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Twenty years of ‘cyberqueer’: the enduring significance of the Internet for young LGBTIQ+ people

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This chapter reflects on how ‘cyberqueer’ spaces - digitally mediated spaces inhabited by queer people - have changed and evolved over the past 20 years. In doing so, it explores the enduring significance of the Internet in the lives of young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ+) people. We draw on data from an Australian survey and specifically look at different patterns of self-reported gender, sexuality and social media use across four age cohorts of young LGBTIQ+ people: aged 16-20, 21-25, 26-30 and 31-35 years. Findings from this study suggest that many of the productive and significant dimensions of the Internet identified by Wakeford for queer users some 20 years ago endure today, albeit in new forms amidst new challenges.
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Introduction
Over the past 20 to 30 years, the Internet has come to serve as a key channel
for communicating and connecting, but also engaging in civic participation. For
lesbian, gay, bisexual, tr ansgender, intersex, and queer or questioning ( LGBTIQ+)
people, who continue to experience disproportionate health risks and high rates
of discrimination (Leonard et al. 2012), the significance of the Internet as a social
resource is further magnified (Gray 2009, Hanckel and Morris 2014). While dig-
ital social spaces have evolved, many of the motivations for using these platforms
remain the same. Different platforms offer different opportunities to connect
with queer peers and others, for discussing, documenting and exploring sexuality
away from heteronormative spaces (Hillier et al. 2001, 2010, O’Neill 2014). From
text-based ‘virtual’ worlds and discussion boards through to sites and apps such
as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr, YouTube, Reddit, Tinder,
Grindr and Her, the digital social media landscape is now more complex than
ever. What new challenges and opportunities does this evolution present? A bet-
ter understanding of digital engagement (and disengagement) is useful not only
for researchers and platform designers but also for a broad range of social service
providers, educators and policymakers who are routinely tasked with both the
regulation and the support of young LGBTIQ+ people.
This chapter draws on data from the Scrolling Beyond Binaries study, centred on
a national survey of 1,304 young LGBTIQ+ Australians. The survey addresses
a key gap in our understanding of social media use among LGBTIQ+ people
in Australia. We begin by providing a brief background on Internet use among
LGBTIQ+ young people over the past 20 years before presenting some key find-
ings from the study in two parts: (a) differences across our four age cohorts (16–20,
21–25, 26–30, 30–35) in terms of their identities (gender and sexuality) and the
social media platforms they use; and (b) the argument that the Internet continues
to be significant for our respondents for social connection and learning. In doing
so, we explore the complex and evolving ways in which young LGBTIQ+ people
use and thus (re)produce digital social spaces, returning to Nina Wakeford’s (2000
[1997]) consideration of ‘cyberqueer spaces’.
Chapter 10
Twenty years of ‘cyberqueer
The enduring significance of the
Internet for young LGBTIQ+ people
Brady Robards, Brendan Churchill, Son Vivienne,
Benjamin Hanckel and Paul Byron
152 Brady Robards et al.
Background: the story thus far
If you have ever stepped off the ferry on to Fire Island or pulled into
Provincetown or any other gay and lesbian enclave, you know the feeling.
It’s as if a desert dweller had walked through a magical wall into lush tropics.
The natives seem exotic and utterly normal… a door opening into a world
where gays and lesbians are the natural majority.
(Dawson 1996 in Wakeford 2000 [1997], p. 404)
In her influential essay, Cyberqueer, Nina Wakeford (2000 [1997]) begins by in-
voking Dawson’s description of entering digital social spaces for gay and lesbian
people as akin to arriving in a gay enclave. The affective dimensions of ‘arriving’
and no longer feeling in the minority in a digital space that Dawson sets out here,
and that Wakeford further explores, resonate even today, 20 years later. At the
same time, there are significant differences in how we conceptualise the Internet
today. Scholarship from the 1990s is replete with metaphors, like Dawson’s, that
tell tales of ‘arriving at’ or ‘on’ or ‘in’ the Internet. Another example is Julian
Dibbell’s (1998) pioneering work on the LambdaMOO MUD (a text-based
Multi- User Domain), where Dibbell found himself ‘tripping now and then down
the well-travelled information lane that leads to LambdaMOO, a very large and
very busy rustic mansion built entirely of words’ (Dibbell 1998, p. 11). Sherry
Turkle’s work around this time, which acknowledged the ways in which digital
media were becoming embedded in the ‘routines of everyday life’ (1995, p. 9),
dealt in descriptions of ‘cyberspace’ as a place people went to and spent time in,
away from their ‘real lives’. At the time, these kinds of metaphors and spatial
conceptualisations of the Internet made sense as people were interacting through
shared ‘virtual worlds’ like MUDs where imagination – imagining a room, char-
acters, responses – was key.
