I was a late adopter of hashtags, associating them more with #TBThursday and #SundaySelfies than anything I really gave a shit about. That was, however, until the #RedefiningRealness hashtag popped up on my Twitter feed.

Taken from the title of writer, activist, and trans woman of color Janet Mock’s most recent book, #RedefiningRealness has become a rallying cry for trans people on Twitter who are sick and tired of the mainstream media’s representation of them and their lives. Paired up with Janet’s other hashtag, #GirlsLikeUs, #RedefiningRealness has created an online space – both on Twitter and Tumblr – for trans women to speak out about their lives. It's also a space for cisgendered allies who have followed Janet's journey to show their support and speak out about their own stories.

I recently reached out to Janet, asking about the story behind her decision to launch #GirlsLikeUs back in March of 2012 and #RedefiningRealness earlier this year. “I knew that the power of Twitter to connect people was there and I wanted to make sure that on this growing platform, trans women took a claim rather than only engaging in other people’s space," she said. "A space that was created by and for us was important to me.” 

Creating that place is especially important for a community that has long been denied the right to even choose the words that define it. While mainstream media rarely allows trans people to shape their own narratives, the popularity of social platforms like Twitter and Tumblr – and, more specifically, the use of hashtags – has the potential to change that.

For example, when Piers Morgan recently characterized Janet as a “boy” until her genital reassignment surgery at age 18, the #RedefiningRealness community exploded in outrage. Janet and fellow trans activist Laverne Cox tweeted a photo communicating exactly how much they disapproved of Piers’ misrepresentation of Janet. Their actions sparked a conversation that resulted in Janet being asked to come on the show one more time, on her own terms.

“Online media keeps the conversation going and it doesn’t allow mainstream media to say that they’re the records of our lives," Janet explained. "No, we get to say that. That’s what I love about Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and YouTube."

A shocking example of just how much damage poor media representation can do to the trans community can be seen in a study that found 41% of trans or non-gender conforming people have attempted suicide. It's a number that becomes even more staggering when compared with the 0.5% of the general population who reported attempting suicide in the past year.

Considering the fact that the media’s influence on our self-image has been long established, it isn't a far stretch to assume that mis-gendering and misrepresentation of trans people on television and in movies has contributed to that tragic statistic. This is just one of the reasons why hashtags like #RedefiningRealness and #GirlsLikeUs – and the resulting virtual space they create – are so important.

The impact of Janet’s activism is also another powerful example of the evolution of Twitter as a community resource. It's gone from a small, self-selected community to a platform everyone pays attention to, providing a venue for #SelfieSundays and national brand #promotions as well as a network for people who desperately need their voices to be heard. #RedefiningRealness is part of a movement that stretches far beyond the hashtag, but it would be impossible without it – and I, for one, #love it.

Photo by Aaron Tredwell