Don’t read the comments.
We all have heard this vital rule; don’t read the comments of a potentially contentious piece of content unless you’re ready to read a barrage of horrible comments attacking you, your identity or your values, the pesky thumbs up under each hateful comment making it all worse.
However, like picking a scab, we know we shouldn’t do it, but we still do.
I recently fell into this trap on an article about gender equality in the music industry. I was not surprised – the comments were full of phrases such as “this is political correctness gone mad,” “genderfluid isn’t a thing, it’s just a mental illness” and my absolute favourite, “what the fuck is a non-binary? If I just feel like a helicopter can I be one?”
It’s obviously impossible to avoid people with differing opinions than yours on the Internet. While some people don’t mind the occasional spar with a semi-racist uncle, others - like me - find it way too emotionally taxing to engage with. In my daily life, I’m constantly harassed and misgendered; my sexuality is questioned or dismissed. This is why online queer spaces are absolutely necessary.
Years ago, I was added to a private queer feminist Facebook group that was set up to allow women and non-binary people to engage in productive conversations, reach out for support, ask for advice or rant about the patriarchy. That space completely changed my life.
Growing up in a conservative neighbourhood surrounded by straight, right-wing nuclear families, I struggled for the first 18 years of my life to find any like-minded friends. Subsequently, I was depressed, anxious and trapped in the closet with the door sealed shut. Joining the Facebook group meant that suddenly, I had hundreds of online friends whose queer intersectional feminism made me feel at home for the first time in my life.
The queer space I found myself in was a safe haven for LGBTIQA people, in or out of the closet. We leant on each other through tough times, offering advice on coming out and navigating relationships, sharing our favourite queer literature and movies, creating the family that many of us didn’t have.
Engaging with my new online family is the sole reason I was able to become comfortable with myself, eventually gaining the strength to come out and begin living life as a proudly out, queer non-binary person. The support, information, advice, and love that these spaces provided answered all the questions I had growing up about why I felt so different and isolated. I didn’t need to leave my bedroom to find like-minded people with similar experiences.
These online queer spaces are the antidote that many people need from the cisnormative, heteronormative, homophobic world we live in. When my news feed is filled with misogynistic stories or transphobic rants from people I grew up around, these spaces are a safe haven. They’re somewhere to retreat to where I can vent my frustrations and then receive support and solidarity, read feel-good stories about Celesbian couples and giggle at memes about pervasive heteronormativity.
For people who have disabilities that restrict their ability to leave the house, these spaces help us connect with people from all over the world who can provide advice and solidarity. 24-year-old transfemme Josie from Melbourne has a disassocative disorder, and has found online spaces immensely helpful for finding a community. “Online queer spaces as a disabled person are incredible,” she says. “It lets you feel a part of a bigger community even when you can’t be involved in person.”
“Feeling connected to so many wonderful people when you’re stuck in your own house and mind is more helpful than any words I have,” Josie adds.
For people living in rural or regional areas, this is where they can find that they’re not alone. Queer people living in remote areas often feel isolated with the lack of queer-friendly physical spaces available, so finding them online can be life-changing. A recent resource published by Qlife explored the challenges that rural and regional LGBTIQA people face, by stating that “there are likely to be fewer opportunities in country areas to attend LGBTI-related community events or to access LGBTI-inclusive services.”
It goes on to explain that “with limited places to connect with others for social needs and possible barriers to accessing health care services, LGBTI people in rural, regional and remote areas can experience poorer mental and physical health outcomes.” The ability to connect with people who share your experiences online is therefore essential for these people. The friends that we make online may very well be the first people we’re exposed to who share our experiences and identities. They provide safe places to explore ourselves.
Lately, there’s been a rise of meninism and making fun of people needing ‘safe spaces’ and trigger warnings, like in this article from the LA Times. This rhetoric is only spoken by people who don’t actually require these things – their existence and identity are always accepted and supported by all of society. They’ve never been made to feel isolated or invisible by mainstream society and they’ve never been shut out of spaces, online or offline, for who they are. They play the ‘devil’s advocate’ by offering controversial opinions, weigh in on debates that don’t impact them, insult minorities for the sake of it and prod people for a laugh. After spewing hate all over the Internet, they can just log off and continue with their lives. For us on the other end of these insults – like myself who was recently called a ‘dyke vegan feminist who everyone hates’ – we don’t just log off and continue living.
A recent study by Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and BullyingStatistics showed that 42 percent of LGBT youth have experienced cyberbullying, and 58 percent have had something bad said to or about them online. 27 per cent state that they don’t feel safe online. The National LBGTI Health Alliance published a paper in 2011 that stated, “the elevated risk of mental ill-health and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves but rather due to discrimination and exclusion”. This is why these spaces are so important. While the rest of the internet is swarming with trolls and transphobic keyboard warriors, finding these online safe havens where we are accepted, loved and supported can be life changing.
So while these people continue making fun of us for needing gentle online spaces where we’re not poked fun at to get a rise out of us, we’ll be sharing memes about the patriarchy and planning our revolution.