“There’s an app for that” started as a tongue-in-cheek saying recognizing the ever-increasing versatility of smartphone applications. We have gotten to the point in which there is an app for virtually everything — even coming out of the closet.
“In the past, coming out tended to be a very personal experience, where you opened up about your sexuality to a small number of trusted family members or friends,” Paula Fagan, National Coordinator of LGBT Helpline, a youth support service said. “And while people are still careful about who they tell when they are first coming out, once they feel more comfortable about their sexuality, more and more people are choosing social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as a way of telling other family members, friends, and their wider social circles.”
According to Fagan, figures from 2014 and 2015 show that 76.8 percent of LGBT people in the U.S. use Facebook compared to 57 percent of the general population, 44.5 percent of LGBT people use Twitter compared to 21 percent of the general population, and 35.5 percent use Instagram compared to 15.5 percent of the general population.
“We’re seeing that most people receive a lot of positive affirmation after coming out online,” Fagan said. “They find it a reassuring experience, with social media often helping them to feel less isolated and allowing them to tap into extensive online support networks.”
Coming out is not the only utility the LGBT community has found in social media. Applications like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have become spaces for LGBT people to connect with one another across the globe — a feature especially valuable for those who live in less inclusive spaces.
“According to the Pew Research Center, 69 percent of adult gay males have indicated that they have met new LGBT friends online or through a social media networking site,” Gerbrandt van Heerden, research analyst at the South African Institute of Race Relations said.
Heerden continued, “There is no question that social media is an important component in advancing the rights and well-being of the LGBT community. Whether it is used as a tool to distribute information for educational purposes or raise awareness of the daily struggles of many LGBT people, it remains essential for the promotion of gay rights that social media outlets remain accessible.”
Social media as a collective has become a channel for change. But LGBT social media reporter Khalid El Khatib writes that many forms of social media activism can be dangerously surface-deep. Participation in social justice campaigns can be widespread and successful, but Khatib says the real measure of success is the number of voters these campaigns drive to the polls — a metric which thus far has left much room for improvement.
“Some people feel that social media activism is enough, and more traditional forms of advocacy like fundraising fall to the wayside,” Khatib said. “The unfortunate nature of who we are in 2018 is that we do the bare minimum to feel good about ourselves, and we are easily distracted.”
And distractions abound on social media, especially on Instagram. The LGBT community has built a strong network on the platform, but those at the forefront of that space are less concerned with positing for change and more concerned with posing for the camera.
Enter the relatively new phenomenon of Instagays — a type of Instagram user that New York Magazine describes as, “the gorgeous gay studs of Instagram.”
“Some of them have tattoos, some are carpeted with perfect chest hair, many are Israeli or Brazilian, and all apparently have lots of time to travel and pose half naked across the beaches of planet Earth,” The Cut reporter Mike Albo writes. “Winter doesn’t seem to exist for them, but they are especially present in summer. There are a lot of them, and they have tens of thousands of followers.”
The collective following amassed by these new gay social media supermen is by and large a good thing. Hundreds of thousands of people — the majority of them presumably other gay men — are following these gay guys and raising them to celebrity status.
However, shirtless pic after shirtless pic — while consistently tantalizing — does little to further the conversation on social change and LGBT rights that a platform as large as this one could allow.
The reality of most LGBT people is not perfect shirtless brunches in Los Angeles or Miami Beach, yet that is the content so many choose to consume and believe.
“We don’t have to be that serious all the time, [Instagram] isn’t change.org and we shouldn’t conflate the two,” Khatib said. “The problem is that people don’t reconcile the truth [with the] illusion that they see on social … it can be a loss of queer history — a lot of younger guys don’t know where we came from.”
Accounts like them, LGBTHistory, HuffPost Queer Voices and more are popping up in an attempt to shift the narrative, offering perspectives and viewpoints beyond the standard Instagay in hopes that everyone has a chance to have their voices heard.
“The diversity of content that exists for LGBT media is growing,” Khatib said. “People will always pick and choose the content they want to consume, and the menu is expanding.”