I was in some conversations with people on Twitter who informed me that social media sites regularly remove the accounts of deceased people. This removal was not out-of-character for Tumblr, which I realize now deletes accounts of dead people when requested by close relatives as policy. This is standard for social media accounts.
Reading this initial explanation that Tumblr deleted Leelah’s account on request of her parents viscerally disgusted me and perhaps you’d expect that it would soften my position on this to learn that they are enforcing a regular policy of theirs. Instead it’s drawn attention to some extremely disturbing issues that are very firmly related to transgender experiences as well as the experiences of children in abusive households.
I’m reminded of the recent incident with Jennifer Gable, a trans woman who had already entirely socially transitioned including going through a legal name change. Her relatives had her hair cut and she was buried as if she were a man. Her family even succeeded in having her old name put on her death certificate. There was no way this was within her wishes, but it went ahead anyway. It was not just an insult to Gable, but to her friends and to the entire trans community. And there’s no telling how many other trans people have been treated in this manner who didn’t have the same extrafamilial support Gable did.
Blanket policies and laws allowing relatives to curate a deceased person’s identity—whether through an obviously insensitive funeral or the deletion of a person’s web presence or any other way—are based on the assumption that people as a general rule have supportive parents who will honor and care for them. These policies do not have leeway for cases where somebody has very clearly expressed wishes that do not align with their parents’. Leelah’s note makes it reasonably clear that she would not have wanted her parents to have the ability to have that message erased, but Tumblr did it anyway. And their hands aren’t tied, by the way: They reserve the right to selectively enforce their own guidelines in their community policy. This was a choice they made.
Keep this in mind: Leelah’s parents are not woe-as-me misunderstood players in a tragedy. They abused her. Why should a social media site knowingly give control over a person’s image to people we know are abusers? Why should a social media site assume that our parents aren’t abusers?
So rather than this being simply a question of Tumblr making a singular bad decision, it’s indicative of some very common and deep problems with how we navigate death and identity in the 21st century.
While I was looking into this, I read a copy of Tumblr’s community guidelines. In those guidelines Tumblr acknowledges how important the site has been to people struggling with things like suicidal ideation or self-harm:
Dialogue about these behaviors is incredibly important and online communities can be extraordinarily helpful to people struggling with these difficult conditions. We aim for Tumblr to be a place that facilitates awareness, support and recovery, and we will remove only those posts or blogs that cross the line into active promotion or glorification of self-harm.It’s interesting to me that with this level of self-awareness Tumblr has chosen to ignore the extreme importance that particular post has had for the transgender community with relation to our staggeringly high abuse and suicide rate. Is this dialogue only worth keeping if it avoids hurting the feelings of abusers?
And while I’m talking about it, I greatly value how many people have shared Leelah’s note. The Alcorns may have been able to get rid of her blog, but they will never be able to get rid of every copy of that letter.