Transitioning in the Digital Age

Should you be defined by the things you’ve posted?

by Jessica Lachenal on May 19th, 2014

For so much of my life, I tried to be something I am not.

As is true for many people who identify as trans*, I went through a phase of denial and overcompensation. I tried to be the best son, brother and father figure to my immediate family. The life I lived was a life ingrained into so many stories and experiences, and yet it was a life that was not my own.

When it came time to take control of my life and live how I really needed to live, I went through every possible backfire scenario in my head. I rehearsed coming out to my family, coming out to my friends, coming out to co-workers, everybody. I felt that I had prepared myself for everything that could possibly go wrong.

What I didn’t expect, however, was having to take on the monumental task of going back across my entire online identity and having to filter every post, every tweet, every photo that was from a life that was no longer mine. I didn’t want people searching my name, and coming across old photos of me pre-transition, or seeing other people refer to me by a name that I no longer identify with. More than that, I didn’t want to be outed to anybody who thought to do a quick romp through my Facebook profile.

Outed By Facebook

Screen shot of an ad with the Facebook logo and text A look back.

Back in February, I wrote about an experience I had with Facebook’s Look Back video feature. It was a neat feature that would take a few of your biggest moments over the past ten years and put it into a nostalgic little video that felt a lot like an Apple commercial.

The catch was, you didn’t get to pick your moments. They were automatically picked for you. I was excited to check out what moments Facebook had decided were worthy enough to make the two-minute video they had banged up for me. Alongside some really fun photos with some really good friends, I started to see other, past moments that I had thought were long gone.

Specifically, I saw some photos that I had deleted. Photos of… well, me, before transitioning. Picture me sitting there, watching this video trying to inspire some kind of nostalgia, and then getting blasted in the face with photos of someone who shouldn’t have been included in what was supposed to be a fond look-back.

Thoughts and memories of how dark and lonely those times were came flooding back, and all I could think, all I could even worry about was, “Has this been posted anywhere else? Can anyone else see this? Can I even take this down?”

I anxiously started scanning around the Look Back page, seeing if it had already been shared. I didn’t choose to have this video made, it kind of was just… there, created for me already. I looked at my own profile, trying to make sure that nobody else could see what I just saw. I even used the View As option, which lets you “preview” your site through the perspective of other users, to see if anybody else could possibly see the video. And even after all my searching, I still was not entirely sure if anybody else could access it. From what I could tell, it hadn’t made its way onto my profile page. Nobody had seen it, but I couldn’t shake that little bit of worry that they might be seeing it soon.

I had to shove it aside and continue with my day in spite of the fact that not only was this a new Facebook feature that I wouldn’t get to share, but that my (and anybody’s) past can and will be offered up as part and parcel of a social media experience that is supposed to entertain, but can end up hurting instead.

Did it occur to anyone at Facebook to make the “edit” option for the Look Back video available at launch?

The information we post online is very rapidly slipping out of our control. This is not to say that the worries of pain and anxiety should get in the way of progress, but that reckless progress is the problem.

The tech world — and thus, the world at large — is fast becoming a place where we sacrifice thoughtfulness and consideration for getting there first. In our rush to innovate, “disrupt,” or incite change, we far too often forget to consider the ramifications of our actions. What kind of impact would pushing this feature or story have on people? What can we do to make sure that we can minimize any potential harm?

Sometimes the simplest question of all, “Should we even do this?” falls by the wayside, and we find ourselves on the other end of a tragedy.

The Story of Dr. V

Back in January, Grantland ran a story about Essay Anne Vanderbilt, also known as Dr. V, an inventor. Ostensibly, the story was about the golf club she invented and the science behind it. Of course, as the reporter started to dig, he found out about Dr. V’s trans* status, and how she had taken great pains to making sure that nobody found out about that part of her life. Still, the reporter kept digging. As the publish date came closer, and after many requests (and even threats) to stop the story from being released, Dr. V became clearly distraught.

Screen shot of article header, which shows a graphic of a cracked golf ball on the precipice of the hole. The headline reads Dr. V's Magic Putter

Article about Dr. V which appeared in Grantland

Who could blame her? Some very scary and very personal information was being brought into the public eye.

And there was nothing she could do about it.

In the author’s own words, “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.”

The story was no longer about what it was supposed to be about.

True, the story still spoke about the golf club and its legitimacy, but the rest of the text was littered with inexcusable acts. The author even outed Dr. V to former colleagues for parts of the article: “Maybe the most surprising thing about my conversation with Kinney was how calmly he took the news that the woman he thought was an aerospace engineer had once been a man, and a mechanic.”

