Online vitriol against LGBTQIA community impacts real people, real policy

FILE - In this March 15, 2021, file photo, demonstrators gather on the steps of the Montana State Capitol protesting anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Helena, Mont. It's been a month since a Montana judge temporarily blocked enforcement of a state law that required transgender people to undergo surgery before they could change their gender on their birth certificate, and the state still isn't in compliance with the court order, the ACLU of Montana said.  (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

On the first day of class each term, I out myself as a queer Jewish trans man. I do this for several reasons: 1) I teach about visual culture; representation in art and popular media critically impact our perceptions of social structure. 2) For many cis students, I humanize what may feel like an abstract concept. 3) There are LGBTQIA students in my class who have never seen an out queer trans person in a position of authority, had a teacher in whom they could see themselves, nor had a model for what success and happiness can look like for them.

Being out as a trans educator (or trans at all) comes with real risk. Routinely, my inbox receives hate mail that ranges from explicit wishes of harm to myself and family to tedious willful ignorance. This correspondence, never from students, goes in a folder in case something happens to me. Recently, my name appeared on an online bulletin board calling for a bullet to my head. Not simply boorish trolls in the comments section (though such trolls play a role in perpetuating harmful rhetoric), these individuals actively encourage violence against the trans community.

So, I was thrilled last week when Cloudflare servers stopped hosting the domain for Kiwi Farms, a loose conglomerate of online stalkers known for their rabid transphobia. Cloudflare, which had been under pressure for months to cease hosting Kiwi Farms, detected an alarming increase in threats to the personal safety of several transgender individuals. Clara Sorrenti, a trans activist responsible for generating much of the pressure on Cloudshare, fled across the Atlantic from Canada to Northern Ireland to escape credible threats on her life. Within two days, stalkers discovered her location and posted images to the Kiwi Farms website, along with more detailed death threats.

After Cloudshare discontinued service, Kiwi Farms bounced to a Russian hosting service, which also soon dropped them. Presently, Kiwi Farms has no centralized voice, but as MSNBC columnist Katelyn Burns states when describing her own terrifying encounter with them, “terrible people on the internet aren’t going anywhere.”

Indeed, and terrible people online create terrible acts offline.

In August, Boston Children’s Hospital suffered a barrage of threatening online and phone harassment instigated by false reports that the hospital’s pediatric/adolescent transgender health program performed gender affirming surgeries on minors younger than 18. Clinicians and pediatricians received threatening emails and phone calls while virulent and disturbing messages flooded the hospital’s social media feeds. Hospital administration advised staff to make private their social media feeds and began working with law enforcement to ensure their safety.

Anti-LGBTQ social media and online groups generate and amplify damaging rhetoric, spread misinformation and attack educators, librarians, health care workers and countless others with false “groomer” allegations and debunked anti-trans rhetoric. Threats of violence, many quite detailed and credible, accompany the onslaughts. When the Proud Boys show up armed at your local library hyped from social media outrage, things are getting real.

Online hate rhetoric now extends beyond extremist organizations. Celebrities with anti-trans views such as authors J.K. Rowling and Jordan Peterson command millions of followers that internalize, echo and perpetuate dangerous and misinformed rhetoric. Laura Ingraham of Fox News routinely retweets LibsOfTikTok, a popular far-right social media account responsible for fomenting baseless claims against Boston Children’s Hospital, highlighting its transphobic content on her show. This impacts real people and real policy.

Yet online behaviors gravitate to interests and echo chambers; if you aren’t tuned in to LGBTQIA issues, much of this goes unnoticed until actual violence breaks headlines. The list of anti-trans attacks is exhausting: Bans on books, draconian educational/curricular restrictions, attacks on trans athletes in all levels of sport, access to gender-affirming health care denied or severely limited, restrictions of birth certificate gender markers (extremely dangerous for transgender individuals), and more. So much more.

In the face of such vitriol, many LGBTQIA folk and allies go silent out of very real fears of personal harm or loss of employment. For those of us who can speak out, we must. We must humanize, educate and give voice to those who cannot. This pertains not only to online discourse, but engagement with our friends, families and community members. It means difficult and potentially unpleasant conversations. For trans people, it means sharing our stories when possible.

Hi, I’m Ty. I’m a trans man, and here is why that matters.

Ty Warren is a senior instructor at the University of Oregon and an active proponent for trans rights and regular contributor to The Register-Guard. He lives in Eugene.

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Online vitriol against LGBTQIA community impacts real people, real policy