With the rise of rampant anti-black violence, policing and systemic racial injustice in the United States, #BlackLivesMatter began to trend on Twitter and elsewhere in 2012 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin in FL. “Black Twitter” instrumentalized the #hashtag in order to collectively and communally add to an online discourse on the social media platform, critiquing specific epidemiological incidents of racism as well as the modes of thought devoid of black/racial theorizing. The hashtag was claimed, either as reclamation or reinterpretation, in the form of #AllLivesMatter and #TransLivesMatter, to name a bare few. The first hashtag problematically elided the specificity of the initial critique, that anti-blackness or white supremacy symbolically and literally engenders violence against black people or people of color. The latter hashtag, however, weaponized #TransLivesMatter to raise awareness of the precarity of trans lives, speaking in tandem with racial justice criticisms (think Queer of Color Critique or QTPOC activisms), but moving beyond it to discuss the crippling impacts of cisnormativity and cissexism in the livability of trans lives. These hashtags are often tagged side-by-side, as #blacklivesmatter #translivesmatter.
Before examining how the trope of the hashtag, as techne, or as res nullius, emerged in relation to the rehashed/tagged nature of #TransLivesMatter, an analysis of violence against trans people imperatively foregrounds the hashtag’s emergence. The National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay & Lesbian Taskforce, despite the sparse statistics available on trans realities, published, “Injustice At Every Turn: A Report on the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.” In it, besides noting the rampant injustices faced by trans people, it especially analyzes the intersectional differences between trans populations, where “the combination of anti-transgender bias and persistent, structural racism was especially devastating” (2). While 1 in 12 trans people are murdered in their lifetimes (according to insufficient yet important statistical data), such a violent trend is markedly worse for trans people of color, with murder against TPOC approaching 1 in 8. Evidently, there is a salient interrelation between #blacklivesmatter and #translivesmatter, even though it was perhaps not explicit in the intended genesis and circulation of the the social justice issues’ hashtagging. Nevertheless, the hashtag was adopted by trans women of color, such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock, on their Twitter feeds, illustrating how the newfound hashtag has been employed by QTPOC to recontextualize that #blacklivesmatter in light of an intersective intervention into #translivesmatter.
While #blacklivesmatter began trending on Twitter in 2012, #translivesmatter trended in relation to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, with Campus Pride posting on August 9, 2013: “Shame on UNC Board of Governors voting by consent and w/out student input #translivesmatter #avoidance”. Student action via Twitter coincided with the ban of gender-inclusive housing policies at UNC, but were soon recontextualized and deployed to discuss a broader need for the fact that #translivesmatter be addressed, traversing interstate and transnational borders in their employment and circulation. The hashtag exploded with the public awareness surrounding the supposed hate crime committed against Islan Nettles in NYC, a trans woman of color, and the first direct Twitter linkage of black-trans lives mattering in tandem. The hashtag was then employed and circulated through Laverne Cox, bespeaking Nettles’s tragedy: “I just want to send love to everyone who came out to support #IslanNettles and her family tonight. #TransLivesMatter #girlslikeus” (with 28 favorites and 48 retweets). Thereafter, pro-trans organizational mobilities like TransAdvocate and TransGriot latched onto the hashtag, reiterating the need to address anti-trans injustice and inequality.
On the matter of trans lives throughout 2014, the hashtag was reinvigorated after the death of Leelah Alcorn (surpassing the meager circa 100 posts tagged #translivesmatter of 2013). Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old trans girl from Ohio, committed suicide on December 28, 2014, by walking onto the Interstate 71 highway. Before her death, Leelah posted a suicide letter on her Tumblr, relaying to the world that she was trans (the original post had 215,391 notes before being removed). Though the note was taken down by Leelah’s parents, who misgender her and banalize her act of suicide as a mere accident, it remains archived due to vigilante responses from allies to not allow for the erasure of her message. The letter reads in full:
If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue.
Please don’t be sad, it’s for the better. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender. I could go into detail explaining why I feel that way, but this note is probably going to be lengthy enough as it is. To put it simply, I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally “boyish” things to try to fit in.
When I was 14, I learned what transgender meant and cried of happiness. After 10 years of confusion I finally understood who I was. I immediately told my mom, and she reacted extremely negatively, telling me that it was a phase, that I would never truly be a girl, that God doesn’t make mistakes, that I am wrong. If you are reading this, parents, please don’t tell this to your kids. Even if you are Christian or are against transgender people don’t ever say that to someone, especially your kid. That won’t do anything but make them hate them self. That’s exactly what it did to me.
My mom started taking me to a therapist, but would only take me to christian therapists, (who were all very biased) so I never actually got the therapy I needed to cure me of my depression. I only got more christians telling me that I was selfish and wrong and that I should look to God for help.
When I was 16 I realized that my parents would never come around, and that I would have to wait until I was 18 to start any sort of transitioning treatment, which absolutely broke my heart. The longer you wait, the harder it is to transition. I felt hopeless, that I was just going to look like a man in drag for the rest of my life. On my 16th birthday, when I didn’t receive consent from my parents to start transitioning, I cried myself to sleep.
