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Social media can be a safe space for LGBTQ youth

Published in Washington Blade online publication on May 18, 2023.

Whether on Instagram, YouTube or TikTok, queer youth are able to connect with stories and insight that they not only relate to, but can use to help cope with and resolve their own struggles.

By Emily Hawkins and Shane Gomez

Youthcast Media Group®

With all the bad press social media gets when it comes to teens, its significant benefits to LGBTQ youth – including relating to others like themselves – can be overlooked, mental health experts and queer teens say. 

Members of racial and ethnic groups who have long been underrepresented or misrepresented in the media often say they find it empowering to follow and watch influencers with whom they can relate. In turn, they feel more understood and accepted.

Queer social media influencers are willing to talk about topics general audiences may be uninterested in, but what can be frequent occurrences in the queer community, such as disrespect, bullying, misgendering and loneliness. Influencers draw from their own life experiences. Whether on Instagram, YouTube or TikTok, queer youth are able to connect with stories and insight that they not only relate to, but can use to help cope with and resolve their own struggles.

A September 2022 meta-analysis of 26 studies in the Journal of Medical Internet Research found social media may help LGBTQ youth with connection to LGBTQ communities,  identity management and support from peers, which all contribute to better mental health and well-being. However, researchers concluded that more robust studies are needed.

Don McClain is a 16-year-old Baltimore youth advocate, social media entrepreneur and artist of multiple mediums, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. They said it’s important for them to “be able to engage with queer influencers because it shows me that it’s okay to be authentically me.”

“It makes me feel loved and even makes me smile,” they said. “Seeing people like you always helps.” 

McClain’s favorite queer influencers include Jewish social justice and LGBTQ+ activist Matt Bernstein, who has 1.3 million Instagram followers, trans woman Zaya Perysian, who chronicled her transition on TikTok, where she has 4.5 million followers and Ve’ondre Mitchell, a trans woman with 6.6 million TikTok followers who is an advocate for Black and transgender people.

Engaging with queer content creators can help viewers with acceptance, reassurance, and even safety. And it can provide answers to the questions that frequently overwhelm queer youth. 

Washington, D.C.-based clinical psychotherapist Rose Shelton, who owns Your Thought Center in Washington, D.C. and often treats LGBTQ patients, discussed mental health trends in queer youth. 

Rose Sheldon headshot (Photo courtesy of Rose Sheldon).

”Questions around self-worth, anxiety – usually associated around acceptance – violence and violent response…contribute to high levels of depression,” said Shelton.

She also cited insecurity around who’s “a real ally,” “a verbal ally” and “an actual actionable ally.” 

This can have deadly consequences. 

Forty-five percent of LGBTQ youth seriously contemplated attempting suicide between September of 2020 and December 2021, according to survey of LGBTQ youth conducted in late 2021 by the LGBTQ suicide-prevention nonprofit The Trevor Project. The survey also found that 78% experienced symptoms of anxiety in the past year and 58% experienced symptoms of depression.

Of the LGBTQ youth surveyed by The Trevor Project, 45% were of color and 48% identified as transgender or nonbinary.

The study, released last year, also found that 89% of LGBTQ youth reported that seeing LGTBQ representation in TV and movies made them feel good – a key indicator of the importance of representation to queer youth and seeing yourself reflected in the media.

“The fact that very simple things — like support from family and friends, seeing LGBTQ representation in media and having your gender expression and pronouns respected — can have such a positive impact on the mental health of an LGBTQ young person is inspiring, and it should command more attention in conversations around suicide prevention and public debates around LGBTQ inclusion,” Amit Paley, Trevor Project’s CEO, wrote about the survey. 

These serious trends in mental illness for queer youth are influenced by a variety of factors, but a primary issue is not feeling accepted, which is largely due to a lack of acceptance at home, the report concluded. The lack of adequate representation in media including television and film makes matters worse. 

Representation is important, but incomplete if it does not accurately paint a whole picture, experts say. Representation in traditional media, such as in books, films, and shows for the queer community often presents a portrayal that’s different from reality. In roles beyond the typical typecast queer character, the focus is usually on sensationalizing the struggle to come out or the struggle to combat anti-LGBTQ action.

