“The history of the digital spaces is also the history of the trans cultures,” said Cassius Adair during the “Trans Studies in the Virtual Age,” a conversation and Q&A hosted by the School of Information and co-sponsored by the Digital Studies Institute. In conversation with Allucquére Rosanne “Sandy” Stone, Adair argued that in order to track the evolution of trans communities, we must also consider the concurrent shift in online cultures. Just as access to information online has improved, so too have the digital spaces for trans individuals to communicate.

Adair and Stone grew up in different technological periods, yet both of them agree that technology has been imperative to their respective journeys as trans people. For Stone, it was phones—phone sex, to be exact—that helped her understand gender and identity fluidity. Though this origin may seem odd now, it was the technology that Stone had access to at the time. It wasn’t until later that Stone would see how that communication of desire would transfer to the digital world.

Like many Millennials, Adair encountered conversations about gender and the trans community on Tumblr. He explained that because of Tumblr’s digital architecture, which was built on tracking posts from inside joke tags, there was an element of privacy, but that it was also “productively broken” as those entering the space for the first time had difficulty navigating it. Since Tumblr, online platforms evolved into private Discord servers and Instagram group chats, creating a sense of safety where trans people can immerse themselves in an online support network.

But even with dedicated online spaces, we still face questions about how to present ourselves digitally, as technology can be used to either defy or augment embodiment. Stone affirmed that “you can imagine yourself into any embodiment you want if you want it badly enough.” She continued to explain that although identity is not entirely independent of a physical shape, it can be less dependent than we imagine. Especially online, the perceived anonymity behind an avatar allows the freedom to control how the world views our appearances—slipping in and out of digital skins and experimenting with different personas and portrayals.

We are left to question the purpose of defining what it is to be any given gender. There isn’t any benefit in trying to oppress those who dare to travel outside the norm, and yet, there is constant backlash from those who isolate trans individuals and attempt to ban their representation in media. The trans community has had to endure many setbacks in their journey to equality; however, with these digital platforms, they have a space to find one another and unite in the pushback they face.

The internet is, and always will be, a place of communication. Stone drove home the importance of building community online by concluding that this process means, “touching each other’s hearts and knowing that there is another being out there fighting the same fight, feeling the same pain and sense of achievement of becoming who you are . . . By that process [of] reaching out to each other, we can eventually change the narrative.”

After the conversation between Stone and Adair, the audience was shown a sneak peek trailer for a documentary about Stone’s life, Girl Island, detailing her work as a trans activist.