LGBTQ Online Identities

Introduction

Communities through time have given people a sense of purpose and identify (within pre-modernity) and have allowed people to experiment, adapt and explore their identity (modernity and post modernity). Cyberspace allows communities to transcend the geographical locations which for a long time where the driving forces of community definition. This form of community building has been heavily used by many sects of modern society; from families living across the world, political movements, and hacking communities such as ‘Anonymous’. The LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Trans, Queer/Questioning) community has embraced this form of community building and communication technologies for a wide number of reasons. Alternate sexuality’s over time have been victimized and persecuted, with sexuality also being an invisible factor of a human identity that by moving it online it can associate with a profile making it visible, removing it from the judgmental views of society.

This report looks into the theory that grounds the creation of communities online and how they influence the formation of individuals’ identities on and off line.  Looking into specific cases that are set within the LGBTQ field, drawing on the community, and self-narrative predominately within the youth demographic.

Grounding Theory

The three academic feilds of “Queer Theory”, “Cyber Studies” and the intersection of the two “Cyber Queer Studies” are the bases for the grounding for the understanding of Queer Online Communities.

Queer Theory

Queer over the years has been reclaimed by the LGBTQ academia, from a term which was seen as homophobic and derogatory too a word which is a umbrella term for sexualities “coalition of culturally marginal sexual self-identification” and a “nascent theoretical model which has developed out of more traditional lesbian and gay studies”(Jagose, 1997a). It builds on feminist ideas that gender is essential to self and that the social constructed nature of sexuality that came out of lesbian and gay studies (Jagose, 1997b).

Cyber(culture) Studies

Cyber studies was kick-started in the 1990’s treating the social and cultural dimensions of the Internet as a distinct and relevant topic. Early work within the field identified two main research areas looking into management of identities online (Bruckman, 1992), and using the internet for community building (Turkle, 1997b).

Cyber Queer

Cyber Queer is the joining of Cyber Studies and Queer Theory.

“The “cybersubject” appeared to be the ultimate manifestation of queer theory, as it was seen to transcend the physical world in a parallel space, where it freely and flexibly could pick and choose who to be.”(Tudor, 2012)

“All the World, in feminist and Queery Theory, it would seem, is no longer a stage, but a screen.”  (Case, 1995).

This looks specifically at the intersection of LGBTQ issues and the online community. As the quotes say it allows for the separation of the body and mind, allowing for an interaction with sexuality and identity as never seen before.

Cyber Queer Studies can be broken down into four areas of research (Wakeford, 2002):

  • Identity and presentation online
  • Queer virtual spaces
  • Electronic facilitation of social network online and virtual communities
  • Potential of new technology to transform erotic practice

These points will be touch on through out this report.

Sense of a Community

The factors effecting the formation of communities have been broken down into two components; the first being geographical and the second being interest based. Geographical can be a town, city or street where as interest can be political, social or creative interests. These are not mutually exclusive though, and as society develops there will be a move for community formation around interests not geography, brought on by the progression of technology (McMillan and Chavis, 1986). From this a community can be defined by four factors:

  • Membership – The group membership is defined by the boundaries of the group, which are established by the deviants of an existing group. Barriers too entry such as language, dress or ritual can also define the membership. For individuals’ membership benefits such as emotion safety, allowing for personal investment, through belonging (McMillan and Chavis, 1986).
  • Influence – Validates membership of a group, giving meaning to the belonging, as the individual can see they are making a difference. This is a bidirectional concept, as the group has influence over the members, and that members have influence over the group (McMillan and Chavis, 1986).
  • Integration and fulfillment of needs – The feeling by the individual that the resources received from the group will fulfill their needs, thus enforcing the positive sense of togetherness which is needed to maintain the group. Individuals are attracted to groups whose skills they feel will most benefit them; this has been called person-environment fit (McMillan and Chavis, 1986).
  • Shared Emotional Connection – This is the shared narrative in the group; common stories, relationships, and history. They do not have to have participated in it, it is the ability to share and communicate it (McMillan and Chavis, 1986).

