Is the Tumblr to TikTok Pipeline Responsible for How We Teach Gender Now?
When a teen need to be different meets the world wide web, and what us adults can do about it.
Disclaimer: If you just want solutions and don’t require a lot of context to sus out if this is written in good faith, feel free to start at the paragraph above the final image.
It seems now more than ever, society is grappling with how to deal with self-identification. Not just as an individual concept within our homes, relationships or selves— but within the wider social discourse on human rights’ movements. In various posts, hashtags, and Zoom rooms, I see an alarming disconnect between reality, well-meaning intention, and plainly dangerous rhetoric on the subject of self-identification. This has only multiplied in the wake of our technological evolution, especially amongst the most prolific and youngest users. I am moved to articulate at least one aspect of my thinking that is fully formed regarding the topic on their behalf, and to provide what I consider useful talking points when guiding youth in exploring identity. Why? Because I work with kids, I raise kids, and I care to stay engaged in that work no matter what my day job is.
So much of my mind is left unmade, and I welcome any thoughtful responses. But this — I am clear about. Self-identification as the standard to teach by is deeply flawed, easily manipulated, misguided and irresponsible. This idea that whatever we want to identify as is valid and inherently benign (or, more often promoted as positive) is not only being adopted as personal doctrine, but integrated into teachings for children. The wall display outside of my 4th grade classroom is one example of what I am going to confront, using the hot-button classification of gender as an access point.
In a delicate situation where learning to know yourself, accept yourself, and love yourself is compounded by additional layers of differentness, treating identities as trends is not going to cut it.
Before I dive deep, let me be clear about one other point of context. I personally never saw the issue of gender identity addressed in school to any point of consensus or “best practices” when confronted with deviation from girl/boy. It was a non-issue because, as with a majority of people in the world, it affected almost no one I knew. As I started to know people who ultimately would transition, it became clear to me that collectively, there was a need to come to consensus about how to accept that some people are going to differ from what we considered “the norm” growing up. From that standpoint, it’s easy to assume the position that we can simply mind our own business, and respect humans for where they are, when they are, who ever they are. That if it doesn’t affect us, then we should just respect “affected” people’s views. The problem with this approach is that it affirms otherness as opposed to differentness, and provides no guidance for “what to do if/when it does affect you”. That is where the issue of our inhumanity to other humans arises in terms of interpersonal relationships and human rights. By then, it’s rarely about empathy, compassion, or the understanding we missed because we made it irrelevant to us, but rather, confusion and normalized violence.
A surprising number of people I’ve asked about the topic are willing to adopt self-identification without thought because they see themselves as unaffected, and therefore, personally uninvested. If it started and ended with gender identity, maybe this wouldn’t be so alarming to me. However, the very idea that one can “identify as [fill in the blank]” has ushered in a wave of ingenuity that only existed in Ripley’s Believe it or Not! books from my childhood. I understand when centering gender that many people want to do the well-meaning thing of just following the lead of who they consider more licensed to decide about the topic, echoing a “sit down, shut up and listen!” sentiment. That doesn’t create clarity or consensus, and it does us no favors in navigating as engaged neighbors in this life — interpersonally or institutionally. So, good for institutions for considering the most marginalized and minority groups, and deciding how to be inclusive (like the Academy of Breastfeeding). But from an educational institution standpoint — it’s as if we skipped over “there is diversity in gender expression 101” altogether. Instead, we jumped head first into creating authoritative school hallway displays that attempt to explain things that there is no clear introductory understanding or consensus about, that we actually aren’t an authority on. All while leaving the unanswered question of “what does it mean if we want to change how we identify who we are in general?” on the table. So how do we reconcile that gap for young people we are supposed to facilitate learning for without actually widening it?
We have established that the most acceptable form of self-identification seems to be with gender. Some of y’all may roll eyes and raise eyebrows at the “duh!” of that sentence, but at this point it needs to be stated explicitly, because the concept has become boundless. As I will share further on, I have a particular place in my heart for people who experience gender dysphoria as I do for youth, and absolutely believe we should advocate for their human rights to be respected. I’d love to hear any good faith discourse on gender identity that didn’t gloss over gender dysphoria altogether, even if to provide an alternative way to look at gender diversity, but I haven’t yet. This writing is an example of that advocacy for me. Unfortunately, the tendency for social discourse around “them” often leads to a hella topics being conflated, lack of definition, and a subsequent erasure of all nuance and context. I might even give some of that, but I am making an earnest effort! I’ve taken a lot of time to write and revise and get this out. Consider this as a STOP sign, a pause to reflect before continuing to comment, because this is necessary to spell out.
