The Influence of Virtual on Physical Identities
John C. Sherblom
University of Maine
Orono, ME, USA
Abstract: A person may experience tension when a gender identity differs from the one that society expects. For a transgender person, this gender identity tension can pose communication challenges for personal and social relationships. A virtual environment provides a space between the personal and public presentations of self in which an individual can negotiate these tensions and explore a gender identity transition. As participants become immersed within the time and space of this virtual environment, they can reshape their identities in ways that have an influence, or Proteus effect, on their physical self-expressions. Our study examines the supportive conversations of a male-to-female transgender group that meets in Second Life. By analyzing the topics, indicators of virtual identity, and references to the Proteus effect in these conversations, we seek to understand how participants purposefully construct virtual identities that facilitate thei
r physical, relational, and personal transgender identity transitions. Our analysis of these conversations concludes that the support group environment assists in the development of these virtual identities, and that participants recognize positive Proteus effects in their physical-life transgender transitions.
A person’s identity is continuously enacted in everyday conversations (Hecht, 1993). Gender is an important aspect of this identity because it involves both a person’s private self-concept and public presentation of self. Tension between this private and public enactment can occur when a person’s gendered identity differs from that expected by society. For a transgender person whose gender identity doesn’t match the biological sex assigned at birth, that tension can create a desire for a gender-identity transition from male to female or from female to male (GLAAD, 2015). A virtual environment provides a space between the private and public presentations of self where a person can negotiate these gender identity tensions (Nagy & Koles, 2014). The relative anonymity of participating in a virtual community provides a safer space for exploring private identities and
public presentations of self.
Our exploratory study examines the conversations of a social support group that meets at the Transgender Resource Center (TRC) in the virtual environment of Second Life. Support group participants discuss their personal, social, relational, and biological experiences of being transgender, and of transitioning. We argue that this virtual support group provides more than an environment in which participants can discuss their physical transitions and relational challenges. This virtual environment facilitates their physical gender identity transitions.
Our study investigates how transgender participants use the virtual community to assist in these gender identity transitions. First, we discuss a communication theory of identity (Hecht, 1993). Second, we examine the identity challenges of being transgender (GLAAD, 2015). Third, we look at virtual identity as developing within a third type of space, between the private and public (Nagy & Koles, 2014). Fourth, we review how the Proteus effect of virtual identity affects a person’s physical being (Yee & Bailenson, 2007). Finally, we analyze the TRC social support group conversations to see how participants use this virtual community as a space in which to facilitate their transgender identity transitions.
Identity is a Dynamic Communication Process
Identity is a multidimensional self-conception in which each dimension affects the others. As a dynamic communication process, identity is enacted across these dimensions (Hecht, 1993), but people sometimes struggle to achieve identity congruence among them (Hubler & Sherblom, 2014). William James (1948) identifies spiritual, material, and social dimensions. The spiritual includes an individual’s internal, personal, and psychological being. The material refers to the physical body, appearance, and relationships with family and friends. The social extends through these material relationships to public recognition (Comello, 2009). Hecht (1993) builds upon James’s (1948) conception of identity by framing identity along four dimensions: the personal, enacted, relational, and communal.
Each frame becomes salient within a communication context. For example, Orbe (2008) describes how first-generation college students perform different identities depending on the immediate context. When participating in classroom activities, first-generation students communicate no differently than other students. Their first-generation-student identity becomes salient, however, when they communicate outside the classroom context. His research shows the influence of context on when and how people communicate identities (Orbe, 2008).
A Communication Theory of Identity
Through communication an individual's personal identity merges with the social. In conversation with others a person enacts an identity that negotiates among personal, relational, and communal frames (Hecht, 1993; Jung & Hecht, 2004, 2008). That identity is continually re-shaped by the dynamics of everyday communication, within community expectations.
The personal frame of identity refers to how a person attributes meaning to the self in those social contexts. These meanings include those ascribed to the individual by others as well as personal interpretations, motivations, and responses to the social expectations that influence the performance of identity. These performances are not only expressions, but also influence a person’s self-concept.
Through conversation, people simultaneously enact multiple roles as spouses, friends, and employees. They internalize the feedback of others, and participate in the collective meanings of groups, communities, and cultures (Hecht, 1993). Hence, everyday conversations affect a person’s identity. These conversations are the sites where social performances and self-concepts integrate the multiple identity frames. The relational frame emerges from this site as individuals define themselves within their interpersonal relationships and shape their social behaviors around the relational expectations that emerge through these conversations. The communal frame contextualizes these interactions within the larger community that defines common goals, values, and attitudes toward what is appropriate. These are often implicit, yet influential on a person’s identity (Hecht, 1993).
