Whenever I’m trying to make the argument that the internet is not all bad—or even all bad when it comes to kids—I invoke a hypothetical LGBTQ teen. This teen is growing up in a town or country where it’s risky to be out, and can’t count on family support, either.
A generation ago, that teen would have lived for the day they could move to a big city, or at least to a country that isn’t actively repressing gay and trans rights. Until that time, the story goes, they’d be condemned to a life of secrecy, loneliness and possibly even self-harm. Today, that teen doesn’t have to feel so alone—at least in theory—because the internet makes it possible to connect with other LGBTQ people all over the world.
But after years of invoking this hypothetical and heart-warming scenario, I found myself wondering: does it really do justice to the experience of LGBTQ people—or even LGBTQ teens—online? Pride Month seems like the perfect time to dig deeper, and to see what queer and media studies can tell us about the complex ways the internet has changed what it means to be part of the LGBTQ community.
1. Defining queer
If we’re going to talk about how the internet has shaped queer experience and identity, it’s helpful to start by looking at how the internet has shaped the very notion of queerness. A quick Google search reveals that using “queer” as an umbrella term for the LGBTQ community is still hotly debated all over the Internet, as it is in the JSTOR archives. As Eric Clarke puts it,
Interestingly, it is often those who want to emphasize lesbians’ and gay men’s similarities with heterosexuals who object most to the use of a term they see as a straight anti-gay epithet. And those who most want to avoid assimilation into straight culture are most often those who celebrate appropriating the term from straights. Perhaps more importantly, those who want to utilize the potential of “queer” (myself included) are attempting to articulate some of the political possibilities of sexual nonconformity.
Or as Wally Sillanpoa counter-argues:
Is it not true that considerable numbers of people across a wide geographical, political, and intellectual spectrum greet the term “queer” with considerably less relish than graduate students at Yale or Stanford? And this just at the time when (thanks in part to Oprah and Phil) my Aunt Concetta, for one, has finally learned to name Lesbian and Gay realities without so much as a grimace or guffaw.
Simply by making this debate immediately visible and accessible, the internet makes the notion of queerness available to those of us who identify as LGBT, but want to talk about that identity in a way that’s as inclusive as possible….without gliding past the complexity of the term. Thank you, hyperlinks.
2. Coming out
The internet has changed what it means to come out as an LGBTQ person. Particularly for young people, online support can make a world of difference to the process of coming out. Jacobson and Donatone note that:
The queer youth of today are significantly different from lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) youth of yesteryear. Not only are they coming out at an earlier age than ever before, but they are also identifying themselves in increasingly varied and fluid ways, which account for both sexual orientation and gender identity. In addition, they are coming of age in a world that is characterized by new ways of communicating and connecting with others….Use of the Internet has particular implications for LGB youths in terms of gaining support for coming out, addressing identity issues, and increasing comfort in discussing difficult material with others….This is especially useful for students struggling with coming out issues regarding sexuality or gender and those who do not want to be identified by peers.
3. Meeting up
Even if you’re out, it isn’t always easy to find people to date or sleep with. And even if you find them, it isn’t always safe to meet up in public space. Here, the latest generation of location-based apps is particularly transformative, as Dominque Batiste observes in ‘O Feet Away’: The Queer Cartography of French Gay Men’s Geo-social Media Use. Batiste’s article explores the way that apps like Grindr and Scruff allow gay men to identify other gay men nearby:
The Internet appeals to gay men, because, ‘like other disenfranchised groups, they have relatively few public venues in which to meet without negative social consequences’ (Benotsch et al. 2002: 177). Gay men continue to frequent ‘traditional gay spaces’ (Benotsch et al. 2002: 177), such as gay bars, but the Internet is a popular means of supplementing these venues with additional social activity.
4. Reclaiming public space
The ability of mobile tech to foster face-to-face meetups is about more than just allowing queer people to meet—valuable though that is. It also changes the way queer people perceive public spaces, as Batiste argues:
Gay men’s ability to see other gay men, and meet these men on the fly, in the public sphere, re-constitutes the entire social structure of heteronormative society, changing the ways in which gay men view society and their place within it….From my observations, utilising these applications do not necessarily make gay men more visible in heteronormative social spaces; however, they are more visible to each other. This increased, in-group, visibility creates a sense that the city contains ‘gay spaces’. Not only does [Grindr user] Jorge know where the ‘hot spots’ in town are located, but he can see, from remote places in the city, that these areas are densely populated by gay men. Furthermore, he can see that gay men populate the whole city in large number.
5. Exploring identity
The internet has profoundly changed the process by which LGBTQ people explore and define our identities. In part, that’s because of a rather delightful generation gap that was identified in the research of Beemyn and Rankin, as described by Williams et al.:
They observed a generational change occurring that had been aided by the internet. Thus, younger trans men, who had easier access not only to information but also to supportive others were found either to never have identified as lesbians or, if so, for a much briefer time. Overall, too, the study found trans men to “come out” at an earlier age than in the past, suggesting a shorter time of identity confusion.
But the internet also offers opportunities for identify exploration by those who were out before they got online. Take Emily Lloyd’s 1995 description of exploring the lesbian internet, in the irresistibly titled “This Bridge Called My Mac“:
I was born with a tragically “feminine” face. It wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t the world’s most eager wanna-be butch…I’ve been told that even if I shaved my head and hopped on a Harley, I couldn’t look Butch. (I did shave it. It was true.) But in cyberspace, no one has to know any of this stuff—they can’t see me. I can adopt a “butch” screen name, sign on, and be Butch For a Day. What I’m advocating here is not “dishonesty,” but experimentation. The ability to transcend the trappings of our bodies and be identified solely by our thoughts and our feelings. Other users believe you are who you say you are. And who’s to say you’re not? Just because I look femme doesn’t mean I’m not butch.
