Dr. Avery Dame-Griff is a lecturer of Gender and Women’s Studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington. He is also the founder and curator of the Queer Digital History Project and author of the upcoming book The Two Revolutions: A History of the Transgender Internet, out August 2023.
Can you tell us a bit about the creation of the Queer Digital History Project?
I founded the Queer Digital History Project in 2018 after doing my dissertation on the impact of digital communications on trans organizing from the 1980s until now. When doing that work, I realized that I was collecting all this information on queer digital history, and it was just going to sit in a spreadsheet. While folks knew about these spaces, they weren’t very well documented. So I had this information and sure, I could share a link to a spreadsheet. But was anybody actually going to interact with it?
So I thought about building a project where I could put this information and make it more accessible for other folks to use as well. I wanted to honor the work that went into these projects. A lot of these early [internet] communities were – I don’t love the term – labors of love; you were often not making money, someone was running them at their own expense. But these spaces were incredibly important to individuals. I wanted to honor that work and make sure folks knew about it. Especially for queer youth who weren’t around at the time, to know that we have a longer history [is important] for locating yourself within this history.
What did these early queer digital spaces look like?
Many early spaces were on bulletin board systems (BBSs), which were like servers you’re dialing into with a modem. Depending on the technical capacities, maybe only one person was on at a time, maybe multiple. Because you were dialing in via phone line, most people using a BBS lived locally. This was how people met and became friends; many BBSs also had offline meetups.
So these were spaces where folks could build community, especially for those just coming out. Queer individuals who wanted to connect but didn’t feel safe being out in a physical space could connect by computer. This digital communication was especially important for trans folks; because there was a lot of fear about exposure, it was hard to create community. But if you sign into a BBS, you can immediately talk to folks who understand what you’re feeling. And it could be anonymous, so you’re not risking someone seeing you go to a meeting, or getting mail to your house and being asked, “why are you getting a brochure from this gender community group?” Computers didn’t have the same risks, so it became an early starting point for folks to connect with other queer or trans people. You had a level of anonymity and safety that you might not have had in other aspects of your life.
How has the rise of the internet interacted with the fight for queer rights? How closely tied together are those two timelines?
We’re just starting to recognize their closeness, as the idea of studying web history is still relatively young. But they’re definitely connected and for trans folks, intimately connected. The argument I make in The Two Revolutions is that you don’t get the trans community as it exists now without the internet. I call it The Two Revolutions because there were two major things happening at the same time. The first is that we moved toward the idea of the umbrella category “transgender” because at the time, “gender community” was the term being used. In the archive, folks say nobody loved it, so they needed a new term. That movement starts in the late ‘80s and begins to pick up steam in the early ‘90s.
At the same time, computers are becoming more accessible and common. It’s a very white and middle class history. In the late ‘80s, the computer became less technical and more of a home appliance for middle class American homes. For trans folks, there was a recognition of, “Oh! This is something we can use.” We see this change in the community of folks owning technology – and that’s changing how they’re thinking about what’s possible. This was especially true for trans youth. Suddenly we could talk to each other as a group with collective interests. We understand each other as folks who have rights, and we can advocate for ourselves. This generation of trans youth had a new understanding of what was possible. “What if we could use this tech to talk to each other and share information? To organize and connect as a community?”
I grew up in the deep South, in Alabama. I came out in the deep South. So my first contact with other trans folks was not locally, it was through a Yahoo Group. I had this moment of, Oh there are other trans people. And they live here. And I can talk to them and find resources! It’s been many years since I lived there. But that was what I had.
I like what you said about the rise of queer youth recognizing each other; I’ve noticed that with my generation on social media as well, specifically Tik Tok. It’s cool to see that repeat even as digital spaces grow and change.
There’s a concept that Dr. Lal Zimman, a linguist from UC Santa Barbara, calls “the encounter.” For trans folks or queer people more broadly, once you have an encounter with someone else in another narrative you think, “wait a minute, that’s me.” You can see yourself and think about what’s different and what’s possible beyond the limits of the world you have now. The narratives connect – and that opens the door. Particularly with the way that algorithms work, the more you’re into a certain thing it’ll just deep dive right into that topic. This can be good and bad, but especially if you’re just coming out it can be helpful to have a firehose of information.
Then we go back to moral panic – the acceleration of information and the idea that “encountering” early on creates fear in those who resist it. Which brings the rise in book bans – people who want to cut off access to information. Because if you encounter something in the media, it raises questions. And they don’t want folks asking questions because that opens the door to other questions. But no amount of banning is going to work. Google is not going to ban keywords; they have no financial incentive to do so.
Why is this documentation important to have? What does the Queer Digital History Project teach us?
It’s for queer youth to understand that they have a longer history. Especially to combat this popular narrative that opposes the presence of trans youth in public life. Trans people have always been around. In one of the archives donated to me, there was an early trans mailing list. Trans youth were always reaching out and showing up for each other. But suddenly with the internet, they could see each other. If we don’t preserve this history, it reinforces this faddish narrative – coming from moral panic – about youth and technology, about trans being a “social contagion.”
How can we make the internet safer for queer people and queer communities?
There are different models and approaches. At the end of The Two Revolutions, I pitch social networks using co-op or community invested models. Where you’re not just a user, you’re a member with an infrastructure for having your voice heard. Instead of producing data, selling data and making money, the model is focused on community investment; on users being involved in their own governance. It’s an idea to go back to something decentralized – but interconnected – that has a local level of control. We’d have moderation and a team actively prepared to support its users. So that raises new possibilities, especially after years of being told that we just have Facebook, Tumblr or Twitter – there’s not a whole lot else.
History teaches us that there are alternatives, and we can use those as a model and an inspiration. How can those models give us a different vision that builds an infrastructure to protect users of color, protects queer users and prioritizes their needs and safety, as opposed to prioritizing profit?