A person experiences tension when there is a mismatch among these personal, relational, and communal frames. Whether actively or passively enacted, a discrepancy produces an internal tension that requires resolution (Jung & Hecht, 2004). In their study of Korean immigrants’ relationships with people from other ethnic groups, Jung and Hecht (2008) measured identity gaps in the interactions that Korean immigrants had with non-Koreans, who ascribed characteristics to them that did not match the Korean immigrants’ self-images. They found that the immigrants experienced identity tensions when gaps occurred between either the personal-enacted or personal-relational frames. The personal-enacted gaps that occurred in conversation increased identity tension and the likelihood of depression more than the personal-relational gaps. The immediacy of the conversations gave the immigrants less time to block
the potentially negative psychological effects of these personal-enacted gaps. The personal-relational identity gaps that occurred, but were not explicitly expressed in conversation, allowed more time for reflection and reinterpretation of the negative stereotypes. Their findings show the influence of conversations on personal identity construction (Jung & Hecht, 2008).
Negotiating a Transgender Identity between Private and Public Selves
Transgender refers to multiple types of gender non-conforming individuals whose gender identity expressions differ from what is typically associated with the sex they are assigned at birth (GLAAD, 2015; National Center for Transgender Equality, 2014). When a person feels pressured to publicly perform an expected gender identity that conflicts with a personal self, an internal tension arises that can create emotional upheaval and even thoughts of suicide (Nuru, 2014). It is unknown how many Americans self-identify as transgender because many transgender individuals are not public about their private gender identities. GLAAD (2015) estimates that approximately 1% of the American population is transgender. In 2008, 8% of Americans said they knew someone who was transgender; in 2015, this figure increased to 16%. These survey responses reflect age differences in people&r
squo;s experiences of knowing transgender individuals as well. For instance, 27% of young people and 9% of people over 45 said they know a transgender person (GLAAD, 2015).
Transgender individuals often find it difficult to present publicly as the gender that matches their internal gender identification. They often feel as though they have an invisible or discreditable minority status and experience social stigma (Goffman, 1963). As a result, a person with a transgender identity must constantly be aware and actively negotiate gender presentations in all aspects of life. In daily activities such as going to work, family interactions, grocery shopping, or seeking healthcare, transgendered individuals must decide if they can safely express a gender identity despite the potential for emotional distress, loss of a relationship, and even physical violence (Brown, 2015; Norwood, 2012; Sloop, 2000).
Faulkner and Hecht (2011) examined the tensions experienced by Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender-Questioning (LGBTQ) participants who identify as Jewish-American. Their analysis of interview transcripts suggests that identity conflict often exists between the individual, relational, enacted, and communal frames of being LGBTQ and being Jewish. This conflict occurs in a participant’s close relationships, in contexts that require simultaneous enactment of being LGBTQ and Jewish, and in situations where the meaning of being LGBTQ and being Jewish collide. To reduce this conflict, the participants strategically concealed or revealed their LGBTQ identities in their everyday conversations.
Nuru’s research (2014) reveals similar tensions in transgender coming-out stories. Her respondents strategically negotiated their personal-enacted, relational-enacted, and personal-relational identity roles. One transgender participant recounted his difficulty of identifying as a man in his personal frame, but being perceived as a daughter in the relational. Another described his relationship dissolution after he came out as transgender to his fiancée (Nuru, 2014).
These studies reflect how transgendered people experience tension when their public performances collide with an internal gender identity. Many transgender individuals only express socially non-conforming gender identities in private, away from social judgment. A virtual environment provides a different type of space, neither fully public nor wholly private, where an individual can perform a transgender identity (Koles & Nagy, 2012; Marciano, 2014).
Virtual Identity Exists in a Third Space between Private and Public
Koles and Nagy (2012) describe a virtual environment as a third space that exists between the private and public spheres. In this virtual space people create symbolic visual representations of themselves called avatars (Green-Hamann, Eichhorn, & Sherblom, 2011). An avatar gives a person more flexibility for expressing an identity through choice of skin color, body shape, gender, and clothing than they have in the physical world (Banks & Martey, 2016; Matviyenko, 2010).
In a physical environment, a person’s private space exists in the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and self-consciousness of an internal identity. The public space contains the social expression, appearance, mannerisms, external characteristics, feedback, and social judgment that a person receives from others. In a virtual environment, a person can communicate publicly while maintaining a degree of anonymity. This virtual space differs from the “regular places of existence… and as such offers neutral grounds for the purposes of socializing and experiencing unique and distinct realities” (Koles & Nagy, 2012, p. 5).
