Write Your Representative: The Trans* Self on Film, Part 2

Screenshot from vlogger Dominic Scaia's vlog "Shirtless at 2 and a half weeks."

As I noted at the end of Part 1, key to the idea of broadcast television networks as harbringers of minority acceptance was the belief in the power of networks to reach a mass audience and articulate a “legible” (U.S.) nation. Yet this belief proved increasingly facile, as audiences proved far more “active” media consumers. So new technologies ideally would come to take the place of broadcast networks as the medium for creating new social relations.

YouTube, with its mixed model of content delivery and social networking, fits the bill of these “new” technologies, confounding the more traditional broadcast television model. Not that YouTube hasn’t taken pains to draw the connection for users between their service and broadcast networks: up until some point in 2009 YouTube’s slogan (referenced in many an academic article) was “Broadcast Yourself.” It implied that you, yes you, could be just like a broadcast network, reaching thousands—or millions in the case of a lucky few—every minute.

In practice, however, the actual reach of the platform is much more complex. One can map out the mechanics of how trans male vloggers link up and build their networked public[1], but the role of the much larger cis audience is unclear. The most apparent “tangible” impact of trans vloggers is their simple visibility; due to the condensing effect of tagging, which groups somewhat disparate vloggers together, searching for “ftm” brings up the videos of a variety of users with a variety of backgrounds and gender presentations.

Yet much like Nielsen “viewer” ratings, video view counts are a poor indicator of content absorption versus link clickthroughs. On balance, however, the most active audience members can take advantage of video commenting, deepening what interaction the audience has with the material. The prime advantage of commenting, in the case of trans vlogs, is how it re-figures the audience’s relationship with the subject’s transition. As I discussed with Becoming Chaz, the audience is placed on a parallel track, riding alongside the transitioning subject as outside observer, seeing but never touching a subject from a fixed past.

Ostensibly, commenting empowers the interested cis user to respond directly to and interact with the vlogger. They can ask the vlogger questions, learning about the documentary “subject” (or other trans commenters) directly, instead of through the filter of production. Comfort would presumably come not through the representation of ideal minorities, but as a by-product of viewer interaction with the minority subject.

Such bonding shifts integrationist goals (you’ll see this phrase again) to a personal, micro level, as opposed to the macro nation. Of course, the inevitable question to follow is: Can vlogs have an impact at such a macro level? That’s not a question I’m prepared to answer, nor am I entirely convinced it’s the right one to ask.

Regardless, this situation I just described, where viewers gain an understanding of the minority individual through exposure, is something of an ideal. Nothing restricts users from leaving disparaging comments, though vloggers are empowered to remove or block such comments.

But these kind of comments, however, are more abusive than punitive. In certain cases, users will attempt a punitive response. Part and parcel of YouTube’s user-centered model means that users, rather than a (pseudo) governmental agency ala the U.S. FCC, are also responsible for the daily regulation of content. Such power means users can petition for the removal of trans male users’ vlogs due to ‘inappropriate sexual content:’ naked post-op chests.

—–

To survive as a content platform for many audiences, YouTube has to maintain guidelines governing the content posted: its “Community Guidelines,” whose name emphasizes the site’s supposed ‘communal’ nature. YouTube primarily relies on users to flag content they think violates these guidelines, which is then reviewed by designated YouTube staff. These guidelines mandate many different kinds of content, but most relevant to trans vloggers are those on “sex and nudity.” As of right now, YouTube’s tip regarding “Sex and Nudity” advises that:

“Most nudity is not allowed, particularly if it is in a sexual context. Generally if a video is intended to be sexually provocative, it is less likely to be acceptable for YouTube. There are exceptions for some educational, documentary, scientific, and artistic content, but only if that is the sole purpose of the video and it is not gratuitously graphic. For example, a documentary on breast cancer would be appropriate, but posting clips out of context from the documentary might not be.”

