When I was a teenager, I heard a little about different genders and sexualities – not through my school’s abstinence-based sex education curriculum, but through the informal speculatory gossip of my peers. I had known who I was attracted to for as long as I can remember (people of any gender), but I assumed that was mostly normal and didn’t require a label or explanation. It seemed pretty far-fetched to me that everyone I interacted with had such strict rules for something as abstract and unwieldy as romantic and sexual attraction. My skepticism for the ubiquity of straightness notwithstanding, as early as I understood that I was different, I understood that it would render me vulnerable to harassment if I was too open about my sexuality. There were many moments I felt pretty alienated from my peers because they’d make offhand–almost scathing–comments about gender diversity or queer sexualities, but I would ignore them and try to remind myself not to internalize them too deeply.
One day in 7th grade, I stumbled on a collaborative blogging platform called Tumblr that seemed like a nice creative outlet. My friends and I saw it as another way to communicate with one another – we followed each other’s blogs and were able to see the content we shared on what were called our “dashboards”. I soon found other blogs that suited my interests, and as I encountered more content that I liked, I found myself establishing deep roots in a queer ethos of Tumblr. The people I followed would post their thoughts about current events, their life situations, and multimedia from movies, shows, and artists they enjoyed. Through these posts, I was able to access an entire history and culture that my school community couldn’t offer me: I learned about the Stonewall riots, house-ballroom culture, and the tragedy of the AIDS crisis of the 70s. I read accounts of countless loved ones passing, a whole community in mourning, and the lethal indifference of their surroundings. I also learned about resiliency, chosen family, and the immeasurable love and loyalty that can proliferate in such hostile circumstances.
It started to become clear to me that LGBTQ culture imbued every part of global history, and I fell in love with how stubborn and powerful it always has been. Imagine me, a pubescent girl in a dimly lit room, my face lit up with the soft blue light of my computer, and a hand clasped over my mouth. I was reading about what the world had done to whom I had decided were my friends: queer people everywhere, from all parts of history.
When I was on my computer, it looked to my parents like I was isolated. In reality, I had never felt so seen and validated. I’d had a hunch that queer people like me were out there, but being on Tumblr confirmed it. I had at my disposal a whole vocabulary of terms to help articulate what had been so abstract before. As the end of high school neared, I had been given an inkling of who I might be, but I didn’t yet feel safe enough to tangibly explore what it looked like on my own body.
At school, the real-life examples I had of non-straight, non-cis people were few and far between. Not only was sex-education abstinence-based, but the possibility of intimate encounters that ventured beyond those for cis and straight bodies was never acknowledged in any official capacity. There were over 200 teachers at my school and countless administrative staff, but I didn’t know a single one who was LGBTQ+, nor did I ever hear a staff person talk about queerness. None of my friends were out then (all of them have since come out), and everyone that was out was given a hard time by our classmates. When I came home from school worrying that my feelings of being different from others could maybe be because I was looking for attention and not really queer at all (because no one else was queer and it seemed like such an ordeal to claim queerness) – I went on Tumblr and it was like slipping into a crisp, cool pond on a hot summer day. Instant relief.
By the time I left for college, I felt like I was allowed to apply what I learned to my own sense of self. I could use the terms on my body to help the people around me know who I was. By the time sophomore year rolled around, I came out as nonbinary – a term I had never even considered using for myself until moving out of my hometown.
After a long day of classes, sometimes I would still feel a sense of isolation (the kind that accompanies difference). At this point in my life, however, I came home to close friends who had shared experiences with me. They called me by my name and pronouns, and treated me how I needed to be treated. Being seen as the person I knew I was took a heavy weight off my shoulders.
It was that Sophomore year that I deleted Tumblr. It wasn’t for any particular reason, I just needed to focus more on my studies. But I could only have deleted my account when I found a community in person, at college. Tumblr, at that point, wasn’t fulfilling a need I was missing.
Since leaving the unique social situation that is college, and no longer neighbors with all my friends, I have learned to integrate media into my life in a similar way I had in high school. I follow my friends and role models on social media, and am always sure to engage closely with media that has strong LGBTQ themes. I still have moments that I wonder if my thoughts and experiences are valid. But to this day, when I reach out to community members through online platforms, I know that their experiences are real and valid – and that by proxy, mine are real and valid too.
–edited by Sarah Wolfson