has the internet helped breed a new generation of queerphobia?

Study finds Gen Zers have the most negative attitudes to LGBTQ+ people

by Douglas Greenwood
08 November 2019, 2:21pm

Queer people are everywhere. When they’re not presiding over whole countries (see Luxembourg and Serbia’s heads of state), they’re dominating the Billboard Hot 100 for months at a time like our boy Lil Nas X. A whole bunch of them -- including i-D favourite Indya Moore -- are playing pivotal characters in the iconic, Emmy-winning series Pose right now, and are dominating magazine covers too. Right now, we’re supposedly living in a queer utopia, in which young people’s futures are being nurtured by progressive politics and a new-found acceptance from mainstream culture.

Just a decade ago, the surface-level scenario seemed different. Interpretations of queer people on screen were sanitised, one-dimensional and, more often than not, white. (Friends, for example, didn’t even include a same-sex kiss in their 'The One with the Lesbian Wedding' episode). Meanwhile trans people were either victimised or the butt of a joke; like Lieutenant Lois Einhorn in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. We needed a new wave of liberal young minds to help dismantle those ideals. For the most part, we have them now.

But while the general outlook looks positive -- a study commissioned by GLAAD showed that Americans over the age of 72 were more accepting of LGBTQ+ people now than they were just a year ago -- the demographic we thought held the key to instigating change in future seem to be the ones most likely to turn their backs on the community instead. In fact, data gathered by the LGBTQ+ anti-violence charity Gallop found 1 in 4 Britons under the age of 24 thought the community was “immoral”. The same demographic also thought they were a danger to society, or that homosexuality went against their own beliefs. This is compared to one in five people in older age groups given the same survey.

Equally shocking statistics show that intolerance against queer people is surging right now. Transphobic attacks have risen 81% in the past year, while attacks based on a victim’s sexual orientation have risen roughly 15%. Where this animosity stems from hasn’t been formally studied yet, but if it’s disproportionately targeting Generation Z, it’s likely that it’s breeding somewhere older generations spend less of their time: the internet.

Widely credited for providing a safe space for queer Gen Zers and millennials growing up (love you Tumblr), the internet has always been a generational soundboard. It cultivated friendships that weren’t possible in suffocatingly small towns and gave trans people the platform to chronicle their journeys, helping build accessible blueprints for other gender-questioning teens. “[They] use the internet to help them to understand themselves, find positive role models and find vital information and support,” Jeff Ingold, Head of Media at Stonewall says. “Our research found that almost all LGBT young people (96%) say the internet helped them understand more about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. “

But online congregations can be nasty too. On easily accessible message boards like Reddit, alongside more hidden platforms similar to the now defunct far-right melting pot 8chan, young people with increasingly conservative views have found their own space away from a society they consider too politically correct. Statistics Jeff gives us show that 40% of young queer people have been targeted by direct hate speech online, but even more of it happens in secret.

Subreddits like /unpopularopinion have become recruitment spaces for incels and far-right young people. What start as questionable, controversial takes -- about the legitimacy of trans rights, the idea of queer people choosing their queerness rather than being born that way, or the “gross” way gay couples express their love in public -- are cloaked ways of spreading queerphobic and transphobic rhetoric as infallible truth. Participants in these threads find like-minded people and form their own groups to revel in their disdain for the LGBTQ+ community. A quick look at many of their profiles shows it’s just as likely to be young straight people -- predominantly men -- who take issue with the idea of LGBTQ+ people having the same rights as they do.

Miss Blanks is a 24-year-old trans woman of colour. She receives a barrage of hatemail through her social media feeds everyday, “Verbal abuse, death threats, rape threats”, the list goes on. The majority of it comes from white people her age. “The way I'm forced to negotiate safety in Gen Z spaces is really confronting,” she says. Equally dark comments have wound up on 24-year-old Leon’s Instagram posts, with strangers -- some just 18 years old -- openly judging his androgynous appearance. “One time I had a comment saying, "Is this n**** a boy or a girl?",” he points out. “Beneath it, there was a thread where someone answered them by saying ‘looks like a girl’”. A whole discourse surrounding his existence was happening right there: as if he wasn’t a real person, reading those comments.

I asked a young man, who has frequently responded to anti-LGBTQ+ posts on the /unpopularopinion subreddit, what he thinks of queer people. “I just think they’re weird,” he said. His sentiments reflect the common fear of the ‘other’ many cisgender, heteronormative people have. Another anxiety stems from the idea that queer people are asking for too much by demanding equality, and in doing so, compromising the freedom of expression enjoyed by those who – until recently – remained blissfully oblivious of their lives and concerns. The intersection of internet culture and the mainstream news sweep has pushed once-fringe issues to the fore, and the byproduct of partial liberation is that we are allowed to be more vocal and fight our own fight. But this vocality is often treated by those on the receiving end as a cry for attention; as “shoving the LGBTQ+ agenda down their throats”.

The notion that LGBTQ+ people want superiority over mere acceptance is going to be the hardest thing to change here, perhaps because so much of the community's narrative is taken out of their hands and skewed; by internet hearsay and tabloid rumours, for example. Trying to contain that discourse and snuff it out seems impossible right now, because for all of its positive aspects, the web also gives its bigoted users to option to migrate and morph, slipping out of one space and manifesting somewhere new when said bigotry gets shut down. “It’s so important social media and online platforms take clear action in removing homophobic, bi-phobic and transphobic content and promote their reporting tools to the public,” Jeff says. If we find a way of implementing this properly, then it’ll help stall the spread that happens outside of the public’s consciousness. For queer people, the internet has become a double-edged sword of liberation and oppression. In 2019, it’s time to dull down the latter.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.