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The Social Complexities of Transgender Identity Disclosure on Social Media


Major life transitions often require people to make complicated decisions about how to disclose information about that change to the people in their lives. Social media, and people’s online self-presentations and social networks, add complexity to decisions about how to manage information disclosure and changing identities. This dissertation focuses on how people present and disclose changing identities on social media during life transitions, and how these changes impact emotional wellbeing. I use gender transition as a case study to understand the relationships between identity disclosure, emotional wellbeing, and social support in online contexts, and how people experience liminality on social media. I examined transgender people’s transition experiences using data from transition blogs on Tumblr, a social media blogging site on which people document their gender transitions. I analyzed text data from these blogs using methods including sentiment analysis and statistical inference, followed by qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with transgender bloggers. I contribute an empirical examination of how people’s emotional wellbeing changes over time through the gender transition process. Transgender identity disclosures to family members are associated with decreased emotional wellbeing in the short term, followed by increased emotional wellbeing in the long term. Facebook disclosures, an efficient means of mass disclosure, are associated with increased emotional wellbeing for those whose Facebook networks were supportive. However, over a longer time period post-transition, people’s emotional wellbeing is impacted by other life events that take precedence, intersecting identity facets, and the ups and downs of life more broadly. To conceptualize these results, I apply ethnographer van Gennep’s liminality framework to a social media context and contribute a new understanding of liminality by arguing that reconstructing one’s online identity during life transitions is a rite of passage. During life transitions, people present multiple identities and do transition work simultaneously on different social media sites that together act as what I call social transition machinery. Social transition machinery describes the ways that, for people facing life transitions, multiple social media sites often remain separate, yet work together to facilitate life transitions.

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