“If it gets us talking, it can’t be bad:” Building the Transgender Usenet Archive

(Cross-posted from the MITH blog.)

“If only one life is saved by the creation of this group, wouldn’t it be worth it?  It’s only a communications medium, and people are needlessly losing their lives and wasting their potential in self-destructive, maladaptive, denial-bases coping strategies.  The loss to our society is great, and needless…If it gets us talking, it can’t be bad.” – Anonymous, SST — an early history (part 2) (soc.support.transgendered)

You wouldn’t have the transgender movement as it is today without the Internet. Widespread public internet access played a key role in the transgender movement’s growing visibility at the national level during the 1990s. Access to the Internet mitigated many issues that had limited other organizing efforts, like geographic limitations and the sometimes-lengthy publication arc of print media. From the earliest days of Fidonet, trans individuals have made spaces for discussion and resource-sharing online. Some of these spaces were hosted on Usenet, a decentralized, worldwide discussion system founded in 1980 and organized around topic-specific newsgroups. Usenet, as a communications network, is an influential predecessor to modern social media platforms and the origin point for now-common bits of contemporary Internet vocabulary like “spam.”

Amongst its many newsgroups was a small collection of important transgender-related forums, the five most active being alt.transgendered, soc.support.transgendered, alt.support.srs, alt.support.crossdressing, and alt.fashion.crossdressing. As the anonymous poster in the opening quote notes, these spaces offered folks the opportunity to communicate and find support, without falling into “maladaptive” coping strategies. Discussions were active and sometimes highly contentious, as posters—some of them major figures in transgender political activism at the time—discussed and debated key issues of the day in transgender politics.

These newsgroups are at the center of my project as a Winnemore Digital Dissertation Fellow for this year. As a Fellow, I’ll be building a public archive of posts from these five groups using the Bookworm API and data from the Internet Archive’s Usenet Historical Collection. This archive will form a key part of my work, a case study focused on how posters use the term “cisgender” in their discussions. These groups are one of the few archival locations where participants regularly used the term, and several origin narratives point to different newsgroups as being the where it was first used. For my project, however, I’m not interested in origins so much as the specific contexts it was used in and how posters connected this use to their broader understandings of “transgender community.” This follows the focus of my larger dissertation, which explores the affective and structural meanings assigned to “community” in English-language transgender discourse online.

Beyond my own project, though, I’ll also be thinking and writing about the mechanics of Usenet-related research in general. Archival Usenet research can face significant barriers and raises important ethical questions about the afterlife of data. Over the coming year, I’ll be writing and posting about my process at the MITH blog, here on my own blog, and (occasionally) on Twitter. Some of these posts will be about the technical and ethical challenges of the project, offering a window into I’m thinking through them. I’ll also be sharing some of my early findings and other interesting things I encounter in the archive during my research.






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