On the days I already feel anxious and miserable in my own skin, my reflection confirms the curves of my hips and breasts, which I’ve unsuccessfully tried to hide with a tight sports bra and dark shirt. That confirmation amplifies the heaviness and size of the pieces of my body I hate, and it also seems to magnify the perception society has of me. Most people see me as female, but I am neither male nor female. My female parts do not make me female, yet we live in a binary world where people are assigned one of two gender options at birth based on their genitalia. My masculine presentation does not make me male, but that too confuses people into gendering me as such.
It would be easier to look at my reflection if I saw my image reflected back to me in the media. While representation of queer people is much better today than it was when I was a closeted kid in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there is still a severe shortage of queer characters in mainstream media.
According to GLAAD’s 2017-2018 annual report on LGBTQ inclusion, “Where We Are On TV,” broadcast television showed programs with 58 regular characters who identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and/or queer. That number represented 6.4 percent of all 901 regularly occurring characters. And 17 transgender roles were portrayed across broadcast, cable and streaming television services. GLAAD reported that four of those 17 were non-binary characters.
I don’t have cable. I don’t pay for streaming services. I don’t have access to the representation I want. So I turn to social media, as do LGBTQ identifying youth who don’t have access either or who can’t openly watch shows with queer characters out of fear of being outed or harassed at home. Tweens and teens take to YouTube, TikTok, Tumblr, Instagram and other platforms to find friends and community. They are looking for advice and encouragement in judgment-free zones.
Also, if a person is online too much it can present like an addiction. Recently the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) and the American Psychiatric Association included Internet Gaming Disorder in a list of conditions to study. Add cyberbullying, online predators and easy-to-access pornography that is abusive and illegal, and kids’ access to the Internet can be terrifying.
It is imperative to monitor kids’ safety while using the Internet, but parents should be careful not to disregard the potential positive impacts of social media apps. For LGBTQ youth in particular, the Internet can be a refuge — a safe place to feel less alone. For queer youth to feel normal, they need to see, read and hear the voices of others who look like them and use the same identifying labels. Not all LGBTQ youth are out or have access to support through their parents, school or community. They frequently find solace — and the acceptance they lack — in their phone or laptop.
Vanessa Lee Nic, an advocate and the mother to a 10-year-old transgender son named Dylan, allows her son a private and heavily monitored Instagram account. “Being 10 and being trans can feel lonely,” she says. “He doesn’t have one trans friend his age in our small town. So, this allows him that community. It’s pretty invaluable, honestly.”
Often news outlets only cover the horror stories of what it means to be transgender in America. Transgender women of color are being murdered at an alarming rate, transgender students are being assaulted and harassed in public bathrooms, and doctors and insurance companies are denying gender-affirming health care. To feel good about being transgender, we need to see the good. Social media can provide that.
Popular Instagram figures such as Jazz Jennings, Aydian Dowling and Rebekah Bruesehoff are showing the world — and other transgender youth and young adults — the power and joy of living authentic lives. Kids like Dylan, and parents like his mom, appreciate the willingness of others to be the positive representation LGBTQ folks so sorely need.
“[Trans youth] need to see other trans kids living lives and having good experiences, being proud of themselves,” Lee Nic says.
Media, particularly on-screen media, also can play an important role. Coverage of topics and people that have historically been considered taboo can take the emotional burden off LGBTQ people by educating people about gender, pronouns, gender expression and sexual orientation. According to the Parasocial Contact Hypothesis theory, when a person or a group of people learn to better understand the object of their prejudice through movies or TV, their acceptance levels go up and their biases go down.
Representation matters in small, nuanced ways as well as big, lifesaving ways.
Dan Savage and his partner, Terry Miller, started the It Gets Better Project in 2010, and since then more than 60,000 people have shared their stories of hope and inspiration with millions of LGBTQ youth. What started as a social media campaign grew to an international, multimedia platform that gives visibility — actual faces and names — to queer youth. For a scared gay or transgender kid hiding under covers and slowly biding time until it does get better, these communities can be a lifeline.
“Queer representation on the Internet has helped me a lot,” says Cole Engstrom-Bolstad, a freshman at Penn State. “Not only did I learn more about the LGBTQ+ community as a whole, but I also learned more about myself and that is was okay to be different.”
“Though I didn’t have the words for it then, I had a lot of dysphoria and didn’t know what to do about it,” they said. “I felt like it wasn’t a thing people talked about. However, these comics made me realize that I wasn’t weird and that you could express these emotions in many ways. They gave me the vocabulary and reassurance to figure out who I was.”
Amber Leventry is a writer and advocate who lives in Vermont. Their writing appears on the Next Family, Scary Mommy, Sammiches & Psych Meds, Babble, Ravishly, Her View From Home, HuffPost, Longreads and The Washington Post. They also run Family Rhetoric by Amber Leventry, a Facebook page devoted to advocating for LGBTQ families one story at a time. Follow them on Twitter and Instagram @amberleventry.