More recent conceptualisations of the Internet have called for doing away with
dualisms that seek to inscribe a distinction between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’. Rather
than engage in this ‘digital dualist’ thinking, Jurgenson (2011), for instance, has
argued for seeing the online and offline as overlapping and integrated within
individuals’ lives. As Hine (2015, p. 192) explains, the Internet can be understood
as ‘a culturally embedded phenomenon, as online activities acquire meaning and
significance in so far as they are interpreted within other online and offline con-
texts’. In this way, the on/offline converge and their meaning is made through
the spaces in which they develop, and are used.
Meanwhile, the digitally mediated social ‘spaces’ and ‘places’ people spend
time in have also changed. For our survey respondents, many of whom felt ‘al-
ways connected’ to social media, the idea of arriving at and departing from the
Internet in Dawson’s analogy would seem antiquated. Rather, digital media are
embedded in everyday life. Nevertheless, there are many dimensions of these
early conceptualisations of ‘cyberqueer spaces’ that continue to be salient. As
Wakeford explains, ‘cyberqueer spaces are constantly reconstituted as points of
Twenty years of ‘cyberqueer 153
resistance against the dominant assumption of the normality of heterosexuality’
(Wakeford 2000 [1997], p. 408). Our research findings suggest that, for young
LGBTIQ+ people, digital social spaces are still significant because the ‘different
heteronormative/homophobic burdens’ (Gray 2009, p. 21) that they confront are
persistent, albeit with variations to those of 20 years ago.
Digital spaces have been shown to assist LGBTIQ+ young people in coming
to terms with a sense of self (Hillier et al. 2010, Hanckel and Morris 2014) and
connecting with like-minded others (Russell 2002). These interactions provide
young people with important knowledge about LGBTIQ+ identities, the op-
portunity to refute the negative stereotypes and perceptions of non-heterosexual
people (Castañeda 2015) and connection to sexual health information (Mustanski
et al. 2011). Taken together, these uses allow for a broad reading of the Internet
as a forum for the transfer of (sub)cultural capital, including knowledge about
what it is to be queer (Munt et al. 2002). Not only does this circumvent some of
the stigma LGBTIQ+ people live with, but it also presents a ‘valuable perform-
ative and discursive space’ (O’Neill 2014), and opportunities to engage in civic
life (Hanckel and Morris 2014, Vivienne 2017). Put simply, the Internet provides
opportunities for exploring sexuality and gender, and engaging in forms of queer
world-making.
In Australia, 79% of Internet users aged 18–29 accessed some form of social
media at least once per day, ahead of the national average of 50% of the gen-
eral Internet-using population (Sensis Social Media Report 2016). While we do
not have explicit data on Internet usage rates among the LGBTIQ+ population,
given the aforementioned and Dawson’s (in Wakeford 2000 [1997]) still resonant
description of the comfort and safety of queer digital spaces, we wondered if these
perceptions still held. More specifically, given the transformation of the web to
the participatory ‘web 2.0’, we aimed to explore how social media is being used
by LGBTIQ+ young people in Australia. As we will discuss, the findings reveal
not just the enduring significance of ‘cyberqueer spaces’ in the lives of young
LGBTIQ+ people, but also clear differences in use across age cohorts and in the
way our different cohorts conceptualise their own genders and sexualities.
The Scrolling Beyond Binaries project
The Scrolling Beyond Binaries study began in 2016. First, we surveyed a range of
young LGBTIQ+ people in Australia from June to November 2016 on their social
media use. These data comprise 1,304 survey responses from young people aged
16 to 35 years (average age: 21.9 years). In the second phase of the study, we un-
dertook in-depth Skype interviews with self-elected survey participants (n = 23).