Note the lack of hard and fast rules; instead, YouTube’s guidelines appear to be modeled on the three prongs of the Miller test that determines obscenity in U.S. law. Like Miller, YouTube relies on “the average person, applying contemporary community standards” (in this case, the user flagging a video as containing offensive content) to decide if the video “depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct,” at which point it is up to YouTube staff to decide if the video has “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”[2]

YouTube’s example, however, leaves much room for uncertainty and interpretation. For the purposes of this trans vloggers, the tip fails entirely to define the “value” of a vlog. For the transitioning individual, having a body that matches their mental self-image can be key to healthy sexual function. To place that body on film, to have others viewing and consuming it, properly gendering it, is at some level “sexually provocative” for the vlogger (and possibly the viewers). Commenters pick up on this undercurrent, and may focus their comments on praising the vlogger commenting on their appearance.

And furthermore, the vlog can also be read as an education tool, teaching viewers about the process of transition, or a platform for making a political statement about the need for trans civil rights (Burgess and Green 2009). ressekelly and charlesasher are good examples of vloggers who use the vlog format to educate. All this is to say that trans vlogger nudity, when read through the “community guidelines,” hopeless muddles questions of community standards for “offensive” sexuality and non-sexual value.

Ultimately, this determination is left up to the individual users themselves (within certain limits).[3] Here YouTube relies on its users engaging in participatory surveillance, monitoring others’ activity and maintaining friendships “by checking up on information other people share”  (Albrechtslund 2008).  Participatory surveillance, in most incarnations, is largely benign (the Facebook News Feed is a perfect example of this kind of surveillance); nevertheless, it can also be used to punish. In such a case, when one user thinks another is violating the site’s standards or terms of service, they can report the violation to the corporate entity controlling the platform. Case in point: The YouTube flagging system has in the past been (mis)used to censor LGBT content, a practice nicknamed “fagging” by LGBT YouTube users (Kampman 2008).

But as an active participant in their own surveillance, the trans vlogger can confront other users’ definitions of normative with their own. What is “obscene” for one user (a supposedly “falsely” male/masculine post-op chest) is entirely innocuous to another. And by recording their naked chests and T injections, trans male vloggers take advantage of the public webcam’s secondary function, “empowering exhibitionism.” They use their webcams as “a form of confrontation, surveillance turned into spectacle – a form of resistance” wherein “you show ‘everything’ [and] you become ‘free’: no one can ‘capture’ you any more, since there is nothing left to capture” (Koskela 2004, 207-208; italics the author’s own).

——-

All these factors play into the most documented case of punitive audience response: the disciplining of (and subsequent reinstatement) of vlogger Dominic Scaia in May 2010. Scaia, a trans man from Calgary, Alberta going by the username xTwoOfHeartsx, posted a post-op video of him talking about his surgery entitled “Shirtless at 2 and a half weeks.” As post-op vlogs go, it’s entirely innoucous. He discusses the various issues he’s had following his top surgery, shows off his scars. But at some point in May, a user flagged the video as violating the YouTube Community Guidelines and Scaia received a warning.[4] Scaia sent his story to several LGBT-focused blogs, including The Bilerico Project. (In his e-mails, Scaia also claims another trans man he knows also had one of his videos removed, but this person is never identified.)

The Bilerico post, by Alex Blaze, is especially interesting because Blaze takes pains to highlight the incongruence betweens stated commitment of a “democratic” environment for all, without distinction (Kampman 2008, 155) and its restrictive response. As Blaze notes, if YouTube is to remain consistent to its democratic ideals, it must either adopt a consistent policy to ban all male nudity or serve as an arbiter of “real” maleness. He closes his post saying, “it’s YouTube, not GetOffMyPropertyTube. They should live up to their name, because, last I checked, tg/ts [transgender/transsexual] people are part of that ‘You’.”

YouTube’s response to Blaze’s inquiry ultimately supports his assertion. A YouTube representative said the video was “mistakenly” taken down and YouTube would be providing “some additional training around these issues”—a clear reference to the idea of multiculturalism as a virtue.