This can be summed up by:

“Sense of community is a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together” (McMillan, 1976)

SIT (Social Identity Theory)

Sense of a community defines the reasons for communities on a high level, however SIT (Social Identity Theory) attempts to explain the way groups form, the communication and formation of behavior, trust, solidarity, in group (intra-group) communication and, communication and discrimination with external group (inter-group). The states which build the groups can be broken down into for distinct stages/sections (Trepte, 2006).

Social Categorization

This come from the need to process large quantities of information, thus to reduces the amount individuals group people by common characteristics; thus categorizing individuals into groups makes understanding the social environment more manageable (Tajfel, 1979).

This then leads to the use of inter and intra group differences being used for the formation of these identities. With inter being the differences between groups, and intra being the difference between members. When all members of a group conform to the same social categorization it allows for the groups to function according to stereotypes, allowing them to give reason for behavior, explain and give sense to the group. However this allows for social stereotyping from external groups through inter group’s communications, categorization and discrimination (Tajfel, 1982).

It is not just external people who categorize, individuals categorize themselves into groups, allowing from them to gain a self-identity from the group identity. Accessibility to a groups’ membership is determined by current social and/or emotional significance it has to the individual; this is formed by assessing the similarities and differences of the members of the group and self (Oakes et al., 1991). This bears similarities to group membership as mentioned before.

Social Comparison

This is where social categorization is taken by an individual or a group and is used to compare themselves with external individuals or groups. To gain an understanding the importance of the groups which individuals belong to, comparison to other groups is used, especially where there is little justification of membership of a group. This ultimately determines the building of social identity and self esteem. Social comparison is essence is the result of comparing internal and external group membership, however the outer group must bare similarities allowing for a comparison (Tajfel, 1982).

Social Identity

This has been defined as “that part of an individual’s self-concept which derives from his knowledge of his membership of a social group (or groups) together with the value and emotional significance attached to the membership” (Tajifel, 1979). This comes from the self-assessment of the positive in-group dimensions and relevant out-group comparison thus allowing for a formation of a positive social identity. However as social groups and comparison are fluid this then means that social identity is in content flux and change, making it negotiable (Trepte, 2006).

Self Esteem

Self-esteem has many varying forms of definitions depending on the context it is used within. In SIT the nature of how it is achieved is defined a number of times; a prevailing topic is the ability to maintain a positive social identity. With self-esteem being seen as the “motivation underlying inter-group behavior” (Trepte, 2006), meaning individuals try and conformed there identity to that of the group to gain a positive social identity. However in normal SIT theory self-esteem is not mentioned as it is considered a foundation for the whole formation of the theory (Trepte, 2006).

Identity and Modernity

The final grounding theory for identity, with the previous two describing how and why individuals form groups. However this will attempt to ground why people need identities.

Pre-Modernity

Within pre-modernity identity was a given and fixed, there was no need to change it. Dissensions and changes where made/governed by the institutions of the time e.g. Church, Government or Monarchy; this does not mean all dissensions where removed from peoples lives, however the tradition and culture established an order of life which was followed (Baumeister, 1986). An order of priorities it was one of the last on a list priorities of existence, with survival and reproduction top of the list (Hermannsdóttir, n.d.).

Post/Modernity

The movement to modernity can be has been understood through the examination of 6 characteristics which are associated with modernity (Giddens, 1991):

  • Industrialism
  • Capitalism
  • Institutions of Surveillance
  • The era of total war
  • The rise of the organization
  • Dynamism

Through these 6 forces society has seen a fundamental and dramatic change; where all components of society, and inhabits. Not just affecting how each communicates but how each justifies its existence within society. Dynamism is one of the key points for self-identity formation as noted in SIT theory; this contains (Hermannsdóttir, n.d.):

  • Separation of time and space –in the past time would have been locally defined changing relative to space. But with the adoption of a unified time systems globally it has separated from time from space. This then allows for social relation and communication through time-space around global systems (Giddens, 1991). This builds on the understanding the community’s will break the geographical constrains which they formed around before.
  • Reflexivity – this allows for the change of social activity, identity or knowledge in response to newly gained or formed knowledge (Beck, 1992)

These all formed modernity, which in turn formed individualism. However for modernity to continue an individual must separate from the structures controlling them, allowing them to adapt/create modernity which allows for opportunities, risks, and contradictions (Beck, 1992). Thus people have a range of questions and choices with no guidance aiding the decision making, which in turn makes people look inwards making themselves the center of their universe (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995). All this breaks down the constrains people had to class, gender and family, turning it more into a status based life style thus making people have ego-centric world view point, believing they can control their own world around them, making them self reflective (Beck, 1992). This means people have to make decisions which in the past they could make dissensions, and as there are many potentially to be made for defining an individual path. Due to this there is an increased presence of the questions “Who am I?” and “How shall I live?” (Giddens, 1991; Hermannsdóttir, n.d.).