In this chapter we focus on survey data from Phase One of the study.
The project began at a curious point in Australian history, where the inclusion
of LGBTIQ+ people remains controversial in popular discourse. On the one
hand, LGBTIQ+ people are becoming more represented in the sporting arena
154 Brady Robards et al.
and mass media more generally, which is important for responding to the earlier
‘symbolic annihilation’ (Gross 1991, p. 26) of sexual minorities in the media. For
example, the Australian Football League (AFL), a traditionally masculine and
heteronormative sporting context, has begun to promote ‘pride games’ (ABC
News 2016). Australian television programmes and films, such as Please Like Me
(2013–2016), The Principal (2015 2016) and Barracuda (2016) increasingly have
central queer characters and actors. However, whilst such representations are
increasing, there is evidence to suggest that there is a persistence of invisibility
of diverse LGBTIQ+ narratives in mainstream media. Reports and stories often
emphasise heterosexual lives, and assume this to be the norm (see for example
McKinnon et al. 2017). Furthermore, ‘Safe Schools’, the anti-bullying campaign
designed to foster more inclusive schools for LGBTIQ+ people, came under at-
tack from conservatives in 2016, who framed the programme as ‘a gateway drug
for children to experiment with sex’ (Rhodes et al. 2016; see also Law 2017). The
family-rated and award-winning documentary Gayby Baby (2015), which tells the
story of children of same-sex parents, was also banned from being screened dur-
ing school hours by the New South Wales Education Minister (Safi 2015). More
broadly, the long marriage equality ‘debate’ in Australia that culminated in a
change to the legislation in 2017, created the space for highly contentious de-
bate, with comments against LGBTIQ+ people circulating throughout popular
media. There is evidence this impacted young LGBTIQ+ peoples’ lives, with
mental health support services reporting a ‘40 per cent surge in young people ac-
cessing help since the same sex marriage postal survey began’ (ReachOut 2017).
Internationally, gross human rights violations and news of a ‘gay purge’ in
Chechnya (Andreevskikh 2017), alongside the conservatism behind populist
movements in the USA and the UK, continue to make the world seem hostile
and threatening for LGBTIQ+ people. Meanwhile, in predominantly digital
spaces (where national identity is often less marked) and Tumblr in particular,
there is evidence of a proliferation of non-binary gender identities (including
gender-queer, enby, agender, two spirit, etc.). This phenomenon is also marked
by increased options on dating sites and hook-up apps for self-selecting diverse
combinations of gender and sexuality. For example, as early as 2014, OKCupid
announced more inclusive options and currently offers 22 choices of gender and
13 sexual ‘orientations’. OKCupid further encourages the expansion of catego-
ries via online submission: ‘Language and words evolve just as the people who
use them do. Help us add your perspective and share with the world what terms
of identification mean to you’ (OKCupid 2017). Transgender author and activ-
ist Riki Wilchins, argues that while non-binary and gender-queer people have
existed in various forms, cultures and nominalisations across time, recent social
changes indicate that ‘we are unconsciously and finally treading toward the end
of gender. In my opinion, that step is long overdue’ (Wilchins 2017).
With this context in mind, how do young LGBTIQ+ people in Australia rec-
oncile these competing discourses? And in what ways might Plummer’s (2003)
arguments about sexual citizenship be real ised through social media? While there
Twenty years of ‘cyberqueer 155
is some detailed work on specific digital spaces (Hanckel and Morris 2014) and
approaches to inclusion through digital media (Vivienne 2016), there is a gap in
wider understandings of the complex ways young people simultaneously juggle
a variety of social media platforms with different affordances for privacy and
disclosure, among multiple networked publics. These negotiations, good and
bad, have consequences for health and well-being. Feelings of connectedness are
themselves indicators for engaged citizenship and living a meaningful life. The
Scrolling Beyond Binaries project sought to address this gap, and we present some
preliminary findings here.