Nagy and Koles (2014) frame their conception of virtual identity around individual, relational, social and material dimensions of self. The individual dimension includes the relatively stable set of personal goals, beliefs, values, and life stories. The relational recognizes the social roles, interactions, expectations, and feedback that a person encounters in everyday life. The social includes membership in social groups that are based on ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, and family. The material reflects a person’s physical being, including artifacts and characteristics.
Virtual identities are built on these dimensions, but are affected by the qualities of the virtual environment as well (Nagy & Koles, 2014). The ways in which participants strategically use these qualities to creatively construct their identities is important to note. Any communication medium, face-to-face included, provides both constraints and affordances to personal identity construction. An affordance is defined as a quality of the medium that aligns with an individual’s abilities and facilitates a desired goal achievement (Aten & Thomas, 2016; Erhardt, Martin-Rios, Gibbs, & Sherblom, 2016). Virtual environments offer at least three important affordances to virtual identity construction.
First, virtual environments are immersive, producing a sense of social presence among participants. This immersive nature is reflected by the participants’ use of linguistic markers to describe their avatars’ actions as their own. For example, participants often refer to their avatars with statements such as, “I have made a lot of good friends in Second Life.” This statement implies an identity of “I” with the avatar, expressing a feeling of presence in the virtual environment, and perception of communicating with others there (Khan & Pena, 2015; Nagy & Koles, 2014).
Second, virtual environments have a particular time orientation. Virtual time is persistent because it is continuous and cannot be stopped. Participants develop conversations and social relationships over time. A virtual identity is constructed across time and through participation in multiple conversations and relationships. Participants can refer back, tell stories, and remember past experiences as they create a personal, relational, and shared group history.
Third, virtual environments enable participants to interact with relative anonymity (Koles & Nagy, 2012). Communicating through avatars allows participants to create a self-presentation that is neither wholly public nor private. While a participant performs an identity in front of others, the person remains relatively anonymous. This public-private presentation of self allows participants to experiment and experience virtual identities that they may not feel safe presenting publicly in their physical lives.
The avatar’s appearance and the editable nature of communicating through text allow a participant to make a purposeful public self-presentation that matches an internal identity. This includes modifying appearance, mannerisms, dress, communication styles, and ways of being. In addition, participants can simultaneously communicate with others and reflect on any private thoughts, feelings, beliefs, emotions, and tensions that might arise in these public-private presentations of self (Koles & Nagy, 2012; Nagy & Koles, 2014).
In these ways, a virtual identity incorporates a person’s individual, relational, social, and material selves, but also the immersive, time-persistent, relatively anonymous, and text-editable qualities of the virtual environment in which it is enacted (Matviyenko, 2010). Furthermore, past research shows that enacting a virtual identity within this virtual environment affects a person’s cognitions, perceptions, self-concepts, and attitudes through a process known as the Proteus effect (Yee & Bailenson, 2007).
Identity Transformation through the Proteus Effect
The Proteus effect is named for the Greek god, Proteus, who could change his appearance and alter his self-presentation. The effect describes the influence of virtual self-representation in the form of an avatar on a person’s physical being (Yee & Bailenson, 2007). Avatar appearance has been shown to influence both consciousness and behavior even after participants leave the virtual environment (Fox, Bailenson, & Tricase, 2013; Yee, Bailenson, & Ducheneaut, 2009). Changes in avatar height, weight, hair color, gender, attractiveness, and sexuality affect how participants interact with others in the virtual environment and in their physical lives (Yee & Bailenson, 2007).
To demonstrate the effect of avatar appearance, Yee and Bailenson (2007) gave participants either attractive or unattractive avatars, and asked them to interact with others after viewing their virtual representation in a mirror. Those who embodied attractive avatars walked within three feet of others and shared more personal information. Participants with less attractive avatars stayed more than five feet away and shared fewer self-disclosures. Participants with attractive avatars thus displayed more confidence, friendliness, and extroversion (Yee & Bailenson, 2007).
Thirty minutes after these virtual interactions, participants from the attractive-unattractive avatar experiment took part in what they were told was an unrelated real-world study about online dating. They were shown nine photos of potential dates from an online dating pool and asked to pick two potential dates. Regardless of their physical appearance, those who had embodied attractive avatars chose dates that had been independently rated as better-looking than those who had embodied less attractive avatars, indicating a carry-over effect from the virtual environment.
