Instagram accused of ‘sexualising, policing and censoring trans bodies’

Instagram trans censorship protested with 'Deserve To Be Here' campaign

Instagram has acknowledged complaints it is censoring images of trans bodies while allowing otherwise identical pictures of cis celebrities.

Trans and non-binary people are protesting Instagram’s censorship by posting photos saying they “deserve to be here”.

The campaign began when a photo of trans model Jude Guaitamacchi, posted to celebrate Trans Day of Visibility (31 March), was removed by Instagram for going against its community guidelines on “sexual activity”.

The photo, of Jude proudly facing the camera wearing boots and a leather jacket with their hands over their crotch, was taken by queer photographer Beliza Buzollo who runs The Queer Garden – and was swiftly removed by Instagram.

As Jude pointed out, a very similar photo of Maroon 5 singer and cis man Adam Levine in the same pose was allowed to go viral on the app. Jude’s post complaining about this double standard was also removed by Instagram.

“I am being repeatedly silenced,” Jude said in a third post on 2 April. “I have spent 99 per cent of my life hiding and covering my body, being fully dressed on beaches, feeling excruciating dysphoria. This shoot was one of the most beautiful and empowering experiences of my life.”

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“This is trans erasure,” they added.

A post shared by Jude (@becomingjude)

The image of Jude was reposted to the Instagram Stories of Hearst Pride, the LGBTQ+ affinity group at publishing house Hearst, which was also “flagged and removed with the response being that it violated community guidelines for nudity/sexual content (even on second review)”, Hearst Pride said.

“Instagram is full of creators who are sharing their bodies similarly,” Hearst Pride continued, “so the only conclusion must be that Instagram is sexualising, policing and censoring trans bodies.”

As news of Jude’s post being removed on Trans Day of Visibility spread online, other trans activists, models and influencers began posting their own semi-nude posts with the hashtag “Deserve To Be Here”.

Eva Echo, who is an ambassador for the London Transgender Clinic and part of trans charity Gendered Intelligence’s GIANTS programme, shared a photo of herself topless with her arm covering her breasts – replicating a similar pose in a video posted by Khloe Kardashian on Instagram that garnered more than five and a half million likes.

“In the past I’ve had content restricted… but I thought nothing of it,” Eva said.

Eva said she previously thought: “Maybe it’s just me?”

But seeing more posts from trans people be taken down made her realise “the system is very one sided”.

“Instagram needs to stop policing the gender diverse community by restricting content which cis people are fine to post,” Eva added.

Trans author Yvy DeLuca also posted a photo in this pose, which cannot be found by searching the #DeserveToBeHere hashtag – a practice known as shadow-banning.

Shadow-banning is when images aren’t outright removed from the platform, but instead strategically hidden from users. This prevents users from searching shadow-banned hashtags, and removes affected content from Instagram’s Explore page.

It is supposed to reduce spam, but has been documented as impacting on marginalised groups, particularly queer people, sex workers and plus-size bodies.

“When it comes to trans and non-binary people on Instagram, when we show our bodies, and when we showcase who we are and how proud we are, Instagram is very quick to shut that down,” Yvy said in a video about the #DeserveToBeHere campaign. “To censor us, and to ban us from showing who we are. Yet we see all the time cis celebrities showing all their ‘cakes and custard’ and nobody bats an eyelid.”

Non-binary Instagram user Thai Wells also posted a photo of their chest using the #DeserveToBeHere hashtag, writing: “Instagram continuously polices trans and non-binary bodies for violations of their rules but will allow cis people to post images of themselves in the same manner with no repercussions!

“We deserve to be here, we deserve to be seen, and mostly we deserve to be ourselves, wholeheartedly!”

“It’s no secret that our posts and the trans and non-binary community as a whole are more regulated and therefore restricted here on Instagram,” wrote Robin Rose with a picture of her using the hashtag.

“Our [hashtags]’s combined with ‘cis-normative’ ones often trigger an algorithmic reaction that leads to us being shadow-banned for posting the same things #cisgender people do without getting in trouble.”

Last year, Instagram came under fire when it took down adverts for online newsletter Salty featuring trans and non-binary people of colour, flagging them as being for “escort services” (the adverts did not feature sex workers).

Salty wrote in an Instagram post: “Unlike other big brands and media outlets, Salty is unable to advertise on Instagram or Facebook because the algorithms assume that Salty is ‘promoting escort services’…

“People, this is a FOSTA/SESTA in action. There are biases and assumptions built into the algorithms that are designed to silence us.

“It is no coincidence that these images include incredible, empowered POCs, non binary, disabled and plus sized bodies – and are the most highly regulated.

“Digital products that are designed to empower women, trans and non binary people (like our newsletter) are discriminated against in marketing and advertising policies online, in the software that we use and in the real world too.”

The original photo that Jude posted on Trans Day of Visibility has since been allowed back on Instagram, following a wave of complaints.

Responding to the campaign, a Facebook spokesperson said: “We want everyone to be able to express themselves on Instagram. With such a globally diverse community, we have rules on nudity and sexual activity so that content is appropriate for all.

“This can be a hard balance to strike and means there are times when we make the wrong call. We are committed to addressing inequity on our platform, and last year created a dedicated team to better understand and address bias in our products.”