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LGBTQ and Out on Social Media — but Nowhere Else

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LGBTQ and Out on Social Media — but Nowhere Else

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The first queer space on the Internet had a similar evolution to most webpages. It began in 1983 as a virtual bulletin board on the early Usenet system, where users could post items to "newsgroups" for discussion. Net.motss (motss stands for "members of the same sex") was a prototypical LGBTQ digital destination where positive messages were shared and where the international users behind their computers could engage with other LGBTQ people without fear of being outed.

It was 27 years later in 2010 that Anthony first logged into Oh No They Didn't! (ONTD), a LiveJournal community with a pop culture bent. Anthony was 20 years old, from a "close-knit Italian family," an ardent Mariah Carey fan and living in the closet at his conservative business university. ONTD became his queer haven during the most difficult years of his life.

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"My father passed away that year after a decade-long battle with cancer, and that's around the time when I first admitted to myself that I was gay," Anthony, who did not share his last name to protect his privacy, told NBC News. "I think the combination of my grief due to my father's passing and confusion about my sexuality led me to seek an outlet in the form of social media."

"ONTD and Twitter were initially just outlets for my fascination with pop culture, but I quickly discovered that much of the community was LGBTQ," he continued. "It was much easier to share details about myself and my sexuality when there was that common ground."

Behind an avatar of his pop goddess Mariah, Anthony freely shared his private life with the queer members of the forum. He was anonymous, he said, but he was free.

It is a sentiment many LGBTQ people who responded to an open request for comment echoed. The online spaces that tend to attract LGBTQ users appear to be Twitter, Tumblr and forums where individuals can curate their community, and where real names and profile photos aren't required.

"I'm not out on Facebook, because I would rather ... [not] deal with all the informed commentary from people I know in real life saying things like, 'We always knew' or 'You're going to hell,'" said one responder who goes by Apollo. "It's really things like Twitter threads and Tumblr that connected me to people and helped me understand the history of the LGBTQ community."

"Without them, I'd probably still be wandering through life thinking 'gay' is something to be inherently feared and disliked," he continued.

A Twitter user who asked to be referred to as Beverly seconded Apollo on the subject of Facebook.

"My Facebook page is, if you will, asexual," she said, adding that she's openly bisexual on Twitter but has not come out to her family yet. "I get to be my truest self on here and with my friends, and that's what matters the most to me."

Some social media users responded saying they are still closeted both on and offline, but social media offers them the opportunity to see other people be out and proud. They said they draw courage from that.

"My story isn't a coming-out story per se," said a Twitter user who goes by Hamel. "But it was sure as hell part of what helped me realize I'm gender-nonconforming (GNC)! Seeing openly GNC people and learning even just tidbits of information about gender and identity went a long way towards helping me understand myself."

"I'm so gay on social media," said another Twitter user. "But I never came out to my family. What's weird is my family probably knows, because I'm so outspoken online, but I've never addressed it in person."

Cesar, a OneDirection fan in Mexico, echoed Anthony's story of coming out to an online fandom community. "When I was 16, I was a Directioner (a OneDirection fan), so I talked to a number of other Directioner boys in Mexico, and we were all queer and in the closet, and our conversations were via Twitter," he said. "As I had deeper conversations with them, we started to come out to each other. It was easier to come out to each other on Twitter than it as to come out with our friends. This is my safe space to express my queerness."

Millie, another responder, said she realized she was bisexual because of her Twitter crushes on girls. "I spent most of my school years at an all-girls school where if someone thought you were into girls, you were ostracized," she said. "Without social media, I'd probably still think I was straight."

Indeed, for some LGBTQ people, they were not even aware their identity existed until they encountered it online, buried like treasure in threads and discussions and private messages. "I learned FtM (female-to-male) transition was possible because of a woman I met on a chat board," said one anonymous Twitter user. "How would I have known otherwise?"

But while the Internet offers anonymity, which so many LGBTQ people take advantage of to interact in secret every day, it can also create a permanent record and become tangible "evidence," which some responders said led to their outing.

"My mom found a webpage where I discussed my sexual orientation," said one responder. "I was basically outed to her and then my whole family because I was on this space online."

For others, coming out is a special moment, one that is meant to be shared with close friends and family before online acquaintances.

"The very last thing I thought of was to share my sexuality online," Patrick Gothman, an openly gay man who creates YouTube videos discussing his sexual orientation and his Christian faith told NBC News. "I was nervous that telling strangers would leave a sour taste in my parents' mouths."

"But I'm totally supportive of making better safe spaces online for people who don't feel comfortable," he added.

As technology continues to evolve, queer digital spaces do, too. Anthony, for example, has since moved on from ONTD, but is now part of a thriving online community of LGBTQ people, some of whom are out to their family, and some of whom are not.

"To my knowledge, there has never been a gay person besides me in my family," Anthony said, who still worships Mariah Carey, her smiling face his Twitter cover photo, greeting all those who visit. "I was fortunate to have found a group of people who could understand the confusion I was feeling about coming out."

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