In a second study, Yee and Bailenson (2007) divided participants into pairs and gave each participant an assigned avatar. While embodied as these avatars, participants engaged in a negotiation exercise. One participant was assigned to make an offer of how to split $100. The other participant could accept or reject that offer, with both knowing that if the offer was rejected neither would get anything. Participants embodying taller avatars bargained more aggressively and were significantly more likely to offer $75-$25 monetary splits in their favor. Participants with shorter avatars were significantly more likely to accept the unfair offer. Participants who had embodied taller avatars continued to bargain more aggressively and suggested unfair $75-$25 splits more often in subsequent face-to-face negotiations. Participants with the shorter avatars continued to accept those unfair monetary splits. The actual physical height of the partici
pant was, at least temporarily, a less important influence in these face-to-face negotiations than was the previous avatar height (Dell, 2008; Yee & Bailenson, 2007; Yee, Bailenson, & Ducheneaut, 2009).
In yet another study, female participants took part in a virtual world conversation as highly sexualized or as non-sexualized avatars (Fox, Bailenson, & Tricase, 2013). After their virtual world conversation, participants completed a real-world paper-and-pencil measure that asked about body-related thoughts. The measure included a set of rape-myth-acceptance scales with items such as, “Women who get raped while hitchhiking get what they deserve,” and “In the majority of rapes, the victim is promiscuous or has a bad reputation.” Women who had been randomly assigned the more sexualized avatars in the virtual world conversation reported more body-related thoughts. They also scored higher on the rape-myth acceptance scales than those who had embodied the non-sexualized avatars (Fox, Bailenson, & Tricase, 2013). Having embodied a sexualized avatar for a brief per
iod of time appeared to influence the participants’ propensity to blame rape victims for an assault, even when they completed these measures after leaving the virtual environment.
These results show the effect of embodying avatars with different heights, attractiveness, and sexualized appearance on participant attitudes and behaviors. In addition to these effects, Khan and Pena (2015) demonstrate the Proteus effect on participants’ self-perceptions and language. Their participants were assigned either a slim or heavy avatar and asked to play virtual tennis. After playing against another avatar, participants answered questions about their experience. Those embodying slim avatars used more body-movement and self-focused words in their descriptions. Participants with heavy avatars who played against slimmer avatars used more self-critical comments. Thus, avatar appearance affects physical self-image as well.
In each of these studies, researchers assigned avatars to the participants. The implications for participants who design their own avatars remain unclear. However, we argue that virtual identity and the Proteus effect predict an influence of the virtual on physical-world identities. Two personal narratives also suggest that transgender individuals who purposefully embody virtual identities can experience real-world effects.
D’Anastasio (2015) writes that as Veronica, she always knew she was male-to-female transgender, but she couldn’t go out in public as female. She worried that she would be derided and possibly attacked. Second Life provided a safe, friendly, and anonymous space where she could wear a dress and show her female face. Veronica’s experience as a female-bodied avatar allowed her to explore and experiment with a female identity that was unavailable to her in real life. She joined a transgender group. She became a disc jockey in a virtual club and met virtual lovers with whom she experimented sexually. The confidence and sense of self that she gained in Second Life translated into her physical life: “When I logged on I didn’t have to worry about ‘passing’ as female. I could be myself. It encouraged me to realize that it’s something I wanted to live in my real life and not just in my second life”
(D’Anastasio, 2015, p. 2).
Dale (2014) describes a similar experience. As a 14-year-old he acted in stereotypical male ways in his physical life, but chose a female avatar. As he relaxed into his female self-expression, others treated him as female and complimented him on his avatar’s appearance. Becoming immersed in a virtual female identity revealed a possible future. By trying out female names and talking to people who referred to him as female, Dale discovered that she didn’t want to go back to a real world of being masculine. The virtual environment gave her a safe space in which she didn’t have to commit to a gender until she was ready. She could transition at her own pace. Eventually, she gained the courage to come out in the real world. Without that virtual world experience, she said, “I don’t know if I would ever have had the self-understanding to commit to a life that is now wide open” (Dale, 2014, p. 1)
Our Present Study
Our study analyzes the conversations of a social support group that meets in the Transgender Resource Center of Second Life. Second Life provides an immersive, time-persistent, virtual environment in which participants use avatars to communicate with each other. The realism of this three-dimensional virtual environment, sophistication in avatar design, and avatar-mediated communication provide an immersive sense of presence (Kumar et al., 2008). Over time, participants develop relationships, buy and sell goods, build and sculpt terrain, participate in communities, and engage in an economy that has a real-world currency exchange (Nagy & Koles, 2014; Sherblom & Green-Hamann, 2013).
Past research studies discuss why people participate in Second Life social support groups, the types of social support they receive, and the informational bridging and emotional bonding relationship networks they develop (Green-Hamann et al., 2011; Green-Hamann & Sherblom, 2014). Our present analysis builds on this previous work by examining how identity performances in the virtual world affect their offline performances. Our exploratory study has three goals: (a) describe the social support topics that facilitate the participants’ development of virtual identities; (b) analyze the group conversations for evidence of virtual identities in an immersive, time-persistent, third space; and (c) explore how participants use the Proteus effect of these virtual identities to influence their physical beings.
