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For Young LGBQTs, the Internet Can Be a Lifeline

For Young LGBQTs, the Internet Can Be a Lifeline

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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Image credit: Thinkstock

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35 comments

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2:56AM PDT on Jul 19, 2013

Thank you for sharing .

3:56AM PDT on Jul 18, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

7:58AM PDT on Jul 17, 2013

I'm glad to know the internet is helping to connect even more folks to critical support systems. We all need to know that we do NOT stand alone. Thanks for sharing.

4:02AM PDT on Jul 17, 2013

The internet also helped me finding out who i was and who or what i like *thumbs up*

7:42PM PDT on Jul 16, 2013

"If they can't find one locally, the Net is the next best thing."
John c, I'm sure that for LGBT people that's true, but for some of us, writing is so much easier than interacting in person, so the net is by far preferable. The alternative to net interactions and support isn't RL interactions for some of us, it's to be all alone in our difference.

For the record, I'm bi and I have yet to be open about it IRL, but people I only know online know about it and helped me come to terms with it. Long live the net!

7:28PM PDT on Jul 16, 2013

"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?"

It's the same for people (children, teens and adults alike) on the autism spectrum. We can find people like ourselves all over the world and talk to them about things we can't discuss with 'normal' people, who'd never understand or relate to our particular issues and ways of being.

3:59PM PDT on Jul 16, 2013

LGBTQ is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning.

As a 70 year old lesbian I absolutely hate the term queer and wish our younger LGBTQ generations would stop using it. I am not queer and when I was growing up it was a derogatory name for LGBT people and still is if a straight person uses it. I am not a queer nor am I a dyke. Let’s try to be respectful of one another.

11:17AM PDT on Jul 16, 2013

About a decade ago I had to move to an incredibly conservative, rural community without daily access to a car and certainly no public transportation.
I felt positively trapped.
After having lived in so many different areas and especially actual cities, it was like stepping back into another era not just another place.

I was in my 30's and can say that had it not been for the internet, I would've lost my mind. That may seem like an exaggeration but I hit an UGLY depression while living there and I know that even with medication, if I hadn't had the net, I wouldn't have made it.

Which is why I think the internet is such an amazing tool in the world today. Also why so many want to put limits on it.
It's not only powerful for LGBTQ teens but think of how many people worldwide now get to see democracy truly in action, also as someone else mentioned, it gives people a chance to see something beyond their limited scope, such as spiritual alternatives to organized religions. (Sorry about that bad run on sentence!)

Anyway, I think we too often take the internet for granted already and forget how truly revolutionary it really is.

10:42AM PDT on Jul 16, 2013

YES,, IT CAN BE A GOOD SOURCE OF HELP AND UNDERSTANDING... - THERE ARE SOME GREAT SUPPORT GROUPS OUT THERE... - JUST HAVE TO LOOK AROUND..

9:23AM PDT on Jul 16, 2013

When a person feels like the world is closing in on them, they need a support group.

If they can't find one locally, the Net is the next best thing.

A large percentage of the kids bullying GLBT kids, learned their hate in Church.

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