According to a study posted by GLSEN in March, 2021, 44.9% of LGBTQ+ students reported being cyberbullied. The LGBTQ+, community is made up of people with a sexuality, gender orientation or identity outside of straight, cisgender, or someone questioning any of those things. Specifically for members of the LGBTQ+ community that may not get represented in other types of media, social media is a particularly important resource. It can be a place for freedom, exploration and reprieve for members of the community who may not feel accepted in their in-person environments. However, using something with so many diverse perspectives can lead to a confusion between information and misinformation.
One way social media can be beneficial is that it helps transgender people through their transitioning process because it allows them to share their identities to an extent that would not otherwise be possible. Oyster River student Thi Udomprasert (‘22) says, “there are a lot of ways trans people [use social media to present their identities]. . . A lot of people may choose to present themselves [in] a way that might not be entirely realistic, but is reflective of where they would like to be in their transition.” This can be a powerful and effective way for transgender people to express how they would like to be seen and share that with other people.
However, while some people are able to identify and share their labels, for those who are unsure of how they identify, being exposed to other people who do know on social media often adds pressure rather than relieving it. According to Udomprasert, “people take a lot of pride in their various identities . . . I think the problem with that is it creates a sense of pressure. There’s a pressure to say ‘I am this.’ It uncomplicates it and makes it more simplistic but then people have to wrestle with ‘what if that is not right [for me].’” The need to simplify and identify things is a basic sociological trait of human beings, but when this starts applying to people and groups of people, it can be confusing and complicated. Despite stereotypes, there is no one way to fit a certain label and that can look different for each individual.
Social media can also make it challenging for LGBTQ+ people to separate accurate information from false information. According to Udomprasert, “social media is a great place to spread information, [however], there’s information and then there’s misinformation. So it really is a conflict between reality and a wierd, bigoted perception. I think that’s really challenging to navigate because it’s really confusing and complicated.”
Misrepresentation and misinformation can mean a lot of things to a lot of groups. One form of misinformation is stereotypes. For the LGBTQ+ community, it is rooted in stereotypes and invalidation by a large portion of society and how these influence how they are received by friends, family and peers. An example of a common misconception or stereotypes is that, often seen in the comment section of people’s posts, bisexual women are just confused straight women and bisexual men are just gay. These stereotypes can be hurtful and invalidating for a member of the LGBTQ+ community who is trying to share their identity with the people in their life because these stereotypes and misconceptions can shape how the people in their life feel about them after they come out and how seriously they are taken.
While it isn’t inherently negative, social media can lead to the perpetuation and formation of stereotypes that can impact how queer people present themselves online. According to Oyster River High School student Tess Parrott (‘22), “these stereotypes probably wouldn’t be as pertinent to my identity if they weren’t perpetuated on social media so much, but since [the stereotypes] are there all the time a lot of people can see them and a lot of people believe them. It [makes] it easier for people to generalize a certain group of people if [stereotypes] are being reinforced by social media.” Often people can control what they see on their feeds, but how can you dismiss something you don’t know is wrong?
Oyster River High School student Qrow Tzizik (‘22) says, “I try to curate what I see on [social media] and who I interact with to those who I know are supportive [of my identity.]” So, while in some cases curated, or heavily censored, feeds can work to perpetuate stereotypes and spread harmful messages, in others it can be used to protect yourself from them.
Lack of information can also be a factor in how someone identifies and how they are received. The confusion of conflicting or missing information can even lead to not having the knowledge and vocabulary to accurately identify your identity when you first come out. This can work to undermine the LGBTQ+ community because some people perceive someone changing their label as the person changing their mind, when really they just didn’t have the correct vocabulary. Parrott had a similar experience, “I came out as bisexual because I didn’t know what pansexual was [when] I was in the eigth grade.” To be completely clear, there is nothing wrong with changing your mind or realizing that you more closely identify with a different label then when you first came out.
Another aspect of social media and the stereotyping is the pressure from within the LGBTQ+ community to find a label and fit a certain way in the community itself. Udomprasert said, “we use the term LGBT and we use [the letters] as markers for distinct identities. There are lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and then the transgender people [and] they never intersect, but they often do. That’s more of a cultural language [problem], but is a stereotype too.” This can be problematic because it leads to a lot of stereotypes and confusion for people as they try to figure out who they are and what labels they fit.
Coming out in general can be challenging without the added pressure of social media. However, with the abundance of knowledge social media offers, it can actually help some people find and share the identity that fits them. Udomprasert says, “social media helped me to come out, but it didn’t force me to. It isn’t necessarily a negative thing for queer kids. It can be, [but] I think it’s ultimately knowing where to look [and] knowing what hashtags are attached to the representation you’re looking for.”
Social media can have all these negative aspects but it has also had some positive impacts on the LGBTQ+ community. Parrot says, “social media has given people a platform to explore and express their identity in a place where they can’t be hurt for it. It gives a community which is really important and gives support where you wouldn’t [usually] be able to find it.” It can also be a place of pride for LGBTQ+ members. Oyster River student Isabella Noccetti (‘22) says, “social media allows us to be proud of ourselves when our in-person environment might not allow us to.”
With all social media’s positives and negatives, one can’t really say whether it is harmful or helpful in the perpetuation of stereotypes of the LGBTQ+ community. This is best said by Udomprasert, “the LGBT community is so diverse that there are stereotypes that can and do form, but ultimately you don’t want that because there is no one way to be.”