Generational differences
In this section, we tease out some useful distinctions between our four cohorts,
in terms of differences between gender, sexuality and the platforms they use,
before returning to the more substantive issue of the enduring significance of the
Internet in the lives of young LGBTIQ+ people. Our largest age cohort was the
youngest category. Over half (54%) of respondents were from the 16- to 20-year-
old cohort, with progressively smaller cohorts for each group.
Gender
Our two younger cohorts were more likely to identify as non-binary when it
comes to gender (Table 10.1). Notably, the number of respondents who identi-
fied as men almost doubled from 21% in the youngest cohort (16–20) to 37% in
the older cohort (31–35). In addition to male, female and non-binary, we invited
respondents to complete an open-ended field to name their own gender iden-
tity. Approximately 9% of the respondents made use of this box, with the most
common responses being gender-fluid, agender and trans.
The high percentage of non-binary participants, particularly in the younger
age groups, reflects a diversification away from binary gender categories, and
is consistent with recent findings in this area. For instance, in the third Writing
Themselves In study, the authors revised the survey to include the identity category
Table 10.1 Gender identity across four age cohorts, %.
%16 20
(n = 712)
21–25
(n = 251)
26 –30
(n = 193)
31– 35
(n = 156)
Male 20.79 27.89 38.34 36.54
Female 48.31 40.64 40.93 44.87
Non-binary 2 0 . 51 25.5 13 .9 9 9.62
Self-identified 10.39 5.98 6.74 8 .97
Gender-fluid 3.5 0.8 1.55 1.28
Agender 1.5 1.19 0.5 1.28
Trans 1.0 1.6 1.0 1.28
156 Brady Robards et al.
of ‘genderqueer’ (Hillier et al. 2010), with 1.7% of participants (14–21 years) iden-
tifying as genderqueer or ‘other’ (2010, p. 13). In a 2014 Australian survey of
gender-diverse, trans and intersex young people (14–25 years), the authors found
that more than one-third of participants identified as a non-binary gender (Smith
et al. 2014), and in the most recent survey of LGBTIQ young people in Australia,
22.4% of participants (16–25 years) nominated a non-binary gender (Byron
et al. 2017, p. 16). While these surveys and our own involved different age groups,
used different survey questions and emphasised different aspects of queer life (e.g.
well-being, mental health and/or social media use), it is evident both here and
elsewhere (Richards et al. 2016) that non-binary gender identities are increas-
ingly used among this cohort. What role might ‘cyberqueer spaces’ play in these
trends?
While ‘non-binary’ and ‘gender-queer’ are not wholly new terms, identities or
ways of being, tracing their histories is complicated by the very process of meas-
urement, categorisation and nominalisation. When gender-diverse people are
offered binary alternatives for self-documentation they can only comply or refuse
the service. Sexual and/or gendered citizenship becomes much more than a quest
for the right to incorporate sexed/gendered aspects of self, as it is also concerned
with the ongoing threat of exclusion. Much as the gender and bathroom/toilet
access debate (McAvan 2017), which continues to unfold in public discourse in
Australia and globally, symbolically evokes categorisation and exclusion. Survey
questions and other processes of measurement, including the national census,
represent a fundamental challenge to fluid or multiple or non-compliant identi-
ties. As such, tracing the antecedents of non-binary identities across generations
in archives or public records is thwarted by the fact that these categories have not
previously been available, despite the likelihood that gender-diverse people have
long existed. Through categorisation they are inevitably folded in normative
forms. In our own survey, we address this issue by offering open fields and, where
possible, seeking expansion of non-conforming gender/sexual identities through
interviews and qualitative evaluation. What is clear, however, is that ‘cyberqueer’
spaces (like Tumblr, which we describe later) have become central for the forming
of connections and the discovery of a common language, a subcultural knowl-
edge, by which to describe the non-binary, fluid and trans experiences of gender.
