Throughout the research period, I will post research findings in an academic format to show off my fancy knowledge. This Research Findings report details the history behind queer spaces online – which lie in queer spaces like bars, bookstores, and cafés.
It’s not exactly like gay sex didn’t exist before the Internet. But learning about it and becoming a part of a queer culture in the past was much different than it is now for young queers, who are clicks away from finding other young queers with many of the same questions (both logistical and emotional) about what it means to be in a same-sex relationship or have same-sex sex.
Michael Shernoff is concerned about queer spaces online, mostly because he likes queer spaces in real life so much; his article “The Heart of a Virtual Hunter,” from the January-February 2006 Gay & Lesbian Review, nostalgically looked back on being gay before the worldwide web:
“It used to be that going to a gay bar meant being in the thick of gay community, gay culture, and gay activism. There would be fliers up on a bulletin board somewhere near the pay phone. There might be a fundraiser for the local LGBT community center or there might be some political conversation” (21).
The article touches on the idea that gay men in particular have been easily pulled into the Internet as a queer space because it “streamlines” the ability to become active, educated, and aware in your local community about gay activism – and also makes it easier to cruise (20). He’s right about both, and it’s true for everyone: queer spaces online reach larger audiences and bring in more people, connect LGBT folk who are dispersed in rural or suburban areas to a community, and allow those in the closet or questioning or experimenting with their sexualities to do what would normally be done in a bar or café anonymously at home (20).
The differences between queer spaces online and in person don’t lie, then, in what they offer. Both physical and virtual spaces can give questioning and newly out people a good guide to “how to be gay” (kind of like the Autostraddle “how to be gay” tag). The Internet, like other queer spaces in the physical world, can be seen as a way for queer youth to “navigate their identificatory paths” and learn how to belong to a community they may not have immediate access to or whole knowledge of (MacIntosh, Bryson 136). It has also been shown that young people, and young queer women in particular, are drawn to the Internet as a place for resources and expansive sexual health information that is actually tailored to their lifestyles, and as a marginalized community that is invaluable to them (MacIntosh, Bryson 136).
The Internet, however, has been able to modify the model of a queer space to add some components that increase safety, such as anonymity, and also expands the LGBTQ community in order to fit people who live in rural or suburban areas, live in homophobic areas or areas lacking a lot of queer culture, or are too young to access the gay nightlife and culture in their region (Shernoff 20).
Similarly, social networking and social media bring to the table the ability to observe gay culture without being physically present or accounted for. Although nobody explicitly mentioned this, anonymity spreads far beyond anonymous comments and conversations hidden behind neutral avatars and vague usernames. Online, users do not even have to declare their presence in order to observe and learn from the community they are “residing in.” Unlike being at a gay bar, where you are physically present and can be seen by members of the community inside, anyone can look at a blog post online or read about sexual heath on Scarleteen without needing to announce that they were doing so. This allows for queer youth to genuinely question and explore, and learn without needing to share their mere interest in the learning process. In many ways, I believe this could be a hugely attractive feature of the web to young queer women: the idea that they can learn so passively and anonymously that nobody, not even other anonymous members of a queer network, need to know that they are still learning about safe sex or wondering how to do it at all.
The Internet, however, has certainly not perfected the idea of a queer space. A digital model has serious drawbacks: people do not always trust information online as valid, sexual content online is often written in a different linguistic style than official health documents that may lead to mistrust of the content- including personal essays (Jones, Biddlecom 117), and the Internet allows queer youth to become more passive in their identity-building and activism that it may actually be weakening their opportunities for real, physical visibility in their areas and progress in the arena of queer rights (Shernoff 21).
Similarly, an unfortunate consequence of the Internet’s rise and power as a community-building tool is that bookstores, gay bars, gay nightclubs, and other physical queer spaces have begun to lack in attendence (Shernoff 22). Although the Internet does not offer you a cup of coffee or a cocktail, it offers the same potential for queer socialization, cruising, activism, and education as a physical queer space – and in many ways, in fact, it might be seen as a superior vehicle. Because of the popularity and ease of access to the Internet, many queer establishments are struggling because of a lack of support (Shernoff 21). The Internet, after all, is typically free and has no dress code.
Images always found innocently via Tumblr. Please let me know if it’s yours!
Jones, Rachel K. and Ann E. Biddlecom. “Is the Internet Filling the Sexual Health Information Gap for Teens? An Exploratory Study.” Journal of Health Communication, 16:2, 112-123. Guttmacher Institute, New York, NY. 2001.
Shernoff, Michael. “The Heart of a Virtual Hunter.” The Gay & Lesbian Review, January-February 2006, 20-22. 2006.
MacIntosh, Lori and Mary Bryson. “Youth, MySpace, and the Interstitial Spaces of Becoming and Belonging.” Journal of LGBT Youth, 5:1, 133-142. Haworth Press. 2007.