Adults spend a lot of time worrying about what teens are doing on the Internet, but what if I told you that for some teens it’s a lifesaving and incredibly valuable resource?
You don’t have to just take my word for it — a new report shows that many LGBQT teens say they’re using the Internet to seek out resources, find friends, connect, and cope with bullying.
The report, published by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, shows both how important it is to support LGBQT teens, and how sometimes that support comes from surprising places.
In fact, two thirds of teens surveyed in the report said they’d used the Internet to look up information on sexuality and attraction, and found it useful as a source of information and support.
With this in mind, I took an opportunity to interview some queer adults about their experiences online as teens, and how the Internet helped them with matters of sexuality, gender, and orientation in sometimes hostile environments.
True, they might have been using AltaVista instead of Google and LiveJournal instead of Facebook, but their experiences mirror those reported by many LGBQT teens today: the Internet, for some, can be a window into another more supportive world.
Krista Benson remembers being a teen in the 1990s, “during the dawn of the popular Internet.” Did she find the Internet helpful in exploring her sexuality? Yes, she did:
“I identify as queer now, but I didn’t know what the hell I was when I was 13 and literally searching online (I almost said ‘google,’ but we didn’t have that then — I’m sure I used WebCrawler) ‘girls who are attracted to girls and guys sometimes.’ An online chat room was the first place I came out, 2 or 3 years later, and the only place I was out in until I got to college a few years after that. It was central to my understanding of community, supportive queer communities, and some of my best friends (indeed, my best friend, a fellow queermo who is coming to my house right now from NY) are people that I met online.”
Benson’s experience highlights the fact that many queer youth make friends online as they try to seek out information, and for those struggling today it may help to know that some of those friendships endure well into adulthood.
Lillian Cohen-Moore has similar comments about her online friends:
“We call each other now and then to catch up, but most of us have each other on Facebook and chat, so we’re able to stay casually and constantly in touch. Facebook and e-mail have actually been a huge way to stay connected with my online friends after old chat rooms and bulletin boards would close. I actually dated one of the guys I met online long distance for two years. We’re still friends, and I still talk to him about relationships and gender, sexual identity, all of that. He was one of the first people who was there for me, and provided a safe space online. I actually came out to my online friends before my family, by a couple of years. The people I talked the most about my sexuality with, online and off, those have been the friendships that have lasted. And I think they last because of so many years of love and friendship were possible because of the trust I could put in those people, that was returned in kind.”
But it’s not just about finding friends who share experiences.
Travis P. grew up in a conservative Christian household and attended similarly conservative schools. For him, the Internet was a valuable resource for finding out more about who he was and learning who else was out there.
“My school didn’t have sex ed at all (much less anything for LGBTQ) so I learned pretty much everything I know from Wikipedia and other informational websites,” he told me.
“Eventually I joined online forums (mostly video game or book related) and enjoyed being able to “be myself” there in that I didn’t have to hide anything about myself like my orientation just because I was afraid of the consequences,” Travis notes. “Also I was able to connect with other teenagers like myself and we could kind of commiserate with each other about it.”
Cohen-Moore has similar memories:
“Well, my family got AOL when I was in 6th grade, I think? And I was a super curious kid, so I started looking around online for anything I was curious about. I already knew my orientation but hadn’t told anyone. I waited a couple of years (till I had my own computer) to really start searching out info on gender and sexuality. I came out when I was 15 to my family, but most of them are straight, so they weren’t personally able to help me a lot on a I’ve-been-there kind of level. So going online for help, I was able to make friends in chatrooms, find safe sex websites, read about gender identity. Most mass media articles weren’t helpful for me, but websites like Scarleteen were.”
Cabell Grathman, a bisexual woman who first started researching sexuality on Usenet, told me:
“…all my initial discussion of sexuality definitely happened online, with people I met on that mailing list. I did meet a couple of guys in high school who identified as bi or gay, and ended up functioning as a kind of secret confessor to women who weren’t out but self-identified as bi or questioning (one of whom has since donated to the annual fundraiser that I do for a local LGBT youth org, which I push on Facebook). I also found Bi Any Other Name: Bisexual People Speak Out through online resources at some point (probably around 1998, when I was graduating high school and starting college), so there was a lot of finding physical reading material through online recommendations.”
“Ivy” also remembers how valuable the Internet was for them* during the early days of their exploration of sexuality and gender:
“I used chatrooms and chat and the Internet to research books, movies, and music with LGB (T wasn’t yet on my radar so much) content, which I would then order through my library. I didn’t have a lot of online-only friends, but the ones I had were REALLY important in this way, and I also used the Internet as a secret/private way to discuss this stuff with my in-person friends with less fear of being overheard by parents.”
Travis brought up another key component of the online community for LGBQT youth: many people end up stumbling into it, rather that deliberately starting out with the intent or seeking information on sexuality and gender.
E. Young started out in the fanfiction community, reading and writing gay fanfiction and then connecting with friends. Friends within the fanfiction community introduced Young to LiveJournal, which became a critically important resource for a young teen dealing with homophobic bullying.
“…When I was young, I remember feeling more comfortable in the LJ groups because it just felt nice to be accepted and not have to ‘research’ who/what I was. It was nice to have friends who were like me, because in IRL I was getting bullied very badly for gender nonconformity (I guess that’s the best way to put it) and perceived sexuality, and whenever I went to adults for help it was… there was none. Parents told me I wasn’t actually gay, no one stopped the bullying, things like that.
“I suppose in a way the bullying and lack of attention was what jump started my quest into really exploring sexuality, because it kind of begged the question of ‘well… am I? I do feel differently about girls than I think I should…’ and fanfiction was kind of the salve for that, at least at first.”
The resources LGBQT teens find on the Internet can help them make informed and empowered decisions about their lives, in addition to helping them navigate complicated situations while they learn about their sexuality.
While the Internet can absolutely pose risks to kids and teens, making it critical to educate them and make sure they’re comfortable finding an adult for help if they’re feeling uncomfortable, it can also be tremendously valuable; so keep that in mind when you want to hassle your kids for being on the Internet all day!
*’Ivy’s’ preferred pronouns are they/them/their.
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