Sexuality
Like gender, when it comes to sexuality, our older respondents were more likely
to identify with a more ‘long-standing’ and binary category like lesbian, gay or
homosexual: 48.08% for the 31- to 35-year-old cohort compared to 27.35% for the
16- to 20-year-old cohort. In fact, more of our youngest respondents (16–20 years)
identified as bisexual than they did as lesbian or gay. As with gender diversity, a
movement away from binary sexual identities is reflected in recent Australian stud-
ies. Of the young women in their survey, Hillier et al. (2010, p. 27) found that most
identified as bisexual (42%) rather than lesbian (39%); 25.4% of Robinson et al.’s
Twenty years of ‘cyberqueer 157
(2014, p. 45) participants identified as bisexual; and in Byron et al.’s study (2017,
p.17), more young people identified as bisexual (32.3%) than lesbian (21.5%) or
gay (18.5%).1 A large number of participants in Byron et al.’s (2017) study also
identified as pansexual (19.1%) and asexual (9.2%). Again, it is worth noting the
historical and cultural specificity of these nominalisations, and the different survey
tools used. For example, Byron et al. (2017) allowed participants to list multiple
sexual identity categories, and 42.6% of participants did so (Table 10.2).
Increased discussion of non-binary genders arguably relates to an increase
in plurisexual identities, including bisexual, pansexual and queer (Galupo et al.
2017). Galupo et al.’s study notes that their pansexual participants, in particular,
were unlikely to evoke gender binaries when discussing their sexualities. As with
gender diversities, young people’s awareness of, and identification with, plurisex-
ual identities has been attributed to Tumblr, Instagram and other social media
spaces that reflect and contemplate a diversity of gender and sexual identities
(Oakley 2016). An increased awareness of asexuality has also been attributed to
Tumblr-based counterpublics (Renninger 2015).
Is the queer umbrella getting bigger, and
includingmorepeople beneath it?
It is important to note the generational differences in labels and categories that
our respondents are using. Our younger respondents were more likely to fill in
their own descriptions of gender and especially sexuality, both to be more specific
but also to provide detail and nuances to their responses. These findings also
align with Cover’s (2018) arguments around the emergence of new sexual subjec-
tivities, categories and labels amongst young people.
Some respondents positioned these ideas as temporal, with one respondent
describing their gender as ‘whatever feels right at that time in my life’. Some
were also combinations of other labels and categories, with one describing their
sexuality as ‘bisexual with a 90% female preference - publicly I identify as a
lesbian’, and another explained their gender as ‘queer but usually say female
when asked’, and for another still, ‘trans masculine gender non-conforming
Table 10.2 Sexuality across four age cohorts.
%16 20
(n=713)
21–25
(n=2 51)
26 –30
(n=192)
31– 35
(n=156)
Lesbian or gay 27. 3 5 34.26 44.79 48.08
Straight 3.65 2.39 2.08 6 .41
Bisexual 30.43 19.92 19.79 12.82
Queer 13. 8 8 22.71 18.75 26.92
Self-identified 24.68 20.72 14. 58 5.77
Pansexual 13.6 11.15 8.85 2.56
Asexual 6 . 31 5.58 2.08 1.28
Panromantic 3.37 0.8 00.64
158 Brady Robards et al.
femme’. One respondent explained how they were using a term coined by a
friend to describe their sexuality: ‘predominantly homosexual; I’ve used “homo-
flexible lesbian” and a friend coined “pangynic”’. For us, these examples point to
a complex process of re-working language to suit individual experiences that are
not confined to singular pre-existing categories. These findings support and ex-
tend previous work (e.g. Russell et al. 2009) that found younger youth were more
likely to present alternative labels about their sexuality than lesbian, gay and
bisexual (LGB).
As suggested earlier, the fact that more personalised descriptions seem to pre-
vail among our youngest respondents raises a number of questions. Is there a
link here between the role of digital media in exposing young people to more
complex language around gender and sexuality? As we have described elsewhere
(see Byron and Robards 2017), our respondents single out Tumblr as a site of
learning a new language, so it is possible that this plays a role here. Or, is there
a wider generational effect at work, where young people are more likely to reject
categorisation in general?
Russell et al. (2009, p. 888) suggest that over time, people ‘may be more likely
to have developed a stable and solidified LGB identity, and/or they may adapt to
community norms and use traditional terms as they become integrated into LGB
communities’. While we are sceptical of the notion that new terms and emerging
identity descriptions are not ‘stable’, it will be important to trace the longevity of
emerging terms to describe gender and sexuality. This language seems to find
coherence and amplification on platforms like Tumblr, providing evidence of
emerging forms of (sub)cultural capital around gender and sexuality.
