by Hannah Bernhardt
Hi, my name is Hannah! I’m 22 years old, a college student in New York City, and addicted to social media. I also identify as a lesbian. I love New York but when I moved to the big city for the first time for college, I have to admit, it was a bit overwhelming. I was especially concerned about how to find an apartment on my own. I needed to find a space that was affordable and vetted as an LGBT friendly space. I definitely did not want to feel judged or unsafe with a roommate who wouldn’t be comfortable with my sexuality, especially as I was trying to navigate the big (sometimes scary) apple. So my friend hooked me up with the exact Facebook group to solve all my issues: an online community called “Queer Housing NYC.” It’s a massive group of all queer-identified folks who post about upcoming openings in their apartments/co-ops/intentional living communities. I found an apartment and also found that the internet offered a ton of possibilities for me to connect with queer folks in my new city. It turns out there are hundreds of queer-centered groups on Facebook alone. There are special interest groups, groups to meet friends, groups to buy and sell things affordably… The queer online community is as intricate as it is extensive. And many of these communities have been central to me as a young lesbian student finding her ground in an entirely new place.
But not everyone sees social media as connecting us in these ways. Recently, I had a conversation with my grandmother. You may have had a similar one with yours… an intergenerational light “discussion” about how social media and smartphones are ruining personal connection. As we were going back and forth, I was thinking about my experience with “Queer Housing” and all the other queer-groups I’ve joined. Then I started thinking about the access I have to events that are going on in my neighborhood and all people I’ve met because of my engagement with social media. And my queer friends feel the same way. For us, social media has opened up a world of connections and friendships and community waiting to happen.
Our generation stands uniquely in our use of the internet. Millenials are defined in part by our coming of age in the “computer revolution.” So it seems to me that the internet not only builds connections, but also impacts our sense of identity. These two factors are incredibly important for queer youth, where homophobia and transphobia and sexism and racism in the offline world are real, and really harmful. As it stands, 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT or queer, often because they were turned away by their families after coming out. So in this context, how might online communities draw young queer people together? How has the internet impacted queer community formation for our generation?
It turns out that researchers, Shelley L. Craig and Lauren McInroy have explored these questions. They conducted a study to explore how the internet mediates (or reinforces) how young queer people develop their identities. Specifically, their study focused on how new media influenced community connection and the “coming out” process for queer youth. This is an important process for many queer people in which they explore, accept, and express their “sexual-minority” identity to themselves and others.
To find out, Craig and McInroy interviewed nineteen 18-22 year old LGBTQ+ identified participants through various LGBT youth organizations about their engagement with “new media” (meaning social media, video sharing platforms (YouTube!), blogs (Tumblr!), etc).
What they found in these interviews is that overwhelmingly, queer youth felt that new media were important for the development of their identities and their communities. In particular, participants felt that it allowed them to (1) access resources, (2) explore identity, (3) connect with other queer youth, (4) come out digitally, and (5) potentially expand identities formed online into offline life.
The queer youth in the study used new media as a way to easily access important resources (like blogs with information about sexual health, safe housing opportunities, etc), more safely and anonymously than venturing out to find resources offline. They could surf through a multitude of sites and links with a click of a button. They felt it was also easier to navigate safety; unlike in real-life, if something seemed unsafe or made them uncomfortable, they could easily remove themselves from the situation.
This allowed for low-risk creative exploration of identity. One participant stated: “Online you can take on any identity you want. You can pick any username, you can pick any gender, any sex, any age, any fake email you want and that opens up a host of opportunities to explore your identity more. … Your brain is given that choice…You can create a whole new identity.” Through the internet, queer youth could not only see other queer people and hear their voices, but also could witness their journeys. Many participants cited Youtube as a crucial platform, where people post their coming out stories. Having access to a plethora of these journeys became an important positive reinforcement of identity, where participants saw real-life examples of queer people expressing their identities to their friends and families and having it be okay.
This also helped young queer people to experiment with coming out themselves. Coming out digitally was relatively low-risk as compared to offline, “real life” situations. Within the digital sphere, queer youth have more control over their contact with homophobia and transphobia by curating the sites and communities they participate in: they were able to limit and disengage in conversations that made them uncomfortable. In real-life situations, you don’t necessarily have that luxury. All of these factors aided queer youth in ultimately integrating their online and offline personas, meaning that they were better equipped to come out to their family and friends if they chose to.
So, instead of a place where “personal connection is lost” as my grandmother would say, the queer young people in this study felt that the internet was a really important part of their identity exploration and finding community and connection. I wasn’t surprised to read this because my friends and I have felt the same way! I know personally, that the Facebook groups I have joined have given me access to resources (like queer-friendly housing opportunities) and helped me connect with other young queer people living in my city and across the country in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
Directly after the 2016 election, I made an effort to expand these connections to real life situations. Given the current political climate of the U.S., homophobia, xenophobia, anti-semitism, and racism are seemingly condoned and exhibited with more vigor than the recent past. The internet offers young people a place to connect and organize against these oppressions. I’ve used online-groups to find like-minded people to organize or join in protests around New York. I’ve attended niche meeting regarding community formation and gentrification. The community I’ve found online not only connects me with other queer people, but offers solace and a platform to create positive change in the real world.
Our generation is using technology to our advantage. I think it shows the strength of the queer community and the cooperation of contemporary queer youth to reach out and help one another. We’re here, we’re queer, we’re tech savvy, and we’re making it work for us.
 Craig, Shelley L., and Lauren McInroy. “You Can Form A Part of Yourself Online: The Influence of New Media on Identity Development and Coming Out for LGBTQ Youth.”Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health, vol. 18, no. 1, 2 Apr. 2013, pp. 95–109., doi:10.1080/19359705.2013.777007.