On February 10, 2014 British stand-up comedian and transgender woman Avery Edison was attempting to travel to Canada to visit her girlfriend, with a nonrefundable flight booked back to the UK for March 3rd. At 5:23pm she tweeted, "So I think I’m in the process of getting denied entry at Toronto airport. So. That’s happening." Because she had overstayed her student visa during her last visit, and the nonrefundable ticket back to the UK rejected as credible proof of her intent to return, she was detained. Over the next few days, Edison was misgendered by officials, put in solitary confinement because she was assumed to be suicidal, and detained in a men’s prison—because she ‘pre-operative’, or still has a penis— for seventeen hours.
Due to either a stroke of luck or ignorance, Edison was able to keep her phone and access the Internet for several hours in the beginning of this ordeal, and live-tweeted the handling of her case for as long as she was able to. This may reflect that the socio-political potential of social media has yet to be recognized and taken into account by security officials.
The interactions and events that transpired, as I traced via Edison's Twitter, reveal multiple functions of the platform, some more explicitly intended by its architects than others, specifically in relation to social justice issues are taken up by and manifested in Twitter, how these events/issues become subsumed by larger debates within the sphere of 'Twitter feminism,' and how trends and conversations within Twitter migrate to both other digital platforms and the 'material' or 'real' world.
Twitter as a Material Resource
Though she at first did so humorously, Edison's TL (Timeline) reveals that Twitter is at times seen as not only a way to connect with others in terms of casual conversation, publicity, or shout-outs, but also a potential source for material—and in this case, legal—resources.
Edison began asking for legal support, which some Twitter users (perhaps already followers, though not necessarily) offered:
The speed with which Twitter operates in addition to the specific functions, like retweeting which enables quick and wide sharing, makes this kind of urgent request more likely to receive feedback than some other social platforms. If I were to put out a request on Facebook, due to my privacy settings, only my friends would see it; on Twitter, something I share can be retweeted with a follower, thus enabling my request to reach an entirely new audience.
Hashtags: the pros and cons of visibility
Another function of Twitter that came into play was the hashtag. Edison's partner, who took over her Twitter account after Avery lost access, started the #FreeAvery hashtag, which was reportedly taken up by thousands of Twitter users. Though not always (e.g. #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen) hashtags are usually on the shorter side, as to leave room for an accompanying message that allows users to individualize their investment in a broader movement. In an effort to be snappy—and thus, it seems to hold, become viral—some confusion was caused:
Despite this, if the goal of a hashtag is to show solidarity and support for a cause and to gain the attention of Twitter users and the media at large, #FreeAvery was relatively successful.
A protest was organized and advertised on Facebook for February 15, originally calling for Edison's release but shifting after her release to a protest, more broadly, "of the transphobic and transmysogynistic treatment of Avery Edison, and other trans* people."
Participants were encouraged to use the hashtag #FreeAvery, #J4TP (Justice for trans people), and #C279 ("to bring attention to bill C-279 that would allow transcoder individuals to finally be recognized Federally and have human rights embedded in Canada's harter of Rights & Freedoms," according to the Facebook event).
The latter two seem to have gained less traction than the first. However, what is most important about this event was that it both stemmed from the publicity Edison's case received through her live-tweeting and the Twitter trends (#FreeAvery) and conversation started by it, and also returned to Twitter (encouraging protestors to Tweet) and incorporated the platform into the protest, blurring the distinction between the 'online' and 'real' world.
But here's the catch with hashtags: they can easily be subverted. In this case, the #FreeAvery hashtag was hijacked by transphobic/cissexist users who used the attention on Edison's case to invalidate trans experience and identity, calling Edison a man, referring to her by masculine pronouns, etc:
This manipulation of a hashtag that was intended to show support and advocate for trans rights thus led to an abstraction of the events into a larger feminist debate over trans identity.
140 characters of critique and commentary
Edison's TL and the #FreeAvery hashtag led to several major news outlets and blogs, such as The Advocate, The Independent and Feministing, picking up the story, some offering more straightforward coverage and others, like Feministing, adding commentary and critique to the larger issue of trans discrimination, global security and incarceration. This connection of Edison's experience to larger structures of oppression was also a tactic used by individual Twitter users (sometimes using #FreeAvery) and Edison herself:
In response to Edison saying that being detained (though, to clarify, not her treatment once detained) was 100% her fault:
More than a trend?
Clearly, then, Twitter was the foundation of the publicity Edison and her case gained. This publicity was not only important and beneficial in that it offered Edison emotional, and to a degree, material support, but it also gave trans issues the spotlight on several different national platforms (Canadian, American and British). The question is, if speed is a key component to this kind of viral movement-building, what happens when things slow down? If so much momentum can be built in the span of a few days or even a few hours, how quickly will it disappear, and what lasts when it does–when no one, for example, is using #FreeAvery anymore?
That is, can a movement—in this case, regarding the intersection of trans rights, border security and incarceration—be 'built' if it is endlessly shifting focus, constantly re-bulidng itself? What does it mean if connections are built between Twitter users in the moment, but not between the different events they rally around? How are solidarity and progress within social justice movements archived when they are located on a digital platform?