Melina McConatha, PhD
Research suggests that people in the LGBTQA community are at risk for loneliness and isolation given that the mainstream society often marginalizes them. As a result, LGBTQA youth are also at risk for such mental health issues as anxiety, depression, developing a distorted body image, and eating disorders (Johnson & Amella, 2013). Young LGBTQA adults may not have access to traditional sources of social support available to others; at the same time exposure to potential discrimination places them at an increased risk for stress and anxiety. In recent years, the Internet-based communities have expanded the range of support to the LGBTQA individuals by supplementing family support and even compensating for the lack of family and community support.
Communities are commonly characterized by social interactions, common ties, reciprocal relationships, shared beliefs, values, social and instrumental support, and cultural habits. Communities provide a sense of belonging to a greater whole, a sense of solidarity or community identity, standards of conduct, and an ability to take part collective action (Papadakis, 2003). Such criteria for communal life, documented in the literature, are also applicable to online communities. Yet, many online communities are unique as they are created and sustained through the virtual world and can reproduce and go beyond barriers that exist for physical communities.
An online community can serve as a platform for LGBTQA individuals to become socially engaged and to advocate for social change and acceptance, important ways to promote a sense of “give and take.” Technologically inspired communities provide support and affirmation for their community members, especially to those who feel discriminated against, isolated or alienated from their family and community of origin. Family, long considered as the most fundamental social institution, serves many important functions including instrumental and emotional support (Warren-Findlow & Prohaska, 2008), socialization, advocacy, and social control. When families are either unable or unwilling to provide support, the alienated individual may seek support from online communities. Indeed, such communities may serve the LGBTQA individuals much like their family of origins by providing connections, affirmations, and a sense of belongingness, contributing to their sense of interpersonal connectedness, positive and valued self, and general wellbeing (Oh, Ozkaya, & LaRose, 2014). Additionally, these communities create a culture of storytelling which empowers individuals to speak up and share their stories (Oh et al., 2014). Such a culture provides a safe space for development and the advocacy for those who choose to share aspects of their identity, and for social involvement.
Over 50 years ago, Marshall McLuhan’s foreshadowed the enormous role the Internet would play in mobilization and advocacy across the globe. He pioneered the discourse on “global villages” making connections between advances in technology and the creation of a global community—a space in which relationships and culture are unrestricted by physical spaces. Recent work on cyber-feminism has focused on how the Internet provides the potential for activism. Cyber-feminism examines the costs and benefits of social media as a tool or an obstacle to empowering, liberating, and supporting identity development (Volkart, 2004). Social networks, the media, and especially online networks have played a pivotal role in reducing stereotypes and misrepresentations of LGBTQA men and women. Through personal storytelling and advocacy, these online communities provide members of the LGTBQA communities a forum to challenge stereotypes and promote a more empathic understanding of the diversity of their lived experiences.
Early social network researchers emphasized Internet communications as an obstacle to youth development, by stressing the risks of playing video games, using cellphones, and taken advantage of by predators. However, today people are beginning to harness the power of technology to shape identities and relationships in positive ways. Most people probably embrace technology without suspicion and view its use as an opportunity for sharing and connecting. A Pew survey found that 80% of LGBTQA respondents stated that they had used an online site such as Facebook or Twitter compared to 58% of the general public.
LGBT chats and forums are examples of online support groups, advertised as “friendly” communities for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender individuals and their allies (https://lgbtchat.net/). The GLBT national hotline center offers support for teens, youth, and adults of all ages. These are two examples of dozens of online support communities. Such virtual campaigns as the “It Gets Better” were launched as a result of discrimination and cyber bullying. In addition to support, such campaigns provide a platform for social engagement and volunteer work. They also provide a place for LGBTQA individuals to create their own notions of kinship.
Online resources have the added advantage in that they can be tailored to meet personal and social needs. Online communities use a variety of such support systems as message boards, chats, and support groups to help individuals cope with abuse, violence, and bullying. They also allow people to share music, art, creative writing, or blogs. In contrast, traditional sources of support may fail to draw upon the creative strengths of LGTBQ individuals leading to marginalization. Consequently, many LGTBQA individuals only feel comfortable expressing themselves in private spaces, often only virtual spaces (for example, through blogging on Instagram and Tumblr, or posting art on social networks). These virtual networks provide accessible validating spaces for emotional and social expression. By utilizing a strengths-based perspective, researchers and educators can help promote positive development and wellbeing (Jennings, 2003). Although the digital age presents a variety of media for people to communicate, deliver support, and develop social connections, more research is needed to address the positive and negative outcomes associated with on- and off-line relationships and support for LGTBQA individuals.
Jennings, G. (2003). An exploration on meaningful participation and caring relationships as contexts for school engagement. The California School Psychologist, 8(1), 43-51.
Johnson, M., J. & Amella, E., J. (2013). Isolation of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth: A dimensional concept analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 70, 523–532.
Oh, H. J., Ozkaya, E., & LaRose, R. (2014). How does online social networking enhance life satisfaction? The relationships among online supportive interaction, affect, perceived social support, sense of community, and life satisfaction. Computers in Human Behavior, 30, 69-78.
Papadakis, M., C. (2003). Computer-mediated communities: The implications of information, communication, and computational technologies for creating community online (P10446.004). Arlington, VA: SRI International.
Volkart, Y. (2004). The cyberfeminist fantasy of the pleasure of the cyborg. In C. Reiche & V. Kuni (Eds.), Cyberfeminism: Next protocols (pp. 97–118). New York, NY: Autonomedia.
Warren-Findlow, J., & Prohaska, T., R. (2008). Families, social support, and self-care among older African-American women with chronic illness. American Journal of Health Promotion, 22, 342-349.