How Queerness Goes Online: Intersectional Perspectives on Digital Sociality

How Queerness Goes Online: Intersectional Perspectives on Digital Sociality

Ian Callahan (University at Albany, SUNY, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 20
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3187-7.ch009
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In this chapter, the author challenges the commonsense claim that the internet provides equally accessible resources that are free from stigma, prejudice, or discrimination. Through the stories of university students in their own words, this intersectional analysis explores how the internet certainly offers substantial benefits to queer and nonconforming youth; however, interpersonal bias and systems of oppression pervade online forms of communication and social media applications. Additionally, the author troubles the notion that the internet is experienced as a ‘safe space' for anonymous or uninhibited explorations of queer identity. In fact, despite the internet's practical affordances of identity work, there are severe limits to tolerance and inclusion in online sociality, and because of this, doing queer identity work online has the potential to exacerbate the isolating effects of homophobia and discrimination.
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There has been much less attention to the body which is not screened, the one which is 'left' when the computer is turned off, or even what happens to the 'real' body when the computer is on. – Wakeford et al. (1997, p. 35)

Since the advent of the digital age, the internet has largely been championed as a revolutionary (Haber, 2017) and innovative space for queer people. Indeed, the internet’s capacity to be liberating and expansive, inclusive and informative, as well as anonymous and discreet has had a profoundly positive impact on identity work across generations of LGBTQIA+ individuals (Baams et al., 2011; Szulc & Dhoest, 2013). From the more recent development of social media applications to earlier means of interaction (e.g., chat rooms, forums, and other SNSs [social-networking sites]), research has identified the benefits of accessing online resources and communities (Herrera, 2017; Miller, 2016; Thomas, Ross & Harris, 2007), experiencing digital representation (Gomillion & Giuliano, 2011; Gray, 2009), and participating in ever-changing forms of digital sociality (Cavalcante 2018; Craig & McInroy, 2014; Duguay, 2016; Haber, 2017; Henrickson, 2007) for queer individuals who are stigmatized in heteronormative society.

Of course, the assumption that the internet is an equally liberating, emancipatory space for all queer people is erroneous; in fact, this critique has been well-established in recent works (see Haber, 2017; Szulc & Dhoest, 2013). But despite this mounting analysis, related literature still lacks a nuanced understanding of how queer people perceive digital life1, especially in terms of their social location. There is a need for more meaning-centered explanations of how and why queer people go online in the first place (or why they don’t) and, more importantly, how individuals link online activity to an assortment of lived experiences. Existing work also tends to prioritize a “single-axis” (Crenshaw, 1989) inquiry of LGBTQIA+ identity first and foremost—and more specifically, the L, G, and B. Because of this, the experiences of more marginalized queer2 identities (namely, those who fall on the TQIA+ end of the spectrum) are either interpreted as synonymous to more widely recognized identity categories, or worse, they are rendered invisible. However, beyond that, a larger blind spot remains unaddressed: i.e., how larger systems of oppression—including, but not limited to, racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism—impact queer identity work online.

To address some of these conceptual gaps in Western scholarship on digital sociality, I draw on qualitative interview data that captures students’ perceptions of queer identity work on the internet and social media platforms specifically. Using a critical intersectional stance on whiteness and privilege, I demonstrate how the perceived value of the internet can be better understood by taking positionality—i.e. an analytical understanding of social location—into account. Overall, findings suggest that having social capital and robust social networks may partially explain why someone may not invest in online queer resources or digital LGBTQIA+ communities. In other words, for queer individuals who lack interpersonal social supports, the internet may be explored and sought out for its perceived promise of accessible information and seemingly inclusive social networking platforms.

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