I need to lead off this post with a confession: This post was originally going to be much longer and much broader in scope than what you are about to read. I was inspired by a recent writing prompt by one of my WordPress peeps, The Finicky Cynic, about social media. However, I originally chose to cover the broad online life in responding, as I’m one who considers my online and social media lives as symbiotic with each other. But once I got to around the halfway mark of my post, I realized… wowzers, this post is turning into a very long read. I also realized that just talking about the social media life is a long slog in itself.
So, to give both of us — you, the reader, and me, the writer — a break from the monotony, I will save the social media ruminations for a near-future post that, knowing me, I will edit and re-edit and re-re-edit before sharing with you… and use this particular entry to talk up the path my female side has taken on the World Wide Web. (Uh, do they still call it that yet?)
I’ll start with the first time I learned about the internet: When I was in my young adult days and going through technical training, each of us in our class were assigned to research and present to the rest of the class something about technology in the office. I learned about information sharing, and with it came across something called the internet and how it was originally used as a system for US government computer networks to communicate with each other… and how it was slowly but steadily making its way into public use. Indeed, at our technical college, we could use something similar to the internet in the library to research information for our projects. But rather than it being a computer on which you could read news sites or watch cat videos, it was more of a connected database where one could search for relevant articles. Say you wanted to look for newspaper articles on printers. You could type your search terms, adjust the date range, and voila! Up came a series of relevant articles about printers. But the database was rudimentary and text only; there were no accompanying photos, no advertising… and, yes, no cat videos.
By the middle of the 1990s, connected databases would give way to connected internet terminals and web-compatible personal computers. Before finally getting my very own computer 16 years ago, if I wanted to surf the web, I would have to rely on my sister’s own PC (when we lived together); trudge down to the public library and reserve an hour on one of the internet-connected public-use computers; or use the computers at my then place of employment when they finally upgraded to PCs and it was my break time (okay, when it wasn’t my break time as well). Eventually, by Summer 2001, I finally did get my own home computer, a home-built model constructed by my then-brother-in-law and his father. Once that was all set up, I did what any normal human being with a computer and the need to connect would do pre-social media and pre-4G network: I signed up for online service with a local provider, established an account, set up an e-mail address… and waited for the dial-up connection to get set before surfing the world wide web. If you’re of a certain age and remember the early online days, you know how getting online involved a lot of funny cartoon noises (*Boing-oing-oing!* *PING!* *pssshhh…*) and a lot of waiting for the connection to complete. It also involved a lot of wishing, hoping, and praying that the connection wouldn’t be lost or become slower than it already was.
Once I got settled in with online home use, I started wading into the online world of the crossdressing community, doing so chiefly through Yahoo!, which was still a pretty big deal in the early 2000s. It was through Yahoo! that I first created my feminine online persona. I won’t tell you what my Yahoo! handle was… er, is, as it’s still active for the sake of keeping my Flickr account in existence (more on Flickr a little later). Suffice it to say, though, that it’s a handle that fit my early online crossdressing interests and doesn’t entirely reflect my current comfort level and connections with the present day trans community. Suffice it to say, too, that the handle wasn’t vulgar in nature (I’ve never been nor will I ever be that kind of a girl). If it were easy to change that handle, and if Yahoo! still had prominence here in 2017, I would be tempted to tell you what it is.
Okay, at this point a sidebar: You may be wondering at this point why I didn’t use my sister’s online service to venture into the online CD/TG community. Well, that reason is easy to say: It was my sister’s AOL account that I was using; yes, she installed it through one of those in-the-mail CDs that were so ubiquitous back then. As tempted as I was, there was no way I could risk blowing my closet door open — and damage my standing with her and our family — by venturing into the online trans world through her account. Looking for crossdressing information, etc. on public library computers was obviously out of the question, too. Leaving a trail of search and browsing histories on either would raise suspicions. And besides, back then I thought the internet was used exclusively for news, research, broad information, e-mails… you know, stuff that socially conservative circles would brand as suitable for all ages.
It was through my feminine presence on Yahoo! that I made good yet temporary connections with fellow CDs and other transgender people. Most of that was through the most temporary of things, Yahoo’s live chat rooms. For you younger folks unfamiliar with a chat room, think of a Facebook group in which you converse with fellow members… but rather than leaving them a message and waiting for a reply, you’re doing so live as it happens.
