Being Queer Online Now and Then

Marybeth Mareski,

Headshot of Author
Headshot of Author

Positionality Statement: This post is written by Marybeth Mareski, a Returning Women’s Scholar and social work intern at the Women’s Center in her final year at UMBC. I am a white person who will be the first person to graduate college in my family. I use she/her and they/them pronouns, often call myself a she/her boy, and while I don’t identify as trans, I also don’t feel comfortable calling myself cis. When trying to summarize my sexual orientation, I tend to arrive at queer butch lesbian, in order to align myself with the radical strain of queer politics, identify that I dress and style myself in a masculine fashion, and to indicate that in the past I have primarily dated women or nonbinary people. I write this post to marvel at how the internet has transformed as a resource to queer people from my childhood to present time, and in support of all queer people trying to exist authentically under settler-colonial capitalism. 

When I was coming of age as a young queer person in the late 1900s, the internet was just coming into form as a public place. This was the heady time of Geocities, fansites, and bulletin boards. My own personal digital journey through queerness was facilitated by my deep love of Sailor Moon, about which I collaborated on fanfiction with queer themes, where I explored my understanding of what queer love might be like in conversation with other fans of the show. I learned about queer sex through Scarleteen, an inclusive and feminist sex education site for teens, and the Savage Love archives, a (now widely regarded as problematic) kink-positive advice column written by Dan Savage that originated in alternative newspapers, and was definitely not for teens. 

Sailor Moon Fanpage Geocities Screenshot
Image Description: A Netscape browser showing a geocities website with a pink background of tiled images of Sailor Moon and rainbow text saying Sailor Moon Power

I navigated a sort of nebulous online space, based primarily in fandom, my only representation of queerness coming from television, movies, anime, bands I liked, or in stories from people older than me. No one that I knew was out. With very few exceptions, I was the only queer person that I knew. Facebook didn’t exist until I graduated from high school. Tumblr didn’t exist until I (would have) graduated from college. I was forced, agonizingly, to forge my own path.

My teacher friend told me a story recently that really illustrated how different things are today. When she was teaching sixth graders last year over Zoom, a pair of her students were doing a presentation about the Daughters of Bilitis, one of the first lesbian organizations founded in the United States. Suddenly after the presentation, kids started coming out in the chat. Queer, pan, asexual, demisexual. Bunches of eleven year olds, sharing their LGBTQ identities with each other, and receiving nothing but support. It was heartwarming, but it also made me wonder: where did these tweens encounter this vocabulary? 

At that age, I was spending all of my time researching LGBTQ topics, looking for books with homoerotic subtext, and sneaking peeks at LGBTQ magazines. It was a topic that drew me in completely, but I knew that I had to keep my interest a secret. The comments in my family that acknowledged the existence of gay people were very hostile. Unlike ethnic or religious minorities, being LGBTQ is usually not a culture taught by the family. Indeed, when a young queer person comes to terms with their own identity, they usually keep it hidden from others, especially the family, for fear of repercussions — LGBTQ teens are 140% more likely to be homeless than straight teens, in great part due to rejection by their families (Morton et al, 2017). Queer kids have to learn about being queer from somewhere, and social media and the internet is right there on their phones. And it is full of more queer content, creators, and community than I could have ever imagined when I was a queer teen.

As an 11-year old, I encountered the lesbian couple in Sailor Moon and was entranced. I developed a crush on the butch. Not too long after, I sat on the bus waiting to leave school and watched my fellow middle schoolers walk by and realized, ‘Oh. I think girls are cute. I guess that I am bisexual.’ And then a couple of years went by, and I noticed that I hadn’t thought about boys in all that time, and I thought, ‘Oh. I guess I’m a lesbian!’

Sailor Uranus Winking in Car GIF
Image description: A gif of Sailor Uranus, a short-haired androgynous blonde in a mustard-colored blazer, winking from the driver’s side of an open car.

Meanwhile, here are the terms I have encountered on TikTok over the past two days: Xenogender. Puzzlegender. Genderfluid demisexual. Abrosexual demiboy. When talking to my teacher friend about her students using labels like these, I thought, if all of these terms were available to me when I was eleven, I don’t know how I would have spent time doing anything but trying to pick one out! What an alluring banquet of possible ways of understanding oneself.

Personally, my own experience of my gender expression and sexual orientation has changed plenty throughout my life, based on personal experience, the overall culture trends, and through relationships I’ve formed with other people. In my teens and early twenties, though I thought of myself basically as a boy, I had too much internalized homophobia to dress in as masculine a fashion as I do now. I would see lesbians dressing in men’s clothes and feel repulsed and judgmental, thinking, I may be a lesbian, but I’m not one of those lesbians! 

Reader, I am one of those lesbians. I just had to learn to love myself and the idea of being a lesbian.