RQ1: What types of social support topics do participants discuss in their conversations at the Transgender Resource Center?
RQ2: Do participant conversations provide evidence of virtual identity as shown in expressions of personal immersion, time persistence, and being in a third space?
RQ3: Do participant statements suggest a Proteus effect of virtual identities upon physical beings?
Transgender Resource Center in Second Life
The Transgender Resource Center (TRC) in Second Life provides a virtual community for individuals who identify as transgender. Norris (2009
) lists the TRC, with its 845 members, as the second largest of the 152 social support groups in Second Life. Participants are identifiable only by avatar appearance and self-selected pseudonym. Although voice communication is available in Second Life, TRC participants generally interact through text in avatar-to-avatar conversation, which provides a degree of anonymity (Green-Hamann & Sherblom, 2013
Figure 1. The Transgender Resource Center
Transgender resource center participants are expected to be tolerant and supportive of the viewpoints, identities, and experiences of others. Communication among members and visitors must be kind and constructive. Abusive behaviors, degrading language, or violence toward other participants is not permitted. Picture taking is allowed, but any avatar included in a picture must give consent. Wall signs list resources, schedules for support group meetings, and social activities. One sign states the TRC is a “positive, helpful, and diverse community providing peer support to the transgender residents of Second Life.”
Figure 2. Signs on the wall inside the Transgender Resource Center
Before observing the group discussions, the first author spent time at the TRC to develop personal relationships, establish credibility, and build interpersonal trust with participants. This interaction facilitated a level of comfort for the discussions of gender identity and allowed the researcher to better understand the participants’ experiences. Through this participation the researcher gained insight into the “constraints, motivations and emotions that [group] members experience” (Lindlof & Taylor, 2011, p. 3).
We obtained Institutional Review Board approval for all study procedures and protection of participant confidentiality. In addition, the first author received the support group leader’s permission to attend and observe the group discussions. The researcher explained to the leader that she wanted to learn more about the transgender transition process, but she did not discuss concepts of virtual identity or the Proteus effect.
Each TRC session began with a check-in with the group leader saying, “I would like you to tell us a bit about yourself, how you’re doing, and any topics you’d like us to address today.” During this check-in, the leader introduced the researcher and asked participants to send her (the leader) private text messages to indicate their acceptance or concerns with the researcher being present and recording their conversation. All participants agreed to the researcher’s presence and recording at each meeting. Meetings were transcribed with Second Life software.
The first author participated in a series of ten weekly group meetings of male-to-female transgender transitioning individuals (N=55) over a three-month period. Participants attended from a number of different countries, including Canada, England, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, and the United States. These meetings had an average of 10 participants, with as few as 6 and as many as 16 individuals engaged in each discussion. Each meeting lasted approximately an hour, generating 10 hours of conversational text for analysis. To assure anonymity, we removed avatar names from the transcripts prior to analysis and assigned participant numbers in each transcript according to speaking order.
Our analysis was driven by a goal to understand how participation in these social support group discussions influences virtual identities and physical transitions. We used the constant comparison method of grounded theory to analyze the text, repeatedly re-reading the transcripts, becoming immersed in the text, and moving back and forth between text and context to reflect on participant meanings (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Through this process we sought to understand the concerns, relationships, and participant meanings expressed in the text.
The TRC Provides Social Support for Transgender Transitions
Our first research question asks what types of social support topics participants discuss in their conversations at the TRC. As Table 1 shows, participants discuss the challenges of transgender transitioning, potential loss of friends during the process, and difficulties of maintaining supportive relationships with family members and significant others. We begin with examples of each topic, and then move to the virtual identities enacted and the Proteus effect that these conversations reflect.
Table 1. The Topics of Social Support
Topic 1: Challenges of Transgender Transitioning
P1: I’m M2F [male to female]. I’ve been moving toward transitioning for the past few years. I’ll be starting hormones soon. I’m not full time yet, that may happen near the end of the year, and I’m not out to many folk. I’m married with 2 daughters, both now have left home. I’m supported by my eldest, not by my SO [significant other], and I’m not sure about my youngest.
P2: How recently did you tell them?
P1: They found out about a year ago.
P2: It can take people some time to get their heads around it, especially people who are close.
P1: They have not seen me presenting as a female yet, though my eldest has seen photos. I was out shopping with her today, and looking for jewelry for me.
P3: I’m in my mid-40’s, still don’t know how far I’m going to go. Living full-time somewhere between the two extremes. At the moment I still keep my delusion that I can get by without a full transition.
