This time, Erin is sharing her perspective on how the internet ties into her Queer identity. (If you’re the kind of person who is triggered by occasional swearing, then just be aware that Erin uses a couple of swear words.)
Erin is a Canadian working in the charity sector in London, writing, thinking, and sometimes organising around topics of sexuality, intimacy after trauma, and exploring all forms of embodiment.
As one of those late stage millennials, millennials in their final evolution, it doesn’t feel particularly dystopian to reminisce on pretending to be a boy on the internet to talk to girls on Omegle as a preteen. Now, as a hot mess of an adult, I’m allowed equal access to all the popular dating apps. I’m no longer catfishing other closeting preteens, but instead able to select “woman seeking woman”. This is not the beginning of another think piece on Tinder, but my reflections on growing up in a queer digital utopia: swipe right, please.
The internet is not a vacuum, and different bodies have different needs and access to digital space. How Queer* youth access the social digital spaces affects their identity formation and community participation offline, specifically the experience of online embodiment of queer content affects queer performativity offline.
(To clarify, I’m coming from a Canadian academic background and the decision to use the word ‘Queer’ as opposed to mobilizing the alphabet soup is both one of pointed politics and one of privilege.)
We are all aware that the internet redefines the scope of social connections, subverting the previous challenge of distance, subverting time and space itself. For Queer folks, the ability to gather has been a central tenet to our struggles. To access one another is not only how we gain the many beautiful and challenging perks of community but also how we learn to identify.
Most Queer people do not come from Queer families, that is to say, even when one grows up in a “liberal” space, they do not see themselves mirrored in their families. To be a Queer child is to not inherently have anyone else around you that is Queer. This is where the trope of Queers migrating to cities comes from. Those of us who can flock to urbans centres as soon as we are able, to find and to fuck one another.
This movement has been redefined in a digital age that allows us to find, and to fuck, one another without leaving our bedrooms. While the lines of private and public space have been blurred, if not entirely dismantled, for all people with the extension of digital access into our homes and even on the go, for Queer people the spatial subversions redefines how we can begin to negotiate our identity politics.
There is not one specific way to feel or to be read as "gay". To me, Queer identity is one that is constantly responding to and subverting social norms: who we love, how we dress, what our genitals look like, what the genitals of the person we love look like. Our sexuality is assessed by how our gender is perceived, and all of these assessments fall onto the body. If such norms are surfaced on bodies, these norms are challenged in a totally new way as the format of the surface has changed – online embodiment challenges how we understand ourselves and how our bodies circulate. The internet provides a space for Queer people to orient themselves towards one another, and this contact is becoming available younger and younger.
Queer youth, like all of us, are extending their bodies into cyber space, projecting onto screens, and for many, visual performance is central to their content creation. However, as we know, the internet can also provide a disguise, an anonymity, a way to present as another. While this can be used for harm, this can also provide a safer space for exploration, to embody a queerness that may not be otherwise available.
For young questioning kids, exploration in the private sphere is not a new process, however, now the line between private and public is being warped as well. While in the past, the limits of gender bending within the confines of your childhood home may have been wearing mum’s heels while she’s out, now youth can embody a queer identity anonymously online.
When Omegle was launched 10 years ago, I was 14. I was old enough, and privileged enough, to have my own computer in my own bedroom. Omegle’s tagline is “talk to strangers” and works as a random chat site. Though now it has a video option, at its prime and mine it was solely used for anonymous instant text messaging. Like most teenagers, my bedroom was my haven and the space for me to partake in my main hobbies: angst, identity crises, and wanking. The internet is fantastic for exploring all three, especially simultaneously. I did not come out until I was 16, even to myself. I frequently used Omegle to pretend to be a boy to chat to other girls (or perhaps young gay boys with the same genius as myself). These online chats would inevitably and rapidly fall into the hypersexual and cringey banter only virginal teens could fabricate.
Despite blatantly lying following the opening “ASL?” (I often went with 19, M, Brazil (Olá!)) nothing about these chats felt subversive at the time. In fact, I’ve only recently acknowledged to myself how very Queer my online activity was at this age. Very recently. Previously I would answer the cliché trauma bonding question “when did you realize you were gay”, with a boring anecdote about falling in love with my friend at 16. In hindsight, the clues might have been that I used all my free private time to tell digital girls I wanted to “touch their pussies” – the oh so subtle clues were there. The freedom to self identify online was so queer itself, I didn’t even notice that I was.
Not every teen has the same one-track mind as I had. So many young people are using online resources to become politically active and enraged, and, like coming out as Queer, this is happening at younger and younger ages. I’m linking political activity and sexual activity here as I believe they can never been untangled, especially in discussing Queer community building.
Queer intimacies are an act of resistance, and while they are often delegated to “queer spaces”, in a digital age all space is redefined. My current online presence, and blurring of the private and public sphere, includes my prolific Tinder use. My settings usually fixed to “women”, as I’m gayer than 2007 Ellen Page, I do sometimes extend the app to “women and men”, because like Juno, we all have our moments. While the gender binary frameworks of these apps are lazy at the best of times and violent at the worst of times, the fact that my presented sexuality can be altered so casually feels radical. How I mark my body online is up to me; my persistent Queer identity is mine to assert and yours to swipe on.
The internet is a continuation of society and of course reiterates harmful hegemonies, in which whiter, straighter, and more beautiful bodies tend to win. However, the internet allows us weirdos and Queers to find one another, and that contact is intimate and beautiful and political and essential and amazing. Now, and historically, queer contact seemingly focuses on sex, but that theme only seems perverted because straight people have labelled it so, it’s the focus of most their social projects too. The internet provides Queer youth an opportunity to explain themselves and their explorations of the world. Digital space provides a way for queer people to orient themselves towards each other, as safely as is currently possible. Despite living in metropolis seemingly overflowing with fabulous gay men, it can feel like the queer women are a scarce and hidden resource. Without online connections, like Tinder I'd be stuck in a dating loop with my ex-girlfriend’s ex-girlfriend forever.
Omegle let me chat to other Queers around the world, and Tinder lets me disappoint them in real life. The internet has not made me gay, thank my workaholic father for that, but increased and diversified exposure to the non-hetero has made me a more whole and happy Queer person. While there are many other journeys of self discovery online, mine is one of sexual embodiment and empowerment. Don’t forget that having fun is a radical act for marginalized bodies, and digital engagement can allow for that by combating social isolation. Participation in cyber space allows Queer youth to access resources and community beyond the heteronormative structures of their daily lives. Queer existence on and offline is resistance.
Thanks to Erin for explaining such a deep subject with humour and clarity. More in a couple of weeks!