(Dis)connected: Growing up queer in the digital age

Modern society has a lot to owe the internet - Wikipedia, endless streams of entertainment, last night’s hookup - but few groups have more gratitude for the internet than the LGBT+ community.

Woman with short hair and a denim shirt looking at digital content on her laptop in a dark room.

Growing up in the digital age comes with its ups and downs, but as a young queer person today it’s definitely hard to romanticise the unplugged past.

Social media and modern technology give LGBT+ people the space to explore our identities incognito mode, and later affirm them out-and-proud. Many of us have found solace in the heartwarming comments under a coming-out video or even found our people by fanbodying over an LGBT+ artist on Twitter.

Despite the conservative establishment’s attempts to demonitise, age-restrict and downright delete LGBT+ content, social media cannot stop ordinary people from expressing themselves. Rather than advertisers and entertainment producers dictating what we are exposed to on a daily basis (the richest, the whitest, the straightest and the most cisgender no doubt), young people today are growing up normalised to the words gay, ace and trans.

We can see the tremendous effects of this exposure – it’s much harder to throw around homophobic slurs in school after watching a lesbian struggle with her unaccepting family online. It’s also much harder to disown your lesbian daughter after an LGBT+ support service reminds you that she’s the same person she always was, except now she’s brave enough to tell you that she likes girls. Digital platforms help transform heteronormative societies hostile to the LGBT+ community into heteronormative societies less hostile to the LGBT+ community.

Moreover, queer-friendly websites are an invaluable resource for young people who cannot simply ask friends and family for appropriate advice and support, especially in a country that fails to provide all of its students with comprehensive relationships and sex education (Leo, stop blocking the Sex Ed Bill!). Digital platforms allow queer teenagers, often forgotten in classrooms, to learn how to practise safe, consensual and enjoyable sex.

However, this is by no means an ode to YouTube and Instagram – I am far from a fan of far-right figures promoting hate speech on Twitter, nor neoliberal entities commodifying queer relationships. These facets of the online world, whilst often challenged by storms of progression, can further isolate LGBT+ people who may be using their social media presence to break free from the ostracisation they face IRL.

And, although virtual friends and binge-watching Drag Race can help a certain sect of social pariahs, that’s only including the ones with a functioning internet connection. We cannot give in to the illusion that all LGBT+ people can simply run away from their dull, black-and-white lives at the touch of a button when millions are left entirely unsupported.

Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat can paint these glossy images that may appeal to the eye but are nonetheless filtered and distorted. We know that social media festers unrealistic expectations by presenting the highlights of people’s lives, yet we are still affected by them, often subconsciously. Influencers that luck out from algorithms and privileged backgrounds can make us feel worthless if we don’t happen to be a world-class singer at 17, a billionaire at 25, or married at 30. This can stunt the confidence of an insecure teenager like myself, vulnerable to the ugly emotions of FOMO, isolation and self-comparison. These feelings are not foreign to the average social media user, addicted to the seemingly-innocent act of scrolling.

With the dawn of 2020 in sight, it has never been easier to disconnect from the human world and convert to a virtual existence (or existences). The internet and modern technologies provide us with a much-needed respite from the chaos of life, whilst simultaneously perpetrating the chaotic capitalist culture we attempt to shield ourselves from. Digital platforms can make us feel so connected to our queer community and selves, but can also make us feel lonelier than ever.

As almost every element of life adopts an online form, we’re using the web for work and school, and we’re certainly not switching off once we get home. It can be so tempting to ditch real-life discussions for googling, and chats over tea for texts and passive-aggressive Facebook posts, but no matter how innovative and smart technologies become, we cannot be slaves to our screens.

Rather, everything in moderation; physical queer social spaces should be accessible to everyone. Not just to Dubliners who enjoy a drink, but to all LGBT+ people who currently rely on the internet for connectivity. Particularly in a tense political climate overloaded with threats from the far-right and corporations burning our planet for profit, it is essential that we truly band together to challenge the status quo. And sometimes a text or selfie just doesn’t cut it – after all, we are people not personas.

This story was originally published in GCN Issue 359.

© 2019 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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