Before the story could be published, Dr. V claimed her own life. The reasons remain unclear, but when you consider the circumstances and the environment in which she soon had to be living in, and then when you factor in the fact that 41% of trans* people have attempted suicide in their lifetimes, you begin to wonder just how much this story impacted her decision.

Grantland’s Editor in Chief, Bill Simmons, has already acknowledged the story’s problems and the editing staff’s shortcomings as a whole. The piece he wrote serves as both an apology and an explanation of what happened. He describes going back and forth, questioning just where and how it all went wrong. He narrows it down to one crucial, easily fixable mistake.

He writes, “That mistake: Someone familiar with the transgender community should have read Caleb’s final draft. This never occurred to us. Nobody ever brought it up.”

At The Mercy of the Internet

To quote The Social Network, “The internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink.” Our information, no matter how closely guarded it may be offline, is no longer our own online.

When I started transitioning, I wanted to distance myself from who I was, because I believed that it was something I had to do in order to find out who I was going to be. I didn’t want to add new friends to a Facebook profile that would immediately out my trans status to them. The things we post and the things that are posted about us are readily accepted as substitutes for who we really are. Judgements are being made about our character and the type of people we might be after a cursory Google search. I wanted new friends to get to know me as a person, but more than that, I wanted them to get to know me as a woman, first and foremost.

So, I had a choice: start a whole new profile, juggling two online identities while trying to keep worlds from colliding, or go back over my entire online profile and change or delete any overt mention of who I used to be. Being the proactive person I was, I opted for the latter. And I thought I did a great job.

But I was wrong.

Screenshot of Facebook's privacy settings.

Now, just like then, I am incredibly conscious of the kind of impact that social media can have on your life. It can make or break you on anything from future job offers to future relationships. It’s illegal (in most states) for a potential employer to ask whether you are trans* or not, what your sexual preference is, or even your age, but if you’re not careful, with one Google search and a little bit of digging, it’s there for the world to see.

I can see entire futures becoming unraveled before they can even be realized. The kinds of things that are not supposed to change employers’ opinions about you are now readily available and served up on the internet to anyone willing to put in the smallest modicum of deduction.

If you’ve ever tried to get your listing removed from online public databases, you know how many hoops you have to jump through in order to even get on the list to be considered for removal. Getting control over your social media identity can be exactly like that. How many times do you have to change your profile privacy settings on any website because they suddenly decided to shake things up and change their policies? How many menus, sub-menus, and check-boxes did you have to read through just to feel somewhat safe in your privacy?

There is No Guide

The toughest thing about all of this was that there was no “guide,” there was no help for something like this when I was going through it. In the vast openness that is the internet, there is no surefire way to make sure that people can’t find out what you don’t want them to find out… except to refrain from posting anything in the first place. And anyone who has transitioned with stealth in mind and found a way to “disappear” obviously isn’t going to share what they did to get there.

The best I could do was stumble through it myself, which is something that I’m still doing as of this moment.

I am currently out to many of my friends, but not to everybody. Being able to decide who I come out to and who knows about that part of my life should be a decision that is solely mine, and nobody else’s, least of all the internet’s. And yet if I am not strict about the things I do, and if I screw up just once, that power will be taken away from me forever. I will find myself at the mercy of page-rank algorithms and profile privacy settings.

It’s exhausting.

I struggle often with the question of how it could be better. How can we still exert control over our identities, trans* or not? It seems that with every possible solution that anybody comes up with, we find ourselves circumvented by another policy change posing as innovation, another feature that poses as nostalgia, or another experience that poses as the beginnings of change, only to show how much further we’re regressing.

Call it naïveté, but I don’t want to say all hope is lost. Facebook has since made the Look Back video editable. They’ve also incorporated a great deal of various gender identity options to better fill out profiles. They’ve allowed people to select their preferred pronouns. More and more companies are allowing for more than just “Male” and “Female” as options, if you have to disclose your gender at all.

It’s little things like this, all these little options that help people really, truly express who they are.

Nobody is asking to stop innovation. Nobody wants to get in the way of progress. What people are asking for is a small measure of consideration. So many of these problems around sharing and privacy can potentially be solved by ensuring that when a user wishes to delete something, it’s actually gone for good. Editing profile information shouldn’t be subjected to scrutiny — it should be allowed, no questions. Asking that certain information not be shared should keep that information private, with no worry of having that change.

It’s simple, really. Keep the power to choose who we want to be in our hands.

We live in a world where trans* people are marginalized for reasons that are far beyond their control. It’s all the more important that the internet, one of the single greatest tools we have as human beings, be a place where they can be who they want to be, without fear of losing control of their identity. Transitioning, or trying to be more than what you were (trans* or not), is a daunting task.

We don’t need to make it any harder.