Queer Freedoms Online? On the Embodiment of Our Virtual Presence

by Wikke Jansen (she/her/hers)

If it weren’t for social media, I probably wouldn’t have had half the queer network I do now. I might never have met any of my Indonesian friends from the LGBTQ community there, who started out as WhatsApp friends of Facebook friends of people I knew personally, and whose stories eventually came to form the foundation of my PhD research. Without Bumble BFF, a dating app function for meeting new friends, I wouldn’t have had any place to advertise my little rainbow flag emoji, signalling that I was ready to meet other queers in my new hometown of Berlin back in 2018. And, of course, without Instagram, I would never have become a committee member at queer/disrupt, and met and worked with the international and diverse community around it.

At first glance, then, the rise of the mobile internet and of social media has had a vital role in connecting queer people like me with others in our own environment and across the world. Indeed, the online world has often been lauded for its democratization of the public space, its facilitation of networks, and identity formation of marginalized communities, and even its destruction of the urban/rural divide (after all, even queer people in many remote places now have internet access on their smartphone). However, if there is one thing that intersectionality has taught us, it is that different groups of people, even if they all ascribe to a marginalized category such as queer, still suffer from other kinds of marginalization and oppression in vastly different ways. Race, gender, education level, class, religion, and nationality are all examples of intersecting social locations that result in the privileging of certain queer individuals over others. In this regard, unfortunately, the internet is no exception.

Even though it may seem that in the virtual universe of avatars, nicknames and photoshop, we can choose our identities freely and avoid the usual prejudices and limitations that haunt our irl (in real life) selves, actual practice reveals that existing power structures shape the online world in many of the same ways as they shape our offline realities. Let me give an example. For various reasons – volunteer work, research, socializing – I have been part of many queer chat groups on platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp since they first became popular. Over the years, I have wondered why I regularly felt uncomfortable and somewhat excluded in some of these groups. On the one hand, it was exciting to be in constant conversation with other people from “the community” and discuss the newest queer movies, songs, and gossip. At the same time, I felt uneasy about the many penis-themed jokes, memes, and pictures that often circulate among cis gay men. I have also never followed much of European/US “gay” pop culture and could not participate in those conversations, either. Finally, I am sure I am not the first person to realize that mansplaining is not limited to cis straight men.

In the image we have someone staring somewhat sadly at the screen of their phone with their head resting on a cushion while the lights of the city are projected through the window behind them.
A girl using her phone.

Now, I do not want to argue here that everyone who identifies as a cis gay man produces or even enjoys these kinds of exchanges, or that all those who identify otherwise do not. However, there seems to me a definitely gendered pattern to these online group dynamics. Many queer women as well as trans individuals I know in the Netherlands, Germany, and Indonesia have shared their discomforts of cis-male dominated chat groups with me. Some, like me, were tired of their phone gallery filling up with pictures of eggplants resembling penises. Others felt uncomfortable with what they considered explicit language (sometimes it seems like certain profanities are indispensable to even the most basic interactions) in these chats. Yet others did not mind all this, but felt there was a lack of representation of (cis) women or trans people in these online spaces. As a result, they did not feel comfortable enough to speak up about their own experiences, either. When it became clear that I was not alone in my occasional feelings of estrangement in online queer spaces, I realized that even a supposedly “disembodied” form of online interaction such as group chats does not truly allow us to leave our bodies and brains out of the equation. Just like physical safe spaces always raise the question of who feels safe and who doesn’t, the online world similarly relies on gendered conditions of comfort.

Complaints such as the above have on occasion given rise to virtual subcommunities. In Berlin, for example, I was for a short while part of a so-called FLINT Telegram group that explicitly limited access both to the chat and their offline events to those suffering from patriarchal oppression. I also attended a number of “queer women only” events through Meetup, an app that is widely used to find communities of people with similar interests. Whatever your opinion might be about this manner of gatekeeping (and yes, opinions do vary), gender is just one way in which online experiences are mediated. Research has shown that even within such specific communities such as the “lesbian chatroom,” a variety of norms determine who is a valuable member and conversational partner. In particular, the experiences of queer people of color are frequently elided or actively suppressed in supposedly “colorblind” online circles. Additionally, people identifying as bisexual are frequently pressured not to talk about their “heterosexual” encounters, or are not welcome at all. My trans woman and trans man interlocutors in Indonesia frequently complained about the pressure within online transgender communities (for many the only way to connect with queer others) to undergo physical changes – disparaging the voices of those who could not or did not want to embark on a physical “transition.”

Age, class, and ability are other ways in which access to and benefit from social media are differentiated within queer communities. People who did not grow up with a smartphone in hand or even a personal internet connection at home – either because that technology did not exist yet or because their family could not afford it – will obviously have a much harder time making use of queer dating apps, being inspired by Instagram influencers or participating in online conferences on queer theory. Furthermore, the virtual quality of social media does not take away the limitations imposed by our material environment and our embodied selves. The accessibility of online events, though arguably an improvement on physical gatherings, often leaves much to be desired in terms of the availability of sign language interpretation or live transcription. More often than not, the audience is assumed to be able-bodied and therefore not considered to be in need of any kind of technical assistance, regular breaks, or clearly structured and sign-posted input. 

I could go on to list factors that differentiate the experiences of queer individuals in online spaces. For example, I haven’t even touched on the fact that online communities rarely remain just that, online: often, the eventual goal or outcome of these interactions are real-world encounters and events, where the usual hierarchies and oppressions make their appearance once again. The main point here is that if we extend intersectionality as a lens to the online world, it becomes obvious that the internet, and social media, in particular, cannot be considered a neutral or safe space in which we are all free to shed the restraints of our offline existence.

Should we all delete our Instagram accounts and discontinue our participation in online events, then, and work on an equal and just society before we can return? Perhaps less dramatic solutions are imaginable. Especially since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet has proven its potential to contribute to the realization of precisely such an equal and just society. The “Zoomification” of our society has in many cases allowed for unprecedented queer participation in events and communities across geographical, class, and cultural boundaries. The recent queer/disrupt events form one example. The important online spaces and events provided by the London-based Inclusive Mosque Initiative, which have made it possible for queer believers to participate in collective spiritual learning from the other side of the ocean, are another. And there are many other examples – think about online queer counselling services, free educational lectures by queer scholars, and online exhibitions featuring marginalized queer artists. However, as we (virtually) move forward, the only way to fully realize the progressive and democratizing potential of the internet is to consistently acknowledge and work against the inequalities and power differences that seep from our everyday lives right into the World Wide Web.

Wikke is a third-year PhD student at the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies, and is affiliated with the Institute for Asian and African Studies at Humboldt University. Her research focuses on the experiences of queer Indonesians at the intersections of activism, religion, and everyday life. She is broadly interested in queer(ing) religion in Southeast Asia and Europe, mobility theory, media studies, research ethics, and collaborative anthropology.

Don’t miss new blog posts!

We don’t spam! Read more in our privacy policy


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *