Irish teenager shares his experience of navigating social media as a young queer person

"Seeing people like me be proud of who they were allowed me to be proud of who I was, which can be hard when you grow up knowing you’re different."

A young person on social media on their phone.
Image: Pexels

As part of Belong To’s It’s Our Social Media campaign, we are platforming the experiences of queer youth online throughout the month of March, starting with this piece from 19-year-old Oran Tobin.

Social media is a huge part of life for all young people. But for LGBTQ+ teens, social media helps us connect with others like us, which is especially important for those in more rural areas.

Personally, I’ve found social media really helpful for learning more about the queer community, for example, the struggles of trans and non-binary people. Our community is so broad and unique, and new identities are being discovered and highlighted all the time, and I think social media platforms like Instagram and YouTube help us keep up to date with all the unique identities that make our community so special. There’s also a lot of erasure of LGBTQ+ history, and social media allows young people to learn more about our culture.

Growing up, my first memories of social media were watching queer YouTubers’ videos on the many sexualities and gender expressions in the community. What I loved about them was they were based on real peoples’ experiences instead of simply exploring terms like ‘transgender’ or ‘homosexuality’ as defined by a straight, cisgender person (who historically labelled our identities as disorders).

One of the most impactful moments on social media for me (as a young gay boy) was when creators started posting coming out videos. Seeing so many people standing up for themselves and their identities was really empowering.

Many of us younger LGBTQ+ people have the privilege of forgetting that this was a time when coming out could have cost them their following, their jobs and potentially family members. YouTube allowed them to share their voices and allowed a whole generation of young queer people to access information that changed how they viewed themselves.

Seeing people like me be proud of who they were allowed me to be proud of who I was, which can be hard when you grow up knowing you’re different. Representation is so important for all young people, we need to see who we can be to decide who we want to be, and when there’s a lack of positive representation of queer and trans people in mainstream media, young LGBTQ+ kids can’t form a positive idea of who they’re going to be when they’re older.

I recently discovered that 87% of LGBTQ+ young people have seen or experienced harassment online. I’ve been very lucky not to have experienced any first-hand harassment online, but to be completely honest, this statistic doesn’t surprise me.

While social media helps us share our interests and connect with each other, it’s not entirely a safe space, and it can often leave young queer people vulnerable to bullying and unsafe attention. One of the benefits of growing up different is it gives our community a deep sense of compassion, but that sentiment isn’t entirely universal. I’m sometimes really shocked by the exclusionary and bigoted opinions of young straight cis kids (some of whom haven’t even reached their teens yet) and how little they understand the consequences their words can have.

An unfortunate truth about social media is that the farcical promotion of ‘free speech’ often fails to protect people from hate speech under the guise that all opinions can be expressed, regardless of the real-world harm they can cause. This idea is often paraded around by misogynists, homophobes and transphobes as being a fully equitable system, but in truth, it is not.

One should never have to fight to justify one’s existence and identity, and sentiments opposing that should qualify as hate speech and be removed from sites such as Instagram and Twitter.

Unfortunately, however, we are at the mercy of the conglomerate, who’s most interested in keeping its users engaged as it makes the platform more money. At times like these, when the treatment of marginalised groups feels so unfair and unjust, it’s good to remember that social media is foremost a business and can’t (and shouldn’t) represent the treatment of these communities in real life.

My advice to young people online is to only follow people you know and trust and ensure the celebrities you follow have values that align with yours. You’d be surprised how many public figures come out with the most horrendously bigoted takes after 20-odd years of never bringing up political issues.

Make sure you report any account that’s being toxic towards you or a friend. Most platforms only take the complaints seriously when there are numerous reports of the same person, so being proactive about blocking and reporting accounts is incredibly beneficial.

As a basic rule, any political content you watch should build up marginalised communities and try to highlight voices that may have been silenced in the past. Accounts that put down minority groups probably won’t be looking out for you and could spread hurtful misinformation.

Use social media to educate yourself. It’s not as boring as it sounds, and while not everyone has to be an advocate, it’s good to know the basic ins and outs of queer politics. We’re still a minority group that isn’t fully accepted, so being able to advocate for yourself can be a very important skill.

When having conversations about social media safety, it’s important to remember that the perpetrators of harassment and bullying online are people and that toxic, bigoted behaviour online will only stop as oppression of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole becomes eradicated.

In my opinion, the best way of doing this is through spreading positive representation of queer people and making ourselves visible in the media. Homophobic attacks – whether online or in person – stem from the same root, and eliminating those hurtful, antiquated beliefs is the only way to achieve safety for queer people both in social media and in the real world.

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