Montreal’s Téa Long sounds an alarm about trans erasure on social media

Montreal’s Téa Long sounds an alarm about trans erasure on social media
Montreal model, activist and trans-youth advocate Téa Long recently had her livelihood and primary social lifeline undercut by an algorithm.

Instagram snatched her account away in mid-December of 2020, and dozens of attempts at the social network’s appeals process proved to be futile. As a last effort before giving up on Instagram, Long contacted an acquaintance who moves in celebrity circles, a woman who somewhat magically had the account reinstated in the second week of February 2021, no questions answered.

As a professional model, Téa Long had cultivated her Instagram with visual content and contacts — she calls it her digital business card. She used to consider Instagram a safe space for expression, and had invested money in advertising on the platform. It also served her, as it does all of us, as a social lifeline — especially these days — and as a beacon of sorts for youth looking for images of success in the LGBTQ2 world. Having her account removed had an impact not only on her work as a model but as a role model.

She considers herself lucky, because for everyone fortunate enough to have a powerful friend with influence inside Instagram, there are hundreds if not thousands of people whose social media accounts are erased due to practices that support bias and discrimination against trans people of colour.

In the week that followed the reinstatement of Long’s Instagram account, as she was attempting to get “verified” with a sought-after blue checkmark that makes your account virtually untouchable, I spoke to her about exactly how this happened.

Téa Long: Just for some background, I’ve been doing groundwork in the community for over four years, going to high schools to speak to young adults about loving yourself and putting yourself first and not getting tied into what everyone else thinks about you.

One of the main things trans people fight for is trans visibility, but then we have the issue of combatting the fact that this world is trying to erase us on a regular basis. With the age of digital platforms, you have the erasure of trans visibility. 

There are so many LGBTQ+ people of colour, trans people of colour, who are erased on a daily basis from dating apps. It’s even happened to me. If I’m on a dating app, I’m a woman, I’m talking to a man, I disclose my trans identity and on his way out of unmatching me, instead of just unmatching me, he decides to report me. If you get reported enough times, you get erased. The algorithm will do it and you have to wait for a human to give you the time of day to see what’s been done to you and judge whether it’s valid.

On Instagram, you have reporting methods where you can report someone’s profile if you deem it to be inappropriate or disturbing, but in a lot of places in the world, trans identities, queer identities and black trans identities are all too often deemed inappropriate or disturbing. I’ve had an Instagram algorithm take my photo down and then I reposted it and it took my photo down and I reposted it and it took my photo down and so on. I would select an option like “Tell us something’s wrong” and then afterwards Instagram would message me back saying, “Oh sorry, our mistake. After reviewing your photo, we see there’s nothing wrong with it.”

I’ve had to deal with that, I’ve had to deal with people reporting my photos for no good reason. Then around Dec. 15, I went to sign into my Instagram and my account was gone. When I tried to sign in, all it said was, “You have breached our terms of agreement. Here are our terms of agreement that you may have breached.”

“There are active algorithms that are working against people of colour and trans people, and the flag system takes into consideration how many times your page has been flagged.”

Lorraine Carpenter: I’m guessing that appealing to a human was not possible.

TL: Definitely not. I sent in probably over 30 appeals in which they make you hold a piece of paper with your photo with your name on it, the name of your account and some code that they give you. I did that probably around three or four times a day. I was trying to believe in the system and slowly getting more and more discouraged that I was not going to get back onto my platform, that I was not going to get my voice back. Yeah I have my own voice, but Instagram is how my voice echoes throughout the globe. I felt exiled out of my own community. And God knows what jobs I have missed out on in the past month and a bit.

I eventually got discouraged and stopped messaging Instagram and I started messaging friends with social elite connections to see if maybe they could help. On Jan. 9, I contacted Kim — she’s best friends with Beyoncé’s mother — and she wrote back saying, “Oh that’s weird, I’m really sorry to hear that. Let me message them and see what I can do. I can reach out to someone tomorrow.” I didn’t hear back from her but then I reached out to her again on Feb. 2, and she said she’d follow up with them. Then yesterday, on Feb. 9, she sent me a link to my profile being reinstated. I told her, “You’re a godsend, I can’t describe my level of appreciation,” and she said, “You’re welcome, I’m sorry this happened.” I asked if she got any information about why it happened and she said, “Sadly, none. They said it was just a mistake.” I was locked out of my account for over a month all for it to be summed up as “just a mistake.”

LC: How did it feel after you gave up on Instagram? Did you get any advice, or consider starting over with a new account?

TL: I was erased! That’s how I felt. I had friends telling me, “You have to fight this!” but I felt so small and powerless compared to a big multibillion-dollar corporation that had decided that I am indecent and I should be shunned from Instagram society. It was extremely triggering for me to just keep my head on straight, to not let my experiences affect my other friends who are on the platform. Instagram is a drug, let’s just be real, but it’s also a business, and there are so many aspects to it that you can’t just take someone’s account away from them.

A lot of people online suggested that I should just make a new account, but I was not making a new account. I would’ve never used the platform again. I would’ve just had a bad taste in my mouth and I still do, to be honest. It’s like I’ve been unplugged. It’s like I was asleep thinking that you can trust the system. I know the system fails people all the time but to have your property removed, it just reminds me that unless it’s your domain, tealong.com, you own nothing, you have no rights, and at any point in time a higher-up can decide to take it away from you.

The fact that I even questioned myself, that was probably the saddest part. I was actually asking myself the question, “Wow, maybe I was indecent, maybe I was (legitimately) flagged for something I posted.” It had to cross my mind that maybe I did do something wrong.

Montreal’s Téa Long sounds an alarm about trans erasure on social media

LC: It doesn’t take a lot of research to find that there are tons of examples of accounts being wiped for similar reasons.

TL: When I went on the Internet, there were thousands of stories like mine from people who’ve had their accounts taken down, especially LGBTQ+ people whose posts were being described as propaganda; gay couples and Black trans people who were just sharing empowering messages. I have a friend who is a queer artist who had his account deactivated a long time ago and he just moved on.

There are active algorithms that are working against people of colour and trans people, and then the flag system, which also takes into consideration how many times your page has been flagged, how much content has been flagged. Look, I’m not a porn star, I’m just body-positive, I embrace my body. You have sex traffickers on Instagram, you have robots on Instagram, you have pornography on Instagram, you literally have people who make pages just to hate on different groups, you have racists. And when you try to report those pages, you often get a response like, “Sorry, whatever they posted is in their rights to post.” And yet when you have someone like me who’s trying to spread love and light and trying to uplift the community, out of nowhere they just get their platform taken away. I truly believe I wouldn’t have had my platform reinstated if I didn’t know somebody on the up and up. But the average Joe doesn’t have access to someone who has teatime with Beyoncé. ■

This feature originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Cult MTL. Visit Téa Long’s Instagram account here.

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