This article originally appeared on VICE US.
As a kid, Avery Fox didn’t have a sense of what it meant to be transgender. Growing up in a small, conservative town in southern New Jersey, he felt uncomfortable speaking about his confusion over his sexuality and gender identity. In high school, he tried to explain what he was going through to his parents, but was hindered by the fact that he didn’t have a label for what he was going through.
Although Fox joined his high school’s Gay Straight Alliance club and tried speaking about his feelings to his guidance counselor, he still felt alone and lost. No one seemed to understand, or have a blueprint for how he might figure out who he was.
All of that changed when, at 18, Avery found trans YouTube, a corner of the video site where trans people chronicle themselves working through dysphoria, medically transitioning, and detailing how they came to understand their own identity. As he became more involved in the trans community online, Avery came to realize that “transgender” was the label he’d been looking for.
Eventually, about a year ago, now 20-year-old Avery started his own YouTube channel. There, he posts videos about topics like top surgery recovery and check-ins about how his body is changing on testosterone. He started it, in part, as a way to remember all of the changes he was experiencing and talk through his feelings about them.
But, most of all, he wanted to give others the guidance that he had once gotten from YouTube. “I started making videos for a multitude of reasons, but the main one was to give back and help those who might have been where I was before I started medically and socially transitioning,” Fox said. “The little feedback I’ve gotten has gone a long way––it makes me feel like I could be someone that other trans people look up to and trust.”
Trans YouTube has been around since at least 2011, when now well-known YouTuber Jammi Dodger uploaded his first video, “FTM (Female to Male) Intro.” Since then, Dodger has filmed hundreds of videos documenting his gender transition, including monthly updates on his testosterone injections, myths about FTM bottom surgery, and general advice for people who might be struggling with their gender identity.
Today, there are tons of other transgender influencers and YouTube personalities who similarly use their platforms to document their transitions. Chella Man, a deaf, genderqueer artist and YouTuber with more than 430,000 followers on Instagram, regularly records and shares videos of himself injecting testosterone and has made videos detailing how his voice has changed throughout his transition. Kat Blaque uses her channel to talk about pronouns and her love life as a Black trans woman. According to a YouTube representative, there have been over 130 million views of videos with either "male to female" or "female to male" and "transition" in the title, and there have been over 30 million views of videos with "transgender transition" in the title.
Creators like Avery, as well as viewers, say part of the reason why these videos are so popular is because they offer straightforward guidance that it can be tough to get elsewhere.
“Mainly, many people have been pushing the idea that barring young people from being offered puberty-blocking hormones or surgeries would be a measure of protection.”
In 2020, trans representation on television and in films has become a hard-won norm, but a debate over whether minors can even identify as trans is still raging online and across the country. So, accurate information about the practicalities of living as a young trans person can still be hard to come by. Things get even harder when it comes to navigating health care and legal technicalities, because policies related to trans rights change state by state and are constantly in flux.
Even just the last few months have seen a slew of new bills aimed at hindering young trans people’s ability to receive comprehensive health care. In February, both South Dakota and Florida attempted to pass bills that would make prescribing puberty blockers to young transgender people illegal. Though these efforts failed, similar bills are still in the works in Kentucky and Missouri. In Colorado, a bill introduced in February prohibits trans youth from receiving hormones or sexual reassignment surgery from a doctor.
Extreme measures such as these are bolstered by a mass spread of disinformation online about transgender people—trans youth in particular—which often leaves trans kids even more in the dark about their identity and medical options, especially if they lack a proper support system. “Mainly, many people have been pushing the idea that barring young people from being offered puberty-blocking hormones or surgeries would be a measure of protection,” said Dr. Alexis Chavez, the Medical Director for The Trevor Project. “It’s infuriating to me that lawmakers who are blocking this think they know better than the parents of trans kids and medical professionals.”
Even in states where trans-related healthcare for youth isn’t contested, getting it is often not as easy as just going to the doctor. Financial barriers and a legal need for parental consent often complicate young trans people’s ability to get adequate and confidential treatment. Many young people don’t have independent insurance, and on an even more basic level, may not be able to even get to the doctor’s office without parental support. Amidst this complex legal and medical landscape, videos like Dodger’s “How I Legally Changed My Sex” can be the most easily accessible guidance that trans youth have.
“My parents and teachers were pretty clueless, but I can only blame them so much,” said Emma Suarez, an 18-year-old transgender student from Philadelphia. “On top of that, all of the doctors, therapists, and psychologists made me feel sick––like my transness was something to fix.”
For Suarez, school wasn’t much help either. “In high school, our health class had a short lesson on the existence of LGBT+ people, in which the teacher switched between ‘transsexual’ and ‘transvestite’ interchangeably,” she said. “Aside from that, I never had a conversation about queerness or my gender with a public school teacher.”
Among millennials surveyed by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2015, only 12 percent said their sex education covered same sex relationships. And sex-ed that covers transgender identity in an inclusive way is even more rare. In contrast, YouTube offers informational, non-judgmental videos as specific as “How To Have Sex With A Trans Woman” and “(Re)Learning to Orgasm After Transgender Surgery.”
Suarez first realized she was trans in part because of YouTube, she said. “The first real trans person that I found was Jazz Jennings. She’s where I first learned about blockers and hormone treatments. Before that, in my head, the only treatment available to trans people was bottom surgery.”
After watching more creators like PrincessJules and Stef Sanjati, Suarez also learned about dilation, Facial Feminization Surgery (FFS), and the nuances of bottom surgery. “My doctor never mentioned what that process would look like if I chose to go that path,” said Suarez. “To be fair, I was pretty young at the time, but it still kind of felt like I was being sheltered.”
“For a young trans or non-binary person, having access to another trans person to regard as a role model offers concrete evidence that it’s possible for them to flourish in their lives, to actualize dreams and embody whatever their definition of success might be.”
In many ways, it’s unsurprising that YouTube is the site of these burgeoning communities for trans youth. According to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, YouTube is the most popular platform for young people today, with over 85 percent of teenagers aged 13-17 on the site, as opposed to Instagram (72 percent) and Snapchat (69 percent). Still, YouTube is only one example of the many ways that the internet has made the transgender community more visible throughout the last decade and proved particularly important to trans youth.
“Transgender people who do not experience family and caregiver acceptance face higher rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide attempts,” said Rachel Golden, a psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the Columbia University Medical Center. “This is why online community can be so important! Community support online can take the shape of groups where others can offer direct support or simply being able to watch others reflect on their experiences of their gender identity and life.”
As of 2018, over 50 percent of transgender boys had attempted suicide at some point in their youth according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Trevor Project also reported in 2019 that within the past year, one in three transgender youth had attempted suicide, almost one-third were victim to sexual violence, and more than half experienced at least a two-week period of depression. The National Center for Transgender Equity found that more than one in ten young trans people have been evicted from their homes because of their gender identity.
“For a young trans or non-binary person, having access to another trans person to regard as a role model offers concrete evidence that it’s possible for them to flourish in their lives, to actualize dreams and embody whatever their definition of success might be,” said Charlotte Ryan, an LMSW and gender therapist based in New York. “This is life saving, of course, as it holds the power to prevent a suicide, instilling hope for the future in those that had understandably lost it. Today with social media, it’s so much easier to discover role models as a trans youth.”
For Avery, at least, that proved to be true—in more ways than one.
In his 2018 video “coming out: nonbinary transmaculine,” Avery recalls the process of discovering his own gender identity, reassuring others that they, too, will find an identity that feels right and comfortable to them, on their own timeline. “So glad you can finally embrace your true self,” said one user, while another wrote, “Thank you for sharing, this helped me tons!”