When I was in sixth grade, I realized I was gay, and this terrified me. Growing up in a conservative, small town meant I would be unable to openly explore my queerness without social consequences. In high school, only a handful of queer people were out. Homophobic comments from my classmates and their parents scared me into staying in the closet until college, ultimately robbing me of an authentic existence.
Growing up in the closet, I developed coping mechanisms to deal with my anxiety toward being outed in a place where my sexuality was not accepted. The pressure to conform during my K-12 education pushed me to regulate my word choice, taste in music, attire and personality. These restrictions made me seek out the privacy of the internet, as it was the perfect place for me to explore my identity. I would type questions about being gay into Google, hoping to find other people who were experiencing the confusion I was. Private browsing sessions and a compulsive practice of clearing my webpage history became my norm, as I feared I would be judged for simply looking.
The toxic culture of my hometown forced me into the closet, and I was not able to explore my queerness until I came to Berkeley. Years of repression made me shy, and I was scared to explore both my sexuality and the LGBTQ+ community in Berkeley. But when I finally did, I went to my first gay bar and met many wonderful queer friends. I felt completely comfortable learning about queerness away from a computer screen. I had never in my life experienced a place like Berkeley, where I could be super fucking gay and face zero social repercussions for expressing my sexuality.
Returning home for break after my time in Berkeley made me feel like I had to hide my identity, like I was still in the closet. A familiar sense of constriction washed over me, and I felt forced to perform heteronormativity to feel safe and secure. But as a newly liberated gay, I did what my younger self would not and downloaded Grindr to explore the queer community in a discrete way.
The idea of finally being able to meet queer people from my hometown excited me. I felt like I was robbed of this sort of discovery and exploration while growing up in the closet. I spent my days back home with passive taps and conversations within the app. While I appreciated the app’s ability to expand my casual awareness of my hometown queer community, I did not expect to feel transformed by any one conversation.
This sentiment changed one night, when a cute boy messaged me a photo and a compliment. The positive encounter prompted me to reciprocate. Hours went by as we chatted, and I learned that our lives intersected in similar ways. Our religious upbringings and conservative hometowns deeply affected our mental health and general outlook on life, as we were both in the closet until leaving home. We both suffered from anxiety and depression throughout high school as a result of hiding our identities.
After we parted ways, I obsessed over our conversation, rereading each terse, back-and-forth message. I felt invested in this boy’s story, as it related so much to mine. Our honest and candid conversation made me realize the power of intimacy and queer spaces. I now understand how important it is for queer youths to have people to connect with and relate to.
While visiting my conservative hometown, the app gave me a space to see and connect with other queer people without judgement. Having queer people to relate to reminded me there were other people in my hometown who were also struggling with performing heteronormativity in our homophobic community. Growing up, I wish I had this ability to explore and understand queerness without judgement.
I realize now how essential access to LGBTQ+-centered spaces — online or in person — is to queer and questioning youth. Online communities provide us with the education, support and affirmation the rest of the world does not offer us. LGBTQ+ people like me are forced into online communities to find connection because our society does not accept us. If individuals truly accepted LGBTQ+ people, I wouldn’t have been forced to live in the closet and express myself only online. So, I’ve discovered that my LGBTQ+ community is all around me — it’s our heteronormative society that constantly tries to convince us that we don’t exist.