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Jax Silvestri is a queer, transgender 18-year-old man from Parkland, Florida. Since he was 15, he has known that he’s been living in the wrong body. It’s caused a great deal of grief over the years. When he was 16, for example, he was suffering so badly from gender dysphoria that he decided to cut all of his hair off.
Earlier this year, Jax made the decision to begin medically transitioning from female to male by taking testosterone. Hormone therapy – also known as ‘Taking ‘T’ – is typically the first stage of a gender transition.
The next stage for trans men is usually ‘top’ surgery, a procedure in which the chest is reconstructed to remove the breast tissue. This is the gender-affirming step that Jax is now desperately trying to fund. “Getting top surgery would be like ripping off a bandage I’ve been wearing my entire life. I’d feel like I could finally breathe again,” he says. “This isn’t something I want, it’s something I need. I’ve dealt with depression my whole life and now I need to be able to look in the mirror and recognise myself as the man I am on the inside.”
The problem, however, is that this type of surgery can be expensive. The standard price for the procedure is $10,000. In the US, the full cost of transitioning can add up to more than $100,000, and it’s rarely covered by health insurance.
Jax has been trying to save up the money to afford his surgery for a few months now, but he is from a low-income household, paying for college and has recently lost his job. It’s no easy feat for most people, let alone a struggling student.
In July of this year, Jax was browsing TikTok when he saw popular influencer David Dobrik hosting a Tesla giveaway. Jax, who was running out of ideas to reach his goals, decided to respond to the video. Instead of asking for a Tesla, however, he asked for something else. In a post tagging Dobrik, Jax wrote: ‘hey david dobrik instead of giving people free teslas can you fund my top surgery?’.
Thousands of replies flooded in. “@daviddobrik don’t be shy, spend money on an important thing” wrote one user. “@daviddobrik please make their dream come true” added another.
Inspired by the overwhelming number of supporters, Jax set up a GoFundMe page and urged his followers to contribute towards his life-changing surgery. He’s now raised $2000 towards his goal – a significant amount in a short timeframe.
It’s not only American teenagers who are fundraising their transitions through TikTok. In the UK, trans teens are choosing to fundraise on the app instead of being subjected to incredibly long waitlists on the NHS. While the NHS does offer free hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgery to a select few, the waiting time for a gender clinic appointment can be up to three years from the point of referral. Trans people, therefore, are choosing to self-fund as a speedier alternative.
Pete, a 19-year-old student from Sunderland, has tried to transition on the NHS but – understandably – is impatient about the wait. When he realised the waiting time ahead of him, he tried organising sponsored walks and silences to fund private treatment.
He struggled to raise large sums this way so, in the past month, decided to change tack. When scrolling through Tik Tok, he came across other creators using the app to fundraise their gender-affirming procedures. Like other trans creators, he posted videos with screenshots of his GoFundMe page and told viewers how they could donate.
Jax and Pete are just some of the hundreds of trans teens shunning older social media platforms, like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, to fundraise for gender-affirming surgery on Tik Tok. They prefer Tik Tok to Instagram, for example, because it is relatively easier to reach large, supportive audiences quickly.
Before his TikTok post, Jax had tried using Instagram to fundraise for his top surgery but was unsuccessful. “I have posted on Instagram but I never get as much reach as I do with TikTok,” he says. “I use Tik Tok to spread awareness about my top surgery because of how easy it is to gain a following.”
Jax’s post took off largely because he decided to interact with an influential creator, Dobrik, who has over 23m followers. Whereas on Instagram responses by small accounts to celebrities are frequently ignored or pushed to the bottom of comment sections, TikTok’s algorithm actually encourages interactions between big and small accounts.
“On Tik Tok, there is less of an us vs them attitude than on other social media platforms,” explains Chris Stokel-Walker, the author of an upcoming book on TikTok. “You can interact with some of the biggest names, either through comments or duets, and be brought to the attention of both the big influencers and the big influencer’s audiences.”
As well as engaging with influencers, building engagement via comments and likes also helps videos get seen on TikTok, according to Jax. “Comments definitely do help with the algorithm,” he says. “They allow my videos to grow and reach like-minded audiences. People commenting often tag their friends which helps it reach other people too.”
Getting comments on a video often boost videos onto people’s For You Pages – a personalised feed of recommended videos that’s the first thing people see when they open the app. The TikTok algorithm favours videos which have had a lot of engagement – be it shares, comments or likes. As a result, comments lead to videos being watched by new audiences.
Sometimes, the comments are unsavoury. Jax once woke up to thousands of negative comments and multiple death threats. But he doesn’t seem to mind. “Even when I do get hate comments, at least they’re still helping my video grow!” says Jax, whose videos now have more than four million views.
Hashtags are another way trans teens are getting visibility for their fundraising campaigns. While Pete only has around 60 followers, for instance, he thought posting a fundraising video with carefully considered hashtags could ensure his video got viewed. In the end, it didn’t go ‘viral’ but it got him some contributions. Some of the hashtags Pete used, like #topsurgery #topsurgeryfund and #topsurgeryftm, now collectively have 270m views. This is a large audience for such niche interest topics.
“There are over six billion views of content under #trans and nearly 20bn views of content under #lgbtq,” says a TikTok spokesperson. “We are proud to be a platform that our diverse community of users can call home.”
Hashtags are, of course, not specific to TikTok. Almost all social media platforms use them in some capacity. But according to Alfie Green, the founder of social media consultancy Monty Digital, hashtags are less “spammy” on TikTok and are “part of the social makeup of the platform.”
“Whereas Facebook has only recently turned back on the option to search by hashtag and on Instagram using multiple hashtags might look spammy, young users engage with hashtags on TikTok in a much more native way,” Green says.
TikTok’s design actually really encourages the use of hashtags. The Discover page, for example, primarily highlights hashtags over accounts or individual posts. This enables users with small followings, like Pete, to tap into conversations and appeal directly to potential contributors on the app. When selected carefully, effective hashtags can expose videos to thousands – if not millions – of relevant users quickly.
While TikTok has not specifically designed features to make fundraising gender-affirming surgery easier, the combination of its design, algorithm and user base has created an ecosystem whereby these fundraisers can flourish.
Teens are shunning Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to promote their cause on an app which allows small accounts to play in the big leagues. Be it through hashtags, comments or engaging with influencers, the speed and ease at which views can be collected make it a promising platform for fundraising.
For people like Jax and Pete, TikTok offers a chance to get treatment far faster than with their respective healthcare systems and mark a potential end to an incomprehensibly difficult situation. “I’ve not reached my goal yet,” says Jax. “But seeing the response from those on TikTok and feeling recognised as a queer person has been deeply rewarding.”
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