weren’t sure would really catch on. Gwen was certainly curious when she signed up for a free
trial on AOL, thinking maybe this would be a better way to connect with people her own age.
During her five-hour new-user free trial, Gwen discovered the embargo on the words
“transgender,” “transsexual,” and “transvestite.” Gwen could not relate to the Powder Puffs of
Orange County and was also shut out by AOL; it was a violation of the terms of service on the
website to use any of those terms. Activists like Andrea James (Nichols)1 and Kate Bornstein
also remember the days when it was in violation of the AOL Terms of Service to set up chat
rooms (discussion groups) with the words “transsexual” or “transgender.” This is akin to going
to Netflix today and finding that any films or television shows featuring transgender people are
excluded. No Dallas Buyers Club or Orange is the New Black. Why would a company censure
the use of certain words when it essentially creates a void surrounding their existence? One
reason is that the ban created a virtual world free of “social deviance.” It also, however,
successfully prevented an at-risk, minority, marginalized people from connecting with peers.
They were excluded because society at large wished they did not exist. In the early ’90s, AOL
was all there was—if it said you didn’t exist, it really was like you didn’t. The denial, this
blotting out of human beings, was almost too much for Gwen to bear.
At twenty-five years old, Gwen wanted to be herself and live her life as a woman. People
hide because they are prey, and Gwen had been hiding as long as she could remember. When
Gwen was three years old, she wanted to wear Mary Jane shoes: simple, black leather shoes with
straps across the instep. Practical and cute footwear. She coveted them. Gwen’s parents told her
that, no, those were for girls. Gwen remembers being confused. She started hiding then, slowly
and painfully learning socially acceptable behaviors.
Gwen’s gender identity was always there. She was born with a penis, so the doctor that
delivered her labeled her sex as male. Biologically, sex organs are just one element of “sex.”
There are also your chromosomes and hormones too, but doctors don’t test those when a baby is
born, they rely on the sex organs. For a lot of people, the sex organ does match the standard
hormones and chromosomes. But not for everyone. If you were born with a penis, you could
have two x chromosomes and one y, and have a little more estrogen than not. Or, whatever. The
possibilities are endless. Furthermore, your biological sex is wholly different from your gender
identity, which is a deep-seated belief or feeling of your gender whether it be male, female, or in
between. Gender is a social construct that we enforce with standards regarding clothing, body
language, and mannerisms.
Mary Jane shoes were just the beginning of the next twenty-two years of gender
assumptions and being told that what she wanted was inappropriate. At seven years old, Gwen
and her parents were driving to the beach listening to a radio show where callers asked the emcee
for advice. Gwen remembers a parent calling in to ask for advice about her child who wanted a
sex change. She listened closely, while her own parents sighed in sympathy, saying they
couldn’t imagine being that parent. Gwen clung to the idea that you could switch genders, but at
the same time shrunk in shame at her parents’ dismissal. She told me,
“this was the first time I knew that such a thing was possible. That one could have been
assigned one gender at birth, and change to another. I was still quite young, and it’s not like the
show really delved into it…. But I understood it well enough to see how it related to myself, and
the feeling I had.”
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