P2: I think transition is such an individualized thing for us. Not everyone wants or needs GRS [Gender Reassignment Surgery].
P3: I’d love to have the results of SRS [Sex Reassignment Surgery], but it’s a major operation, and my wife is way too freaked out by the idea.
P4: I live in Germany, 53 years old. I am in HRT [Hormone Replacement Therapy] since 6 months - my outing started partwise 1 year ago and was completed in summer.
P5: I have my first appointment. Finally, with a GID [Gender Identity Dysphoria] specialist on Tuesday!!!!!!! Only 2 years to get the courage.
P6: It’s a big step, for sure. There are Trans people who do not transition.
P7: I need to transition to some extent, enough to be accepted as a girl in society.
P8: And transition doesn’t have to happen quickly.
P6: I’m still not sure myself.
P7: I can’t continue pretending to be a boy. I need what people see to reflect the way I feel.
Topic 2: Potential Loss of Friends
P1: In the last half year I didn’t see and meet any one of my friends. Though I was so proud about my development.
P2: I think that social isolation is a really important topic, and would be great for us to talk about as a group. I have experienced isolation too, in the first 6 months on hormones - but it is getting better for me.
P1: I almost believe that they did accept me as a guy, but not when my body changed. They have problems.
P3: I think sometimes friends find they are not comfortable with the change.
P4: I know when I started hormones, I was happy (proud even) when my boobs started growing - but I started avoiding people. I was sure they were staring at my chest. So, how do we build friendships?
P3: I suppose go to places or clubs that interest you.
P4: I think part of it is having common interests with potential friends.
P3: Folk will gradually become friends.
P5: Friendships for me were easy because I started a new life in a new city. My [new] friends are from church and work contexts, plus Trans support groups.
P4: I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. I’ve made some close friendships among people in the Trans community - but when they completely transition they seem to not want to hang out with me much. I think they have moved on and if the only connection they have with me is being Trans, then they’re not much interested in continuing friendship.
P6: They don’t want to hang out with you, or they have different interests?
P4: I don’t know which - they are just not connecting with me as much as they used to.
Topic 3: Maintaining Supportive Relationships
P1: Do you have any people who can support you in this?
P2: I have a few people who can support me but I am looking for more.
P1: My partner and daughter are highly accepting. Enthusiastic even.
P3: A kiss and a cuddle is as far as I ever go.
P4: I feel pretty lucky atm [at the moment], being myself, though still pre-op, and I have a loving gf [girlfriend].
P5: Wow, same here.... that’s great.
P3: I never can take my clothes off in front of anyone.
P4: It was a bit awkward for me at first too.
P6: A kiss and a cuddle is all I ever want, but that’s a different support issue for me.
P7: My partner is starting to get interested in me physically again, but only with the lights off.
P8: It’s hard. My girlfriend [with] whom I’ve had a child doesn’t like me being Trans.
P1: Many of us have struggled with what this does to families. My partner was born female, I was born male. My partner has by circumstance become a lesbian partner. She loves me more than she wants to avoid being seen as lesbian. She loves me more than my gender.
These examples reveal that some participants are unsure if they will make a full biological transition, or if their significant others would accept that. Participants express an uncertainty, need for acceptance, and desire for people to see them as the gender they experience. They describe their social isolation during the transition process when friends have difficulty accepting their physical transition. They discuss their need for close personal, family, and physical relationships. Yet, being self-conscious, they sometimes avoid people. They also discuss building new friendships around common interests and exploring aspects of self besides being transgender. Statements of acceptance and desire take many forms. Participants seek support, acceptance, and love, but may feel awkward taking their clothes off. A kiss and a cuddle, and being physically intimate with a loved one, become topics of discussion.
Discussion of these personal topics builds a presence within the group. Over time and across conversations, relationships grow. Through these conversations and relationships participants develop identities within this virtual community.
Beyond Social Support: Virtual Identity in an Immersive, Time-Persistent, Third Space
Our second research question asks whether these conversations show the development of those virtual identities. Virtual identities are expressed in the use of “I” when referring to avatar actions, recognition of the persistence of virtual time, and perception of the virtual environment as a third space. These expressions of “I” and being present in time and space provide evidence of virtual identities, as shown in Table 2.
Table 2. Virtual Identity in Immersion (“I”), Persistence (time), and Third Space.
Example 1: Immersion (“I”) and Third Space (enough chairs?)
P1: One more seat for you :)
P2: We just exceeded capacity!
P3: TRC may need more seating!!
P4: Someone can have my seat.
P2: Real Avatars don’t get tired of standing, lol.
P1: One seat over here. A couple of chairs there if you want.
P5: If you want to fight over them, lol.
P1: Funny, this is SL, but we still want to sit, don’t we.