There were (still are?) good things about being in a live online chat room, above all else the fact that you’re conversing with like-minded people who are there to provide you with advice, friendship, life stories, and a sympathetic ear… even if it lasted only for the duration of your time in that chat room. One bad thing is, well, what I just said: It’s temporary support, lasting only as long as you’re chatting… that is, unless you met a friend on Yahoo! Chat and added them to your Yahoo! Messenger service, where you could converse live with them outside of chat rooms through the instant messenger service, or just leave them a message if they appeared offline.
But just as there are risks and evils with other parts of online life even today, that was the case with my experience on Yahoo! Chat. The most irritating was the interlopers in Chat (trolls, in 2017 parlance) who seemingly operated on the mindset that a TG/CD-oriented chat room in particular, and the online world as a whole, was their oyster. Such interlopers would beg for others to “IM” them (chat in private), either through giving out their A/S/L (age, sex, location), asking other chat room members for theirs, or even sending a private messenger chat window to their target from out of the blue without first directly asking for permission in the chat room (yeah, rude). Such IM’s would tend to get tawdry in nature, with the interlopers wanting to chat not so much to get to know the person on the other end, but to create… uh, tawdry fantasies with them so that they themselves can get their “manhood” up, if you know what I mean. I was on the receiving end of a lot of those IM’s, and even entertained a couple of them before I started to think, yeah, these were one-way conversations and my time would best be enjoyed in the cacophony of the chat room. Speaking of cacophony, that was another drawback about live chats: People would start their own side conversations about other subjects, which could be interesting and worthwhile in their own right but could be hard to keep track of.
As I alluded to above, my connection with Yahoo! is only oblique and for the benefit of being on a Yahoo-connected site. It’s the same deal with Google-related sites. I established a Gmail account 4 years ago just wanting to have a new e-mail account. But… well, you know how Publishers Clearing House works? It’s a case of “Gee, I just wanted to win the million bucks; I didn’t realize I’d have all these magazine subscriptions.” Yeah, Google works that way, too. That’s how I discovered that there’s a Google+ profile that goes with the Gmail account. And, yes, both the Gmail and Google+ accounts are active. While I’ve put the former to good use, I don’t get to visit the latter too often. However, I’ve discovered some great transgender and crossdressing folks through Google+, and I’m glad to get to see their work.
(Oh, there’s another Google site I have an… uh, occasional presence on, and I’ll talk about that a little further down this post.)
Eventually, my desire to just chat would eventually lead to wanting to display The Real Me online. What I mean there is that I didn’t have a digital picture of myself, using up to that point only an anonymous avatar for visual representation. So, to alleviate the fear that others would brand me as a fake, I would acquire a decent digital camera and begin taking photos of myself. This image, taken in December 2004 (during my first night out in public as Allison), is the very first digital image of myself in feminine attire. I say digital in that sentence since in previous years I did take photos of myself dressed up through the classic film photo format, the kind you’d have to take to a lab to have developed.
That very first digital image of myself as Allison would serve as my first true avatar representation of myself on Yahoo! and not some cutesy cartoon character. It would not be the last digital image, of course, as over that next year and in subsequent years, I would take one digital photo after another of myself dressed up. I would add those photos to Yahoo’s photo service. But Yahoo! would eventually acquire Flickr, and by 2007 all my Yahoo photos would be moved to Flickr. That turned out to be pretty cool, as it would expand my connections with other crossdressers and transgender people… without the cacophony of talking to them in a chat room. Now, instead of just complimenting someone in chat or IM for their great photos, I could leave them a complimenting message and hope they take it as a good word whenever they had the chance to see it. I’ve officially been on Flickr for a decade now, and while some of their changes left me scratching my head (as tends to happen with changes on most every online site and social media service), it’s turned out to be a great arrangement.
(Oh, I noted two paragraphs up about the fear of being branded as a fake… which I am not, of course. I have thoughts about online fakery, and the need to combat it, in this post.)
