For cis and trans women, living life out loud and expressing joy on social media has become an act of resistance in the face of unrelenting online misogyny.
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When I was in high school, my English teacher, Mrs. Buehler, made us read a poem entitled “Warning,” by Jenny Joseph: .
“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.”
It stuck with me, but as a 16-year-old I perhaps took away the wrong lessons. Life seemed full of possibilities and endless time to seize the day. Sure, someday in an impossible-to-imagine future when we’re old, there would be a time to stop giving a damn about social convention. But in the here and now it was all about playing the game to get ahead. And while wearing purple isn’t so daring these days, having purple hair is still regarded as an affectation of youth.
But, as time goes by, the field of possibilities narrows even as our wisdom granted by age and experience widens. It is in this narrow window, where we still have some time but recognize that we don’t have nearly as much as we hoped, that epiphanies occur. One such is the realization that almost none of us is going to be elected to public office; my representative in Virginia has been in office for 20 years and will likely be wedged in there like a tick for 20 more.
The question for me, in my late 40s, is: Who am I trying to impress? Do I actually have to wait until as close to the end as possible to stop giving a f*** and do the things I enjoy, social convention be damned? This seems like an odd life question coming from someone who, at 36, told ALL the rules concerning gender to get bent. But I still can’t help worrying what people would think, or write, if I posted pictures of my workouts, hobbies, or myself online. I still wince when I hear “you’re too old for that.”
I always regarded my spouse’s ability to not give a wet slap about what other people think as something of a superpower. She’s an introvert by nature, but also sticks out in a crowd as a six-foot-tall self-described “dissolute dyke with bad feet.” She long ago learned that there was nowhere to hide and decided that whatever negative thoughts random people have about her have no tangible effect on her life. She wasn’t raised with tales of aspiring to be an admiral or a politician. She sort of stumbled into her career and made it stick.
Despite my being an extrovert, and publishing relentlessly for over a decade, there are precious few pictures of me in public. Nor are there that many posts about things I actually enjoy; my political writing is more geared toward helping me process the trauma of being part of the class of people whose eradication is the top political priority for one of the two major parties in the U.S. I’d rather be sharing the things I enjoy, but instead, I share the things I fear.
There are many reasons why I don’t talk, write, or post about the things that are good in my life, and almost all of them centered around fear of it being used to hurt me. I could be mocked for being ugly. Or too masculine. Or too cottagecore (I make scented candles). Or the topic of my interest not being feminine enough. Or too old to enjoy the subject matter. In short, by sharing what I love doing with the finite time given to us, it opens me up to abuse meant to undermine my sense of self.
Two things happened nearly simultaneously that led me to an epiphany about all of this, however. First was my wife noting that I hadn’t posted a picture of us together since 2017. The second was something Ginny Di, a tabletop gaming YouTuber and cosplayer, posted that made me realize what I experience isn’t just a trans thing, but a woman thing. Namely, any woman who posts anything on the internet becomes an immediate target, regardless of whether she is cis or trans.
Several months ago I wrote about Ginny and her content creation for Dungeons and Dragons. She makes videos about how to be a better D&D player or dungeon master, and she does cosplay of whimsical fantasy characters—nothing about what she posts could be considered offensive or provocative. But that doesn’t stop people from sending her the most vile and abusive comments, ridiculing her makeup skills, telling her that “your only value is for sex,” calling her “pathetic and childish,” and declaring they’d like to beat her. Ginny didn’t share the originals but posted them later as affirming “blackout poetry.”
This made me realize that no matter what you share, there will always be horrible people who delight in abuse, spreading misery, and tearing people down, no matter how harmless or inoffensive your post, or how much joy it brings to the audience who shares your interest. I asked Ginny why people do this, and how she learned to protect herself from the negativity. “When you reach upwards of half a million people online like I do these days, there is an inevitable amount of hate you’ll get regardless of who you are or what you’re doing, just by virtue of scale,” she replied.
Much of the abuse centers around misogyny. There’s the assumption that she can’t be a “real” expert on D&D because she’s a woman and younger than some of the old-timers. A lot of it “has a decidedly alt-right flavor and is usually targeted at me supporting the use of safety tools/boundaries in games, being queer/accepting queer people, and having dyed hair.” There’s also accusations that she’s just capitalizing on her looks, which is ironic given that one of the other criticisms of her hobby is that it’s too “childish” for someone her age.
For Ginny, discovering that so many people were awful wasn’t a shock. She just needed to develop learning strategies to cope with it. “In my experience, learning to navigate the internet is less about having one epiphany, and more about practice,” she said to me in an email. “Slowly, over time, I have developed strategies and systems for reducing the harm that these comments do to me.”
