Growing up closeted and religious is hard. Once I got over the “hating the very core of my being” part of said experience, I was still left to contend with the loneliness that comes with being the outsider. As a closeted teen, many queer spaces were or seemed inaccessible to me. The possibility of being seen and having the rumor of my presence spread to people who could hurt me was enough to deter me from showing up. So, as many gay teens do nowadays, I turned to the Internet. “I think technology plays a much bigger role in cultural growth and diffusion than physical space these days,” says Mo, a friend and fellow gay. “Culture comes from communities and identities and grows with them, and as people build these communities online, they kind of build the culture…with the advent of technology and communication, culture becomes a lot more global, and physical barriers don’t matter anymore.” The barriers of distance and scrutiny could no longer keep me from queer community. I embraced the Internet’s ability to transcend geography and began searching for understanding in nonphysical spaces.
Technological spaces are not commensurate to physical ones, though. There are different expectations and rules of engagement, benefits and risks. As more and more queer safe spaces close their physical locations, closeted teens are no longer the only ones seeking companionship online. While talking with my friends, Mo and Jordan, I ran across a few patterns which resonated with my experience and discovered common hopes and anxieties for what role Internet communities can play in supporting queer youth. After hearing what my friends had to say and comparing their thoughts with my own lived experience, I began to ask if cyberspace is a safe space. My answer is complicated. While the Internet provided space for me to explore my sexual orientation and find others like me when I felt most alone, it also opened me up to exploitation. I hope that I can inspire deeper thought about these issues by speaking from my own experience and giving voice to the concerns of my friends.
Although there are certain risks that come with engaging in online community, Jordan pointed out that occupying online spaces is not necessarily riskier than occupying physical ones. “There’s this misperception that you are in more danger interacting with somebody online or on the Internet than you are in person,” he says. “Let’s not forget, Matthew Shepard was not, like, picked up on Grindr, he was picked up in a gay bar by people meaning to do harm.” For many people, physical space raises the possibility of physical violence. Although that possibility may have been present for me, I was not so concerned with physical violence as I was with social violence. I lived in fear of the wrong people finding out, particularly my church. Non-heterosexual people were not spoken well of in the Evangelical church, so the possibility of conversion therapy seemed very real to me. My parents were active members in the church at the time, so I worried that the conservative attitudes of the church might influence them to try and change me or even kick me out of the house. I was fortunate enough that this wasn’t the case, but the anxiety and not-knowing affected me deeply. So, physical spaces in my town, where I could potentially be recognized, were of no use to me. My only option was to connect with others remotely, so, over the summer when I turned 15, I began to do just that.
The remoteness of these interactions was only one aspect of Internet identity which appealed to me. The main draw was a kind of anonymity, a distance between my online portrayal of myself and my physical self. As I began to seek others out, first on Omegle (a website which allows one to chat anonymously with strangers) and later on Reddit (an Internet forum which allowed me to hide behind a username), I felt at little risk of being outed in real life. “Connecting or interacting with people is a little bit easier [online],” Jordan says. Later on, as we talk about meeting others in person, he mentions that he “[doesn’t] know how many of us really know how to interact with somebody we don’t know [in physical places].” The appeal of online spaces over physical ones is the distance between one’s physical and online self. When trying to interact with someone at a club, a GSA meeting, or what have you, there is no distance to hide behind. Online, there are two types of protective distance: geographical distance between oneself and the other person and distance between the words or pictures on a screen and the other person they represent. These distances allowed me to get beyond my shy demeanor and interact with new people more confidently. I met many wonderful people, some of whom I’m still in contact with, because I felt more comfortable approaching them through online space.
This confidence and ease of connection, though, is easily exploited. Jordan says that as “lonely, kind of small-town boy[s] trying to find other boys like [us], we might find ourselves in more…precarious situations.” I know that I did. Omegle is an anonymous chat service, and the chatlogs themselves are ephemeral. If I wanted to talk to people after our initial conversation, I would have to move the interaction to a separate, discreet messaging app. “I feel like a lot of…online interaction is more explicitly sexual,” says Mo. Yes, some interactions would move in that direction. Initially, when people would ask for nudes, I would say no. I paid attention in health class, and Mr. B said not to do that shit. Quite a few of these people were older men who would not desist even after I told them my age. After multiple rounds of manipulation, my curiosity and hormones got to me and I would do what they asked.
As I write about this experience, I want to make a clear distinction between my thoughts then and my thoughts now. Then, I saw this as an empowering experience. Before, I had vaguely negative feelings about my body. It didn’t seem particularly beautiful to me, and I hadn’t received any physical expressions of interest from anyone, even in the chaste form of an “I think you’re cute.” After I received that first hit of validation, my relationship with my body began to change. Even though this attention was inappropriate, receiving it did a lot for a boy who didn’t think of himself as worthy of attention at all. Looking back, I see how easily I was manipulated. These were older men who knew that they could use validation to make an insecure boy give them his body, and once he had given it up, they were gone. In many ways, I feel like my body was stolen from me, that it is no longer my own. “In the community there’s a huge focus on hypersexualization,” says Mo, as we talk about negative aspects of the gay male community. “I think a lot of people are affected by that growing up.” He believes that even in physical queer spaces, which are often focused on “showing off your body,” that this sexual and physical focus “drives people to believe that their self-worth is built into their physical appearance.” Because I didn’t learn to self-validate and relied on the fickle, manipulative validation of others, I never truly learned to love my body. Instead, I learned to hate it in new ways.
Adolescence is a difficult time for everyone, but particularly for queer teens who might just be coming into a greater understanding of themselves and their bodies. As they begin to identify and come out earlier, it is important that they have safe spaces in which they can explore and grow. My relationship with Internet queer spaces is a difficult one. On one hand, there are many excellent, well moderated spaces that allow young people to safely engage with queer people their age (Reddit’s r/LGBTeens comes to mind). On the other, there are many more spaces which can open vulnerable young people up to dangerous situations. I can only speak to the gay male experience here, as a gay man writing this piece with the help of other gay men, but I know that the fear and isolation which drew me to unsafe places exists across the queer experience. My only hope is for young queers to feel safe online. There is enough to isolate and oppress in the physical world. We needn’t feel more isolation and oppression online.