#GirlsLikeUs: Trans Feminist Advocacy and Community Building

Janet Mock, the originator of #GirlsLikeUs (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In the introduction to Transgender Communication Studies: Histories, Trends, and Trajectories, Leland G. Spencer writes, “The ‘T’ too often tacked onto the end of ‘LGBT’ demands a spot at the center of communicative and rhetorical analysis,” especially in light of the way cisgender gay white men have been centered in research on LGBTQ communication and in public representations of LGBTQ issues and activism. The trans community in the United States was reminded of this marginalization in 2015 when trans activist Jennicet Gutiérrez was booed by a largely cisgender crowd and physically removed from an LGBTQ White House event after speaking out about the disproportionate violence faced by trans women in U.S. immigration detention centers. Gutiérrez’s words, and her interruption of President Barack Obama, were met with harsh criticism from many organizations that bill themselves as central to LGBTQ equality efforts.

Gutiérrez was chastised for a “lack of civility” and “rudeness” by the LGBTQ magazine The Advocate, which compared her asking Obama to address the torture and rape of transgender immigrants in detention centers to Kanye West’s infamous interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. For trans women, the moment was part of a painful pattern of derision directed toward members of the LGBTQ counterpublic to which they belong. Beyond explicitly political and activist spaces, the representation of trans women as disruptive—even dangerous—to civil society is evident in how trans women are portrayed on our nation’s big and small screens. The representation of trans women, and trans women of color in particular, in news stories and popular culture has long been one of stereotyped hypersexual tricksters whose victimization at the hands of cisgender men is framed as a natural or deserved consequence of their disruptive identities.

In the early 1990s, trans women became regular objects of fascination on daytime talk shows; Jerry Springer, for example, was frequent fodder for scholars interested in trans representation—representations that tied trans identities to fear, deception, and freakishness. This media trope is also iconized in The Crying Game (1992), a film that shows the white protagonist vomit when he realizes that Dil, the Black woman he loves, is trans. These media representations have both influenced and been influenced by larger cultural and political narratives about trans identity. In fundamental U.S. systems of governance, trans women have been deemed deviant and held responsible for the violence and discrimination they face. In the late 1990s, for example, the gay and trans panic defense became popular among some attorneys seeking to justify their clients’ violent crimes against members of the queer and trans community.

In the last 30 years, the visibility of transgender Americans has shifted significantly. In 2007, trans advocates were successful for the first time in including language addressing gender identity as a possible area of employment discrimination when the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was being debated in Congress. Yet this language was subsequently removed because lesbian and gay special interest groups did not think the bill could pass if it was included. The bill still failed. It was not until 2013 that a new ENDA, one that included trans identity, was signed by Obama. Also in 2013 the Netflix original TV series Orange Is the New Black became a runaway hit in part because of Laverne Cox’s compassionate portrayal of an incarcerated Black trans woman. That same year, military whistleblower Chelsea Manning came out as a trans woman. In 2014, California became the first (and only) state to pass a law banning the gay and trans panic defense. In 2015 the very public transition of Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner helped further transgender visibility.

The Birth of #GirlsLikeUs

In 2012, trans advocate, author, director, and TV host Janet Mock was moved to become a more outspoken activist because of the murders and suicides of queer and trans youth. She used her cultural capital as a former web editor for Marie Claire and digital tools such as YouTube videos and Twitter, to reach out to other trans women with messages of support and opportunities for community building. In explaining the origin of her hashtag #GirlsLikeUs, Mock describes her support of Jenna Talackova, a contestant disqualified from the Miss Universe Pageant for, in the words of the pageant officials, “not being a natural born female.” Mock’s desire to help Talackova achieve her dream led to the creation of the hashtag as a form of trans feminist community building and advocacy.

Mock has also credited activist CeCe McDonald as an inspiration for the hashtag, stating on Twitter, “#BecauseOfCeCe I was inspired to begin using the phrasing #GirlsLikeUs which led to a social media visibility movement. #CeCeIsFree.” As Mock notes, other trans women quickly embraced the hashtag, using it to discuss everything from the desire to transition, to the violence of being outed in unsafe situations, to dreams of success. Through the discursive contributions of other trans women, the hashtag became a space for counterpublic engagement. By sharing information through the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs on Twitter, YouTube, and various blogs, Mock and other users have created a new media network through which conversations generally reserved for members of the transgender community can, and do, reach beyond it.

