LGBTQIA+ Young People Made Online ‘Happy Spaces’ Over Lockdown, Says New Research

Young woman wearing gay pride mask while listening to music with headphones outdoor - Gender equality and technology concept
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New research from Western Sydney University shows how young people in the LGBTQIA+ community used social media to create communities online over the course of the pandemic.

One of the core findings of the report is that, despite LGBTQIA+ youths’ ability to create ‘happy spaces’ via social media, they still need greater support from social media platforms.

The qualitative study – called the  ‘Social Media Insights from Sexuality and Gender Diverse Young People During COVID-19′ report – is one of the largest of its kind in Australia, and involved 10 focus groups and 21 interviews with 65 LGBTQIA+ young people from Australia.

57 per cent of the sample group were assigned a different gender at birth.

LGBTQIA+ people have long used social media sites to craft important communities for themselves, which are particularly essential for individuals who lack offline relationships with other queer people. Platforms like Tumblr and Twitter have been hubs for queer discussion since their foundation, and more recently, TikTok has seen Gen Z LGBTQ+ people engage in an online community. Indeed, there is a very prominent section of the platform known just as ‘gay TikTok’.

One of the most interesting elements of the study is the way it complicates the narrative that LGBTQIA+ youth were inherently worse off throughout the COVID-19 pandemic because they may have had to return to trans/bi/homophobic households.

The study said, “whilst homes were, at times, difficult spaces, young people used this time to explore their identities, gain a deeper and more complex understanding of gender and sexuality, and continue to engage with queer communities.”

“Social media was and remains a critical component of LGBTQIA+ young people’s lives.”

Dr Benjamin Hanckel, the study’s lead author, said, “the findings show many young people curated ‘happy’ spaces for themselves online by connecting with people from across the broader LGBTQIA+ community.”

However, despite these happy spaces, there were still a number of issues surrounding LGBTQIA+ people online. Notably, study respondents mentioned a lack of diversity in LGBTQIA+ content itself, as well as concerns about the removal of LGBTQIA+ content and hate speech directed at sexuality and gender diverse folk.

Dr Shiva Chandra, co-author of the study, said, “some young people reported difficulties finding others online with similar identities to themselves – this included race, ethnicity, disability, neurodiversity, as well as more generally a lack of diverse LGBTQIA+ representation.”

“We believe more can be done to improve the experiences of LGBTQIA+ youths online and to support their wellbeing, and steps should be taken in consultation with the broader LGBTQIA+ community and support organisations.”

The report makes a number of suggestions for how the experience of queer youth online can be improved, including clear policies to prevent queer content from being banned/deleted/demonetised without justification, promoting LGBTQIA+ content, and supporting content creators so that they are protected from trans/bi/homophobia.

The removal of queer content was of particular concern, with respondents referencing the removal of content by Black, disabled and LGBTQ+ TikTokers by the platform last year.

One respondent said, “…I know on TikTok there’s a lot of – when uh, transgender males or non-binary folk have the top surgery their videos will get taken down in a heartbeat and it’s not sexualised at all. But as soon as it’s a cis-gender male and he’s got the shirt off and he’s probably like re-enacting spanking or something really sexual like that, that stays up and that gets millions of views.”

“So it’s, it’s the like, [a] double-standard probably because it’s almost like TikTok’s also identifying them as a separate type of male, not the all-collective type.”

Another said, “it’s not just TikTok that does it […] like there was a huge problem for a while, I know with trans-YouTubers, with their content not being able to be seen by a lot of people, and videos being taken down because they were too sexual or like they were crude or something, when in actuality like you know there’s hardly even swearing in the videos.”

“It’s just cos like, ‘oh, it’s not ‘advertiser-friendly’.”

The study’s authors also emphasised the importance of clearer moderation policies by platforms to clarify what is and isn’t acceptable, and increasing investment into responses to hate speech and censorship.

Josh Machin, Head of Policy at Facebook Australia – who funded the study through a foundational gift – said, “this research demonstrates the power of platforms like Facebook and Instagram to empower the LGBTQIA+ community in times of hardship, and to create safe online spaces for connection and queer expression.”

“As proud allies to the LGBTQIA+ community, Facebook takes this report’s recommendations seriously.”

In its conclusions, the study ultimately found that COVID-19 allowed queerness “to flourish”. While that is a wonderful thing, the onus must now be on social media platforms to ensure they are supporting those LGBTQIA+ youth as they create safe spaces online.

Image:iStock/Alessandro Biascioli

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