The last time I was in a room full of lesbians crying, it was November 8th, 2016.
Late in the evening, sitting on the unforgiving hardwood floor of the tiny Brooklyn apartment I shared with my girlfriend, we watched the election results trickle in. I’m not a drinker, but there were many empty and nearly-empty bottles of wine scattered around the room, and an air of anxiety so thick you could slice through it.
When Florida finally went red, we knew it was over, and we stared at one another in shock. It was a uniquely horrifying, but oddly comforting experience: knowing that the four other people in the room were feeling the exact same thing, fearing the exact same thing, at the same time. Because we were all gay, or trans, or queer, because many of us were from places that probably swayed the election, and because homophobic misogynists had just taken the ultimate control of our country.
But this isn’t an article about Donald Trump. Though, isn’t almost anything written in 2017 basically an article about Donald Trump? It has been nearly a year since that night, and I feel that he haunts everything I write, like a great big orange spectre. But this isn’t about him. This about those four other people in the room. They were friends of mine, all living in New York, and all of whom I’d met online.
I’m twenty-six years old, a transplant to New York from Alabama who has newly-transplanted once again to North Carolina. I have quite a few long-lasting friendships, mostly with other women, and most of whom I met in online spaces.
Many of us flocked to New York from Arizona, New Jersey, or rural Maine, and the closeness of the city meant that we got to see each other, in the flesh. Miles away from my parents, my Thanksgiving and New Year’s celebrations were populated by people with whose faces I’d grown most familiar through selfies on Tumblr and Instagram. Many of them had met their partners, significant others, and wives on those same platforms.
I grew up in a small town in Alabama – the deep South. My town had no LGBTQ outreach programs, no community center, no Pride. There was no mention of LGBTQ-friendly safe sex in my sex ed – Alabama’s official stance is abstinence. The only mention of “gays” was when we watched horrifying videos about AIDS. I didn’t meet another gay person until college, and even then, at my small liberal arts college near Birmingham, they were few and far between. When I did meet others like me, I felt intimidated by them; I wasn’t out, and a lifetime of being surrounded entirely by (assumed) straight people did not condition me to talk about being gay openly.
I came out as a lesbian on Tumblr, in 2013. I was twenty-two years old.
By then, I had a very close-knit group of friends I had made online, all of whom identified as gay, bi, or queer. For most of my life, in fandom and blogging spaces, this was my community. These people – those who read my writing on LiveJournal and Tumblr – knew me like absolutely no one else in my life did. I learned everything I know about LGBTQ culture and history online, not just through blogging, but also through online research, because I had no access to it where I grew up.
For this article, I reached out to some other people I know around the internet – through Twitter and Tumblr – and asked them about their experiences.
These were all people who, like me, grew up in rural areas and largely went without any reflections of their own identities and feelings beyond what they could see and read online and in the media. They are mostly around my age, the youngest being 19. They were, almost exclusively, from the South, with few exceptions.
A few of them remember nearby LGBT programs, like a GSA at their school or university, or a Pride event a few hours outside of town. But mostly, they all grew up closeted, and found friendship and community in online spaces, like I did.
One person I interviewed, when asked about the friendships they had made, said, “We don’t really know each other, but I consider them friends as we have listened and responded to each others’ posts for almost eight years now.” When asked about how they felt about places like Tumblr as safe spaces for closeted people, they responded, “Over time, I learned that it was a safe space with others like me, using the platform as an outlet for feeling safe.”
Another person I interviewed, from Ontario, found that online spaces helped them shape their identity in an even more direct way: “I identify as non-binary, and I know wholeheartedly that I would not identify that way if I hadn’t met other NB people online, because it wasn’t something that was acknowledged or identified in what few LGBTQ spaces I was a part of in real life.”
Another, who grew up in rural Georgia, remained closeted through high school, her only other interaction with a gay teen was when a boy at her school came out in his suicide letter, but was out as a lesbian online.
For all of the people I interviewed, the internet was a convention hall, a community center, a Pride festival: the singular safe space for them to express who they were and how they felt, with others who felt the same.
My experience, not just on Tumblr but in online spaces as a whole, has been much the same. Though those spaces can turn toxic and hostile, wrapped up in pedantic and petty identity politics, they are a saving grace for teens who grew up like I did. For all of their fraught and dangerous territories, they can be wonderful pockets of friendship, compassion, and community.
One of my best friends, the woman I feel closer to than I do most people, is a woman I met online, on Tumblr, in a shared space where we built a friendship on a love of books, music, social justice, and our own overlapping identities as gay women. She lives in Canada and I’ve “met” her twice in person, but we talk nearly every single day. I would be completely untethered without her friendship and support.
And that is what the online community has given me, along with four crying lesbians in my living room and a full table that November day.