In Celebrating Pride, Social Media and Civil Society Transcend the Political Battle over Trans Rights
In a move seemingly timed to coincide with Pride Month, the U.S. Department of Education announced last week that transgender students would once again be protected under Title IX, a landmark law that has banned sex-based discrimination in education since the 1970s. After former President Barack Obama’s historic decision to extend Title IX to transgender students based on their gender identity, the Department of Education later reversed course as part of a wide-reaching regulatory assault on trans rights by the Trump administration. This new decision thus marks the latest move by the Biden administration to put the federal government back on the side of LGBTQ civil rights.
But what should have been a watershed moment for transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming American teenagers instead contributed to a broader sense of legal whiplash. As praiseworthy as it is, the Biden administration’s championship of LGBTQ rights has been offset by the introduction of anti-trans laws by conservative lawmakers in 33 states over the past several years. The rapid increase in these proposals from Republican state legislators – which include bans on youth access to gender-affirming healthcare and the exclusion of trans-student-athletes from sports – threatens to make 2021 one of the worst years for transgender rights on record.
Taken collectively, the conflict between progressive federal policies and anti-trans initiatives at the state level means political advances on transgender issues could be at an impasse for years to come. This recent wave of anti-trans bills is further tarnishing a Pride already dampened by cancellations and restrictions on in-person events for the second year in a row. Fortunately, in spite of the dueling impacts of the pandemic and the culture war on trans youth, a number of social media platforms and civil society organizations have stepped up to offer high schoolers identifying as “gender diverse” with much-needed representation, validation, and support.
As safe havens for self-expression and connecting with other teens, social media platforms have an increasingly crucial role to play in the well-being of transgender adolescents. The video app TikTok is used by thousands of LGBTQ zoomers to post content ranging from uplifting coming out stories to awareness-raising discussions of transgender and intersectionality issues. This year, the app launched a “Free to be” campaign highlighting a number of “trailblazers” on its platform, as well as donating $100,000 to LGBTQ organizations and improving built-in tools for combatting online harassment.
Yubo, a social platform designed specifically for users aged 13-25, has taken even more concrete steps to foster a safe space for transgender and nonbinary members. Yubo has become a refuge for 2.8 million LGBTQ-identifying teens who create more than 4,000 live streams on the app every day, offering a community to many teens who have yet to come out to their families. To mark Pride, Yubo has launched a feature allowing its users to choose from 35 gender and 50 pronoun options in 12 languages for their profiles, an important display of solidarity which sets a strong precedent for other social media sites.
A growing body of scientific literature demonstrates that the type of gender affirmation implemented by Yubo reduces depression and engenders positivity in transgender and nonbinary teens. According to the Trevor Project, a suicide prevention project focused on the LGBTQ community, rates of attempted suicide among trans and nonbinary youth drop by half when their pronouns are respected by those around them.
While organizations like the Trevor Project work to protect the mental health of transgender youth, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union are defending their rights in court. Just this month, in collaboration with the Department of Justice, the ACLU sued West Virginia and Arkansas for violating the Constitution and federal law with proposals forbidding trans children from playing sports or receiving gender-affirming healthcare.
Given the outsized role social media now plays in shaping ideas surrounding gender and sexuality, both organizations pay careful attention to how social media platforms handle LGBTQ issues. The ACLU has actively worked to expose the discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ users and their content by Facebook, while the Trevor Project has encouraged TikTok to remove harmful and misleading content promoting conversion therapy. The Trevor Project also partnered with Yubo to promote diversity on the platform during last year’s Pride.
This online cultural movement is thus cementing ideas around transgender rights more quickly and assertively than the federal government—fulfilling much the same role popular culture played during the battle to secure legal equality for gay and lesbian Americans a decade ago. In 2012, then Vice-President Biden famously credited the TV series Will and Grace for doing “more to educate the American public than almost anybody’s ever done so far,” setting in motion a societal shift that culminated with the Supreme Court decisions to legalize same-sex marriage across all 50 states in 2015 and ban workplace discrimination based on both sexuality and gender identity in 2020.
Unfortunately, while Biden has been dubbed “the most LQBTQ-friendly president in U.S. history,” his presidency has not prevented the damage done to transgender teenagers by the pandemic. The pandemic and a year of isolation halted “nonessential” gender reassignment treatments, increased substance abuse, and put 22% of those in non-gender-affirming homes at risk of suicide—in a group that already has an elevated incidence of suicide attempts compared to their cisgender peers. As the Trevor Project warns, transgender teens of color “may be particularly vulnerable to negative mental health impacts associated with the pandemic, as they already faced significantly increased risk for attempting suicide largely due to increased experiences of victimization.”
Those harsh realities make Pride 2021, normally the first point of contact between LGBTQ communities and queer adolescents, into a reminder of just how vulnerable America’s transgender youth still are. While online validation and community helped many survive the pandemic, only social acceptance and legal equality offline can guarantee their well-being.