The New Girl: Rhyannon Styles On Overcoming Online Abuse

ELLE's Transgender Editor on how to deal with trolls and why her life will never be completely free of insults

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My transition from Ryan to Rhyannon has been a rewarding, insightful and an enriching experience.

Along the way I've embraced my own version of femininity and flourished in an identity I'd fought long and hard for.

Finally living as my authentic self has given me strength, clarity and focus.

Five years on from that life changing decision, and my life feels incredible. Put simply, I wouldn't want it any other way.

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But it hasn't all been plain sailing. Though with something as huge as a transition I don't think it ever could be.

One obstacle I've had to overcome since I began running the gauntlet of gender has been a constant stream of online abuse.

You see, my visibility as a transgender woman both within the media and society often means my gender identity is scrutinised, analysed and ridiculed to the point where it becomes offensive, derogatory and invasive.

I'll always remember today - the day I hosted the @bbcnews #bbcbreakfastshow. #thenewgirl is a #newsreader. #fakenews

A post shared by The New Girl (@rhyannon_styles) on

Nowadays from behind the safety of a screen, tablet or mobile device, you can say what you want, about whatever you want, whenever you want, and get away with it.

The beauty of the internet is that it allows anyone freedom of speech, expression and creativity.

But it's also a breeding ground for hate speech, bullying and shaming.

It's where strangers obliterate opinions that differ from their own, using a tournament of trolling to berate the opposition.

It's an experience which is frightening, bewildering and has damaging consequences. It's the downfall of today's tech-centred world, and we hear about it all the time.

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As soon as I'd changed my name to Rhyannon using deed poll, I started amending all my social media platforms.

Once my 'online' identity was established the abuse went from the street to my smart phone.

It became a constant reminder that there's still massive prejudice in the world towards people like me.

I've blocked, reported and filtered comments from dating apps, blogs, social media and even YouTube videos I made with ELLE.

Having my identity policed, attacked and demonised is nothing new to me.

Once my 'online' identity was established the abuse went from the street to my smart phone

Being abused for being me has been a constant in my life ever since I was seven years old – well, at least as far back as I can remember – and I don't see it ever going away.

The words gay, fairy, poofter and sissy were screamed at me in the street and 'Ryan is a girl' was scribbled onto my school desk.

Name-calling was a given, seen as nothing more than childish banter.

The abuse hurt my feelings and annihilated my self-esteem, but I accepted it as a way of life and I couldn't find a way to escape it.

In the 1990s I didn't use the word homophobic or transphobic to describe the insults I was receiving.

Back then we weren't 'woke' to the complexities of language and bullying like we are now.

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As a young person I experienced verbal abuse everywhere I went – at the swings in the playing fields, picking fruit at the strawberry farm and inside the P.E changing rooms at school. The only place which was safe from derogatory slurs was my home.

It wasn't until I moved to London aged 18 that I did escape the chastity of small village life and bullying.

Then, for ten years I largely missed any homophobic abuse – partly because I'd found solace in a huge queer community in Hackney, where wearing women's clothes wasn't considered weird.

That community supported and nurtured me whilst I made the tentative steps towards my transition.

I wasn't entirely safe from the potential of abusive situations in my day to day life.

At the beginning of my transition I was followed around my local supermarket by a person pointing towards me and shouting 'That's a man!' to anyone in ear shot.

It was completely demoralising. Another time I was standing at a bus stop minding my own business when two people demanded to know if I was a man or a woman before shouting 'Batty Man' repeatedly in my face until I walked away.

Sadly, these are daily experiences for many trans and queer people. If it wasn't for the fact that I'd been exposed to this behaviour before then I would be a quivering wreck whenever I left the house.

I've come to the conclusion recently that it'll never go away. I'll never be free from abusive behaviour because of my identity. And if I let it get the better of me, I can feel disconnected, with feelings of fear, insecurity and confusion plaguing my mind.

In 2015 I became ELLE's transgender columnist and I wrote an article in response to Germaine Greer's comments about transgender women.

After my article was published I was trolled for the first time in my life.

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A 'troll' is a person who posts deliberately inflammatory messages on social media, forums and blogs with the intention of provoking angry responses in return.

Predictably my status as a transgender woman was the ammunition in their attack.

The trolls called me a man, used male pronouns and my old name in their tirade of nonsense.

It was laughable really because it wasn't a secret that I was once a person called Ryan, neither is it something I'm ashamed of.

My history cannot be re-written or denied, so using that to attack me doesn't work – I don't feel invalidated or less than, it doesn't strip me of my current identity or politics. In this way, the trolls have failed.

I totally agreed with Laverne Cox when she tweeted – 'The irony of my life is prior to transition I was called a girl and after I am often called a man'.

More recently after an interview on BBC Radio 5 Live my twitter feed lit up with comments.

One in particular - 'Still not a woman though' stung.

It really gets my back up that I'm continually slapped across the face with a comparison to cis-born women from strangers.

It's lazy at best, but it works momentarily.

if somebody is angered by your own expression and behaviour, it's not about you. It's about them

When these incidents happen I find myself reiterating that I'm not trying to imitate anyone – that I'm my own woman - and I begin plotting a counter attack.

It's only then that I remind myself I don't need to defend myself from disposable comments and that I don't need to lower myself to their level of behaviour.

I don't want to use this column to detail all the abuse I've suffered, to shine anymore light on it than it deserves, I've risen above it.

And what I've learnt is this: if somebody is angered by your own expression and behaviour, it's not about you. It's about them.

Other people's reactions to my identity is none of my business. If trolls and cyber bullies want to dedicate their time to petty twitter threads and playground style fights, then it's their thinking that's flawed.

Not mine.

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