders used by American doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists. It clearly states, “It is important to note that gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder.” and that quote from the DSM-V text is freely available online for people to see if they wish to confirm it as accurate.
You post this, not for the person who you are replying to, but for your audience. They have not already made an inaccurate statement, so they will not have a vested interest in defending themselves against facts. You may never get through to the person you are replying to, but you corrected their statement which goes a long way towards helping others see why it was false.
2. Try to establish common ground.
Many of my friends HATE it when I do this. What they fail to realize is my intent is to SWAY HEARTS AND MINDS not to preach to my choir. My choir is already on my side.
So what if someone says, “Transgenders will never be female! Their lifestyle is a choice!”?
Well, I WANT to start by explaining how calling us, “Transgenders” is incorrect. Then I WANT to tell them that not all trans people are transitioning to female, that there are trans men too and in fact, “Transgender” is an umbrella term which includes many other folk. We aren’t all transsexual or in transition. Many of us are non binary… etc. I WANT to explain that gender and sex are different. That I was always female. I WANT to explain how it isn’t a lifestyle. I WANT to explain how I had no choice in being trans. That transition was a choice and a very difficult one but being trans was not at all something I chose.
But… clearly, from the imaginary comment I am hypothetically replying to, I can already tell that this fictional person knows very little about the science and medicine behind being trans and that they already have formed a bias against folk like me for whatever reason.
To correct their every mistake is commonly seen by them as aggression. And when you are offensively aggressive towards someone’s thoughts and feelings, they are prone to becoming defensive. Once that happens, any chance of a real discussion is probably lost. So, what do I do?
I try to find the thing I most agree with and build on that. I look for common ground.
They told me I will never be female. Ok.
So I say, “Well, I am a trans woman. That means I have a Y chromosome. It is kind of the whole reason I am a trans woman and have to carry the trans prefix around with me. Without that Y chromosome, I wouldn’t be trans. Of course there are limitations to medical transition and I am well aware of them.”
And a small part of me dies for not going for the jugular… but finding common ground or a middle ground is your BEST CHANCE at starting a good discussion.
The person you are talking to is like a sapling and you want them to grow into a mighty oak that some day could bear the weight of all your points and corrections. But at this point, you will kill them by simply stepping on them too hard.
3. Turn the room.
This directly relates to step 2.
Often times a bar will hire an early evening band to play loud, youthful music and it is used to annoy their regular afternoon bar fly patrons and move them out of the bar in order to make room for the kids who will be spending WAY more money to see the main act later that evening. It is called turning the bar or turning the room. Clearing one crowd to make room for a new one.
Many of my friends HATE this step too.
Look, even people who have anti-trans views have feelings and can feel like they are being attacked. If you join a conversation already in progress, it may have already devolved into insults and tantrums.
A GREAT way to strike common ground, especially if the anti-trans poster is not the one who is throwing around insults, is to smite the pro-trans people who are. You don’t have to press it too hard, just a quick, “Hey now, how would you like it if I said that to you? We are better than this.”
You turn the room. You show your choir, the choir you could be preaching to, that you have a more mature and civilized way to handle this poster. They either shape up, or they stop participating. It works because they are not used to being disciplined by their own advocates. They rarely argue with you if you are on their side of the LGBT debate and are only correctly pointing out that they are being rude for rudeness’ sake.
This clears the room for you to have a more personal discussion with the anti-trans poster.
If you have tried to find common ground, and then defended them from attacks, you have already done two things people RARELY see their opponent do for them online. It greatly increases the likelihood that they will start to listen to your opinion instead of just blocking everything you type from their mind as soon as they see you made a new post.
4. Kill them with kindness.
This one is hard, especially for younger trans folk, but it is worth it’s weight in gold. It is also fairly self explanatory.
Be patient, READ their replies and respond in exhausting detail, always looking for common ground and respect their opinion even if it is respectful disagreement. They really DO feel this way. That a woman doesn’t want a stranger’s penis in their restroom with them does not make them evil. Many women are raised to be skeptical of men. Many learn their own skepticism from their own traumatic life experiences. You know?
The more cruel to you they are, the nicer you MUST be to them. It will be worth it. Do not resort to name calling, passive aggression or even sarcasm (Now do you see why young folks struggle with this?).
Always look for common ground even with the most vile of people. Always respond with the kind of respect and detail you would respond with if someone you love was showing a sincere interest.
Never let them see you sweat.
Keep it light and feel free to use humor if it is not at anyone’s expense. Humor humanizes you.
5. Let others do your heavy lifting for you.
Remember step 1, talk to your audience, step 3, turn the room, and step 4, kill them with kindness? Here is where they pay off.