As matthew heinz has noted, feelings of isolation are one of the most frequently recurring issues among trans people. In providing a venue for a community that transcends distances through #GirlsLikeUs, Twitter has become a space in which this issue can be addressed as users locate other trans people, find social support, and share the “microstresses” of trans living. At the same time, the digital discourse of #GirlsLikeUs extends the postmodern characteristics of transactivist literature noted by Heather Hundley and J. Scott Rodriguez as various members of the #GirlsLikeUs network share their stories, offer each other support, and advocate for trans histories, worlds, and rights. This discourse organizes a community through identity construction, encourages polyvocality through recognizing the importance of and celebrating the multiplicity of trans voices, and promotes polysemy as a means by which members of the network can create multivalent appeals to one another and to the larger public. #GirlsLikeUs sparked similar hashtag networks from other related communities, such as #BoysLikeUs for trans men and #FolksLikeUs for gender-nonconforming and nonbinary folks on the queer and transgender spectrum.

The trans feminist network that sustains and is sustained by #GirlsLikeUs is one that centers discourses from the most multiply marginalized trans voices; influencers in this network are not only trans but women, Black, and, in some cases, quite open about their experiences with poverty, sex work, and the legal system. Influencers like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox facilitate and encourage everyday trans women with a variety of intersectional identities to speak up and speak out about their experiences in a networked counterpublic that has become much bigger than they could have predicted. In turn, the collective contributions of all the members of the #GirlsLikeUs network have aided in constructing and extending an online trans feminist counterpublic that works toward self-sustaining political identity creation and, in so doing, supports the health and social inclusion of network members while strategically infiltrating mainstream talk about trans identities. 

Embedded rich media on Twitter

Embedded rich media on Twitter

Embedded rich media on Twitter

Embedded rich media on Twitter

The Power of #GirlsLikeUs

The mainstream media have responded to #GirlsLikeUs. Popular online news sites such as HuffPost now allow users to quickly find stories about trans women through the linked tag “girlslikeus,” CeCe McDonald’s story has been featured in Rolling Stone and other popular publications, Mock’s #RedefiningRealness has been featured on almost every major network and cable channel, and #TransIsBeautiful has been featured in mainstream fashion magazines like Elle and pop culture magazines like People. Alongside mainstream attention, this universe of hashtags has garnered debate and discussion within larger LGBTQ, feminist, and racial justice counterpublics, including feature articles in the LGBTQ magazine The Advocate, on the racial justice blog Colorlines, and on the popular feminist pop culture site Jezebel.

The depiction of Cox, a Black trans women known primarily for playing a prisoner as Lady Liberty, one of the most important U.S. political and cultural symbols, on the cover of Entertainment Weekly’s first ever “LGBT Issue” speaks to the cultural power of #GirlsLikeUs. Here, Black trans women and their political frameworks have become the face not only of trans issues but of LGBT issues as a whole—a representation few could have imagined even a decade ago. Ultimately, the discursive work done by members of the #GirlsLikeUs counterpublic works to both center trans politics and normalize trans lives by using the hashtag to mark the mundane, the popular, and the activist. It is clear from this discourse and from our network analysis that #GirlsLikeUs prioritized in-group solidarity from day one, even as its members have engaged the broader public. In-group messages spread beyond their initial community and became intentionally shared with a broader public in moments of advocacy, like that on behalf of McDonald, and more generally because of the public nature of Twitter and the especially public visibility of #GirlsLikeUs adherents such as Mock and Cox.

