ANU alumna Dr Gemma Killen. 

Chat rooms to TikTok: How queer people find a sense of belonging online

As a teenager, Dr Gemma Killen found support and friendship among queer-friendly spaces of the Internet. More than a decade later, she explored that sense of belonging for her PhD, writes Megan Dingwall.

When Dr Gemma Killen came out as queer at high school, she encountered a lot of homophobia. The bullying took a toll on her mental health and she dropped out when she was 16. 

“I had teachers that asked me to drop out of their classes,” Killen says. “I had a particular teacher that would always ask other students if they were comfortable sitting near me or working with me in a group. So it was a very difficult environment to learn in.”

At the time, Killen turned to the Internet for the support and connection she hadn’t found at school. It was the early 2000s and Facebook didn’t exist yet. Instead, Killen found friends in chat rooms and on sites including LiveJournal and BloopDiary.

“It was a good repository to put all of my feelings and thoughts and have them be seen and acknowledged as something that was real and, at times, difficult,” Killen says.  

“It was also an acknowledgement of the joy of being queer as a young person as well. There were places to commiserate and places to celebrate and that was really helpful.” 

For a lot of people, online communities are the first place where they get to be themselves.

A love of learning motivated Killen to return to study as an adult; first completing her undergraduate degree in Adelaide and then in 2015 beginning her PhD at The Australian National University (ANU).

In July, kitted out in a borrowed robe and a floppy Tudor bonnet, Killen graduated in absentia with a PhD in Sociology and celebrated with a cake bearing the front page of her thesis.  

When starting her PhD at ANU, Killen set out to research body image for queer women. Her research then moved towards the concept of belonging for queer people. Her final thesis examines how online spaces can contribute to creating queer communities, and how people find each other and a sense of belonging through the Internet.

“I think that connects back to my experience in high school and this sense I had when I came out that I didn't fit into school and I didn't belong there. I spent a lot of time online and in the beginning of the online community back then,” Killen says. 

“The PhD became this space where I could explore what that's about. There's a lot of panic now that online spaces are vitriolic and harmful spaces with lots of bullying, but for many queer people, they've been really formative spaces where we get to explore our identities and figure out who we are, who we fit with and find really important friendships.” 

Online platforms, which Killen says can feel safer because they are removed from our everyday lives, can also present “a space of possibility” for queer people looking to express themselves and find a sense of belonging. The many and varied representations of queer life online can be encouraging and also build confidence. 

“For a lot of people, online communities are the first place where they get to be themselves or to try on the queer identity that they have to keep hidden in their real life. Especially for young people, it's often the first place that they might say out loud that they're queer. 

“It's one of those basic things that reminds you that it's OK to be who you are and explore who you are as well; that you don't have to be set on a final version of your identity. I think these spaces often make room for you to try on different things, to be open to the possibility of change, and to try and find identities that feel like they fit you in a safe way, and a friendly way and fun way.”

The ever-changing landscape of the Internet and social media means the popularity of some of those earlier blogging sites and chat rooms has faded. But new platforms have emerged that provide avenues to bring queer people together, and sometimes in a more accessible way.

“Back then it was a process of hunting and trying to find queer safe and queer fun spaces on the Internet,” Killen says. “And now you can sort of stumble upon queer TikTok in this easy, happenstance kind of way. It’s great!” 

While the Internet provides many queer-friendly spaces, there are policies that can be detrimental to the queer community and scope for changes that could help more people.

Dr Killen says a decision by the microblogging and social networking website Tumblr to ban sexuality and sexual content was troubling. It led to a mass exodus of queer and gender diverse people from the platform, which had been a virtual home for many. 

“We see similar things on Instagram around the regulation of sexual content, which often, inadvertently or on purpose, captures queer identities or gender diverse identities in a way that mean that it's difficult to share queer content,” Killen says.

“Being more progressive around that kind of content regulation would make the Internet much safer and more accessible for queer people.”