TikTok’s New Ban on Misgendering Reveals Digital Gap for LGBTQ+ Students

TikTok recently banned deadnaming and misgendering on its platform. Read more to discover what this means for LGBTQ+ students and users.

portrait of R.B. Brooks, M.Ed.
by R.B. Brooks, M.Ed.

Published February 23, 2022

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TikTok’s New Ban on Misgendering Reveals Digital Gap for LGBTQ+ Students


Digital spaces are prime outlets for queer and transgender people to explore their identities, build an understanding of themselves, and visualize new worlds.

College students are especially drawn to digital spaces as they navigate identity development, seek a sense of belonging, and establish meaningful relationships.

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However, for all the value and possibility of digital media, there's major risk and consequence involved in projecting yourself into this virtual reality.

As trans studies scholar Z Nicolazzo frames it, "even in a college environment that is continually marked as a time of self-exploration … some of us are told, tacitly and otherwise, that to explore is to not exist."

In a statement from its head of trust and safety, Cormac Keenan, TikTok announced it is "strengthening our policies to promote safety, security, and well-being on TikTok."

Among the listed areas of focus, the statement specified "deadnaming, misgendering, and misogyny as well as content that supports or promotes conversation therapy programs" as content prohibited on the platform.

These adjustments to TikTok come nearly a year after GLAAD's Social Media Safety Index made overarching recommendations for Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram to make their products safe for LGBTQ+ people.

One of GLAAD's recommendations — "protection of LGBTQ users in community guidelines'' — applied to all the listed platforms. TikTok's rules against misgendering, deadnaming, and promoting content for conversation therapy follow the lead of Twitter's existing policy on hateful conduct. And it adheres to suggestions made in GLAAD's index.

Yet, GLAAD's platform responsibility checklist further emphasizes that the most popular social media platforms common among college-age youths have a lot of work to do to be truly affirming and secure for LGBTQ+ users.

In the executive summary, the report states that "surveying the current landscape of leading social media platforms, the entire sector is effectively unsafe for LGBTQ+ users."

Enhancements to policies that protect LGBTQ+ users are a gesture in the right direction.

LGBTQ+ college students are represented in large numbers among users of common social media platforms. What additional considerations could be made to provide affirming, meaningful experiences online that contribute to their identity development and connection to community?

How Social Media Falls Short of Including LGBTQ+ Students

As of September 2021, more than 60% of TikTok users were ages 10-29. Coupled with the increasing number of Gen Zers claiming LGBTQ+ identities earlier in life, we can make an informed assumption that many TikTok users are also LGBTQ+ college-age students.

Social media and other apps have been used, by many, to direct discriminatory actions or hateful speech toward LGBTQ+ people. If their legal names or images are involved, these apps can be particularly harmful to trans and nonbinary people.

Common dating apps have historically been unsafe for LGBTQ+ youths to navigate. Only in the last several years have dating apps used by younger audiences expanded their gender options and matching algorithms.

Complaints and pushback have been directed at rideshare app Uber for suspending or banning transgender and nonbinary drivers because the documents they uploaded to the app were deemed "fraudulent." Drivers have also encountered instances of their deadname being used in their profile even after making changes to prevent riders from being able to see their deadname.

There has been long-standing criticism of YouTube, as well as other platforms, for censoring or shadowbanning LGBTQ+ content while not addressing anti-LGBTQ+ content or harassment through comments. And even TikTok has admitted to suppressing LGBTQ+ related hashtags from appearing in discovery tabs for users in some countries.

A widespread pattern of LGBTQ+ content suppression. A lack of robust policies protecting LGBTQ+ app users. These social media pitfalls greatly impact LGBTQ+ college students using these platforms.

In a virtual reality where LGBTQ+ college students are looking to make connections, find community, and explore their identities, sketchy or exclusive online spaces produce unique challenges that straight, cisgender peers don't experience.

Continuing to Queer the Digital Landscape

In many of these instances, while a social media platform is trying to address one safety concern, it inadvertently creates barriers for LGBTQ+ users. For example, Uber trying to verify the identity of drivers to increase the safety of riders.

A lot of this contradiction could be prevented more effectively if platform designers and decision makers were consciously and proactively considering LGBTQ+ users' safety. Instead, they retrofit existing policies or practices once it's discovered LGBTQ+ users are negatively impacted.

In Z Nicolazzo's article "In Search of Her: An Autoethnographic Search for Self In Virtual Landscapes," she describes her own exploration of gender and identity specifically through the avatar-customizing app Bitmoji.

Through journal entries, Z contends with the possibilities and limitations presented by a gendered virtual setting — where one can adorn their Bitmoji in dresses as a woman but is then barred from also adding facial hair.

This brings up an ignored downside to inclusivity initiatives. In the case of TikTok and other social media platforms, since they were not created by and for LGBTQ+ people, the only way to include LGBTQ+ users is to modify and edit what already exists.

Designing both digital and in-person spaces with LGBTQ+ people in mind — and in the room — makes curating safer and affirming experiences more achievable.

Queer media content creators and viewers deserve virtual spaces that enable them to laugh at inoffensive memes, build far-reaching communities, and envision worlds that transcend geographical boundaries.


Feature Image: wagnerokasaki / E+ / Getty Images

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