P6: I am sitting, thank you. :)
P3: J. is hovering, hehe.
P1: I think she’s been doing yoga.
P3: Couple more seats [here].
P7: It’s quite comfortable. Thank you.
Example 2: Immersion (“I”), Persistence (time), and Third Space (the room)
P1: This is different. [You] bought us new chairs.
P2: Oh you haven’t been here since whoever changed the room?
P1: Yeah - first time to this space.
P3: It’s kind of cozy.
P4: Ok, now this is maybe too relaxed…
P5: Hello P4. Pretty dress. Everyone is in spring clothes today. P6 has a pretty dress on today too, and wedge sandals, just like me.
P6: I love wedge sandals.
P7: Nice shoes ;)
P8: They are indeed very nice shoes – got them at Nordstrom Rack [in Second Life].
P9: Shifts, nervous in her chair, looks down at her shoes.
Example 3: Immersion (“I”), Persistence (time), and Third Space (the virtual deck)
P1: I have been on the [TRC] deck for weeks but do not recognize some of your names, although I am newer.
P2: For me anyway, this group is the main time I visit SL.
P3: I’ve been a TRC volunteer for years, but these days I’m online only for this group.
P4: I’m just the opposite, [I] rarely hang out downstairs [on the TRC deck].
P1: I guess I am a “deck” girl deep inside, made a lot of good friends down there.
P3: The TRC has always been great for that.
P1: That is where I started here.
These examples show the participants’ expressions of feeling immersed in this virtual space through the use of I and we, in expressions like “I am sitting” and “we still want to sit” (Example 1), “[you] bought us new chairs” (Example 2), and “well, I guess I am a ‘deck’ girl deep inside” (Example 3). They refer to being in time with expressions like “first time in this space” (Example 2), “I have been on the [TRC] deck for weeks,” and “That is where I started here” (Example 3). Even more interesting is their focus on chairs and sitting (Example 1), the feeling that this space “is cozy” and “maybe too relaxed” (Example 2), and comments about hanging out downstairs (Example 3). These expressions indicate the development of virtual identities.
The Proteus Effect of Virtual Identities on Physical Beings
Our third research question asks if participants refer to the influence of their virtual identities on their physical lives, an effect known to researchers as the Proteus effect. These TRC participants often compare their virtual identities and experiences to their physical lives and selves. Table 3 presents some examples.
Table 3. The Proteus Effect of Virtual Identities on Physical Beings
Example 1: Immersion (“I”), Persistence (time), Third Space, and Proteus Effect
P1: It feels good to be back in SL. You all are so brave. I only go full time here in SL. Life had become very stressful.
P2: It is good to have you back
P1: Glad to be back. Thanks.
Example 2: Immersion (“I”), Persistence (time), Third Space, and Proteus Effect
P1: Two weeks ago there were 15 people here.
P2: I had some nice experiences in the meantime. One is SL-related. I visited a group of disabled women in SL. They have a discussion group, not unlike this one, and I had a very nice chat with them.
P1: SL is great for people with all kinds of disabilities; or different abilities.
P2: Exactly. The other one was in RL [real life], a workshop related to women of different nationalities in Holland, how they can become successful in business against possible discrimination. In both cases I saw parallels between these groups of women and our own.
Example 3: Immersion (“I”), Third Space, and Proteus Effect
P1: My partner has started teaching me crochet. It’s a big adventure. I feel this great wave of happiness when I work on stuff that I used to think would be too girly for me as a man.
P2: Actually I feel the same way with the stuff I do in SL.
P3: The sim environment allows me to express, and find out where I want to be.
P4: Yeah, got to love SL for trying [things] out.
P5: Ladies, we are living in a world beyond time… in a strange zone of imagination.
P6: I would likely not be transitioning now were it not for hanging out in the TRC living room.
When life becomes stressful, a person can return to Second Life for relief (Example 1). One can have experiences in Second Life that are equally positive to real-life ones (Examples 2 and 3). Second Life provides a great place for people to express themselves, try things out, and imagine how they want to be (Example 3). These examples point to a connection between virtual identity and physical being, suggesting a Proteus effect.
The TRC’s Social Support Can Assist Gender Transitioning
The participants’ virtual interactions show that the TRC provides a space in which transgender individuals from around the world can meet to find support for the challenges of transitioning. When a participant “can’t continue pretending to be a boy,” but wants only to “transition to some extent, enough to be accepted as a girl in society,” hearing others say that transitioning is “an individualized thing for us. Not everyone wants or needs GRS [Gender Reassignment Surgery]” and I “still don’t know how far I’m going to go” can be reassuring. Hearing from others who experience the loss of friends during transition, even losing close transgender friends, can reduce personal feelings of isolation and social inadequacy. Developing strategies for establishing new friendships can also help the transition process. When “a kiss and a cuddle is as far as I ever go,” “my girlfriend… do
esn’t particularly like me being Trans,” or “I never can take my clothes off in front of anyone,” it is comforting to hear others say that “it was a bit awkward for me at first too” and “my partner is starting to get interested in me physically again [even if] only with the lights off.”
