We’ve seen it before with Zach, Heidi, Irene, Cody, Bob, Drew and many others — the internet has influenced people in helping them identify who they are, and in some cases, it’s the first place a person comes out. 

The internet has drastically changed the dynamics within the LGBTQ community and how folks learn about themselves. Many people have shared experiences of Googling “Am I gay?” or other questions along those lines. But one thing that seems to get lost in the discourse is what the environment is like being out between the internet and in real life. 

To put it short: Being out online guarantees you already have an accepting community waiting there for you; it’s so easy to find groups, forums and individuals who align with how you identify. In the real world, that luxury may not exist. 

A local school district recently made policy changes to allow teachers to use a student’s preferred name and pronouns without asking permission of the student’s parents; a huge milestone. But backlash quickly came back to say, “we as parents deserve to know if our children are doing this.” 

However, little do the parents know that school is sometimes a safe haven for LGBTQ students to be themselves without repercussion they may get if they were to be themselves at home. Coming out online — or at school — is sometimes more comfortable for a child to do if they find the environment to be safer than what they’ve heard from family.

Let’s get into it. 

According to the 2009 article, Negotiating Identities/Queering Desires: Coming out Online and the Remediation of the Coming-out Story, “media visibility seemed [to be] a natural step in the progression for full rights and equal citizenship.”

More in-depth, this article by Mary L. Gray coins the term “queer realness,” which essentially “circulates compelling images of peers on a similar quest for verity and viability.

“Internet-based genres of queer realness offer rural youth possibilities for both recognition and acknowledgement of seeking that recognition in places one is presumed to already be familiar.”

The way I understand this practice is if someone were to feel unsure about something, they resort to the internet for an answer. Not only is this for an actor or actress you recognize but aren’t quite sure from where, but also for if you don’t feel as though you fit into the norms of what ideals society expects. 

Findings in Gray’s research piece show that many rural teenagers shared the belief that their identities expressed inherent desires that they were born with but that remained buried under the baggage of community norms and expectations of “having a family and settling down” in a traditional, heterosexual fashion.

However, this may just be for LGBTQ youths who aren’t around urban areas that promote the community publicly. Gray listed some areas not frequented by rural LGBTQ youths as public transit routes, community boards at coffee houses and even advocacy organizations with offices in town. 

“Rural youth, however, are unlikely to run across these images in their rural public spaces,” the report reads. “As a result, they are more reliant on venturing out of town and exploring media to find the words and practices culturally saturated with queer realness.

“Researchers typically assume rural youth lack the resources, capacity, and support to actively foster difference in the seeming homogeneity of their small towns.”

However, this isn’t the case with just rural youth. It’s common to see any youth with access to the internet confirm their suspicions online. Hell, that’s what I did.

In another article, ‘My coming out story’: Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth identities on YouTube, Michael Lovelock analyzed 35 coming out videos in 2019 and found that LGB youth “are able to articulate what it feels like to be queer in a straight world.”

Lovelock describes the video sharing platform as a unique way to explore specificities of one’s curiosities. 

“Coming out vlogs (video blogs) play out the translation of queer affects into queer feelings, as vloggers attempt to bring into verbal intelligibility the irrepressible sensations of being other in a heteronormative world,” Lovelock wrote in their report. “… In many videos, users discussed growing up experiencing fear and disgust in their burgeoning LGB sexualities as a result growing up in an environment where homosexuality was explicitly demarcated as an aberrant form of identity.”

I’ll put it this way — if children hear from someone they look up to that something is inherently wrong, they will oftentimes hold those same sentiments until someone or something breaks them out of their filter bubble. 

If this is the case, and that child ends up exploring their sexuality and gender identity knowing this person they looked up to wasn’t accepting of it, they are less likely to come out to them for fear of hatred, ridicule or worse.

The best thing we can do to get to this at the source is encourage folks to be open-minded and more accepting of the LGBTQ community, though that’s easier said than done. I do see this becoming more of a norm as society progresses, but until the real world is safe enough for all LGBTQ youths, let’s keep the internet safe for them in the meantime.

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