Safe Spaces and Safe Places: Unpacking Technology-Mediated Experiences of Safety and Harm with Transgender People

This blog post summarizes a paper about transgender individuals’ experiences with technology-mediated safety and harm that will be presented at the 21st ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.

Photo by Mercedes Mehling on Unsplash.

There has been a mounting awareness of transgender identity in the United States over the past few decades. Behind this awareness is a burgeoning civil rights movement aimed at gaining equality and improving safety for transgender individuals. Nearly half participants in the largest U.S. survey of transgender individuals to date reported unequal treatment, including verbal harassment and physical violence. The dangers of being trans alter the way that transgender individuals interact with the world around them. These imbalances of power shape the way transgender — and individuals with all sorts of overlapping, marginalized identities — interact with the world.

As for many individuals with marginalized identities, the Internet can provide resources and community otherwise unavailable offline. Trans users can connect with others like them, find information about medical transitioning otherwise unavailable, and share their own life experiences in ways they might otherwise be unable to. Online spaces seem liberating, able to free transgender individuals from politically-charged spaces, like bathrooms and closets. Users, it seems, within the confines of platform affordances, can more freely explore and express their identities online.

To better understand the experiences transgender individuals have with safety on digital platforms, we interviewed 12 transgender and non-binary participants about their social media practices surrounding safety. We employed an intersectional approach to the way we examined these experiences, examining identity not through discrete categories but as interlocked and unified.

During our study, we also found benefits of the Internet and social media spaces. Digital spaces allowed trans users to carve out safe spaces for themselves in ways that could replace or augment aspects of offline life that were less safe or supportive.

“When I wasn’t out yet [offline], I didn’t have to worry about confiding in people that are already very integrated into [offline] communities where I don’t feel safe. It was nice to have strangers consoling each other [online].” –P7

However, as most of us know, the Internet can also be awful. It can be filled with vitriol and hatred, particularly towards those with marginalized identities — like women, people of color (POC), and LGBTQ individuals. In our interviews, participants described the ways they had been harmed as transgender individuals, and specifically as transgender individuals who hold many other racial and sexual identities integral to their humanity. Participants described incidents most of use visualize when we talk about safety risks on the web: trolling, doxxing (publishing private information online), and harassment from other users. Multiple participants described the ways anti-trans and anti-black users organized on anonymous forums to coordinate attacks on local, affordable housing, spaces known to house trans people of color (POC).

“Racism and white supremacy is always at play in the suppression of black art and getting black artists out of housing. It was all incredibly racist. It was all homophobic, transphobic ... It’s classist, it’s all of that.” –P4

However, participants’ conceptions of safety — and lack thereof — were not solely limited to engagement with abusive users. Some safety transgressions were caused unintentionally, by close ties or by strangers. And some were caused (intentionally and unintentionally) by those many researchers might not think of as threats to transgender individuals: other transgender and queer individuals. This defies the expectation that the acronym LGBTQ is a unified community. Furthermore, transgressions of safety were not always attributes to people at all. Some participants described the ways they felt digital platforms, and the values they viewed as being embedded into platforms, caused harm to them.

“They’re not made with the concerns I would have in mind. Like, the way that Twitter has really allowed a lot of awful trolling, for example. That’s just a clear demonstration that their values are different than my values.” –P9

Through our findings, we discuss the ways that digital spaces are just as imbued with social and political power as physical, tangible offline spaces — like the bathrooms and the closets. The social dynamics and seemingly “physical” barriers of interface design shaped the way our participants experienced safety, and lack of safety, online.

The way space is constructed shapes how people can move through it or interact with it. From this perspective, those who create space (ex. the designers of a platform like Twitter) have control over the flows within that space. Those who inhabit or interact with the space (ex. Twitter users ) are in a relative position of weakness. Because space is socially constructed and exerts power in this way, it can also reproduce and sustain marginalizing power structures.

As researchers and designers, we have the privilege and the power to construct spaces, like social media platforms and apps. In our paper, we discuss the benefits to intentionally employing an intersectional understanding of the way power shapes space to improve the way marginalized users — like transgender users — experience and shape safety in a digitally connected world.

Morgan Klaus Scheuerman, Stacy M Branham, and Foad Hamidi. 2018. Safe Spaces and Safe Places: Unpacking Technology-Mediated Experiences of Safety and Harm with Transgender People. PACMHCI Volume 2, CSCW Issue. In Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 2, CSCW, Article 155 (November 2018). ACM, New York, NY. 27 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3274424

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Research from the ACM conference on computer-supported…

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