In posting random questions or thoughts on the topic, I’ve noticed the gap in understanding persists in adults in various fields. There are plenty of lurkers who just “like” my push-back against the narrative that anything goes in self-identifying and my general questioning. Posts also attract a lot of so-called cisgender people caping for who they deem as the most marginalized group — transgender people — who they also clearly see themselves (and me) as unrelated to. Some folks want so badly to advocate for the “T” in LGBTQ+ as “allies” that they deem me TERFy or problematic (as a “cisgender” BLACK woman of all people!) to even bring up such a topic. This is an all too commonly used tactic to silence people who are merely analyzing thought. I assure you, my thinking is driven by my passion for both humanity and nuance, and for this, I am ever open to similarly thoughtful, yet opposing points of view. Unfortunately, people do people things, and as we increasingly engage in importantly human experiences, we better recognize that unlimited engagement in wholly accessible social feeds is getting us all the way caught up.
To put it plainly, this topic is deeply relevant to real life, not social media life where some of the most important aspects of human connections are lost. I am really about this building-community life, in living color, intergenerationally, and in all aspects of my world. Of course the digital diaspora can help create useful space for folks in need to an extent, but it does the opposite far more consistently. It is by design (and updated redesign) a tool that works to deteriorate our well-being, because holding us captive and in cravings is incentivized by the internet in our consumerist world. Let’s take a detour away from gender identity and zoom out into what self-identification has made possible and popular these days.
I remember a clear consensus that Rachel Dolezal was dead wrong (and possibly mentally deficient) for pretending she was Black while taking up a position in the NAACP, or as the face of a so-called hate crime that she may have staged, leading her entire life with that lie. She self-identified and attributed all of that to being “transracial”. That has evolved into a more recent examples, such as Oli London, who “came out” as trans-Korean, identifies as non-binary and goes by other pronouns that I consider identity theft. Instead of clear rejection for the idea, I noticed more of a spectrum of response ranging from disgust, confusion, apathy and sympathy. Society is seeing more media around what I consider mentally unwell people coining terms like “Otherkins” (an off-shoot of trans-species), trans-age, and whatever else they can imagine. Don’t even get me started on the pedophilic propaganda attempting to re-brand the sickness of child abusers — the so-called “MAP community” that would seek to sanitize what is a plainly problematic mental deficiency of sexual attraction to children. I hate how the topic of self-identification has become used as an umbrella for various identity intersections, but as Dave Chappelle said “That’s Trans talk — STOP BITING!” So I’m taking it back to what I consider pioneers of the movement of self-identification, and dealing with identity in terms of gender.
As a teaching artist, one of my intentions is to make way for young minds to find themselves healthy, creatively encouraged, and free to think critically. I’ve piloted two different media-based classes for kids that were full of insight for all of us involved. Both were in the early 2010’s, so TikTok was still Musical.ly and the norm of every child having a social media account was uncommon, though lurking right around the corner. The first class called “Mass Media” was meant to introduce elementary school kids to the idea that we consume messages in almost all forms of what we see, read, watch, listen to, and so on. The goal was to remind them to use their minds to continuously question and reflect on what they internalize. The second class was with middle schoolers, focused on making media of our own, and we called it “Rose Reports”. As an emcee, I always felt it of paramount importance for young people to explore their voices and points of view, but I could also tell that media consumption was an enormous obstacle of distraction and misinformation in that process. It may be the interesting intersection of media and making young people a priority in my life that has me so stuck on untangling the topic of self-identification. No matter what I was teaching, starting off a group with some basic identity and community building was always a best practice.
Fast forward passed those classes and deep into my own rabbit holes of media consumption, I experienced my first pregnancy. It was in August of 2017, and while still on a Summer break from teaching, I found the film Prayers for Bobby. This absolutely heartbreaking film hit just that much harder when I read the words “Based on a True Story”. From then on I found myself adding more and more documentaries to my queue on queerness and other diversely human experiences. That people can be gay was completely conceivable to me as a child born in San Francisco, but people being intersex or transgender seemed a league of its own. After seeing Oprah’s episodes on intersex (part one and two), and Lisa Ling’s transgender episode, I kept hearing this nagging thought in my mind: “What if my child is trans?”!
As a precaution, I was studying stories. I was preparing my mind to consider whatever my child may need protecting from in what seemed like some of the most severe circumstances, should we live them. I certainly had my underdeveloped conclusions about the little I knew, but after getting through a few stories where kids and young adults lives were cut tragically short, either by bullies’ hands or their own, I knew it was something I had to be prepared for just in case. And that sometimes, the bully was their family, driving their kids into despair when providing heartbreak and rejection instead of love and safety. I’ve felt heartbreak and despair as a teenager, and that’s all I really needed to know. I thought of my unborn child and how impossible it would be for me to accept and love them under conditions. Especially conditions of the human condition.
Herein lies my fierce rejection of the idea that self-identification is all we need to consider in these intricate and challenging human conditions. Whether it should be a challenge or not is really irrelevant in dealing with reality, and as a BLACK woman, I am clear about the importance of grasping that. In a delicate situation where learning to know yourself, accept yourself, and love yourself is compounded by additional layers of differentness, treating identities as trends is not going to cut it.
We owe it to young people (and ourselves) to guide them towards a more clear destination. To encourage a continuous arrival to a rooted understanding of who they are, with consideration for their place within our collective humanity.