Recent research in the UK also indicates there is a generational shift in how
young people describe sexuality. Re-applying the 1948 Kinsey Scale (Kinsey
et al. 1948), a YouGov UK study found that one in two young people say they are
not fully heterosexual, with more young people than ever identifying somewhere
along the Kinsey scale (Dahlgreen 2015). While the Kinsey scale has been widely
circulated, adapted and modified in various digital spaces, Drucker (2012, p. 259)
argues that it ‘remains a powerful tool for sexual understanding, self-reckoning,
and nurturing compassion for sexual others’.
While some might be critical of the growing LGBTIQ+ ‘alphabet soup’, it is
our contention that this proliferation of terms points to a form of personal citizen-
ship. Naming one’s experiences – and offering that naming to others with shared
experiences – is a productive act in itself, allowing for groups to form and voices to
be heard. That language is becoming more complex, distinguishing, for instance,
between bisexual and pansexual, naming up intensities of sexuality (with terms
like asexual and greysexual), and drawing markers between romantic and sexual
attraction. However, while young people are sharing experiences of gender tran-
sition on YouTube and theorising asexuality on Tumblr, physical spaces continue
to be marked out in rigid ways. As we’ve noted, debate continues over gendered
bathrooms while digital spaces have provided opportunities for response via self-
ies and hashtags like #WeJustNeedToPee (Kellaway 2015, Vivienne 2017).
Twenty years of ‘cyberqueer 159
Platforms
The link between ‘everyday activism’ (Vivienne 2016), digital platforms and so-
cial change can no longer be disputed. Greater choice in platforms for debate
has led to more complex discussion and self-expression. There are also clear dif-
ferences in patterns of social media use in our four age cohorts. Generally, the
use of almost all platforms declines for each subsequent older cohort, with some
exceptions (Figure 10.1).
The main exception to this trend is the use of Twitter, which increases from
40% of 16- to 20-year-olds to almost 70% of our 31- to 35-year-old respondents.
Facebook, Instagram and YouTube are commonly used platforms for all of our
respondents and there is little variation amongst usage across age cohorts in our
study. There were, however, significant differences in other platforms. There was
an age gradient in the use of apps like Snapchat and Tumblr, where usage was
highest amongst younger cohorts. Snapchat, for instance, was used by 80% of
our 16- to 20-year-old cohort but by just 34% of our 31- to 35-year-old cohort.
Reddit use was also higher for the middle cohort (almost one-quarter of 21 to
25-year-olds and 21% of 26- to 30-year-olds) but lower amongst our youngest
and oldest cohorts (13% of 16- to 20-year-olds and 16% of 31- to 35-year-olds).
When mapped proportionately across our age cohorts, the differences are also
clear (Figure 10.2).
Figure 10.2 further highlights the changing patterns of social media use across
our four age cohorts. The 21 to 25-year-old cohort appears to be the most so-
phisticated in terms of platform diversity, although there was clearly a wide
range of platforms in use across each cohort. This diversity in platforms that our
Figure 10.1 Usage of Social Media Platforms, by Age Cohort (Line Graph) (%).
160 Brady Robards et al.
respondents are actively using is significant, as ‘cyberqueer space’ can cut across
these platforms in complex and contested ways. We will return to this point in
the final section before the conclusion, when reflecting on some of the responses
to our open-ended questions on the significance of these platforms.
There are also interesting patterns of use of hook-up and dating apps across
our age cohorts. Overall, Tinder was the most popular, with 21% of respondents
using it; followed by Grindr (11%); OKCupid (7.5%); Her (6%); Scruff (5%); and
to a lesser extent Hornet (3%), Happn (1%) and Bumble (1%). When we combine
these apps and instead divide them into categories that allow for multiple sexual
orientations or interests (like Tinder or OKCupid) versus apps that are more
specific – for gay men or women (like Grindr, Her, Scruff and Hornet) – there is
an evident age gradient (Figure 10.3).
