Why the Internet Is So Important for the LGBTQ+ Community
In defense of the internet.
Posted August 25, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
- Although screen time is linked to many risks, the internet plays an important role in sexual and gender development for LGBTQ+ people.
- The internet connects LGBTQ+ people and allows them to anonymously ask questions, compare experiences, and explore aspects of their identities.
- People who feel disconnected from their local LGBTQ+ community may find people who share aspects of their lived experience online.
Considering the Pavlovian ping of dopamine felt with every heart emoji, many articles hyper-focus on screen addiction, or how social media impacts self-esteem, or the very real damage caused by cyberbullying. Without dismissing these valid concerns, it’s also worth defending the internet's role in sexual and gender development in the 21st century.
Historically, LGBTQ+ people were online pioneers. When the World Wide Web first went public, it didn’t take us long to tap into its social networking potential. Until that point, gay men and women were cruising clubs and bath-houses, flagging each other with colored handkerchiefs, and queer coding the singles column in their local newspaper. Yet the early bulletin board servers (BBS) of the 1970s and 1980s provided an anonymous place to explore sexuality, share ideas, and even organize political movements.
As the internet became more accessible, gay chatrooms and email lists started connecting LGBTQ+ people all over the world. Even today, the anonymity of the internet allows us to ask questions, compare experiences, and explore aspects of our identity long before we ever come out. Deleting browser histories is practically a rite of passage.
Yes, pornography and hook-up culture are part of this discussion, but we’re also talking about so much more. We’re talking about music scenes and niche fan cultures. We’re talking about trauma recovery through online role-play. We’re talking about supportive groups when no one in our family respects our pronouns. We’re talking about window-shopping for clothes we’re still too scared to buy. We’re talking about researching gender affirmative surgeries when our doctor hasn't got a clue. And most of all, we’re talking about connecting to someone who actually understands us.
Connecting with a Supportive Community
Finding people who share aspects of our lived experience can be incredibly affirming, especially for LGBTQ+ youth in rural areas. In fact, the internet is where many first encounter a supportive LGBTQ+ community and learn about the grassroots of queer culture. Given the absence of healthy LGBTQ+ representation in media, we often have to create our own content. We broadcast makeup tutorials and life hacks; we sing, and dance, and share our fashion tips; we create educational podcasts to remember our oppressed history; and we even hammer out thought-provoking posts on Psychology Today.
Unfortunately, for a lot of LGBTQ+ youth, online connections are often invalidated by family members who fail to see their value. Indeed, many parents believe their child’s online life is somehow “less real” than in-person encounters. Even if a parent is accepting of their child’s sexuality and gender identity, they may view their login time as excessive. Faced with this kind of judgement, it’s not uncommon for LGBTQ+ youth to expect the same kind of dismissal from their therapist. In session, some may minimize how meaningful or formative their internet experience has been, or how painful their encounters with cyberbullying are.
Check your bias for a moment. Would you think less of a person if you found out they've never been in the same room as their best friend? Do you believe internet users are introverted loners? Would you think someone is “too sensitive” if you found out their deepest trauma was caused by trolls?
Online vs. In-Person Networks
Admittedly, screen addiction is a very real problem, and a chat room can never replace the oxytocin of a hug, yet let’s not discount the need for connection that draws so many online in the first place. Unplugging a computer does not unplug the feelings of isolation and alienation experienced at home, at school, or in the community. To alleviate this loneliness, many parents may try to connect their kid to a local LGBTQ+ support group, and while this can certainly help, it’s not a panacea.
Honestly, a lot of us can feel disconnected with our local LGBTQ+ community, especially if our sexuality, gender identity, race or ethnicity, neurodiversity, or even our generational cohort is underrepresented in that scene. The LGBTQ+ community is not a monolith, which is why the internet has so many intersex, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, aromantic, transgender, and nonbinary forums—with sub-groups branching off into every dimension of personal interest.
Everyone’s relationship with the internet is a little different. For some, the internet is an extension of their real-world social life, or a tool for their knowledge, or a toy for their boredom, or a vice to get away from. For others still, it’s a lifeline and their primary source of affirmation. Arguably, some may even connect with their online relationships far more deeply than their in-person ones, given the catharsis of the written word and the ability to present one's internal self in a controlled environment.
Like everything in society, a person’s relationship with the internet may also change over time. Yes, some may log out once they engage with an in-person community, and some may even go off to meet the friends they've made online. Yet some may maintain their supportive online network for decades—and that shouldn't be judged. If anything, it's a wonderful resource worth validating.