In a short section in her book Transgender History, trans historian, theorist, and filmmaker Susan Stryker briefly discusses how the development of the Internet helped form a national trans movement in the 1990s. She writes, “Transgender communities, organizations, and activist struggles grew in so many different directions during the 1990s, in so many different locations, that it’s impossible to place all the developments into a single chronological narrative. Much of this proliferation can be attributed to the Internet.”
Avery Dame-Griff’s new book The Two Revolutions: A History of the Transgender Internet zooms in on this period in recent history. Chronicling the way trans people have used digital platforms to build support networks since the 1980s, Dame-Griff’s book makes two important and interrelated arguments: “just as the current trans movement wouldn’t exist in its current form without the Internet, the Internet was inescapably shaped by the presence of trans users.”
“My entire life, I’ve lived with computers,” he writes in the Introduction to the book. Like many millennials, Dame-Griff, a Lecturer in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Gonzaga University, came of age online. He recalls learning HTML, creating fan pages, moderating message boards, and eventually joining a state-wide transgender Yahoo group that became a key support system as he came out.
Organized roughly chronologically, The Two Revolutions explores how trans people have used particular networks and technologies — including bulletin board systems (BBS), UseNet, AOL forums, home pages on the World Wide Web, and, currently, social media — to connect with one another socially and politically. He discusses how trans users navigated both the development of new computer technologies and the rapid commercialization of the Internet all while building digital community spaces: “When safe space online wasn’t granted to them, these users made space for themselves through obfuscation and elision, manipulating existing infrastructure to meet their needs, using techniques they’d already perfected over a long history of silencing and oppression.”
For Dame-Griff, studying the ways trans users have taken advantage of these platforms is crucial to understanding trans issues in the contemporary moment. As he writes, “The history of trans life online is one of sedimentation, with each subsequent change leaving its remains behind to settle and eventually solidify into a mass of images, text, and memory on which new communities are built.” When we talked in mid-November, Dame-Griff affirmed, “The internet is always presentist. It’s always aggressively presentist. If we don’t care about the past, we miss the ways in which it set us up right now.”
Dame-Griff tells me that, in grad school, he became curious about the history of trans community discourse online. Reflecting on his own participation in these online spaces, he realized no one else was recording this history — and the history probably began earlier than he thought.
Starting with the development of BBSes in the 1980s, Dame-Griff examines how these platforms helped facilitate conversations amongst trans users, leading to new understandings of trans community, language, politics, and identity. As Dame-Griff writes, “Developing community-specific terminology for gender nonconformity had long been a goal.”
A running theme throughout the book’s chapters, Dame-Griff traces the development of intra-community identity terminology — from phrases like the “gender community” in the early 1980s to the ascension of “transgender” as an umbrella term in the 1990s and, later, the use of the term “cisgender” in the 2000s — discussing how digital forums were crucial to the evolution and popularization of these terms. Toward the end of the book, he writes on how contemporary social media platforms commodify these terms by selling user data to advertisers, a process he calls “the datafication of language.”
Part of Dame-Griff’s research has entailed archiving trans digital community sources and recording oral histories with the older trans folks who created and moderated these spaces. “I want people to understand your experiences online were not just a silly thing you did. They are part of history, in the same way if you made a newsletter in the ‘70s, it’s history,” Dame-Griff told me.
Dame-Griff is keenly aware that histories of the early trans Internet are disappearing. He began the Queer Digital History Project (QDHP) to combat its erasure. “I felt an obligation to record [this history] because digital archives during this period are very fragile. If archives exist, it’s usually because someone has saved them in a box in their basement…I’ve been lucky that most folks have been willing to share [their stuff with me]. If no one else will take it, I will take it.”
The QDHP fills an important gap in available LGBTQ historical research. Queer and trans community archives often don’t have the resources or expertise to preserve digital material, and projects like the Internet Archive don’t necessarily have the cultural competence to handle sensitive LGBTQ materials. Ethically approaching the preservation of this history is central to Dame-Griff’s work, and he maintains anonymity and privacy whenever requested. “The ethics are essential to the saving. There has to be a contextual solution for each platform. And so as I moved into archiving with the project, I was thinking about each of these contexts very seriously,” he said.
The disappearance of the LGBTQ Internet is a hot topic. Recent headlines about the potential shut down of Tumblr have reignited concerns about what happens when marginalized users rely on corporate media to facilitate community connection. Many LGBTQ users are worried about what will happen to queer and trans digital spaces as websites like Tumblr and Twitter/X delete or shadow ban their content.
Dame-Griff believes we can look to the history of the trans Internet for potential solutions: “It’s possible for the community to own its own small platforms. It did that for years. It did that with small presses. It made no one any real money, but it’s how it thrived. And this should be also [what] we’re thinking for the future digitally as well. Because as we’ve seen in the contemporary moment, trans people are a problem for corporate platforms. They always have been and at some level they always will be.”
Dame-Griff calls this “the problem of the trans user.” He notes how corporate platforms have historically been ambivalent about their trans users, who are often a highly active base but are not easily commodified by sought-after advertisers. In his second chapter, which discusses AOL in depth, Dame-Griff shares how trans users confronted discrimination from industry professionals concerned that its LGBTQ content was not “family-friendly.” We can trace a direct line between this history of the commercialization of the internet to the ways contemporary corporate social media platforms tokenize and then discard their LGBTQ users. As Dame-Griff writes, this pattern “speaks to one of the central challenges throughout the history of trans life online: the need for safe spaces we own.”
The Two Revolutions is both an academic history of the trans Internet and a political call for contemporary users to demand more of our digital media platforms. Dame-Griff does a fantastic job weaving together these projects. As a 30-something millennial who grew up in the 1990s, reading the book at times felt like flipping through a history of my childhood. (The book is worth reading for the incredible screenshots of the 1990s Internet alone!) I was flooded with my own memories of the ways I too explored my political and social identities online in the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s: debating abortion politics in AOL chat rooms, taking “am I gay?” quizzes on glitchy websites, and coming into political consciousness during the heydey of the feminist blogosphere. As Dame-Griff told me, “The digital feels ephemeral, but it’s not. It’s archival.” His book is a reminder to preserve and archive our LGBTQ digital histories…before corporate media companies delete them entirely.