The youngest cohorts in this study were more likely to use platforms such as
Tinder, Happn and Bumble that allow for users to engage with more than one
sex (e.g. Happn allows for users to ‘find’ men and women). In contrast, the older
cohorts were more likely to use targeted hook-up/dating apps like Grindr or Her.
This significant difference in usage of these two platform groups may reflect the
historical development of hook-up and dating apps, where apps like Grindr and
Scruff were amongst the first hook-up/dating apps available and thus older co-
horts are more familiar, long-term users. These apps were preceded by dating
sites specifically for gay men, like Gaydar (see Light et al. 2008), potentially offer-
ing further explanation for this age gradient.
Figure 10.2 Usage of Social Media Platforms, by Age Cohort (Stacked Bar
Graph) (%).
Twenty years of ‘cyberqueer 161
This difference across age cohorts may also reflect the fluidity in sexuality
and sexual preferences of users at younger ages, in which apps that allow for
more ‘choice’ may be preferable. It is also worth noting the many complex dis-
tinctions between the affordances of particular platforms – some of which are
mobile apps rather than web-based, some that are more appealing to text and/or
image-based literacy – and how these distinctions influence take-up and popu-
larity. A growing body of work focussing on these nuances is emerging ( Jørgensen
2016, Light et al. 2016). For us, one of the key points in this age gradient points
to evidence of the changing patterns in the way young people describe their own
gender and sexual identities, and how digital media might map to these changing
conceptualisations and the evolution of cyberqueer spaces.
Community and connection: the enduring
significance of ‘cyberqueer’ spaces
In open-ended questions, many respondents explained the various ways in which
digital media helped them to learn and feel connected, describing the endur-
ing significance of ‘cyberqueer spaces’, some 20 years on from Wakeford’s (2000
[1997]) essay:
I used [Grindr] when I began to more actively explore my sexuality.
(25, gay male)
Figure 10.3 Usage of Dating/Hook-up Apps by Age Group (Stacked Bar
Graph) (%).
162 Brady Robards et al.
Before Tumblr, I had no idea that lgbt+ people existed (my parents are quite
homophobic and very strict…) and by using Tumblr I was able to fully im-
merse myself within its very lgbt+ culture.
(17, lesbian female)
Reddit was significant in the way it introduced me to a social media platform
of pure discussion and expression of other people’s opinions. Subreddits spe-
cifically for lesbians/bisexuals were very helpful in making me more aware
of my sexuality.
(19, queer female)
social media helped me embrace my sexuality and feel like I am not alone.
(18, bisexual female)
Grindr allowed me to meet other guys while I was coming out and didn’t
really know any gays.
(29, gay male)
Lesking.com.vn was a really significant website that helped me discover my
transness and embrace my gender. I got to know different trans, gender di-
verse and same-sex attracted people who were assigned female at birth and
of Vietnamese heritage.
(18, non-binary trans guy)
As these quotes show, the Internet continues to operate as a significant resource
for young LGBTIQ+ people, perhaps now more than ever. Since the 1990s
when ‘cyberqueer spaces’ were being interrogated and conceived of as politi-
cal sites of connection and citizenship, the wider sociopolitical landscape may
have changed but the significance of the Internet for LGBTIQ+ people re-
mains. Instead of mailing lists, bulletin boards and text-based ‘virtual worlds’
(like MUDs), LGBTIQ+ people now connect through dominant mainstream
platforms like Facebook and Instagram, but also find more queer spaces on
Tumblr (Byron and Robards 2017) and Reddit, or through hook-up apps like
Grindr and Her. Although these quotes are just a brief insight into the 653
responses (50% of respondents) to open-ended questions on the significance
of social media, they go some way to sketching out the enduring significance
of the Internet in the lives of LGBTIQ+ people – from exploring sexuality
and gender, gaining important ‘subcultural knowledge’, to finding friends and
feeling ‘not alone’.