However all this leads to increased levels of risk though identities being reflexive. This has lead to the definition of ‘risk society’ (Beck, 1992)

“[l]iving in the ‘risk society’ means living with a calculative attitude to the open possibilities of action, positive and negative, with which, as individuals and globally, we are confronted in a continuous way in our contemporary social existence” (Giddens, 1991).

The concept of social control takes a greater hold, this is the length at which people try to control and correct their social and natural worlds. This can come in the form of plastic surgery, to couples getting a divorce to correct issues in there union. Death is the point at which a person ultimately looses control (Mellor and Shilling, 1993). Social control of self-identity can be broken down to three points;

  1. Surveillance – This is a factor of modernity where there is an increased level of surveillance, individuals which don’t conform to the normal become outcasts/aliens thus with identity being reflexive the boundaries can be smoothed (Giddens, 1991; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995)
  2. Public and Private Sphere – Life can be separated into two spheres. The public sphere, which is under administrative power; this has ability to influence both civil and state processes allowing them to develop in union. The private sphere resists the surveillance of the state thus is merely a legislated outpost of the public sphere. An identity spans both spheres as individual no longer only live in the private sphere. For this reason we allow outside influence to make our identity (Giddens, 1991). “[w]hat looks like the outside world becomes the inside of an individual biography” (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim, 1995).
  3. Shame – This is the anxiety that a person’s narrative is not fulfilled, and that it can come under scrutiny by the public. In essence it is a public anxiety state (Giddens, 1991; Warner, 2000b).

From this self-identity is a reflexive project, which is in constant change. Thus in reaction to reflectiveness of modern enteritis, self-identity is the ability to maintain and explore an ever-changing narrative which is constantly being challenge and scrutinised by modern societies (Giddens, 1991).

Looking for Identity and Community Online

Communities online have similarities to offline communities. Through they can be defined as the ultimate removal of place from community, focusing it purely around interests, giving the members membership a sense of convenience (Laukkanen, 2007). People have commented saying it makes people more isolated form their local geographical communities that are said to be doomed to die. However it is an enabler for people who may not have the ability or skills to have face to face interactions with a local community (Haythornthwaite, 2007; Turkle, 1997a).

The internet can be seen as a facilitator and a by product to modernity taking hold; allowing there to be a greater separation of time and space, allowing organizations to have an ever increasing reach, and facilitating greater access to media and information about distant locations through such means as 24hr News channels (Hermannsdóttir, n.d.). It has also help with the move for people to form communities around interest rather than geographic regions as mentioned before.

As mentioned in the background theory social categorization allows for people to become part of groups, however it is also the foundation for discrimination and persecution. This can be seen in the LGBTQ community levels of acceptance within geographical communities depending on the social norms that are accepted. If their gender and/or sex representation adhere to the social norms they can be more accepted in comparison to the stereotypes of  “fem boys” and “butch dykes” (Warner, 2000a). Stigma for sex and sexuality is presumed around the world from political bodies to media outlets. Which has been seen to facilitate the heteronormative ideas of dating, marriage, and reproduction. Thus to establish a understanding of self people try and form a new norm to justify themselves (Warner, 2000b).

Through the development of the Internet there have been multitudes of online communities, all varying in size, shape and technology. Early communities on the Internet where formed around New Groups: this is a form mailing list which users user to communicate about common topics of interest. However as the population of the Internet grew, and more people where using it in there daily lives’ in the 1990’s Message Boards became popular. This then lead to an increase in Chart Rooms where real time communication could take place. Ultimately online communities now form around Social Network site the similar to Facebook or Twitter. All have grown on top of each other becoming more and more sophisticated; allowing and facilitating communication at a greater rate (Woodland, 1999; 1995; O’Riordan, 2007). Currently the youth use networking site like these like no other demographic as they have grown up with the technology which may not have existed 10 years ago (Alexander, 2004).

Youth have embraced these means of communication and community as discussing and identifying to a sexuality online is perceived as less risky, less stigmatized, and can be hidden to a greater extent (Brown et al., 2005), it removes the gaze from the sexuality which in the past meant always having to discourse it and defining it within the bounds of the heteronormative community (Tudor, 2012). It is also the ability for them to locate one another (Gross, 2007), finding refuge in online worlds is that they could be seen as the “town freak” in there real world (Tudor, 2012), and verifying that they are not the only one.  It has been seen through studies of rural community’s where the youth use online forums and chat rooms to find other people like themselves, which similar stores, and same interests (Greteman, 2012).

This high usage of online networks could be seen through the high number of Gay/MsM (Men who Sleep with Men) orientated online chat rooms in the 1990’s (Wakeford, 2002). Youths give many reasons for there usage for these communication tools (Paradis, n.d.):

  • Sexual Identity
  • Same sex friendship
  • Discussing coming out
  • Same sex intimacy
  • “Homosex”
  • Discovering and practicing living within the gay community

This is to over come the feeling of distance and isolation, allowing them to socialize, and discover there non-main stream identity (Paradis, n.d.). This can be seen as users trying to find a meaning for them selves, find a community and gain information (Egan, 2000).

The forms of relationships that are formed within these online communities have been called meaningless and vacuous (Laukkanen, 2007). Academic literature refers to these online relationships as “hyperpersonal interaction” (WALTHER, 1996) which is a intermit and intense relationship with another member, that removes the body, highlights the similarities and reduces the differences between individuals, again making people feel less unique, and that other people have had the same experiences as them (Paradis, n.d.).

Chat rooms and message boards where seen to have a number of discourse topics common amongst them (Laukkanen, 2007), these included:

  • Discourse of Love
  • Discourse of Sex
  • Discourse of (fluid) Identity

Within the Finish forum Demi, there was a separate part of the forum called #closet where they was little preemption about individuals, allowing for their feelings and discussions to become normalized. However by creating these two zones for convocations created two identified for people to live in (Laukkanen, 2007). #closet allowed people to question there sexual and gender identity, changing it from day to day allowing people to safely and openly discuses there feelings.

Through the exploration of looking for new information and identity has meant that for they have a greater understanding about the constructions of identity, allowing them to be more fluid through the use of sexuality labels and gender identities (Paradis, n.d.).

Forms of gender select and gender play has been seen through a number of online spaces, especially in fantasy online role playing games, which has seen up to 60% of participants have participated in this form of gender play (Hussain and Griffiths, 2008). Players gave many different reasons for participating from “I find being a girl is easier in male dominated games” to “It enables me to play around with aspects of my character that are not normally easy to experiment with”, this allows people to experience what it feels like to be the opposite gender (Turkle, 1997c). However this is only seen in fantasy role playing games, and the closer to real life it becomes the more uneasy people get with it (Horsley, 2004).However the community sometimes finds this form of gender paly deceptive, and they feel that they are having a relationship build on deception. “The Stage Case of the Electronic Lover” (Van Gelder, 1991) which was the story of a two year relationship of a woman form New York with an online community which turn out to be a male Physiologist. The male tried to kill of the female persona, however the community loved her so much they tried sending flowers to the hospital; once they found out the truth the felt foolish and betrayed.

However some website even though appear to allow people to have a fluid identity they can be directed into an idealistic image, this can be seen by looking at website for Gay Men/MsM such as Gaydar.com which idealizes men into a hyper mescaline image where effeminacy is looked down on (Light, 2007). However this could be down to gay men looking for “hyper mescaline prestige sex” in comparison to heteronormative identities/ideals (Barrios and Lundquist, 2012). This form of awareness of masculinity can also cause anxiety, however it can also increases self-awareness and personal freedom (Horsley, 2004) but it places a high importance on social categorizations (MaGlotten, 2007). Even though these forms of categorization appear to be solid and well formed they do allow for fluidity in defining who you are, allowing you to change representation at will, this can be seen heavly through “closeted” individuals (Mowlabocus, 2008). This form of hypersexual/masculine interaction is contraindicated by young members (Paradis, n.d.) who indicate that sex is not the primary objective of there online committees, this goes against stereotypes. This can be also seen in the high proportion of young LGBTQ members engage in face to face meets on and online communication in comparison to non-LGBTQ members which is not for sexual reasons but for trying to find there identity and self (Paradis, n.d.).

