Online Challenges Hit a Sour Note for Queer and Trans Communities

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For more than a week, I’ve been scrolling through post after post of the #HowHardDidAgingHitYou challenge, a Facebook and Instagram trend that has users posting a photo from 10 years ago next to a more recent one. As I waded through the barrage of posts, I saw homecoming photos, blurry mirror selfies, and out-of-date headshots, each with the unmistakable edge of the first decade in our new millennium, when we thought hair straighteners, heavy eyeliner, and over-one-eye bangs were the holy trinity of style. I saw friends who had changed drastically and those who had changed remarkably little. I saw typical aging and the magical effects of a “glow-up,” ushered in by a generous dose of puberty. I saw lighthearted nostalgia, assertions of confidence and pride, well-meaning jest, honest reflection, and self-deprecating humor. But I also saw pain—not my acquaintances, but my own.

Each time I saw another photo, I reflexively imagined myself at a similar point in time. I was overwhelmed with the memory of my old image—before I realized I was queer and nonbinary, before I knew I had a choice in gender expression, and before I could finally breathe and be myself. I didn’t want to unearth those images, and I certainly didn’t want to promote them online. Just one click to the left of my profile picture is an express train to dysphoria city, and that’s not a place I’d like tourists to visit. Removing the photos or thoroughly scrubbing all social-media accounts seems like a simple solution, but deleting traces of my younger, closeted self feels like I’m agreeing that I should be ashamed of who I used to be.

As I’ve ruminated on the meme, I’ve wondered if that’s the point. Are we supposed to show our peers how much better we’re doing now by abasing our past? Even the name of the challenge suggests brutality and a lack of self-compassion. It’s not #HowHaveYouGrown or #HowMuchHasChanged, but #HowHardDidAgingHitYou, a challenge to find the most embarrassing old photo. Are we only granted permission to like ourselves once we’ve proven how much we’ve transformed? 

Of course, not everyone is interacting with the meme in the way that I have. Some people lean into the ironic iteration, creating parodies or political satire instead of posting their own photos. Others are using the challenge as a tool for in-depth reflection or to chronicle personal hardships. I’ve even seen queer and trans folks use this trend or similar ones to stake pride in their journey and make positive statements about their growth and transitions. It’s refreshing to see trans media that isn’t a dramatized tragedy or told from a cis lens (e.g. everything that Hollywood churns out), but instead gives queer and trans people a unique opportunity to control their own narratives. Queer and trans people are reclaiming images and memories that were once painful, standing in their power, demanding more than visibility, and asserting their worth and value.

I fucking love that, and I believe it’s critical for the larger cisheteronormative society to see examples of positivity, power, and pride in queerness and trans identity. But what about those of us whose stories don’t have a clear through line of “pre-transition” to “post-transition?” Transition looks and feels different for every individual, and for some nonbinary people like myself, there isn’t a “beginning” and an “end” to transition, where the goal is to “pass” as male or female. Many trans people, including writer and activist Janet Mock, have openly criticized the concept of passing. In her 2014 memoir Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, Mock argues that subscribing to the concept of passing only reinforces the dangerous idea that trans people are inherently deceitful, and that achieving cis beauty standards is the only way trans people can hope to be accepted.

I held similar concerns about the #PubertyChallenge, a 2017 viral trend where users posted sequential photos from before, during, and after puberty. Puberty is a rough and humbling time for most people, but for queer people, it can carry even more baggage than the typical ugly duckling narrative. Puberty signals a time when bodies change out of childhood and into adolescence, and eventually adulthood. Secondary sex characteristics become more pronounced and distinct with the introduction of sex hormones into the body. For many trans people, these are unwelcome changes that further push them into an incorrectly assigned gender, and strip away the relative innocence and androgyny of childhood.

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An increase in transgender and intersex activism has given more children access to gender-identity related care before the onset of puberty, which can expand the choices they have around medical transition. However, many queer and trans adults did not have these resources or support systems, and therefore have a markedly different relationship to puberty. Many queer and trans people had two options when participating in the #PubertyChallenge: choose childhood photos that reveal their assigned gender, or use photos that document their transition, both of which can be used to reinforce the “before” and “after,” “either/or” mentality many cis people ascribe to gender.

Some of us feel validated when there’s concordance between our inner sense of self and positive feedback we receive about our appearance. Rejecting this idea denies the importance of these challenges, even for those of us who wish to subvert the traditional social norms surrounding appearance and gender. While trans people are using these challenges to show the nuances of gender expression, there’s also a possibility it’s lost on cis audiences. Will our progress be reduced to the same binary we’ve worked so hard to challenge? Are we merely playing an unwinnable “before” and “after” game? Is it even possible to play the game and challenge it at the same time?

I’ve decided to abstain from the online challenge because it feels too painful and transactional. As lighthearted and innocuous as the #PubertyChallenge and #HowHardDidAgingHitYou trends seem, I am still resentful about the time I lost at the hands of cisheteronormative society, the deep discomfort and hurt I felt for so long, and the suggestion that I have to confront the past to be proud of who I am today. I don’t need to prove my suffering in order to earn my right to exist or my right to happiness, so I am not offering up my personal pain and trauma for consumption. I am choosing to focus on feelings of gender euphoria, not the dysphoria that surrounds the memories of my past.

So instead of clicking left, I looked at photos of myself taken within the last year and paid close attention to how I felt as I scrolled. I clicked through the addition of piercings and tattoos, fresh fades and buzzed undercuts, the jean jacket I adorned with enamel pins, the birth of a new partnership, and the emergence of my sense of community. I saw happiness on my face and in my body. I did observe some physical changes, but more importantly, I could see the individual choices I made to honor my identity and be my most authentic self. That’s what I’m most proud of. I am not always confident in my appearance or gender expression, but I do feel closer to myself than I ever have before. As I reflect on the progress I’ve made, I’m not saying, “look how far I’ve come.” I’m saying, “look where I am now.”

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by Jill Kamler
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Jill Kamler is a queer nonbinary writer, performer, and activist currently located in Los Angeles, CA.