how gay tiktok became gay tumblr for gen z

After the blogging platform banned NSFW content, queer young people turned to the popular app to express themselves.

by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Oct 2 2019, 2:17pm

Left: Kyilee Elsten Right: Erika Benner

Remember the endless depth and power of gay Tumblr? That was before last year, when the platform gave up on sex content, something that massively impacted its LGBTQ userbase. Tumblr was truly the hub of all things gay, with many young lesbians and queer women connecting with each other via now-embarrassing Picnik-edited snapback selfies and black-and-white gifs of girls making out. Gay Tumblr is dead, and it’s slowly but surely being replaced by gay TikTok.

With 500 million active users worldwide, the user-generated video app is thriving, and its queer user base is very much growing as the number of young people who identify as queer is on the rise. Nearly half of TikTok users are between the ages of 16 and 24, and, because Gen Z is so queer, with only 48 percent identify as exclusively heterosexual, a lot of that group is composed of queer people.

“To keep things simple, I’m a queer woman,” Erika Benner, a 19-year-old from Georgia, told me. Benner has 160 thousand followers and has amassed 3.4 million likes. “For me, I would describe it kind of like the new Tumblr. I used to go on Tumblr to make friends in the LGBT community, but it I find it easier to find them on TikTok now. Everyone is very accepting and open, too.”

Gay TikTok, like any other digital community, is marked with various identifiers. The more queer people you follow, the more they will come up. Videos with users saying “dyke check” is one of the most popular, with its hashtag gaining three million views. Some people check their jawlines (these women will look at the camera straight on, and then turn their heads to show off how sharp their jawlines are), some literally come out of the closet, and some reach out for their girlfriends while songs like “Girls” by the Beastie Boys play in the background. Tags like #GirlsWhoKissGirls have over 37.1 million views and #LesbianCheck has 4.2 million views.

“Official” groups of users, like the @gayngg, which is made up of 12 young queer people are also popular on TikTok. These groups are essentially like any other kind of influencer collective you’d find on Instagram, or like the LA lesbians that dominate the entireity of gay YouTube. It’s a form of networking: one popular user is cool, but multiple popular users have even more power to increase each other’s follower bases.

“I started TikTok in April of 2019 as a joke, mostly, but now it’s much more,” TikTok user Kyilee Elsten, a 19-year-old lesbian from Nebraska with over 250 thousand followers and over 250 videos, told me. “I have noticed how many younger girls and even boys look up to me when it comes to being who they really want to be. I do it for them, and try to be a person that is [kind of] like an escape for them.” Elsten posts a lot of videos where she’s flirting with the camera, and girls flock to the comments to drop the pregnant-girl emoji and comment things like, “I thought I was straight…”

Lesbian TikTok is continually growing as more and more young women take to the app. (Currently, two million more women use the app than men.) “The lesbian TikTok community is a lot to handle, but I have made some of my best friends off of TikTok so it can be very fun and life changing,” Elsten said. “The lesbian community in general has really grown and unfortunately I feel like a lot of girls don’t take it seriously. [But] I met my girlfriend on the app, as well as a good amount of my best friends now.”

Gay TikTok has grown to the point that some users will “fake” gay on the app so that they can gain a following and views. For example, a user might come out of the closet (literally), and then have her boyfriend tagged in her bio, or even on her Instagram. Gen Z is nothing if not internet savvy, so they’re quick to put the pieces together and call them out in the comments. It’s not shocking considering Gen Z tends to be more respectful of queerness and not appropriating it than their predecessors.

While it might seem like it’s just another social media app, TikTok has become a unique space for community-building online. “I definitely have connected with other lesbians and queer woman on the app. I even made friends with some in my area,” Benner said.

Gay Tumblr was a major space where I learned about my own identity as a bi woman, but gay TikTok feels much freer and also, honestly, way more fun. It’s much more welcoming to be able to learn about your own queerness via quick songs and dances than it was in the era of thousands people screaming at each other on Tumblr’s internet about who does and doesn’t get to be queer. Because the answer is all of us, and I’m very very hopeful that, as the gay TikTok community suggests, the new baby gays know that, and embrace it.

“This app has really helped a lot of people I feel like. As silly as that sounds, it really has, and it’s heartwarming to know that and makes me very proud to be apart of it,” said Elsten.