Popular TikTok content on the subject is a representation of how far we’ve come, and equally how far gone we are becoming. We went from barely scratching the surface of acknowledging these diversities in mainstream media to getting left behind on the latest neo-pronouns and letters added passed the plus sign in “LGBTQ+”. But, thanks to this gem of a YouTube video called “Millions of Dead Genders”, I suspect Tumblr is a not-so-well-known root of the “neo-”fruit. Reflections on this MOGAI movement (Marginalized Orientations, Gender Alignments and Intersex) illustrate to me what happens when the need for belonging meets the teenager-ish desire to be different. When I look into the definitions anonymously assigned to these “millions” of gender identities, it’s even more obvious. Some lack context, and some use different words that have the literal same meanings as others of a different name. It really starts to feel like some user had a new label on the tip of their tongue, burning a hole in their screen as they search to see if it already existed. Then, when they didn’t see their oh-so-original thought on page 77, gave up to get their blossoming realization into the Tumblr cloud for all other MOGAI’s to *hopefully* see. I highly recommend you watch the YouTube video in it’s entirety and shout out the creator who put it together.
The overview of Tumblr’s MOGAI movement demonstrates how useful the digital diaspora is can be, because the process of exploration itself is useful and needed. You gotta face a thing to displace a thing. Again, I am a firm believer in young people exploring themselves in order to discover what is there for them. However, once the process is done and the need is met, the level of thinking naturally develops and transforms along with the mind. What it took to get to the realization is only as relevant as it is successful in getting them to new ground. The concept of “cringe” sums this idea up in a perfectly relatable nutshell.
If we can learn anything from the Tumblr to TikTok pipeline, it’s that coming to know one’s self is an inescapable aspect of living life as a human. We may be extremely imaginative, innovative, and creative, but this is what we get without balance, context, and grounding. I want that freedom to journey for my kids, and all kids growing up in this digital age. I understand that will look diverse, but I also believe it should be free from overly simplified, self-ascribed solutions that can leave permanent, possibly regrettable, and irreversible marks (IE: hormones, blockers, surgery, etc). We owe it to young people (and ourselves) to guide them towards a more clear destination. To encourage a continuous arrival to a rooted understanding of who they are, with consideration for their place within our collective humanity. The knowing that what we touch touches us, and vice versa. If it ain’t that, and if it leads to a deeper sense of insecurity and need for outside validation, then what are we setting them up for?
In conclusion, I take issue with self-identification and the imbalanced approach everyday people are taking to address it. This phenomenon in our culture where new words are defined by anyone, at any level of thinking become integrated without question under the guise of progress is a failure in the art of thinking.
There are societal policies to be addressed, and physical conditions to be cared for. Whether people believe in the ideology of self-identification or not doesn’t change these realities, but it sure does overshadow them in social media discourse. To have the ideology of self-identification promote confusion and lack of actual education is unacceptable. There is no consensus around self-identification in our society, or cultural data that suggests (to me) that it is benign.
However, there is scientific, cross-cultural and historical context to point to regarding life as female, male, intersex, various patterns in neurodivergence, and the experience of gender dysphoria in our society. The wall outside my classroom hallway makes no mention of this. The bare minimum that should be understood is that there are various circumstances where anyone can suffer and disassociate with their bodies. This includes but is not limited to the experience of extreme discomfort with sexed body parts. That is something we should teach and understand in the context of the conversation on gender identity. We can acknowledge that some people prefer to differentiate between “sex” and “gender” in an attempt to acknowledge human biology and sociology at the same time. We can recognize that there is a level of extreme emotional distress we can experience when dealing with the rigidity of the female/male binary. We can be clear that there is a myriad of very real and varied experiences when stigmatized mental health struggles and social -isms continue to wreak havoc amongst us.
I want to push how useful it is to understand gender non-conformity when exploring ones self. That someone doesn’t have to have gender dysphoria to express their humanness in a way that isn’t rigid, without undermining or erasing the female or male aspects of themself to do so. Most of all, I want to address that division within and between the binary is harmful to us all, and speaks to the ever insidious issue of sexism among us. We can illuminate that we all to some degree have internalized sexism, and that informs how we discuss femaleness and maleness (and queerness) at its foundation. We can acknowledge how important it is for every human being to keep working at dismantling that foundation. The concept of balance within the binary is extremely useful, liberating, and as old humanity is too. Yin and Yang, Left and Right, Solar and Lunar & beyond. These are topics that should be included, explained, and affirmed more regularly so that we disincentivize confusion about ourselves and one another, & incentivize healthy exploration. Especially for young people.
For more references down the internet rabbit hole of self-identification and gender:
- “ Xenogender” as an umbrella for non-binary identifications. https://lgbta.wikia.org/wiki/Xenogender )
- “Exclusionist MOGAI”: https://lgbta.wikia.org/wiki/Exclusionist_MOGAI
- “MOGAI CRINGE” subreddit post on validating identities: https://www.reddit.com/r/mogaicringe/comments/ob4ds7/dont_know_if_these_where_posted_here_already_but/
- “MOGAI HELL” — a child responds: https://www.reddit.com/r/TumblrInAction/comments/8rw633/mogai_harms_lgbt_people/