The need to post photos of myself and the want to connect with other crossdressers like myself would transition into the need to express thoughts about myself. I joined a small yet interesting web site that catered to CDs and TGs, going so far as to start a small journal where I occasionally shared some thoughts. Unfortunately, that website would shut down suddenly, and it’s been so long that I completely forget what it was called. Luckily, a more prominent TG-related site was there all along: URNotAlone. Really, that’s a perfect name for a website dedicated to a community that can and does face quite a bit of marginalization. Since establishing a profile on URNA (to use the site’s common shorthand) in 2011, I’ve been able to do most of the things I’ve done through the previously mentioned sites: Visit profiles. Connect with new friends. Give and receive compliments. Wish people a happy birthday if their profile indicates it. Access links to articles that affect the broad trans community. Join a live chat conversation every now and again. Resume writing a journal. And, yes, post a few pictures.
Speaking of pictures, URNotAlone requires each and every member when they sign up to add at least one fully-clothed full-view photo of themselves (i.e. from at least the waist up) to their profile. URNA is very strict about concerns of not only fakery but lack of respect towards other members; they’re not above suspending or disabling a profile if they find it’s in violation of their terms and conditions. That’s a great thing to see for the broad transgender and allied community, as it assures that members of all stripes (crossdresser, transgender, cis-gender supporter, etc.) are real and authentic; it also assures that those members are able to receive something that no other site (not Flickr, not Facebook, and certainly not Twitter) can guarantee — as safe of an online environment as possible.
If there’s one drawback at URNotAlone, it’s that for a time, it was difficult to post journal entries. At least it was for me. So, with my need to verbally express myself, and do so in more than 140 characters, at an all-time high, I heeded a recommendation from one of my Twitter friends (and don’t worry, I’ll get into social media in a moment) to start a blog right here on WordPress. And let me tell you, I’m so very happy to have heeded their recommendation. In the almost 3 years since starting this blog, I’ve become more comfortable at expressing myself better than I could in a tweet. And it’s not just in the verbal expression sense, but also in person. Can I say for sure that creating a WordPress blog directly correlates to my increased confidence in self-expression? Has my relatively new urgency in displaying Allison to others in Madison come from writing this blog? Well, I obviously cannot say any of that for sure. I mean, my job search of 15 years ago certainly had a part in increasing Male Mode Me’s communications skills, which I’m sure rubbed off on Allison. But having a blog feels like the floodgates of self-expression and creativeness burst wide open, and it’s let me discover talents I never thought I had.
And those talents have spilled over into a motion picture version of Allison. Okay, I don’t mean I’m cut out for the movies, let alone singing up to appear in one. It’s that I’m also on YouTube, albeit in a very limited presence. It’s one of the side effects of having a Gmail account, really; it was never my intention to become an auteur, just that trying to comment on a cool YouTube video meant having to utilize my Gmail account first. But, I figured later, if you’ve got a YouTube account, why not utilize it? So, I’ve made a couple of cool videos. Granted, I’m not the next Steven Spielberg, and it’s not like I churn out a new video every month, let alone every week; but it’s become an interesting sidelight. If you are interested in some less-than-perfect film work, you can check out the results I have so far here.
I want to close this post with a broad thought and some honesty and advice. The thought first: Without any doubt, the internet has become an amazing thing for everyone from every walk of life everywhere. This is especially true with the LGBT community as a whole and the crossdressing community in particular. Had it not been for the internet, it’s for certain that I wouldn’t be as confident with my feminine side as I have become. Heck, it’s more than likely that I would be even further in the closet, that that my wardrobe would be a fraction of its current size, and that the odds of finding someone like me with a crossdressing interest would have been a long shot, without the all-encompassing power of the internet. I imagine you feel the same way about the internet no matter what type of person you are.
Now, the moment of honesty and advice: I have never considered myself the most perfect representation of the crossdressing community. What I mean is that while I do make an effort to present myself as feminine as possible, and with as much respect toward my trans sisters as possible, many other crossdressers and full-time trans women do a better job than I ever well. That’s why I look up to them, and why you should do so as well. If you’re a crossdresser or trans person, take the time to read and hear their advice online. If you’re a cis-gendered person who is a supporter and/or admirer, heed any advice they may give you on treating them with respect. Know that we’re living, breathing human beings and not some fantasy object.