Canadian writer Katelyn Thomson published an analysis of LGBTQ representation in TV and film in 2021 in Ontario-based Wilfrid Laurier University’s Undergraduate journal, Bridges. 

“Ultimately, anxious displacement is how TV shows try to ‘normalize’ the lives of LGBT characters,” Thomson wrote. “However, the process ends up taking away from the identity of the LGBT characters and enforces negative codified stereotypes of LGBT people and their lives.”

While film and television depictions of the community can cause inaccurate portrayals, having queer representation is crucial to queer youth to feel accepted and allow them explore different identities and expressions.

 “When used correctly, media can be a vital tool for representing, accepting, and discussing minority groups in society,” Thomson said.

McClain agrees. 

Don McClain photo by Breyanna Dabney, Pixie Photography

“I believe queer youth can be better represented in the media through the displaying of our stories and breaking the stigma around our everyday existence,” they said. “For instance, we need more accurately queer characters and not the ones who are poorly stereotyped.”

So while there is frustration with social media, there are benefits too, especially because it lacks some of the flaws that can arise with queer representation in other forms of media, experts say. Social media can help break through the often one dimensional narratives and depictions of the community presented in film and television through its authenticity. Rather than the creation of a writer or director, it is more often an expression of raw authenticity. Queer influencers shouldn’t be taken as a way of how you should feel, how you should present yourself or how you should look, but instead as a way of seeing that there are many ways of doing so, making it beneficial to follow multiple queer influencers.

“I think sometimes the reason it’s important for social media, instead of…through media itself, is that media also has its own bias,” Shelton said. “And it loves to create stories and narrations and create characters out of people. So with social media, a lot of times people are just presenting their true self.”

Through different faces, forms, and presentations, queer influencers offer an impressive look at queer culture and talent. Here’s a look at some of them:

Noah Schnapp (He/Him) 

The 18-year-old actor, Noah Schnapp, is mainly known for his role as Will in the wildly popular Netflix series, Stranger Things. Noah is not only known for his acting, but also his very popular TikTok and Instagram accounts. He has cultivated more than 50 million followers between both accounts, where he often posts funny videos, TikTok dances and pictures with his castmates and friends. The Gen Z star recently came out as gay, sparking many of his co-stars, friends and fans to share their positive messages to Noah on social media. Seeing celebrities congratulated for accepting and embracing their sexuality helps other queer youth feel not only more represented in their favorite media but also confident in themselves knowing that their sexuality is something to celebrate and share.

Bretman Rock (He/Him)

Bretman Rock is a 24-year-old Filipino beauty influencer, who is openly gay. He currently lives and produces content from Honolulu, Hawaii. His YouTube channel, which has more than 8 million subscribers, includes comedic lifestyle and beauty videos along with content including his family, friends and collaborations with other influencers. He also has over 18 million followers on Instagram as well. His charismatic and energetic personality and loyal fan base has helped him win many influencer awards and become the first gay man on the cover of Playboy magazine. 

Tom Daley (He/Him)

The British gold medalist diver and openly gay 28-year-old has become famous not only for his incredible athletic capability but also his internet personality. He has over 3.2 million followers on instagram and is known for his lifestyle, cooking and knitting content. He is a father to one child, married to American screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and very open and proud of his sexuality.

Dylan Mulvaney (She/They)

The 26-year-old trans influencer began to rise to fame on TikTok with their viral series, “Days of Girlhood” that documents each day of Dylan’s transition. The series began to become so popular it has helped Dylan generate 10.8 million followers on TikTok. Beyond being a content creator on TikTok, Dylan is also an actress, comedian, model and trans rights activist who was recently featured in what’s been described as a “polarizing partnership” with Bud Light. 

Sarah Schauer (She/They)

Sarah Schauer is a popular queer social media influencer known for her Instagram and TikTok accounts, YouTube videos and podcasts with influencer Brittany Broski. She is also known for her previous Vine account. Sarah’s lifestyle and comedic videos helped her grow her fan base into what it is today – more than 3 million on the three social media platforms combined.

Emily Hawkins and Shane Gomez are juniors at Annandale High School working with the DMV-based Youthcast Media Group®. YMG founder and former USA TODAY health policy reporter Jayne O’Donnell contributed to this report. 


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