Wednesday, 5 May 2021

The Truth About Going Viral




"Mum, if you put this photo of me online...Do you think it will go viral?!"

The words send chills down my spine.

My 6 year old asks this question every now and then, her head filled with dreams of the fame and fortune that YouTube stardom promises to her generation. As innocent a question as it is, what she doesn't realise is that she has already gone viral once in her lifetime.

You see, we didn't always know that my daughter WAS my daughter. She was assigned male gender at birth, and it wasn't until she was almost 4 years old that she started to tell us that she was actually a girl.

But she did always have a love of dressing up in princess outfits, and she was the biggest fan of Elsa from Frozen from before she was even 2 years old. She could sing "Let It Go" in full before she could even hold a real conversation.

As a family, we loved taking regular trips over to Disneyland Paris - so much so that we bought annual passes, and visited around 5 times every year.

Because we visited so often, I liked to try and find new activities for the kids to do each time we went - and on one particular occasion, I decided to book her in for their "Princess For A Day" experience - an activity where a Disney Fairy Godmother would put some lipgloss on her and let her twirl around in a Princess dress for some photos. I knew she'd love it!

However, when I emailed to book the experience - I received a reply informing me that the activity wasn't available for boys.

I was stunned by this. I mean, this was DISNEYLAND...the most magical place on Earth! Surely of all the places that should understand the importance of discouraging gender stereotypes and encouraging children's desire to be themselves and follow their hearts, it's Disneyland?! 

I was heartbroken by the cold response I received, offering me the chance to spend £600 on Princess items for my child to enjoy "in the comfort of our hotel room". It felt as though they were almost insinuating this was something we should be hiding. And so, without really thinking, I did what I would always do when my emotions got the better of me ....I vented my frustration and upset in a blog post.

I expected to feel better after venting, and to maybe be comforted by a handful of people who would reassure me that Disney were wrong and maybe suggest other things I could do instead.

What I didn't expect was for that post to take on a life of its own.

Within 24 hours, it had gone viral across the world.

To this day, I have no idea how the press got hold of my phone number but somehow they did and I was bombarded with calls from news outlets, magazines, TV shows and press agencies.

It was my nieces birthday that day, and we had gone out for a family meal at Pizza Hut...I spent the entire time fielding calls from different journalists, my phone literally never stopped ringing.

Feeling overwhelmed with it all and not sure what to do, I agreed to speak to one local news broadcast who said they wanted to get a response from Disney and confirmation that their policies would change to become more inclusive.

This seemed like a good idea, so I agreed and the next day at lunchtime a very pleasant news reporter came to my house and interviewed me about it.

Disney, meanwhile, responded with an apology. They insisted that this had been a miscommunication due to an inadequately trained staff member, and promised to retrain their staff to ensure they were aware that any child is welcome to enjoy any experience on their premises regardless of their gender.

Great. I was happy with their apology and as far as I was concerned, that should have been the end of it.

Unfortunately, that was far from the end of the interest in the story.

For the next 2 months, I was hounded constantly.

Once Disney had apologised and clarified that Noa and all children were welcome to do these experiences, I had no reason to want to bring  publicity to the story. I declined all offers to bring attention to it.

Of course people just loved to accuse me of attention seeking at the time, and I can kind of understand how it would look that way from an outside perspective....but I have plenty of emails which confrm the many opportunities I turned down to capitalise on the story - I refused to go on numerous TV shows such as This Morning, Lorraine, Good Morning Britain and The Matthew Wright Show. I refused endless magazine and newspaper interviews.

I was even offered the chance for myself and Noa to be flown to the US and paid a large sum of money to take part in an advert for a major electronics company, themed around following your dreams!

If I had wanted exposure and to capitalise on the story, I really could have - but all I wanted was for it to go away.

To my horror and surprise, I learned that newspapers in the UK do not need a subjects permission to write about them or use their photographs. I had assumed this would be illegal but after seeking advice on the matter, it seemed there was a loophole that allowed some of the biggest UK tabloids to run the story and use photographs of my child without my permission and without even fact checking the story.

It felt like being stuck in a nightmare. For months afterwards, I was receiving phone calls in the middle of the night from news agencies in Brazil who, for some reason, took a real interest in the story.

And worst of all, I was receiving hundreds of emails every day from the biggots and homophobes of the world - death threats aimed at me, wishes of cancer onto my child...all because they couldn't stand the idea of a boy being allowed to dress as a Princess in Disneyland.

It was truly mind boggling, and it left me with a sadness that I don't think will ever leave me - knowing the level of true hatred that exists in the world for children like mine is a heavy weight to carry, and I think it's something that plays a huge part in my fears around Noa's future now that we know she is transgender. I've seen the depths of hatred that grown men and women direct toward children like her for myself, I've seen how real and how frighteningly common it is...I can never unsee that or truly shake it off. The death threat emails still sit in my inbox.

I was incredibly naive to the reality of going viral. It is truly quite terrifying, and once a story is out there - it's well and truly out of your hands. It's something I hope never to experience again, and as much as Noa and her brothers think they want the fame now that they're older...it's something I hope they never experience either.

I'm sure people reading this would question why I continue to blog and share some information about my children online following that experience, but believe me when I say that nothing I share now is shared without a great deal of thought beforehand.

I only share things that I feel are unlikely to receive much attention, or are important to wider issues that will affect my children during their lives and are therefore in their best interests for me to discuss and normalise - but even then, I refuse to accept any TV or newspaper invitations for stories which involve them (something we're offered with regards to Noa quite a bit.)

I think long and hard over every photo I publish, and I ensure that we never allow people to know where we are on days out or holidays etc until we're back home...I've become much more intentional with my internet use now.

Going viral was truly an experience I hope never to repeat. To all the many bloggers that I see putting this particular goal on their vision boards....it's true what they say, be careful what you wish for.


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