Given recent policy decisions by both Tumblr and Facebook, I am concerned that the ability to create and sustain online queer communities that do not adhere to heteronormative standards are in danger. I am not alone in this, queer people across all social media platforms and media outlets sounded alarms this week. While these new policies come months after Craigslist closed its personals sections in reaction to FOSTA/SESTA, I cannot help but see these closings as a further “unintended” consequences of that poorly constructed legislation and corporate social media‘s unwillingness to put marginalized communities above investors and rely instead on unreliable censoring A.I..
In his Washington Post reflection on Tumblr, John Paul Barrow offered a great account of how the service helped him discover his sexuality as a queer youth in Oklahoma. Barrow brilliantly eulogized the unique queer experience of Tumblr:
Porn set side by side with not-porn empowered queer people to explore the full breadth of our interests in one scroll. It gave us the freedom to create and present a version of ourselves that didn’t minimize our sexuality, which we are so often pressured to do offline. Such seemingly disparate elements finding a home together affirmed that art, sex, criticism, poetry and comedy need not be compartmentalized. One does not come at the expense of any of the others.
In addition to its integrative experience of an entire queer self, Tumblr offered a space where teens and adults commingled as equals. As a young queer person, having a community of peers and mentors who can help you traverse the difficulties of being queer in a heteronormative world is wildly important (see Indygo Arscott’s discussion learning about gender identity). This important space for teens is affirmed by sociologist CJ Pascoe:
[The] number of teens to talk to me about how important tumblr was/is in understanding the range of sexual and gender options available to them has always been striking. Teens have told me that they turn to it to find community, to find answers to questions about gender and sexuality they couldn’t find elsewhere, to learn about how to do things like find binders, or support groups, or affirming doctors…
It’s not just queer people who found a home in the sexually welcoming community of Tumblr. Emma Grey highlighted how Tumblr allowed all women to be their own sexual architects by curating erotica with a female gaze over the male gaze of most production. Sex workers have also sounded the alarm highlighting how decisions like this make them actively less safe and destroy their bottom line. Taken together, I am not alone to worry that these sort of anti-sex policies are a dangerous trend, one that impacts queer people and those who advocate for a broader acceptance of sexuality overall.
Queer communities and speech treat sex and sexuality as normal parts of every day life. Our sexuality so painfully defined us as other in our youth and consequently we recognize the myriad ways it is an integral part of all lives. Unfortunately, no matter how innocuously we engage in discussing or acting on our sexuality, it is still seen as dangerous to a broader audience. There is a moral panic around consensual nudity and sexuality in the US that reinforces these problems. Youth are sheltered from sexuality and as a result many people lack the healthy language to discuss sexuality which Tumblr offered. The fear of sexuality is so high that the parameters of the “adult content” sweep has been so broad Tumblr users noticed they cannot find posts around issues like “chronic pain” any more.
While mourning over the loss of a beloved social media platform is nothing new for me (I was on Friendster…) when combined with the shuttering of physical gay spaces recent years, it feels as though the queer community is being shut out of its ability to build networks. The decline of “gayborhoods” (a portmanteau of gay and neighborhoods coined by sociologist Amin Ghaziani referring to those neighborhoods that previously housed a gay ghetto, or at the very least a clustering of gay-friendly spaces–e.g., The Castro in San Francisco, Chelsea in New York City, Boystown in Chicago, etc.) has occurred not only larger cities, but across the country as gay spaces close shop. I live in what is lovingly called “The Lesbian Capital of the World,” and yet the only queer bar shuttered its doors recently. Some pundits noting the closing of queer spaces questioned if we even need such spaces anymore and as early as 2005 some gay commentators, such as conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan, were ready to pack up the entire queer identity and declare a victory for equality post marriage. Counter to these assimilationists, I would argue that both physical and virtual queer communities are integral to sustaining the mental health of queer people.
These concerns parallel my dissertation research where I am examining how queer scenes are created in ephemeral moments/places and are able to maintain a sense of community and perpetuate the scene through digital connections. Social networks like Tumblr, Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram) are the default services where queer communities recreate the local scene in the virtual world. However, when policy changes that seek to ban adult content (read: sexuality) are implemented, the promise of social media to bridge the physical divides between people are put in jeopardy. Burlesque and drag performers are increasingly finding themselves up against Facebook’s stricter guidelines which in turn limits their ability to advertise for their events and interact with each other.
In the end, we need to recognize that as public queer spaces become increasingly transitory, the internet has become a much more important element of maintaining these communities and that any effort to restrict queer communities and their sexuality should be met with great skepticism. FOSTA/SESTA must be repealed and social media monopolies need to consider the voices they are disempowering rather than merely the return on dividends. If we do not hold them responsible for these “less controversial” decisions, then we will continue to see the end of the internet as we knew it, and the ability of queer people to make community.