Looking? Digital spaces made the LGBTQ+ community’s world smaller

Gender and sexual minorities used to have to find specific places in specific, often urban, areas to meet other people like them, but now with the Internet and social media, that is not necessarily the case.

Matt Skallerud, president of Pink Banana Media, which helps companies strategize and target the LGBTQ community online, said LGBTQ people have been used to being resourceful and finding ways to find one another.

“All those message boards that started out on AOL and CompuServe but then worked their way into the Internet, that’s where you saw a stronger percentage of gays and lesbians were really active online, and then when you fast forward to today with social media, I think you’re still seeing that level of activity,” Skallerud said.

The difference between how LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ people use the Internet is really only seen when leaving social networks like Twitter and Facebook and getting onto apps like Grindr and Scruff, which are two geosocial networking apps targeting gay men, Skallerud said. He also said gender and sexual minorities were ahead of the curve when it came to finding communities out of need.

One of the themes of the LGBTQ community perpetuated into the 21st century from the last one has been the idea of creating a safe space where being queer becomes what is normal as to avoid public and legal persecution, according to the 2016 article titled “Zero Feet Away: The Digital Geography of Gay Social Media” published in the Journal of Homosexuality. What creating these safe spaces inadvertently causes is concentrated and hyper-visible neighborhoods within urban areas, like the West Village in New York and Soho in London, but what social media does for gender and sexual minorities is allow people from anywhere in the world to connect with people in other far-off places.

Real bodies interacting in physical and virtual space, according to the 2016 article, form the core of this geosocial networking.

Robert Byrd, a journalism professor at the University of Memphis, said he thinks everyone regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity looks for people like them.

“I think what’s happened with social media, even if you think about Grindr and other online dating apps, is it makes their world smaller,” Byrd said. “You used to have to go to a big city to find people like you. You can just go online now. It helps create communities.”

Chris Brown, the digital director for GLAAD, a United States non-governmental media monitoring organization founded by LGBT people in the media, said social media is a lifeline for LGBTQ people because it provides access to a support system and resources.

“For some LGBTQ people, social media is the only way they’re able to access critical resources or, frankly, their only option to be their true self,” Brown said.

According to a 2014 article published in Health Education Research, 78 percent of LGBTQ youth, as compared to 19 percent of heterosexual youth, relied on online sources for sexual health information.

Social media has increased exposure on gender and sexual minorities and provided a deeper understanding of the issues they face, Brown said.

“Attitudes, behaviors and beliefs are influenced by social media, so accurate and positive LGBTQ representation matters,” Brown said.

This article was written for an exhibition of Memphis area graphic designer Connor Burch’s work. You can see more of his work at connieburch.com.

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