The internet has played an outsized and very visible role in the massive political and social gains of transgender people over the past two decades. But while it’s easy to point to modern-day social media and smartphones as instrumental tools for the trans community, trans people have actually been utilizing the internet to connect, learn, and organize since the 1980s.
Dr. Avery Dame-Griff, PhD, is a lecturer in Women’s and Gender Studies and assistant professor of Digital Technology and Culture at Washington State University. He’s also the founder and primary curator of the Queer Digital History Project, an independent project tracking queer* digital culture from the 1980s to the 2010s. His forthcoming book focuses on the relationship between the “two revolutions” of the transgender political revolution and the computer revolution.
Dr. Dame-Griff’s research and archival work digs extensively into the earliest communities of trans people online: BBS or the “Bulletin Board System.” The BBS was a precursor to the modern world wide web and social media. Launched in the late 1970s by computer hobbyists, BBSs allowed users to dial a number through their modem and access an online, text-only “bulletin board” where users could post messages. By the mid-to-late 1980s, as the technology needed to access BBSs became more affordable and accessible, BBS groups focusing on niche interests — including transgender communities — were popping up across the US and, soon, the world.
These early online trans communities were secretive and ephemeral by necessity, Dr. Dame-Griff tells Avast. Trans women in the 1980s were likely to be presenting publicly as men, oftentimes with wives and families, and exposure could result in them losing everything — their jobs, their families, and even their lives. Some lived as “crossdressers,” allowing themselves to dress in women’s clothing at home (maybe with their spouses) but rarely, if ever, in public.