Growing Up Queer On the Internet

Rudy Rigg on how virality has shaped queer spaces online.

Growing up queer online in the early 2010’s was a wild ride. From endless Tumblr blogs to the pastel fantasy dream of Rookie Mag (RIP), I always felt that there was a place for the displaced. At the time, I identified as (mostly, if not questioning) female and queer (still upstanding). I found solace in these safe spaces online and was able to forge friendships with other queers who were splattered across the globe. The oddly satisfying and carefully curated Rookie Mag articles gave me a sense of aching familiarity in a time of my life where I felt coldly alone in my own world. Articles about ‘getting it straight’ and stories of someone’s first kiss  gave my 14-year-old self a sense hope that a happier, queerer life was possible – despite it feeling like a distant whimsical daydream. 

It was on these platforms that for the first time I felt a sense of self, a sense of community, and while I wasn’t aware of it at the time; a sense of what a complex and full experience of what a queer life could look like. I was a fingertip touch away from knowing what it felt like for a queer person of colour to come out to their family. What being closeted in a single-sex school is like. The excruciating anguish that one feels when you fall completely and utterly in love with someone who is straight. Everything I read felt like it was all written for me; for other queer people. The long-form personal essays that donned Rookie were a daily read for me and thousands of others around the world. There was something uniquely special about knowing that queer people were writing stories of their narrative, our narrative, and sharing it on a huge platform. It felt like an electrical wire was attached to the deepest part of the heart of the human experience. It was the first time that I felt a part of something as a young queer person. 

It was on these platforms that for the first time I felt a sense of self, a sense of community, and while I wasn’t aware of it at the time; a sense of what a complex and full experience of what a queer life could look like.

Shortly after I felt like I’d found my space in the world, technology began to shift and apps like Instagram and digital media sites like Youtube consumed their predecessors. It was a time where in my own life, I felt a huge disconnect. Many of my straight cis-gendered friends were finding a footing in their identities and more importantly to me, gaining experience in relationships. I felt so angry because all of the boys I dated knew next to knowing about what it was like to be queer or LBGTQI+. While I often felt like I didn’t even know what being queer meant, their disconnect to the issue was the fundamental shortcoming in all of the relationships I had during my teenage years.  I was suffering from poor mental health that was partly due to the fact that these relationships were compacting the unnoticed gender dysphoria I was suffering as a young trans person and because of that, at 16 I felt more alone than ever. 

I turned to the internet once again to try and find some kind of community, but found that it was gone. While Rookie was still active, it wasn’t a place I really felt myself anymore. I was a different person to who I was when I needed the escapism it provided when I was 14. I was older, and I needed someone to just tell me “it’s going to get better, kid”. Tumblr was also a vastly foreign space to me, as the blogs that had once provided me with friendships and quality fandom content had shifted from to meme related pages, personal businesses or disappeared completely. 

Initially I didn’t understand why this had happened, but in retrospect it all makes too much sense. Youtube was gaining traction on the internet and it had a lot of the younger internet dwellers hooked. A sense of community was now finding its foundations upon the shared knowledge of memes, ‘hack’ videos and the rise of (dare I say it?) “influencers”. People did not seem to have the time to read longer articles or pieces or writing that had come from a place of vulnerability; instead opted to get their information in smaller, more viral chunks.

For me, this is where the internet landscape began to change. People were moving away from the written word and into more audio- visual mediums. Buzzfeed took advantage of the rising popularity and began to  put faces and personalities to their content. The content was vastly different to that which Rookie Mag provided, with its lack of holistic depth of knowledge about the article writer, and Tumblr, its users preferring to take up aliases. People sought spectacle  on Buzzfeed’s and other’s YouTube channels. For one of the first times ever, the audience could not only bond over a bite size joke or piece of information, they could also attach themselves to the idea of this internet personality. 

This is where the increasingly viral nature of the internet let me and my community down. The LGBTQI+ community relies heavily on our stories being told, our experiences being shared and a strong sense of love and acceptance. How, now, could we ever build anything like what Rookie paved the way for? The rise of the internet celebrity had begun to create a gap in the distance between the viewer and the content creator. The elevation of these people meant that while they were funny and engaging, their relatability came from a different place. Being an internet celebrity soon meant that you were also being paid for it – it became a job, and then an industry. Contributors on Rookie Mag found their main source of income elsewhere and Tumblr was never about being paid. Once Youtube and Buzzfeed made content and the content creators commodifiable, people had more at stake than just a personal following; they had their livelihoods at risk. Because of the realisation that if one was to be queer meant you had to accept the risk of being dropped from sponsorships, promotional work and most –tours and book deals, queer representation on these wildly popular sites was scarce and at best, contrived. At the time of this development, there was still a huge group of internet personalities and influencer that were closeted. Ingrid Nilsen, Troye Sivan, Joey Graceffa, Connor Franta, Dan Howell and Phil Lester were all popular YouTubers between the years of 2010-1014, for example, and all of them concealed their queerness for a time – most at the peak of their careers. 

Once Youtube and Buzzfeed made content and the content creators commodifiable, people had more at stake than just a personal following; they had their livelihoods at risk.

It’s interesting to me that not only did I feel a loss of community during these years because of the changed internet climate, but these new kinds of celebrities also felt like they couldn’t be open with who they were. When the people who are championing a platform do not feel safe being open about their identities, what does that tell you about the social scape of the internet in general? It’s hard to know because the internet is vast and expansive, but to me and many other young people this shift in community and community values was a testament to the fact that the internet was still full of microcosms of safe spaces, and it was never going to be one hundred percent accepting at any given time. 

In some ways, I look back as a young adult and feel let down about how the emergence of the internet celebrity and social media as a new industry seemed to kill off smaller, more intimately community based places like Tumblr and Rookie Mag. In others, I smile and know that I grew with that part of the internet. People expanded within YouTube as a visual medium and out came the vloggers; a lot of which had blogs before the explosion of YouTube. Finally, a refreshing breath of air amidst what I thought, at 15, was a fickle day dream. Just in the same ways that I was finding my footing in the world, the internet was finding its own virtual footing too. Thanks to YouTube, I was able to watch people grow up and into themselves and in a lot of ways that helped me grow up into myself too. 

Rudy graduated in 2018 from Swinburne University after studying Professional Writing and Editing, and Cinema Studies. Rudy identifies as transgender and nonbinary. You can find Rudy on Instagram @bankruupt.

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