Even in an age when sharing mundane details online is standard, it’s easier than ever to control the way others see us—until, as people often say on social media, someone gets “exposed.” Welcome to Exposed, a monthly column where author and activist Chris Stedman invites you to get a little more vulnerable.
It felt like the end of summer and the end of her life.
Almost a decade after moving to the United States, Olivia arrived at an airport in the middle of the country. She sat up to get out of the car and the seat, sticky with August humidity, pulled at her skin as if to say, Don’t do this. Don’t go.
But she had no choice. Olivia exited the car, stepped out into the sun, and walked toward the shadows cast by the brutalist concrete building. By the time she boarded her flight to the Caribbean, the sky was darkening. She left the ground and the plane tilted south, pivoting toward the island nation where she grew up. She looked out the window and said goodbye to the country she was leaving to once again live with a family that didn’t — and couldn’t — know the real her.
Olivia had moved the U.S. in her late 20s to work and go to graduate school. Eventually, she graduated and then a new presidential administration began, and with it, new immigration policies were implemented. Suddenly, for the first time, she had visa troubles. Though the new administration terrified her, she was happy in the U.S. and had no desire to leave. But she didn’t even consider staying in the country undocumented — her mother’s health was declining and Olivia didn’t want to risk not being able to leave to see her if she needed to, knowing that if she left undocumented she wouldn’t be able to return.
So she wept, and screamed, and resigned herself to moving home.
As soon as she returned to her country of origin, Olivia felt something inside of her shift. Or, rather, she felt several things inside of her go underground. Her family, a large collective of evangelical Baptists, was as devout as ever. But since leaving, Olivia had come to realize that she wasn’t so devout. In fact, she wasn’t even an evangelical Baptist at all.
She had also realized a number of other things: She was politically progressive, theologically agnostic, and bisexual. Sharing any one of these things would put her at risk of being cast out of her family, or worse. A queer cousin of Olivia’s was so thoroughly rejected that not only do family members act as if he no longer exists, it’s almost as if he never did in the first place. So upon moving home, Olivia put the aspects of herself that were in conflict with her family’s beliefs into a box and buried it deep inside of herself.
The change couldn’t have felt more abrupt. While living in the U.S., she had been not just out but outspoken. Everyone around her knew about her sexuality and her beliefs; she was opinionated and vocal in both professional spaces and as an activist. Silencing herself, hiding her beliefs and identities, wasn’t just counterintuitive — it was suffocating.
But Olivia had one lifeline: her Twitter account.
Unlike Facebook or Instagram, where members of her family follow her, Olivia’s Twitter has never been associated with her legal name. Mindful of how easily a family member could find her anonymous Twitter account, she’s never posted pictures of herself or talked about where she’s lived. From the very beginning of her time on Twitter, she has always been intentionally vague about personal details.
She’s not vague about her beliefs and her identity on Twitter, though. Through her anonymous account, Olivia is able to be as outspoken as she used to be in other areas of her life, regularly posting about the difficulties of immigration, her views on conservatives’ calls for “religious liberty,” or what she thinks about the fragility of straight white men.
On the one hand, her Twitter account is a freeing space to share things that she can’t articulate in any other area of her life, but using it can also exacerbate how isolated and lonely she feels. On Twitter, she can say things that she desperately needs to say. Doing so also reminds her, however, that she can’t say them anywhere else.
Since moving home, Olivia’s posts on Twitter have become even more vulnerable than they were before. But her Twitter also feels increasingly fraught. She catches herself writing out a tweet — about how hard it is to go back in the closet, or the anti-LGBTQ comments her family makes — but then deleting it before hitting post, wondering if she’s venting too much. She worries that people will eventually get so sick of her complaints that they tune her out — by muting her, or worse still, unfollowing. The idea of losing the one venue she has for self-expression, of becoming even more isolated and alone than she is now, is too devastating to imagine.
Olivia also feels protective of her followers, many of whom are friends she made while living in the United States. She doesn’t want them to know how bad things actually are, how desperately she’s struggling with feeling alone and unsafe, and she also worries that her posts sometimes cause even her to focus too much on her problems. Not once has someone told her that she’s sharing too much, but still, the fear of alienating others or hurting herself by sharing so much of her struggle weighs heavily on her.
Though Olivia’s experiences are unique to her current situation, certainly many of us can relate to the feeling that we need to scale back — that if we really say it all, if we share everything we’re feeling, it will be too much and drive people away, or that it may even exacerbate our own unhappiness.
During some of the more difficult periods of my life, I’ve often spent hours in front of the computer drafting out status updates that would lay bare my suffering, only to delete them out of a fear that I would be judged, or that I would estrange the people from whom I so badly wanted support. Like Olivia, I’ve often created rules, limits, and thresholds for others in my head, based on my imagined understanding of how much they could tolerate — rationing out posts about my mental health and cutting myself off at an arbitrary number, or couching my laments about ongoing difficulties in self-deprecating humor.
Even when I do allow myself to post a bit more uninhibitedly, I, too, have found myself worrying that social media sometimes makes it harder for me to not fixate on what’s going wrong.
To help her practice focusing on happiness, Olivia made what she calls a “basic bitch” account, where she primarily posts cheerful things: casual thoughts on TV shows like Chicago P.D. and Scandal, or pictures of a cute outfit. Although she’s often worried that her Twitter account allows her to stew in a way that’s not healthy for her, having this account allows her to preserve her other handle as a space for pain and fear.
As an added bonus, if someone who knows her offline asks if she has a Twitter, she now has a handle to share with them. Her family has never asked, but if they did, she could point them in the direction of that account.
Her private Twitter account remains a very necessary lifeline. Despite her concerns about it, Olivia can’t imagine how she would be getting through this period in her life without social media. She still gets nervous — especially about Facebook, which is the most mixed space of all of her social media accounts, where members of her family and people from her life in the U.S. interact with her alongside one another — but she’s trying to focus on the good she’s getting out of it.
While she trusts her friends from the U.S. to be careful and practice discretion, she’s also given them clear instructions not to post certain things, and to never tag her private account in anything her family might come across. The consequences of Olivia’s private account being connected to her offline identity, of her family discovering that she is proudly queer and agnostic, would be great. For Olivia and many others, coming out to family just isn’t possible, which makes having safe, low-risk spaces in which she can be out — particularly digital spaces — that much more important.
Despite her fears about being ostracized both by family and by the friends she worries will tire of her social media venting, Olivia is still here. The person she was in the U.S., where she could be more open about her queerness, isn’t entirely gone. You can still find that Olivia on Twitter, tending to herself until she can step back out into the light.
Want to get exposed? Email Chris at [email protected] with a short description of a time when you felt truly vulnerable — in either a positive or a painful way (or both).
Want more? Check out the previous installment of Exposed.
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