As TikTok has exploded in popularity over the past few years, it’s become known as a haven for queer and questioning teens online. More than that, its algorithm — which is known for feeding you videos you didn’t even know you wanted based on your viewing behavior — has helped quite a few people come to terms with their own queerness. And as the pandemic has pushed more and more of our lives online, TikTok has taken on even more importance in the lives of many young LGBTQ people.
As the pandemic has pushed more and more of our lives online, TikTok has taken on even more importance in the lives of many young LGBTQ people.
And yet, as teens are increasingly exploring their sexuality and gender identity online, in full view of the public, society is struggling to adapt. As media debates continue to make clear, we still don’t really know how to treat teens who explore their identities in the semi-private/semi-public wilds of social media (especially for young people who are famous or fame adjacent).
When I came out as bi 25 years ago, at the age of 14, the internet was still in its infancy. Many of my peers didn’t have the internet, and those who did go online to explore their queerness were in chatrooms and on message boards, where a relative lack of pictures and screen names in place of legal names afforded a degree of anonymity. The kind of exploration that currently unfolds on TikTok, where teens cautiously try out — and sometimes even unabashedly own — LGBTQ identities alongside their real names and real faces? Those were relegated to in-person queer youth groups, like GLYS, the Buffalo-based organization that gave teens like me a place to hang out with other LGBTQ teens on Friday nights.
If a famous teen, or a teen with a famous dad, had been spotted attending a group like GLYS, it seems unlikely that the queer media would have snapped up the story. Those spaces are understood to be confidential, the same way gay bars have functioned as private spaces for queer exploration, despite technically being open to the public. Talking about your sexuality on social media feels more public, even a declaration — which may help explain why publications like The Advocate and LGBTQ Nation didn’t seem to feel any qualms about “outing” a Republican senator’s daughter based on the contents of her TikTok bio.
And yet, while TikTok may be public, it doesn’t always feel public: particularly if you’re a teen with just a few hundred followers who doesn’t realize how easy it can be to rocket out of obscurity and into virality. It feels like a safe, welcoming community where you can chat with friends and like-minded strangers as you start to figure out who, exactly, you are.
That duality is what makes TikTok such a beautiful space for queer exploration. It’s public enough that you can connect with strangers around the world, building community and helping one another learn and grow. And yet it’s private enough that you can feel free to experiment and try on different identities as you figure out who you truly are. And yet, as TikTok goes from niche concern to mainstream platform, that delicate balance has never felt more fragile. The more that teens become aware that being public on TikTok means being public — and potentially exposed to parents, extended family member, and other people they’re not ready to be out to — the more teens might feel driven to clamp down on their privacy settings, or even remove themselves from TikTok entirely. In other words, young people who finally felt safe publicly exploring queerness may be getting the message that, no, the world isn’t actually ready for them to be that out and proud.
And to me, that feels tragic. Queer TikTok has offered a glimpse of a world that I could only dream of when I was first coming out, a world where being young and queer feels like a thriving subculture rather than a niche identity. LGBTQ youth deserve that experience — and queer adults need to figure out a way to safeguard it for them.