Grinning Woman in 'I AM A LESBIAN' T-shirt
Image description: Vintage photograph from the 70s showing a white woman grinning proudly, wearing a homemade t-shirt that reads ‘I am a lesbian’

But lesbian is only one of the words that I use for myself, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a complete representation. It is suitable for certain contexts, as when I am drawing a comparison to mainstream culture, and inadequate in other contexts, as when I am describing my sexuality to other queer people. At times it feels like a word I fling in proud defiance against those who may judge me, and at other times it feels like a word that connotes an out-of-touch understanding of gender that is insufficiently nuanced. When we are using labels to describe who we are, we are attempting to describe an experience that is messy and cannot be contained, no matter how many labels are available to us. Understanding how we long to express ourselves and how we relate to others is a lifelong learning process, and these labels are simply outfits to try on along the way. Some of them will feel better than others! Some of them will give us delight for a short while, and some of them we will grow comfortable with over a lifetime. In the process of attempting to use language to describe ourselves, which is a venture that is forever doomed to failure, we can look at these labels like playing dress up. 

Clueless Computer Outfit Matching GIF
Image description: a gif from the movie Clueless of a finger pressing the ‘browse’ button on computer representation of different tops and bottoms scrolling to form a matching outfit.

The propagating multitudes of microsexualites on TikTok seems innocent enough. Any pathway to self-understanding and acceptance, however convoluted, is probably a net benefit to the world. Other avenues of exploring sexuality and gender identity online, however, are more questionable. 

Enter Solace, the app at the forefront of tracking your transition. Solace purports to offer information and resources to trans people about their goals and progress, but in the process it presents a very binary imagining of transness. Sample goals are “Building a Feminine Wardrobe,” “Men’s Hairstyling,” or “Facial Feminization Surgery.” Worse, nearly every “goal” has a tie-in advertisement for a service. The feminine wardrobe goal links to a styling service you can purchase. The hairstyling and facial feminization surgery goals mention how expensive such goals can be, and links to their sister financial management app, Bliss. Because nothing brings bliss like having enough money to finance your binary transition!

Screenshot of Solace App
Image description: an iPhone displaying a screen from the Solace app. Options read: Legal, 290 Goals Available. Medical, 72 Goals Available, Lifestyle, 36 Goals Available

Solace in particular demonstrates the transition that the internet has made towards prioritization of commerce from my childhood to today. In the early days (1994 and before), the internet was primarily a small community of people exploring their interests

As the profitability of the dot com boom made the financial opportunities of the internet clear, a culture of capitalism began to overtake a culture of community on the internet. The commercialization of the internet means that every subgroup is a target audience for a company’s product. As marginalized groups gain ‘acceptance’ in mainstream society, they become profitable demographics to extract resources from. The creator of Solace, who goes by RKA, is a trans woman who designed the app and launched it with venture capital raised from Hilary Clinton. This situates it firmly within the internet start-up tradition — though this app may have been created to provide guidance for trans people, it is also a business designed to make money from trans people. 

Ultimately, these words from RKA herself point to one of the bigger problems with Solace. “At the end of the day, I’m just looking for a conformist experience,” she says. “I’m just looking to blend in. And so the idea of being part of a community felt almost opposed to my transition goals.” Aiming for a transition that is a conformist experience is in opposition to the life-affirming magic of the chaos of queerness, and doing so in solitude rejects one of the tenets of queer survival: community. 

There is no app that can replace seeing and being seen by people who understand you because they have had similar experiences to yours. There is no app that will replace the mutual aid required by people on the margins of a society that has massive barriers to health care. A ‘conformist’ transition is seeking the affirmation of mainstream society and holding up the very values that make life difficult for trans people to begin with. 

Queer and transgender people of color Illustration
Image description: A drawing of six people of color of varying gender expressions gazing directly at the viewer. *

Ultimately, apps like Solace do not feel like a pathway to self-understanding and acceptance. They feel like a funnel to one vision of being trans, which is transitioning to one side of the binary, and passing. 

Queerness is about being against the status quo. Discovering your own queerness should be about imagining new forms of expression. Being queer is about expanding your idea of what is possible, not constricting it. Even though micro identities funnel that exploration into identity labels, at least there seem to be countless identity labels. With Solace, though there are many ‘goals,’ most of them are ways of exploring the ends of the gender binary, without being in conversation with other people, or seeing examples of the variety of experiences of real trans people. It obscures the creativity and playfulness of real trans lives.

The excitement that I felt seeing Sailor Uranus and learning that butchness could be attractive enabled me to explore my nascent butchness, step by tiny step. Through connecting with an online community around Sailor Moon, I found people to share my passions and talk about my experiences with. I created art based off the characters and shared it online with no expectation of making money, and without anyone asking for money from me. At least in the online world where I came of age, the only ones making money off of my exploration of my identity were people selling Sailor Moon merchandise. 

*Image taken from Creating Accomplices Workshop Applicable to Everyone | Office for Institutional Equity and Diversity | NC State University 

Resources and Recommendations 

Morton, M.H., Dworsky, A., & Samuels, G.M. (2017). Missed opportunities: Youth homelessness in America. National estimates. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago.

What are micro-sexualities and why are people arguing about them?

TikTok’s LGBTQ+ Discourse is Just a Re-Run of Tumblr

Solace Is an App That Helps Trans People Transition

Trans Liberation? There’s No App for That