People will see and read the thread, and they will see you reprimand your rude and immature choir, they will see you patiently, exhaustively and politely communicate with a potentially lost cause and they will come in, reinforce your arguments, say the things they wish you were saying and almost without fail, follow in the more civilized tone you have established.
This further compounds as others stumble upon, see and read the thread. They see a SANE and MATURE trans woman talking to a cruel and biased opponent. They see others coming to your defense. You may even stand out to them as an exemplary human being.
If your reinforcements misbehave, you gently smite them as well and show them you are still in control of the tone of the discussion. This is often easier at this point because you have clearly invested more time and effort into the discussion than they have and people typically respect that, especially when they agree with you ideologically.
Will you win? Almost never. But what you have done is played to your audience and compelled others to empathize with a thinking, feeling trans person. A person who was likely called, “Pervert”, “Mentally ill”, “Predator”, “Freak” multiple times during said discussion. Why? Because you have handled yourself with maturity, intelligence, dignity and class.
Some other tips:
* You will never win the Internet, and even if you are factually correct, you will rarely find an opponent who changes their opinion publicly while you are talking to them. It is simply too embarrassing to admit it when they are wrong.
* Memes suck. Avoid them. You may as well say, “I don’t have my own thought on the matter so here is someone else’s condescending and oversimplified thought typed out over a picture of some shit.”
* Links are garnish. Make statements you can back up with links if asked for them, or add a link to the end of a post, but a link in and of itself is an ineffective post. Many won’t read them. They will just read the title or the website name from whence it came and tell you it is bogus.
* The block feature is great, especially when you are trying to talk to one specific person and are making progress, then out of nowhere, some immature asshole tries to cut in and distract you from your goal. Remove them from your feed. It will look to others, like you were able to ignore them like a meditating monk would.
* The Facebook notification system is a surprisingly good tool. I know… I know. Facebook rarely does anything about notifications, but if someone makes a comment filled with threats or hate speech (especially when it is excessively vulgar or violent) it has a higher chance of working. But after you notify about a post, BLOCK the person and get them out of your life. If you keep fighting them, FB seems less likely to respond in your favor.
But the BEST PART of notifications is using them as a threat. “Hey, just letting you know, and I haven’t done it myself, but that post could get you banned from FB for violating their hate speech policy if it gets reported. You may want to edit it before it causes an issue for you.” That bluff works FAR more often than FB’s team actually does. And, you are still killing them with kindness.
* If you want a more active discussion, pick a developing thread near the top of the comment feed. Many people won’t scroll down 20 or more posts. Your best audience is at the top of the feed.
* If you want to start your own comment thread, get there early. Once a news story has more than 20 comments, the chances of yours staying near the top are greatly reduced. It is kind of like winning the post lottery unless you get in early and make a point people feel like replying to.
* Be prepared to have your profile stalked by strangers. They will really want to see your pictures (especially if you are trans), and some creeps will look for private info to use against you. BE VERY AWARE of what you share with the public and what you share only with friends.
* Avoid God like the plague. God in online discussions about trans issues is a classic straw man. If someone gets you talking about God, facts have gone right out the window. It is a tactic of religious people who know they are losing a debate to throw God out as a last ditch effort to regain control. Pretty soon, a trans person is berating a Christian and looking like the irrational bully. You will lose some of your audience. Stick to facts and avoid getting drawn into a God fight. You just lost any chance of changing a person’s opinion once you do.
* Peer review is a red herring. If you or your opponent demands a peer reviewed study, y’all’re obviously are not walking the walk y’all talk. Scholarly studies published in journals typically cost between $10-30 just to read online. They can’t be shared with others online. Not for free. To do so is illegal. The best you can typically hope for is an article about the study written by someone who actually read it. A sad truth.
* Copy and paste are your friends. If you spend a half hour or more writing an extensive and polite post answering a question or addressing a point you always encounter, and it works, save it and use it again in another discussion. See if it keeps working. The Internet is vast and very few will encounter you more than once to see that you are not painstakingly writing each post to order. Just tweak a few words or sentences to fit the new discussion and use it again.
* Avoid any news site that seems to have an anti-trans bias, or you will find it nearly impossible to find an audience and all the while you’ll keep getting tag teamed by multiple opponents.
* If a discussion reaches its natural conclusion, or say, the person you are talking to has to go to bed or work or something, shake their virtual hand. Opposing professional sports teams do this after a big game in spite of one side having lost. Thank them, in spite of your disagreements, for the engaging discussion. Remember, they will RARELY change their mind in public, not online, but their last memory of you will be one of you thanking them for listening. It means they will be more likely to reconsider their position and what you had to say the next time the subject comes up.
So, that is it. A post over a year in the making. A post that ground this blog to a halt while I wrapped my head around how to simplify all this into a fairly concise read. I hope it was worth it.
Until next time, aloha,