Given such expressed beliefs, Scaia’s response to charges of impropriety must be given equal weight compared to the anonymous user who flagged his video. And using the logic of empowering exhibitionism, there’s no reason for Scaia, who identifies as male, to hide his chest–furthermore, it’s logically impossible for his chest to be seen as female (and thus sexual or inappropriate).

So by accepting Scaia’s claim, YouTube establishes a precedent of recognizing and protecting trans users’ gender presentation as valid. YouTube takes up the broadcast networks’ discarded integrationist banner with an eye toward reaching beyond nation and language: a globe bonded by mutual appreciation of silly cat videos, uncoordinated babies, and the importance of having a platform available to all, for all content.

It, of course, remains as facile and unachievable a goal as when the networks first took it up. Pretty catchy, though.

——

In his book Transmen and FTMs: Identities, Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities, Jason Cromwell includes a footnote about online trans male groups mid-1990s, identified as primarily closed spaces where trans men could ‘unstealth,’ talk about their concerns, and articulate their desire to be seen as “‘just men’” (Cromwell 1999, 170 n. 8).  He finds such an emphasis contradictory: members, according to him, felt an inescapable awareness of their transness was situated in their bodies even as they sought to minimize and deny it. The irony of their online presence, then, was “their insistence that they must cease being trans and go into the world as ‘just men,’ which they seem incapable of doing” (128, 170). In terms of video,the documentary format further highlights this contrast. The narrative arc positions the trans person as achieving a “whole” sense of self, yet they are always cast against their “improper” body–a body that must be transcended or overcome.

How vlogs render this format obsolete (withYouTube’s implicit support) and affect their makers in the process  are, I would argue, their larger achievement. No matter their position in the process of medical or social transition, trans male vloggers consistently position their bodies as inarguably male. For these vloggers, they are “just” men, or just “trans,” or just whatever their chosen identity is—because they declare it to be so. For them, to “pass” is to have their identity properly recognized by others. In the end, trans vloggers do not so much delegitimize passing’s political power as reconfigure its contextual validity entirely.


[1]Though members will refer to it as such, I’ve always rejected the idea of there being a trans male vlogger ‘community’ on the basis that, as Iris Marion Young best puts it, “the idea of community presumes subjects can understand one another as they understand themselves” (302). Instead, I’d argue what brings trans vloggers together is a sense of affinity–vloggers seek out what blogger Jos Truitt has dubbed “gender friends:” “people who share some important common understandings about gender, who I know I won’t have to explain basic concepts to when talking about something I’m struggling with or excited about.”  Beyond their shared transness, vloggers in most cases may have very little, if anything, in common.

[2] Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 19, 39 (1973).

[3]Cameron Bailey makes the excellent point that American suburbs contribute heavily to online standards of rules and etiquette; after all, the exclusive nature of 4chan’s /b/ and the various incarnations of /i/nvasion (the original breeding ground of Anonymous) is based around their violation of such suburban decency standards as a way to keep the uninitiated out.

[4] Prior to this incident, Scaia had also previously been banned from Facebook for posting a photo of himself post-surgery to his account. About a month after the ban, his account was reinstated. In that incident, Facebook representatives noted that their graphic imagery policies “have continued to evolve” based on their understanding that “potentially graphic content can be used to create awareness and educate users about a particular issue”—drawing a parallel to both the Haitian earthquake and the Iranian post-election protests.

It’s worth noting that, in an e-mail exchange with Canadian gay news outlet Xtra, a Facebook representative implied Scaia’s photo was deemed inappropriate due to “post-surgery imagery,” not nudity.

4 responses to “Write Your Representative: The Trans* Self on Film, Part 2

  1. I love both parts of this essay (or both essays?).

  2. Yeah, they’re not as cohesive as I’d have liked – Part 2 took so long because it changed so much in the writing process. Glad you enjoyed it, though; I wish I could get a larger reach online, but the project does have something of a limited appeal.

  3. I love them and hope to link them, soon….if I can make myself write a post I’ve been planning….

  4. Pingback: Nakedness « South Carolina Boy

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