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Algorithmic Bias / Social Media / Trans Experiences

I Modeled Menstrual Products as a Trans Man and Instagram Let Neonazis Harass Me

"Then an even bigger problem arose: Instagram wouldn’t remove the neonazis."

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Written by Skylar Swift.

Art by Manuel Rappard.

TW: Transphobia & anti-Semitism 

In May of this year I saw a casting call for a “diverse group of menstruaters.” I clicked the link and was pleasantly surprised to see that they were looking for trans people as well as an array of cisgender women. I am a transmasculine person who menstruates and models, so this was perfect for me! I submitted my information, and received an email back booking me for a shoot with a sustainable menstrual product company.

As a mixed-race transgender model, a lot of my jobs have been “diversity lineups” with a group of non-traditional models shot all at once. I was concerned at the prospect of a group shoot due to COVID-19, but it was a good gig during a hard and strange time. Quarantine or no, Pride Month was coming up, which tends to be the busiest time of year for me as both an LGBT+ model and illustrator, so I was expecting a fairly standard Pride shoot when I went in to model.

They were introducing me to their cisgender customers and saying “this is Skylar, he’s here too.”

Coming in for my call time, I met the founder of the company and the videographer, who happened to be her husband. Due to the pandemic we were all suited up in masks and other PPE, which I only removed when the camera was pointed at me from a safe distance, but the three of us still had an instant rapport. They were wonderfully sweet, extremely complimentary of me, and were very respectful of my comfort as a transgender model. I was once again pleasantly surprised when I learned that I would be featured individually; not only in a social media campaign, but on their website. The feature on their site was especially surprising to me. I understood being a diverse face of menstruation, but did they really want me on their website, confusing cis women who clicked on their products? I was impressed with this commitment to inclusion. They weren’t just using me to attract a new LGBT+ audience; they were introducing me to their cisgender customers and saying “this is Skylar, he’s here too.” I loved their small but polished company, their ethos of inclusivity and sustainability, and I loved them as people. I left the shoot feeling positive, but not expecting it to change my life or anything. I don’t think either I nor the company I modeled for expected the reaction that the ads featuring me received.

For context, ads in the same series that featured cis women as models garnered maybe 1,000-2,500 likes before slowing down in traction. The Instagram ad featuring me has close to 10,000 likes. This is a frankly ridiculous difference in engagement that literally none of us were prepared for, and it was incredible and overwhelming. I’ve been publicly transgender since 2011 and am fully aware of the possible reactions from cisgender strangers; what I didn’t expect was the number of eyes that would suddenly be pointed at my face.

The majority of the reactions to my ad were extremely positive. Trans people and cis women alike were overjoyed to see me in the public space of menstruation; a space that has, until this moment, been entirely monopolized by cisgender women. Excited trans people thanked the menstrual product company for the inclusion, cisgender women welcomed me with open arms, and many previously uninformed people thanked the company for teaching them that people besides women menstruate too.

Unfortunately, not all reactions to that photo of me smiling with a menstrual cup in hand stayed that positive. Many cis women acted like I was there to steal something that belonged to them, and decried me for inserting myself into that space, regardless of the fact that I currently menstruate. Many of them assumed I was a transgender woman and said horrible, transmisogynistic things. Some insisted I was “a woman no matter what I did,” an “it,” or even “a science experiment.” The replies ranged from typical radfem TERF rhetoric to conservative tradwifes telling me and everyone in that comment section that God hates what I’ve done to my body. One cis woman, whose most recent post on Instagram was a graphic reading “Black Trans Lives Matter,” questioned my right to be in ads for menstrual products.

“I’m a working actress who could have been used for this, by the way.” she said. “And I actually menstruate.”

When the hypocrisy between her recent Instagram posts and her comments on my ads was pointed out to her by another user, in addition to the fact that I do menstruate, she chose to double down.

Your life matters! But don’t live it where I can see it. Your life matters! But don’t you dare think it matters even a fraction as much as mine does.

“The majority of the people who use menstrual products are cisgender women, so I think the face of them should be a cis woman.” she said. As if I, the only transmasculine person ever featured in a menstrual product advertisement to my knowledge, had single-handedly stolen the concept from cisgender women. As if she deserved some random modeling gig, that I applied for and she didn’t, simply on the virtue of being cisgender. As if there wasn’t a gapingly obvious discrepancy between her public face and her true feelings on transgender people. Your life matters! But don’t live it where I can see it. Your life matters! But don’t you dare think it matters even a fraction as much as mine does.