Being part of a community of like-minded people is core to feelings of connec-
tion. Similarly, understanding that one plays a significant role in the community
is core to understandings of citizenship. In 2003, Plummer argued that ‘intimate
citizenship’ was becoming increasingly important and related to
Twenty years of ‘cyberqueer 163
the decisions people have to make over the control (or not) over one’s bodies,
feelings, relationships; access (or not) to representations, relationships, public
spaces etc.; and socially grounded choices (or not) about identities, gender experi-
ences, erotic experiences.
(emphasis added, Plummer 2003, p. 14)
While not reserved to LGBTIQ+ people, it is easy to see how identifying as
‘non-normative’ in body and law mandates a particular kind of everyday activ-
ism (Vivienne 2016), without which one can scarcely claim to be a citizen or a
part of the whole.
As the quotes from our participants demonstrate, an important part of the
significance of digital media is the role it plays in facilitating expression of both
united and disparate voices of difference. ‘Digital Citizenship’ in turn has been
explored both as an always-ongoing way of being and as an interface via which
people utilise technology to negotiate and contest control, sometimes through
cultural expression. McCosker et al. (2016) understand digital citizenship as
both formal processes of governance, social policy and education, and a suite
of informal practices, inclusive of workarounds that elude categorisation and
measurement. Building upon this work we understand sexual citizenship as an
ever-changing collection of practices that challenge and redefine ways of being
in the world, among other people and alone, simultaneously in one’s body and
in digital spaces. Simply being visible in digital and physical spaces is an act of
citizenship and activism for many LGBTIQ+ people, and this has been the case
for more than two decades now.
Conclusion
In the 1990s, Wakeford argued that ‘cyberqueer spaces are necessarily embedded
within both institutional and cultural practices, and are a means by which the
lesbian/gay/transgendered/queer self can be read into the politics of representa-
tion and activism confronting homophobia’ (2000 [1997], p. 408). While there
might be cause for optimism 20 years later, amidst ‘it gets better’ narratives
(Gal et al. 2016), LGBTIQ+ people continue to experience significant challenges.
Within this context, it is important to explore how young people are engaging
with a diverse number of media platforms to explore sexuality and gender iden-
tity, and find other people like themselves. Often these assist them and contribute
to important queer (sub)cultural capital (Munt et al. 2002) that works to mitigate
against the effects of homophobia, transphobia and isolation.
Assemblages of social media platforms are used according to particular needs
and affordances. Respondents in our study describe the importance of social con-
nection and belonging, but also indicate that these spaces can become problem-
atic and even toxic. Forty per cent of respondents reported experiencing some
form of isolation, exclusion or harassment through social media. These findings
164 Brady Robards et al.
challenge the narrative that these spaces only provide experiences of connec-
tion, learning and community; the ‘productive’ dimensions of cyberqueer spaces
and digital citizenship. Evidently, digital social spaces are like all social spaces, in
that they can be both good and challenging, and embedded within the contexts
of their use. While young LGBTIQ+ people may experience harassment and
bullying on ‘mainstream’ sites like Facebook and Tinder, there are also experi-
ences of disconnection, harassment, isolation and exclusion within contemporary
‘cyberqueer’ spaces, such as racism on Grindr and the exclusion of trans women
in some feminist subreddits and threads on Tumblr. This is notable for future
analysis and discussion.
For participants in this study, it is this assemblage of platforms, and their move-
ment between them, that is crucial to participation in everyday life, regardless of
whether they conceive of themselves as sexual/digital/intimate citizens or dis-
connected from an amorphous community. For researchers, and by extension
the stakeholders we aim to engage with – educators, social service/health pro-
viders and policymakers – understanding how young people, as ‘digitally aug-
mented subjects’, adapt to and modify online spaces and tools to suit their needs
is imperative.
Acknowledgements
We acknowledge the participants in the Scrolling Beyond Binaries project (scroll-
ingbeyondbinaries.com). We also thank our advisory group for input on the de-
sign and dissemination of our survey: Angela Dwyer, Kirsten McLean, Kim
McLeod, Bob Buttigieg, Natalie Hendry, Andrew Badcock, Ruby Grant and
Stefanie Duguay.
Note
1 This may also be the case for our study and Robinson et al.’s study (2014), in which
‘lesbian, gay & homosexual’ identities were grouped together.
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