One Fewer Space for #GirlsLikeUs

Tumblr showed me that life as a trans woman was possible. But the platform’s “adult content” ban will throw us out along with the porn.

Tumblr feed of women's portraits that have been cut out of page revealing pink background.
Photo illustration by Slate

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

Many people treated the announcement earlier this month that, as of Monday, Tumblr would be banning “adult content” as a joke. That’s the end of them and better start saving your fav GIFs, I saw people joke online. And anyway, there’ll always be porn elsewhere, right? But as a trans person active on Tumblr, the news cut deeper, as I saw a community crucial to my own story suddenly under threat. Put bluntly, the policing of porn—and all the other forms of nudity and sexual expression that are inevitably being swept up with it—on Tumblr threatens the ability of queer and trans people like me to share and define our own stories, and it does so at a particularly dangerous moment in history.

During my childhood in the ’90s, trans women were viewed in the mainstream as a horror story and/or a punchline, and there was no representation in my real world to tell me otherwise. In the face of that, it was hard to even articulate my own questions about my gender identity, much less discern answers. When the millennium-era internet allowed my teen self access to trans media, what I found only deepened a sense that making a trans life was impossible. I would trawl doctors’ pages, scanning poorly composed snapshots of “specimen” bodies. The few transition resource sites fixated on a traditional femininity that was nothing like the Pacific Northwest femininity I aspired to, and they presented transition as a Sisyphean slog from surgery to surgery, years of suffering chasing an unattainable goal. By far the most prevalent media was porn, ubiquitously crafted by and for cisgender male fetishists. My questions were persistent, but if that media showed what it meant to live trans, then I could never see a future for myself in that word.

Tumblr, when I discovered it in 2010, was a revelation. From its inception, the site functioned as a (relatively) safe haven for all kinds of marginalized people, where folks could explore their interests and identities as a community. There, I was finally able to find real trans people of my generation, real peers, and the sense of recognition was shocking. For the first time, through the posts of other users, I was able to see what trans feminine bodies could actually look like for people like me. For the first time, the body I live in now, the body I love, finally seemed possible.

To make this more concrete, consider that when a trans person goes in to their endocrinologist for hormones, they are presented with a very long list of very serious effects that touch their entire body in some way or other. It’s common for people to have questions these info sheets can’t answer. On Tumblr, you could follow personal transition blogs, nsfw blogs, or just random trans folks posting selfies, and you could see how these processes fit into their real lives. You could ask trepidatious, anonymous questions, and get kind answers. You could make friends. And as you figured yourself out, you could jump in and add your experience to the group history, too.

This community space arose in part because the site’s unique mechanics facilitated a depth and freedom of expression that few other social media allowed. As Tumblr alumnus Vex Ashley writes, Tumblr was “anonymous enough that it allowed you to be vulnerable, public enough to feel seen. As a community, we felt free to share and overshare.” On the site, trans people shared their lives, their feelings, their senses of self, their struggles, and their values.
Significantly, they shared (and overshared) their physical reality in photos and posts, how their bodies changed, and how they lived in them. Settling into that space, leaning on the anonymity at first, I learned that there were so many different versions and visions of trans-ness. You could be binary or nonbinary or both, if that fit. Language was a tool, not a stricture. There were no hard requirements to be valid.

As I reflect on Tumblr’s adult content change, I wish my cis friends understood that this isn’t really about “porn.” Or not only. It’s about foreclosing the possibility of exploring identity. Tumblr served as a space to wrest our story, our bodies, away from toxic mainstream narratives, and to build knowledge and confidence for our real lives. This is not to say that sexual content was not a part of that; as others have said and said well, Tumblr was a home for marginalized people to explore and celebrate healthy sexuality, and the particular harm this ban poses to sex workers in our community is very serious. Yet that is only a piece of a larger picture. In a society that sees trans-ness as inherently pornographic, Tumblr also allowed us to normalize and celebrate our bodies outside of porn and sex entirely.

For me, this space was invaluable. It granted me a workshop in which to envision and embody a path that felt earnest and true, and the clarity to find what I needed. This in turn allowed me to focus my energy in transition where it mattered, and to let go of needless anxieties. When my transition out into the world went far better than I could ever have imagined as a lost kid, this clarity of purpose played a substantial part. And now, it seems, that vibrant community, that invaluable resource, is being wiped away.

Of course, Tumblr is ultimately a private corporation aspiring to increase profits. With their renewed focus on monetization, what was once a rollicking public space is now ever more restricted. Across the internet, previously unbridled communication engines are sliding inexorably toward corporate conservatism—a conservatism that demands an anodyne, antiseptic environment, with no room for queer stuff beyond euphemistic rainbows.

Yet the user base that Tumblr seeks to monetize values free expression tremendously, and in order to try to placate that base, it is taking pains to profess its appreciation for free expression. The new guidelines assure users that while nudity featuring genitals or “female-presenting nipples” is banned, “certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity are fine.” Defined exceptions include “health-related situations, such as post-mastectomy or gender confirmation surgery.” Moving ahead, Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio promises to maintain Tumblr as “a safe space or creative expression, self-discovery, and a deep sense of community.” But at the end of the day, “[b]ottom line: [t]here are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.”

In other words, trans bodies are theoretically acceptable, so long as they are somehow clearly presented as surgery specimens. (As a trans woman, my physical transformation is an accretion, a slow and profound shift—how is a filter supposed to pick up that nuanced experience?) If you want to see trans bodies in more realistic frames, that’s fine, but you’ll have to seek out porn sites, where they belong.

Of course, the queer community knows all too well how efforts to scrub “adult content” from a platform often become broad injunctions on queer content. When the ban was announced, Tumblr’s content review bots also went live, and on my own blog, the results were hardly random. The several flagged posts all fit a theme. The first was my most recent selfie, nonsexual, just my daily face. The difference, it seemed, was that I had used tags popular with trans women to help find and support one another. The next flag broke my heart. It was a reblogged photoset of a real-life couple snuggling: clothed, nonsexual, G-rated affection, just two young women who happened to be queer and trans. The third made me furious: a photo essay by Camila Falcão featuring intimate portraits of Brazilian trans women, highlighting their beauty, diversity, and resilience in the face of a brutally transphobic society, actively resisting their social invisibility (without a nipple to be seen). This was exactly what I’ve been speaking to here, showing our love and tenderness, our depth and the fullness of our experience. Showing that we are, ultimately, OK. By the time you’re reading this, these posts may be scrubbed from my blog.

When the LGBTQ Tumblr community talks about not knowing where else to go, they aren’t talking about porn qua porn. They’re talking about this community value, this substance that may sometimes include sexual content but that goes so far beyond it. This policy change will have a trivial effect on the general availability of porn. What’s irreplaceable is the creative space. And what’s irreplaceable is the community that grew up there, as people used the space to define themselves outside and apart from the judgment of dominant society. With that seemingly gone, it’s natural not just to mourn what’s passed, but to fear for where we’re heading in the future.