(Editor’s Note: This article mentions mental health and suicide).
Let me explain why I am so very grateful for the online communities that I grew up in. In a time where people are truly beginning to recognise the value of digital communications and the very real communities that can be formed online, I’ve looked on in confusion. Online community has been a very real, very important representation of some of my most valued relationships for over a decade, and then I realised why my experience was so different to those I was reading about.
The fact of the matter is, as a young queer person, it can be very difficult to find people like you. I was lucky enough to have a handful of school friends who ‘got it’, many people in the online spaces I frequented didn’t even have that.
So, we built up a space with people who understand what you’re going through and what you need in that time. For example, when I was 15, my spaces were primarily people between the ages of 12 and 19 meaning I could support those younger than me, those older than me could support me, and nobody was too far ahead of me when it came to life.
Obviously as I’ve grown up, my social media feeds aren’t so rigidly people around my age but as a young teenager I think it was important I had those spaces.
As we’ve all grown up together online, we know about so many of each other’s hardships, we know what helps each other and what doesn’t, the people we spoke to online at 15 are the people we can’t wait to fly across the world to visit at 24. As we all settled into adulthood and the way we communicate changed, these spaces we carved out as children remained the safe havens we needed when we were young.
I grew up online and queer and the two aren’t separate entities. My first true, supportive queer communities came, not from my home town, but from a digital space. The interactions I had in these spaces truly were my ‘coming of age’ moments.
I met the person who I would one day marry online, I made friendships that I truly believe will last a lifetime. These people supported me when coming out didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped, they sent me money to buy food when my wage barely covered rent. The times I’ve spent sending a tweet into the abyss to be met with sympathy, kindness and support is one of the reasons I truly believe I’m here writing this today.
Of course, I can only speak from my own experiences but this experience is reflected in so many of my friends. Whether you met your first love online, or simply built up a support network you never thought you’d have access to without living in a big city, these digital spaces have literally saved some of our lives and have added the protective value of the support that we so often snort at.
Support is everything, support stopped me committing suicide, support meant I could eat despite having nothing, support gave me hope that the world isn’t dark and that maybe there is a space everywhere for me and people like me.
For those of us who are queer, disabled, mentally ill or any other identity that can lead you to feel detached from the conventional ways people form friendships, this isn’t a brand new discovery. This has been our lifeline for a long long time. People have been using it for life-changing communities since long before I did, and will continue to for the rest of my life.
Since lockdown began I’m seeing for the first time everyone acknowledging the value of digital communication and honestly, that’s fantastic! Our digital world offers so much to so many of us and if this opens up the joy and support I’ve gained from my little corners of the wide-open door that the internet is, then I really hope these people find everything they need from this space – in a time where everybody is experiencing this at once it’s easy to forget that isn’t a new thing.
So enjoy your new-found form of communication, I hope you find acceptance and support just as I have, my digital community has kept me going through the best and worst times, I hope you can find your corner for that too.
For its many flaws, the internet, in its distinct lack of nuance and wisdom, offered me something I didn’t think I’d ever have when I first got access to it at home. And for that I will always be grateful.
They / Them
Bob Leak (they/them) is a Liverpool based writer, poet, video maker, biologist, and history enthusiast who hopes to build queer community and support those struggling with mental illness through their writing. Their life revolves around their cats demands.
Written by Bob Leak