Individuals are expected to follow socially prescribed gender performances (Sloop, 2000; Wight, 2011). Because being transgender is socially non-conforming, it often creates physical life challenges (Brown, 2015; Norwood, 2012; Nuru, 2014; Sloop, 2000). When physical life becomes stressful, participants can relax in Second Life and try on new shoes, expressions, virtual experiences, and gender identities that are not socially sanctioned in their physical lives.
The TRC provides a safe place for social support during a time of transition, loss of friends, and challenging family relationships. Within this supportive virtual community a participant is able to engage in a public transgender identity presentation, while maintaining a degree of personal privacy (Beard, Wilson, Morra, & Keelan, 2009). This public-private quality of the virtual community provides an “e-empowerment” for participants, giving them time and space to develop their new identities (Zielke, Roome, & Krueger, 2009, p. 5). Participants take advantage of the communication affordances provided by this virtual community to facilitate these transgender transitions (Sherblom, Withers, Leonard, & Smith, in press). They use the affordance of anonymity to maintain personal safety, of text editing to create selectively enhanced self-presentations, and of ti
me persistence to develop new virtual identities within a supportive community (Erhardt et al., 2016). These three affordances provide participants greater self-efficacy for self-disclosure and facilitate developing new gender presentation skills.
An Avatar Allows a New Gender Identity
Publically presenting as an avatar in a virtual community involves more than crafting an aesthetically appealing presentation of self. Avatar appearance creates a public performance of the self within a system of social codes. It communicates an actively performed and socially situated self-expression that both seeks approval and challenges social norms (Martey & Consalvo, 2011; Martey, Stromer-Galley, Banks, Consalvo, & Consalvo, 2014).
Expressing gender identity through an avatar weakens a person’s ties to the physical body and allows experimentation. That avatar expression, however, is still embedded within the symbolic codes of a virtual community. These codes influence a participant’s internal gender identity as well as the social performance. Past researchers have shown that men who create female avatars not only take on the appearance, but also engage in more stereotypic female language behaviors and adopt more emotional phrases and feminine relational roles (Martey et al., 2014).
The TRC provides a supportive community with social values that support transgender expressions of self. Within this virtual community transgender individuals can publicly present the gender identities with which they identify internally. Through their avatars they can strategically choose a shape, clothing, movement, and communication style with which to perform this new transgender identity within the social expectations of a supportive community.
Our study’s participants use this virtual community for more than social support. They do share knowledge, experience, and emotional support with each other, but they also strategically negotiate and reshape personal and public identity presentations. Participants receive support for their transition decisions, openly mourn the loss of friends, and share their need for maintaining family relationships. In addition, they are able to publicly present as the gender with which they privately identify, are treated by others as a person of that gender, and through that supportive interaction are able to further develop their transgender identities. The TRC provides a supportive place for participants to enact these transgender identities in a space that is neither fully private nor wholly public. The TRC virtual community provides more than social support. It facilitates these personal gender identity transitions.
Limitations and Future Research Directions
Our study analyzes the conversations of a small number of male-to-female transgender individuals who meet in one virtual community. The first author spent a relatively short amount of time observing their group discussions, and our analysis represents only one step toward understanding how people use virtual communities to support their personal gender identity transitions. The individual, relational, and communal meanings of transitioning are more emotionally and cognitively complex than what we are able to portray here in our brief discussion. Future research should observe other groups to discover if the identified connections among conversations, virtual identities, and Proteus effects on physical lives are generalizable.
Participants often join the TRC unsure of how far they want to progress in their transgender transition process. Participants gain self-efficacy and frame new identities. They joke about seats for their avatars, complement each other on their shoes, discuss personal histories, celebrate the TRC, and use the affordances of the virtual environment to facilitate their personal transitions. The relative anonymity of a public-private virtual space allows participants to enact transgender identities with greater personal safety. In this space individuals can express their transgender identities and experience public responses.
Through their virtual avatar embodiments participants can publicly express personal transgender identities, reducing tensions among their personal, enacted, relational, and communal dimensions of self. As skill increases with this expression, participants are able to more confidently present non-conforming transgender identities in the public spaces of their physical world. In this way, virtual identity influences physical being. As one participant indicated, “I would likely not be transitioning now if not for hanging out in the TRC living room.”
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