6. Exploring the community
In making the LGBTQ world more visible and accessible, the internet has also made it easier for different parts of the community to know one another—and to explore differences that might be explosive (or unexplored) in offline communities. As Lloyd puts it,
lesbians are not behavioral scientists. We can’t simply observe those dykes who are different from us and come to any intelligent conclusions about who they are and what they think; we need to talk to each other. The internet provides an ideal space in which to do that. We don’t even have to leave our homes! We don’t have to worry that someone will spy our leather collars or flannel shirts at the door and refuse to talk to us—or worse, scream at us. No one can make assumptions about us based on our appearances or our ages, which we may choose not to disclose.
In addition to enabling the radical acts of actually coming out or connecting as a queer person, the internet has also enabled political organizing by the LGBTQ community, particularly in places where it’s still dangerous to organize offline. In an article about feminist organizing in Latin America, Friedman notes that
For lesbian groups, which find visibility a constant and sometimes dangerous struggle, the worldwide web provides an alternative space to assert their identity and enhance their autonomy. With little to no dependence on mainstream media outlets or other organizations, they are free to advance their particular goals for gender equality or transformation.
8. Fighting teen suicide
OK, so the internet has had all sorts of queer-positive effects that go way beyond my hypothetical closeted teen. But what about those teens? Has the internet saved them—or not?
Here the story gets a lot more complicated—in part because the internet has distorted the nature of the challenge. As Tom Waidzunas points out in his fascinating dissection of statistics on suicide among gay teens, there are plenty of websites that sound the alarm about the risks:
Among the groups deploying statistical facts, The Trevor Project, a national suicide hotline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth (866-4-U-TREVOR), promoted by several A-list celebrities, claims online (http://www.trevorproject.org), “Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers,” citing the Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey of 2007 (Trevor Project 2010). The “It Gets Better Project,” an extensive online collection of videos responding to the recent suicides (http://www.itgetsbetterproject. org/), including a clip posted by President Obama, reports this same figure in a list of related statistics, but does not cite a source (It Gets Better Project 2010).
While these numbers “were useful for framing scientific questions and acted as powerful resources for justifiying institutional change in schools,” Waidzudas argues that have also had the unintended consequences of homogenizing “the identity category “gay youth” as universally denoting people at risk for suicide” and have the potential to “repathologize homosexuality.”
Waidzudas and others point a particular finger at It Gets Better—which just happens to be the very example I frequently cite when talking about the internet’s miraculous benefits for (not necessarily suicidal) queer teens. It’s the subject of a detailed analysis by West et al., who summarize the campaign’s origin:
In an effort to prevent LGBTQ youth from taking their own lives, Dan Savage launched an online campaign to share a simple and powerful message: “It Gets Better” (IGB). On September 21, 2010, Savage, along with his husband, Terry Miller, posted a series of short anecdotes edited together into a coherent video to YouTube, and media outlets enthusiastically promoted the campaign as the video’s popularity grew.” (West et al 2013:51)
West et al. catalog the many criticisms the site has been subjected to, in addition to the criticism that the site is playing into the narrative of a queer suicide epidemic:
Mary Gray judges IGB to be an incomplete solution to the violence directed at LGBTQ youth because messages invoking perseverance are particularly problematic when they “[suggest] time, rather than social action, is the most effective weapon that protects us from anti-queer violence.” Others accuse the project of focusing its attention on adolescent bullying at the expense of thinking through the systematic inequalities LGBTQs face throughout their lives and falsely reassuring youth that it will get better for everyone regardless of their social locations.” (West et al 2013:54)
Sigh. So queer teens may not be as closeted as they used to be (yay! Thank you internet!) and they also aren’t that suicidal (also yay! But not thanks to the internet) but even those that are…aren’t really helped by the internet? And the highest-profile campaign aimed at helping queer teens might even be making things worse? Really?
I was relieved to find West et al. offering a more hopeful verdict:
IGB is a vernacular video campaign that is imagining more hospitable worlds beyond the here and now. Contrary to the initial snap judgments made by more than a few high-profile queer intellectuals, we do not accept the premise that IGB is intrinsically wedded to any normative flows of culture. Upon sustained critical reflection and by engaging with these texts, by reading them and taking a wider view of the project, we might resist the normative impulses of queer critique to privilege the negative and, in return, gain the ability to appreciate how these videos are textually producing the possibilities of queerer worlds.
9. A happy ending
If my go-to story about the internet’s healing powers doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the internet’s role in the LGBTQ community, that’s because the internet’s role in queer lives is as multi-faceted as the queer community itself. Sadly, it would be just as easy for me to come up with a long list of all the crimes and harms that the internet has visited on LGBTQ folk, and we can’t talk about the role of the internet in queer lives without acknowledging that.
But today, and this month, l’m in the mood to celebrate. And no celebration of the internet’s role in queer life would be complete without one last item: hooking up.
According to Wilkinson et al.’s survey of men’s experiences using gay websites, “88 percent of those seeking casual sex and 76 percent seeking regular sex partners got lucky.” And yes, the Internet helps us find love and friendship, too: In the Wilkinson et al study, “nearly two-thirds of all respondents claimed they found friends when they had actually gone looking for sex.” Or as Emily Lloyd put it, “Before I’d ever used the internet, I’d heard of couples who fell in love online and was skeptical. Now, after numerous cybercrushes of my own, I’m a believer.”