I formed a sort of a “fuck you” attitude towards my parents and came out as gay at school, thinking that maybe if I eased into coming out as trans it would be less of a shock. Although the reaction from my friends was positive, my parents were pissed. They felt like I was attacking their image, and that I was an embarrassment to them. They wanted me to be their perfect little straight christian boy, and that’s obviously not what I wanted.
So they took me out of public school, took away my laptop and phone, and forbid me of getting on any sort of social media, completely isolating me from my friends. This was probably the part of my life when I was the most depressed, and I’m surprised I didn’t kill myself. I was completely alone for 5 months. No friends, no support, no love. Just my parent’s disappointment and the cruelty of loneliness.
At the end of the school year, my parents finally came around and gave me my phone and let me back on social media. I was excited, I finally had my friends back. They were extremely excited to see me and talk to me, but only at first. Eventually they realized they didn’t actually give a shit about me, and I felt even lonelier than I did before. The only friends I thought I had only liked me because they saw me five times a week.
After a summer of having almost no friends plus the weight of having to think about college, save money for moving out, keep my grades up, go to church each week and feel like shit because everyone there is against everything I live for, I have decided I’ve had enough. I’m never going to transition successfully, even when I move out. I’m never going to be happy with the way I look or sound. I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me. I’m never going to be happy. Either I live the rest of my life as a lonely man who wishes he were a woman or I live my life as a lonelier woman who hates herself. There’s no winning. There’s no way out. I’m sad enough already, I don’t need my life to get any worse. People say “it gets better” but that isn’t true in my case. It gets worse. Each day I get worse.
That’s the gist of it, that’s why I feel like killing myself. Sorry if that’s not a good enough reason for you, it’s good enough for me. As for my will, I want 100% of the things that I legally own to be sold and the money (plus my money in the bank) to be given to trans civil rights movements and support groups, I don’t give a shit which one. The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.
(Leelah) Josh Alcorn
Leelah beseeches the reader, “My death needs to mean something.” Indeed, the matter of trans lives must matter, must accommodate for the material realities of transgender people. The letter was circulated on various social media networks and was covered by numerous mainstream media outlets internationally, such as The Independent, Time and CNN. Even a petition titled Leelah’s Law to ban LGBTQ+ Conversion Therapies was posted to the White House website, reaching 118,246 signatures. As Laverne Cox noted in the Creating Change 2014 conference, “I’ve come to understand that when a trans woman is called a man, that is an act of violence.” Now, as 7 people have been murdered in 2014 already, #translivesmatter has been coded into the dialogue on transgender injustice and violence.
The trope of the hashtag in tagging technologies has been integral to collectively archiving, and accessing repositories, of social justice struggles. Though an explicit form of hashtag theory (or #theory) has not become readily transparent in our media critique landscape or digital studies centers, it is imperative to understand how the hashtag--as a techne of #tagging, or as #resnulius--operates. Tagging enables users of the same platform to situate self-produced content, i.e. Tweets, Facebook statuses or Tumblr posts, in a social or intersubjective medium of communication and exchange.
Many digital scholars have criticized the disproportions of the digital divide, which, as Lisa Nakamura writes in Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet, “often found along raced, classed, and still, to a narrowing extent, gendered lines...continues to cut particular bodies out of various histories in the making” (2002, xii). #theory, however, might disagree that the digital divide disempowers social justice workers, separating “technology haves from have-nots” (2). Instead, given the mass circulation of tags and tagged discourse, that operates polyvalently and through multi-authorship, the digital has amplified the voices of marginalized subalterns through the echoes of a propagation medium like Twitter. Despite the problems inherent in a digital public like Twitter, with its lacking immune response to toxic anonymity, many trans critics of color have defended such a medium. As Shaadi Devareaux notes in “Why These Tweets Are Called My Back” in The New Inquiry, “Trans women of color write to me to express amazement I can simply take up space online, and be heard and recognized.” She also contends that a processual obsession with the digital divide as a problematic ignores or erases the vitality of these media regardless:
“Grassroots digital feminism is often the only type of work that reaches those who are silenced at every step, and who rediscover their voices online, where no one can hold their mouths closed. Seeing other women do this work acts almost as permission to be alive and to engage the world we live in ourselves. Is it the only way? No. Does it have its limits? Yes. But why do we only focus on the limits of digital space, writing article and didn’t-think-piece after didn’t-think-piece, as opposed to focusing on the limits of and the interpersonal abuse that goes on in offline spaces?”
This online critique of offline “interpersonal abuse” is a pertinent model for unearthing problems and forging solutions in social justice work. Hashtags like #blacklivesmatter #translivesmatter will not solely reverse the impacts of racist or transphobic cybertyping in digital tech, nor will it necessarily translate into materially tangible reform for trans people or people of color, but they are destabilizing notions of what is worth #trending, what counts as #news, #whoselivesmatter.