Street flags in Chicago's Boystown neighborhood. According to GLSEN, rural youth are “more likely to be more out online than in person, compared to urban and suburban youth." (Photo by Mary Dominguez)

Street flags in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood. According to GLSEN, rural youth are “more likely to be more out online than in person, compared to urban and suburban youth.” (Photo by Mary Dominguez)

Social media is the lifeline of the 21st century.

And while some believe the way people communicate through the Internet is socially isolating, it serves as a vital connection for others. An LGBTQ presence has erupted online through a unique support system that can only be found through the Internet.

According to a 2013 study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 1,960 out of 5,680 middle- and high-schoolers asked about their experiences online identified as LGBTQ; that’s more than 34 percent. Of the youth who identified as LGBT, 62 percent said they searched for sexuality information on the Internet, compared with 12 percent of non-LGBTQ youth.

According to the same GLSEN study, 50 percent of LGBTQ youth reported having at least one close friend online.

“I think the Internet can connect people who feel isolated, which is definitely what I needed in Oklahoma,” said Jack Cox, a 26-year-old who identifies as a lesbian and a cisgender woman.

Cox lives in Austin, Texas, but was raised in an evangelical Southern Baptist household in Norman, Okla.

“I didn’t have the vocabulary or support to explore my experiences and feelings,” Cox said. “I tried very hard to commit to a life my parents supported. When I was 20, I got engaged to a man, and we planned our lives together. I would sneak out of our bed in the middle of the night to cry in the kitchen, because I knew I was still lying to myself, but I couldn’t find a way out.”

An online presence can help people develop the vocabulary to deal with such situations.

“The one thing that social media does is make everything so very public. There may be more people out there with a totally different sexuality than yours, or life in general” said Joel Pavelski, social media editor for the New York Post. “[It] broadens your capacity no matter where you are. In that sense, it makes it a lot easier for people who care about an LGBT message to get it out there.”

For example, following two groundbreaking U.S. Supreme court decisions on marriage equality in March 2013, The Human Rights Campaign changed the colors of its logo – an equality flag – from blue and yellow to red and pink, the colors of love. When the new logo was unveiled, HRC asked Facebook and Twitter users to change their profile photos to the red symbol.

A viral response followed. The next day, Facebook saw a 120 percent increase in profile photo updates.

“Think about the way the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge spreads on Facebook,” Pavelski said. “Five years ago, that wouldn’t have been possible. They raised, what, 17 million dollars within two weeks, and you can’t go on Facebook anymore without seeing a thousand Ice Bucket Challenge videos.”

In 2009, photographer Adam Bouska founded NOH8, another equality rights campaign in response to California’s Proposition 8. It features a series of photos of people with duct-taped mouths, symbolizing the way LGBTQ people’s voices were silenced when Prop 8 was passed. The campaign started a movement on social media, where people have taken it upon themselves to have their own photo shoots inspired by Bouska’s idea. According to the official NOH8 website, more than 38,000 photos have been taken.

The “It Gets Better” Project was started in 2010 by columnist Dan Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, to raise awareness about teenage bullying. The project gave individuals a chance to give their perspective on how life gets better with age, despite bullying and harassment from others. So far, more than 589,000 people have pledged their support, as have major corporations like Google, Disney, Apple, and Pixar.

These movements are “heavily weighted towards the positive,” Pavelski said. “[They’re] heavily weighted towards things that are not negative in the sense that there’s only a ‘like’ button. I think it enables a positive message about an LGBT movement to supercharge itself. Who wants to be seen as a hater? Nobody does. It’s become the worst thing you can possibly be.”

But Cox, of Texas, disagreed, saying the trends on social media have become too generic.

“I do not think any of these organizations prioritize the needs of the most marginalized among us,” she said.

For Cox, support was sparse when she was growing up in Oklahoma. “Before I left home, there were one or two youth-centered programs for LGBT kids that were ran out of sympathetic churches,” she said.

Chicago's Center on Halsted. (Photo by Mary Dominguez)

Chicago’s Center on Halsted. (Photo by Mary Dominguez)

In Chicago, the Center on Halsted is a different story. Located in the heart of Boystown, on a street lined with rainbow American flags, the Center on Halsted is a neighborhood staple. The front of the building is made of tall glass panels that symbolize the openness of the LGBTQ community, which historically was sheltered. People buzz in and out, often with bags from the Whole Foods attached to the lobby. There are resources for people of all ages, with three levels and specialized areas for physical activity, a theater, playrooms, computers, senior centers and a rooftop garden.

“The biggest form of recruitment is through word of mouth,” said Peter Johnson, director of public relations at the center. “People come through the lobby from Whole Foods and become interested in what’s going on. Upon visiting the center, people may pick up materials about programs that are going on.”

The center serves 1,000 people per day in person. But Johnson says creating an online presence has been challenging.

“It has been difficult, because it’s a new territory,” he said. “The center wants to make everything effective and to protect staff members and young people on the internet. There are a lot of individual workers reaching out to people.

“While online communities are great for people who are coming to terms with their identity and who may not feel safe, our community is automatically linked to professionals who can offer assistance.”

According to GLSEN, rural youth are “more likely to be more out online than in person, compared to urban and suburban youth. As such, practitioners may find it helpful to encourage some youth more than others to connect with resources online.”

As someone who grew up in a rural area, Cox says that connection is something she needed when she was younger but found once she was an adult.

“Austin is very different from my hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, where I often felt nervous about my gender presentation and openly dating women,” Cox said. “In Austin, I’m able to date a lot more and have a wider queer friendship circle and community. It’s been easier for me to be out at my job.

“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect,” she said. “But in my day-to-day, I’ve got a little more breathing room to be myself.”

Mary_DominguezAbout the Author
Mary Dominguez is a student at Temple University. Click here to learn more about her.