Now the campus had emptied out for the December break, and Carly had nowhere to go.
But as she scrolled through TikTok, she realized she wasn’t alone.
She saw videos from other young people who were also spending the holiday away from families who did not accept them. In one video, popular TikTokker Erika Benner, sang a parody of the song “Last Christmas,” joking that it was the “Gay Christmas anthem.”
Last Christmas, I came out as gay
The very next day my mother threw me away
This year, I still am a queer
And my family has disappeared . . .
Carly asked that her last name not be used because she fears further retaliation from her family. For the same reason, The Washington Post agreed not to reach out to members of her family to comment on her portrayals of how they treated her.
Amid her isolation, Carly had stumbled on a new outpost of the LGBTQ Internet — a space that has grown on message boards, YouTube vlogs, Tumblrs, and Twitter hashtags, and long been a place of support and refuge for LGBTQ youths who are struggling to belong in their hometowns and families.
The LGBTQ Internet is often a space of action: promoting GoFundMe campaigns for top surgery (a procedure some trans men may need to remove breast tissue) or housing on Twitter, cheering — or criticizing — representation in media, politics, and entertainment. YouTube, which remains one of the biggest supportive spaces for LGBTQ youths on the Internet, has lately replicated the hierarchies of traditional celebrity, as LGBTQ vloggers turned into influencers with fandoms and followings and merchandise.
But scrolling your way into LGBTQ TikTok is more like going backstage, where young LGBTQ users have found a place to share their raw feelings with each other. Although TikTok is public, and although there are questions about censorship of LGBTQ content, the videos in that space are supportive and sometimes surprisingly confessional.
“We see a lot of examples where, on TikTok, LGBTQ youth are getting support,” said Amit Paley, the CEO of the Trevor Project, an organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ youths. “And that is so important because there are many LGBTQ youth in this country who are not able to get support where they physically are.”
Carly, holed up in her dorm, decided to make a video of her own. She wasn’t connected to any kind of community on TikTok — at the time she had a grand total of four followers, and she didn’t even know who they were — but she felt inspired.
Staring into the camera as “Season’s Greetings” by Linneah played (“Season’s greetings, from my broken heart”), Carly edited the video so that that it showed her pointing to colorful bubbles of text summarizing what she says her family put her through after they found out about her sexual orientation.
“They told me that I had been possessed by Satan and needed to go to a mental hospital,” she wrote. “They took my phone, my car, and cut off my college education funds and left me with thousands of dollars in debt.”
Carly’s TikTok video told a story of survival. She’d managed to stay in school. She’d passed all her classes. With the help of her friends, who she says took turns buying her groceries during the semester, she made it through what she describes as the most difficult period of her life. She was paying off the debt. She’d found a new kind of family through the friendships she’d chosen. In the video, Carly stands in front of her closet, expressionless and still as the text bubbles silently recap what she had accomplished in the face of her family’s alleged hostility.
And then, a redemptive phrase appears: “But I won’t let them silence me.” Carly’s confidence grows; she begins to dance. The video ends with her singing along to the lyrics to the song: “Merry Christmas, I hope your tree burns down.”
In the caption, Carly explains: “I don’t hate my family. But I have been very hurt and am working on RESILIENCE.”
The video slipped into TikTok’s recommendation algorithms, to other people who, like her, were scrolling their phones alone at a difficult time. It now has 348,000 views. Carly is about to hit 6,000 followers.
The attention was elating. And terrifying. Even online spaces that can be used as support networks come with all the risks of the Internet. There’s still the potential for hateful messages and harassment. TikTok videos can be downloaded from the app and sent to others. Carly feared what might happen if members of her family discovered the video and the story it told about them.
“People are seeing my face, people are seeing my story,” Carly said. “I almost took it down. There were four different times I almost took it down.”
But she soon found a reason to keep the video online.
LGBTQ people started getting in touch with Carly through the app. They told her they were going through the same thing she was, and wanted advice on how to become independent from a family that rejected them. “That’s what kept it going,” says Carly. “That’s what kept me going.”
There’s an incredible value for LGBTQ youths in finding even a single person who can support them, whether that’s online or in their physical community, according to research by the Trevor Project.
“We know that having one accepting person in an LGBTQ person’s life can reduce the risk of suicide by 40 percent,” says Paley, and 98 percent of LGBTQ youths have said that finding a safe social-networking space is valuable to them.
Some LGBTQ TikTokkers are out on the app but not in their local communities or to their families. That means those telling their own stories might be vulnerable to being outed without their consent in school, at work or at home. But the benefits of opting into LGBTQ TikTok outweigh the risks for many users. Like any online space, there are memes, disagreements and nonsense. But some of the most viral videos under #LGBTQ and other, similar hashtags are supportive, raw, and joyful.
Scroll through the videos with that hashtag and you might see a PSA to kids who are struggling with their parents’ rejection of their identity: “Their opinion cannot change who you are on the inside. Period.”
Scroll a bit more and you’ll see a TikTokker documenting the ways she’s hinted to her parents about her sexuality: A rainbow mug. Rainbow bracelets on each arm. The video is captioned: “because i’m too scared to tell them straight up :)." Scroll again, and you’ll see someone smiling and lip-syncing along, the caption reading, “just came out to my parents.”
Scroll again to a video of a person with the nonbinary and demisexual flags painted on their cheeks. The caption: “High key more comfortable being myself on this app than in my hometown.”
Several days after posting her video, Carly filmed a follow-up for her new, larger audience.
“I’m not gonna lie,” she said, “it hurts to know that other people have been treated the same way that I was treated.” Carly said she had just gotten out of therapy and was now filming at work, holding her phone in one hand and speaking straight into the camera.
“Your voice matters,” she said, “and thank you for letting mine be heard.”