And then came the neonazis.

I’m a mixed race Algerian Jewish person. I don’t know how they knew, since I’m genuinely pretty ethnically ambiguous. However, I have had genuinely life-threatening and traumatizing experiences with white supremacists offline who seemed to immediately recognize me as Jewish, so maybe they know what they’re looking for in a way others don’t; or maybe they just got lucky. Many of them did refer to the company I modeled for a “Jewish-owned company” in their comments, despite the fact that the owner is a non-Jewish woman who just happens to also be MENA. But whatever the reason, they appeared under both the ads featuring me and the main post on the company’s instagram page about the ad in droves. I was lucky to not have my socials directly linked on the content, so although some of them did find me through online sleuthing, most of them simply spewed their vitriol towards trans and non-white peoples publicly.

Then an even bigger problem arose: Instagram wouldn’t remove the neonazis.

Many times I reported white supremacist accounts, drenched in hate speech and symbols, only for Instagram support to tell me that the accounts weren’t violating community guidelines. I tried everything I could. I got friends and followers to report the accounts, I DMed, “@‘d”, and emailed Instagram on every platform I could, complete with compiled evidence. No response came from Instagram. The accounts remained online.

Despite the positive comments still pouring in, the overall situation was a hot, smoking mess.

The company I had modeled for was a two person team at the time, and there was absolutely no way for them to keep up with the tidal wave of violent, racist transphobes reacting to their content. Trans people and cis PoC who had wandered into that comment section because of me had been met with terrible, triggering content. I was so desperate to keep trans and brown kids from seeing those comments, and I failed. A handful of people, unaware of how small the company was, were accusing them of leaving up the hateful comments on purpose,exploiting me and my community for more engagement. Well-intentioned cisgender women were defending me, some “@-ing” my account in the process, unfortunately leading TERFs and nazis right to me. Despite the positive comments still pouring in, the overall situation was a hot, smoking mess.

The menstrual company remained wonderful throughout the whole ordeal. The owner did her best to keep up with the comments and clear out the hateful content, especially anything that would lead the wrong people to my social media. She checked in with me to make sure I still felt safe and comfortable being featured in their content. I said yes, absolutely, but I understood if they needed to take my photos down. She said she absolutely didn’t want to do that unless it was causing me to feel genuinely unsafe or uncomfortable, and that she wanted cisgender people to keep having conversations and learning from me and other trans people. I cried a little.

Eventually, things just died down. As much as I wish I could say there was some grand solution that stopped the onslaught once and for all, real life is often significantly less impressive and more complicated than that. The company’s content featuring me gradually slipped down the algorithm, and the comments petered off. Instagram never got back to me about their disturbingly bad content moderation and user support. I didn’t win the battle; it just gradually dissipated as people moved on to something new.

I saw a community forming under a picture of my face.

However, I gained many small wins from the experience. I saw cisgender people learn and grow from their immediate transphobic reactions to me. I even convinced a few to do better myself. I successfully explained to a handful of cis women that trans women are a vital and beautiful part of our community and they don’t get to be assholes to them, either. I told cisgender women that trans people are their friends, and fight for their rights and interests alongside our own constantly, and they listened. I made friends. I gained followers. I saw a Reddit comment about how hot I am get over 1,000 upvotes. And I experienced one big, beautiful win of seeing people, cis and trans, happy to see a person like me next to a menstrual product. I saw transmasculine and nonbinary people comment about what it meant to them to see themselves represented in menstrual and reproductive health. I saw people so excited to see me in those ads that they bought multiple menstrual cups, and donated the extra ones to people in need. I saw people decide to defend me, decide to teach others, and decide to love each other. I saw a community forming under a picture of my face. I feel more privileged than words can express to have gotten to experience that.


About the Author

Skylar Swift (he/him and they/them) is a mixed MENA transmasculine illustrator, model, and fine artist. They are passionate about representation for trans and non-white peoples both in front of the camera and behind it, and are currently occupied with creative direction projects dedicated to filling mainstream media with brown trans faces.


Follow on IG: @transmisc | Follow on Twitter: @transmisc


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