This, of course, is no accident: Twitter users who connect to online conversations through hashtags and use mentioning and replying to engage high-profile figures understand their ideas and experiences may reach unknown audiences, indicating an awareness among members of the counterpublic that their often personal conversation will be visible to anyone willing to look. This, of course, is no accident: Twitter users who connect to online conversations through hashtags and use mentioning and replying to engage high-profile figures understand their ideas and experiences may reach unknown audiences, indicating an awareness among members of the counterpublic that their often personal conversation will be visible to anyone willing to look. It is also clear that the mainstream visibility of some members of the counterpublic, Mock and Cox in particular, allows a widely visible interrogation of mainstream narratives about gender identity and feminist and queer politics while supporting in-group needs. Since Mock first used the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs in 2012, issues of trans visibility and inclusion have reached an increasingly wide audience and have shaped some of the most visible popular cultural and political debates. The increasing number of representations of trans lives that are written and controlled by trans people has worked to humanize trans experiences. In niche media, #GirlsLikeUs continues to be a phrase for intragroup connection.

The increasing number of representations of trans lives that are written and controlled by trans people has worked to humanize trans experiences.

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In January 2016, the web series Her Story launched on YouTube. In a scene from the final episode of the first season the character Paige, played by Angelica Ross, says to another trans woman character, “It never gets easier for girls like us.” This use of the phrase between two trans women actors portraying two trans women characters underscores its cultural significance within the community. In politics, the lingering call for “state’s rights” has been swept up in egregious policies designed to exclude trans people from public spaces. In March 2016, North Carolina banned trans people from using bathrooms that did not correspond to their sex assigned at birth. Such laws force trans citizens to make impossible choices between their safety in restrooms and breaking the law, and has created health problems as people have avoided public restrooms altogether.

In response, the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice issued a letter supporting transgender students’ right to use the bathroom of their choice and issued an injunction to stop the North Carolina bill from being implemented. Unfortunately, the legal red tape has yet to be resolved, and trans North Carolinians remain caught in the middle for the foreseeable future. A number of other states, including Massachusetts, have passed or confirmed public accommodation access bills that uphold the rights of trans people. The successful #YesOn3 initiative in Massachusetts successfully kept language that protected trans and intersex rights. Additionally, in a Trump administration memo leaked to the New York Times, advisers proposed redefining “gender” on “a biological basis that is clear, grounded in science, objective and administrable.”

While it’s unclear how this redefinition could be actionable, its ability to wipe away legal gains for trans and other gender-nonconforming individuals is high. In racial justice activism the issue of transgender rights has been taken up passionately by a generation of millennial radicals unwilling to accept the respectability politics and assimilationist tactics of the past. Alicia Garza, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, has often spoken about the importance of trans and genderqueer Black lives to her and the other founders’ vision of the contemporary Black liberation movement. As illustrated in the previous chapter, the use of hashtags to discuss and center Black trans women victims of violence has become intertwined with Black feminist initiatives such as #SayHerName. A hashtag alone did not result in these developments, but as part of a larger cultural shift that centers sex, gender, and civil rights and that has been led primarily by trans women of color, the hashtag #GirlsLikeUs has played an indispensable role in constructing an intersectional digital trans community and radically shifting representations of and messages about trans people that arise from outside that community.

Adapted from #HashtagActivism: Networks of Race and Gender Justice by Sarah J. JacksonMoya Baileyand Brooke Foucault Welles. Reprinted with permission from The MIT PRESS.

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Sarah J. Jackson, a lightskinned Black person, crosses her arms while wearing a black shirt
by Sarah J. Jackson
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A scholar of the public sphere, Sarah J. Jackson studies how media, journalism, and technology are used by and represent marginalized publics, with a focus on communication by and about Black and feminist activists. Her first book Black Celebrity, Racial Politics, and the Press (Routledge 2014) examines the relationship between Black celebrity activism, journalism, and American politics. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Communication, the International Journal of Press Politics, and Feminist Media Studies, among others. Jackson is frequently called on as an expert by local and national media outlets including NPR, PBS, the Associated Press, and the New York Times.

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by Moya Bailey
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Brooke Foucault Welles, a white person with shoulder-length with brown hair, poses in a black blouse
by Brooke Foucault Welles
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Brooke Foucault Welles is an Associate Professor in the department of Communication Studies, core faculty of the Network Science Institute, and director of the CoMM Lab at Northeastern University. Combining the methods of network science with theories from the social sciences, Foucault Welles studies how online communication networks enable and constrain behavior, with particular emphasis on how these networks mitigate and enhance marginalization. Her work is interdisciplinary and collaborative, with co-authors from computer science, political science, digital humanities, design, and public health.