This form of fluidity brings up the question about how identity online is formed, there is a change in the perception of a person as an identity is formed by the mind and not influenced immediately by a body, allowing people to have a relationship with the mind, removing the body and time from the equation. It could be said the mind, body and time into on entity (Turkle, 1997d).

This form of flux allows people to become their “true self”, it allows people to be who they feel they should be (Turkle, 1997a). However this freedom within the online space can allow a form of split personalities to develop, with multiple name, characteristics and traits for online activity depending on the narrative you are playing out online (Turkle, 1997a). However these personalities and identities are taken as a given to the people who interact with them, forming strong hyper-personal relationships between them as mentioned before. This then cause issues when the identities move from online to offline, when the face to face contact is made it end up highlighting the difference between each other (Egan, 2000). This also build on the understanding of parliament of selves, where is the conflict between the identities are created by individuals (Mead, 1934).

As identity is reflexive and ever changing online spaces allow for the constant self-creation and adaptation of narrative in a short space of time. With the formation of a persons identity/narrative being defined by audience, information, and identity (Woodland, 1999). This is treating it more of a self reflective story telling which is more critical of self in comparison to Social Interaction Theory which talks about adapting self for a community, this is more along the lines of finding a group has the correct intra-group relationships which meet the needs of the individual.

Bridging the Online/Offline Divide

Recently they has been a growth in social mobile applications with use a users location for the construction of the community which they have access to. Elements of this can be broken down into three point (Toch and Levi, 2012):

  • Physical Location – Using the location where the user is to construct the community
  • Identity Management – Still a trend to not be recognized on these services.
  • Trust – This is established through text communication with other member of the app. A form of ‘protocol’ is established.

One notable one is Grindr[1] that is aimed at the Gay/MsM community, allowing them to communicate with them in the local vicinity. This is bringing the theory of community formation back to one based around location and interest, rather than the trend of just interests.

However these formats of communication have been linked to an increasing amount of high risk sexual behavior, seeing increase rates of STI transitions between users in such cities as New York and Los Angeles (Beymer, 2012; Landovitz et al., 2012). However these tools have been shown to be effective recruiting tools for STI prevention and testing measures in the same cities (Landovitz et al., 2012; Burrell et al., 2012).

This epitomizes the increased rate at which LGBTQ people meet offline compared to non-LGBTQ, with more indicating they would be will / have met people in person. Citing the same reasons for going online looking for communities as the reasons for meeting offline (Paradis, n.d.). Going against the stereotypes which are commonly held especially for gay men, which has been highly studied in academic literature (Barrios and Lundquist, 2012; Landovitz et al., 2012). However these physical meetings don’t come without physical and social risks, meeting people offline especially with ‘people near by’ apps. These are ‘high risk’, ‘high gain’ encounters which if they go wrong can trigger social embarrassment, emotional harm, and physical risk (Toch and Levi, 2012). However it does allow people to identityfy with a physical group which they could have been looking for all along though online communities (Paradis, n.d.).

Conclusion

As people use technology more in every day life there boundaries between life and techno-life blur becoming the same (Karl, 2007). Does this mean that the Internet which once allowed for people to explore and find communities, allowing their identities to be self-reflexive; allowing the fringes of society to find a voice, community and identity, making them feel less alone which has manifested through hyper personal relationships. Does this mean that the initial hope of bridging the gap and turn the hyper personal relationships into physical relationship will force people more online due to the disappointment with the physical relationships as they are less fulfilling than the hyper personal one. This conflict of self has been demonstrated in the parliament of selves where there will be conflict between the personalities and identities that people construct for themselves (Mead, 1934).

Research Question

Do near people applications allow for youths to interact offline or is it driving people further online through conflict of constructed identities?

 

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[1] http://www.grindr.com/