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Trans content creators say social media can be toxic, but won’t let hate push them offline

When social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney posts on TikTok or Instagram, it’s all but certain the comments section will explode.

There’s plenty of support and encouragement for the 27-year-old transgender woman, who gained notoriety for her bubbly videos documenting her gender transition, but has also become a lightning rod for anti-transgender hate. 

Whether it was last year’s collaboration with Bud Light that led to a boycott against the once top-selling beer or more recently the negative reaction to a post with popstar Lady Gaga to mark International Women’s Day, Mulvaney has become a poster-child for the perils of being a transgender content creator. 

Although the hatred directed at Mulvaney may be exacerbated by her significant number of followers (10.4 million on TikTok, 1.7 million on Instagram), her situation isn’t unique. 

Fae Johnstone and Lauren Sundstrom know all too well how easily their social media posts can make them targets for vitriol. 

Johnstone, an Ottawa-based advocate and writer, and Sundstrom, a Vancouver content creator and fashion influencer, are adamant that they won’t be forced into the social media shadows, which they say is the goal of transphobic commenters and trolls. 

But they believe anti-2SLGBTQ+ hate will force others to reconsider whether they feel comfortable sharing their lives or developing a following online. 

WATCH | Bud Light’s handling of Dylan Mulvaney campaign under fire:

How Bud Light mishandled the Dylan Mulvaney backlash

9 months ago

Duration 2:17

Bud Light’s hiring of trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney prompted conservative backlash, but the company’s handling of that backlash led to even more criticism from the 2SLGBTQ+ community. 

A barrage of hate

Johnstone, 28, went through something similar to what Mulvaney endured over the Bud Light partnership. 

It was a year ago this month that Hershey’s Canada released limited edition chocolate bars for International Women’s Day, one of which featured an image of Johnstone on the packaging. 

She told CBC News it not only resulted in a “staggering cancel campaign” against her on social media, but that the threats were severe enough that the chocolate maker hired security guards to be stationed outside her home for six days. 

A woman holds up a bar with her image on it.
Johnstone holds the limited edition HER for SHE bar featuring her image. It was part of a Hershey’s Canada campaign to celebrate International Women’s Day in 2023. (Hershey’s Canada)

She says it’s an effort “to make it so that we’re not visible in public spaces” and to force companies to pay a political and economic price if they support the human rights of a community that is “marginalized and historically oppressed.” 

She admits the constant barrage of hatred can take a toll, even though she has limited who can respond to her posts on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, where she’s most active. 

She receives disparaging and anti-transgender comments even when she’s not posting about 2SLGBTQ+ advocacy — like when she got married recently and shared a photo with her spouse. 

“Part of the intention here,” she said, “is to make the next trans person more hesitant.” 

LISTEN | Alberta’s premier accused of politicizing trans youth with strict policies:

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Using social media to fight back 

Sundstrom has been building her social media following since 2015 and has been a full-time content creator since 2022. 

But when the 34-year-old started receiving anti-trans comments more frequently last year, she fought back with fashion via her “outfit of the day” posts, a trend on TikTok and Instagram.

“It’s just like a fun, kind of goofy way to show the goofiness of people coming to my page every day and calling me a man when that’s not true,” she said. 

“The haters can’t get to you if you don’t let them.”

But Sundstrom is aware that not everyone has the same level of experience and support that she and other content creators do. 

It concerns her that other 2SLGBTQ+ people, especially those who are younger, may not be ready to cope with the hatred that could result from their content being picked up by a social media platform’s algorithm and landing in the feed of people who make “a hobby” out of hate.

“If they tend to have a habit of hating on trans people, the algorithm shows them more trans videos because they tend to interact with them,” she explained. “It doesn’t matter which social platform you’re on.”

Risk of online hate becoming real-life violence

There are concerns that if hate for 2SLGBTQ+ people — particularly trans people — is left unchecked online, it will translate to real life risks, according to Kristopher Wells, the Canada Research Chair for the Public Understanding of Sexual and Gender Minority Youth at Edmonton’s MacEwan University.

He pointed to protests across the country last year over provincial policies on gender identity in schools and last summer’s stabbing attack at the University of Waterloo that police described as “a hate-motivated incident related to gender expression and gender identity.”

A bald man with glasses stands outside a glass building on a university campus on a sunny day, with a sign reading MacEwan University on top of a concrete platform behind him.
Kristopher Wells, an associated professor at Edmonton’s MacEwan University, said the online hatred directed at 2SLGBTQ+ social media influencers, like Dylan Mulvaney and others, has intensified significantly over the last couple of years. (MacEwan University)

The risk is significant enough that CSIS, Canada’s intelligence agency, warned last month it could lead to violence against 2SLGBTQ+ people.

Wells is encouraged that with the recently proposed Online Harms bill, the federal government is taking some steps to address the hate and vitriol that “is circulating online with virtual impunity.”

Critics of the legislation, including author Margaret Atwood and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, argue it could limit freedom of expression.

Wells says it’s not about censoring opinions, but preventing the spread of dehumanizing and traumatizing comments directed at 2SLGBTQ+ people, as well as people of different races and religions. 

“We have human rights legislation in Canada for a reason,” he said. “It’s not there to protect the majority. It’s there to protect the minority from exactly these kinds of prejudice and discrimination.”

WATCH | Fae Johnstone discusses CSIS warning about anti-transgender movements: 

CBC News Network’s Andrew Nichols speaks with trans activist Fae Johnstone

1 month ago

Duration 4:16

Get the latest on, the CBC News App, and CBC News Network for breaking news and analysis

Need for vocal content creators

Both Sundstrom and Johnstone said much of the hate they get online comes from outside of the country — largely from the U.S., where Canadian laws have no jurisdiction.  

They believe it will ultimately take more action from social media companies to make a difference.

That doesn’t mean limiting opposing views and uncomfortable conversations, said Johnstone, but letting hate run rampant on social media platforms doesn’t make for a healthy democracy — especially when people have to “pay a personal price” for speaking up. 

“It’s an onslaught that never freaking ends,” Johnstone told CBC News.

Despite that, she says she’ll stay online, where she’ll continue to fight for freedom, equality and justice for the marginalized, for queer and trans people and women.

“I’m staying laser focused on that.”

Sundstrom understands that some 2SLGBTQ+ people may be hesitant to share their opinions and details of their lives on social media due to concerns about repercussions, but she says that’s why content creators who are active and vocal shouldn’t back down. 

“If you are confident in your day-to-day life, take that with you onto the internet and share your message, because it will be received by people who need to hear it.”

WATCH | Why the U.S. government may try to ban TikTok: 

Is the U.S. about to ban TikTok? | About That

4 days ago

Duration 9:52

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that many say could lead to the end of TikTok in the country. About That producer Lauren Bird breaks down the bill, its constitutionality and what it could mean for app users if it becomes law.

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