Another person I follow online is Autumn Ivy, a non-binary animator, weight lifter, and amazing cosplayer. After she posted a photo of herself flexing, I was struck by the negative comments that flowed in, saying how unfeminine her muscles were, that she’d be “prettier” without them, and accusing her of being transgender. Given that Ginny Di does a lot of the same cosplay stuff and attracts negative attention for being femme and whimsical instead of “butch,” I was reminded of Julia Serano’s observations in Whipping Girl that there’s no “safe zone” for gender presentation for both cis and transgender women.
“Some told me when I first started I wouldn’t get anywhere because I was too ‘fat’ and that I was going to give up,” Ivy told me. “As I lost the weight I also developed an [eating disorder] and found myself suddenly realizing that people were nicer to me because I was much MUCH skinnier.” They noted that violating gender norms sets some people off. “My more masculine clothes or costumes does seem to set male-presenting people off a bit more in a negative way.”
Ivy takes a two-pronged approach to dealing with the negativity hurled in her direction. The first part is reminding herself that it’s her life, and no one else’s. The second part reflects that there are far more people who draw inspiration from her efforts than are disgusted by them, representing a net positive in the universe. “I am my own person and the journey I have chosen reflects my desire to uplift others while I am also being real about what life is at the end of the day. Not everyone will be kind … but I can be kind and if that makes someone else’s life a little brighter by being my best self then I feel accomplished.”
Janine Tessarzik, a cisgender woman, is a pentathlete and Scottish Highland Games champion. She’s tall, strong, and can yeet a bale of hay 29 feet straight up into the air. She also spends an inordinate amount of time debunking claims that she is transgender, or a cheater (despite photographs and college records that she’s been a female athlete since she was in high school in the 1990s). Janine notes that the current moral panic over trans people has spread to women who don’t meet societal expectations for gender presentation. “The rhetoric about trans women harms ALL WOMEN who are perceived as gender non-conforming. That includes women athletes, women with short hair, women who’ve had double mastectomies, tall women, women who don’t wear makeup, women who dress in casual clothes, and it’s an issue that particularly affects Black women, who are so often masculinized just for being themselves,” she posted on her Instagram account.
It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way. As part of my interviews, I reached out to Major General Tammy Smith (U.S. Army, retired), who was the first flag officer to come out as lesbian or gay while still on active duty, and later went on to command U.S. forces in Korea in 2012. I asked her why she chose to come out when she did. For General Smith, coming out was a matter of honor—a feeling that she needed to be honest with the people she led—as well as a desire to clear a path for more junior people in the service.
“I was a colonel when we got married,” she told me. “My ‘public’ coming out was after learning that I was selected for promotion to brigadier general. I was aware that no general or admiral had come out yet. I thought it was important to make a public statement upon promotion. If a brigadier general cannot be honest about their family, what chance would a captain or a sergeant have?”
But, General Smith also acknowledged things have taken a turn for the worse over the past decade. “The climate wasn’t as hateful in 2012. Our biggest ‘hate,’ worry outside the internet was that [Fred] Phelps’s [Westboro] church would show up to protest,” she wrote, but “Frankly, people were so ready for this moment that I got much more positive feedback than negative.” Like others I interviewed, General Smith didn’t allow what negativity she received to affect her.
So, why should I wait until I truly am old to metaphorically wear purple? On a grand scale, the gibbering hordes of awful people out there will find fault no matter what we do. Sure, we can spend our lives doing nothing to ensure as little criticism as possible, but that makes for a rather boring life. Given how fleeting I believe our existence is, it seems like a tragic waste.
On a grand scale, none of this really matters either. We all die eventually. Over billions of years, the Sun will expend its hydrogen, swell into a red giant and engulf the Earth. Humanity will have died out long before then. Eventually the Earth will be swallowed by the sun, which will then shrink into a dwarf star and be swallowed in turn by the massive black holes at the center of the Andromeda and Milky Way galaxies, erasing any record of our existence from time and space as we know it. Trillions of years from now all that will exist of these black holes is the Hawking radiation they bled off as they melted into nothingness. Any record that you wore funny clothing, or that someone was a dick about it, will be utterly erased not just from human memory, but existence.
Given this sort of inevitable cosmic nihilism and the blip that is our existence, why not have fun with it, convention be damned? Autumn Ivy summed all of this up brilliantly with an eloquent observation: “If you’re going to be judged for existing anyway then at least be judged while living a life you can say you enjoy.”
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