Can Facebook help you to be ‘post-gay’?

Like I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been mulling over this notion that we might be living in a ‘post-gay era’ now. I went digging in my interview data from my Master’s thesis, some of the findings of which have been published here, to further explore exactly what participants said about coming out and being out on Facebook. I explore their responses and possible implications in the following presentation, which I’m giving at the Brisbane ICA Regional Conference. This is still a work-in-progress so feel free to comment and suggest; hopefully I can wrap it all up in one coherent piece of writing one day.

Slide-by-slide notes:

1. Title Slide – Hello (not ello)

2. Little known fact: Facebook has a promo page called Facebook Stories, which they describe as a place “where we share extraordinary stories of people using Facebook.” In 2013, Kai Bailey posted her essay about coming out to everyone on her Facebook as transgender. Her story really hit me at the time and kind of kicked off my interest in asking, ‘what does it mean to come out on Facebook?’ Re-reading this essay, I noticed that she has a dual approach to being out. She notes that her and her trans peers are “gender rebels”, which can be read as challenging gender normativity. She also notes that “trans people are just people too, and deserve to be happy.” In the context of what I’ve read about LGBTQ movements, I was interested in this approach of coming out, being acknowledged and visible in a way that challenges the mainstream, and then moving forward. I wanted to know, is this possible (or more possible) through Facebook?

3. Explaining why I find this interesting requires a bit of background about gay and lesbian movements over the years – or at least my interpretations from Beasley, 2005 and Jagose, 1996. In the 1950s, the homophile movement’s main intent was integration with the rest of society. However, by the time the Stonewall Riots hit in 1969, it became apparent that this approach wasn’t working. Stonewall brought about the Gay Liberation movement, which said that society needed to change, basically we needed a sexual revolution. Eventually that fragmented into smaller groups of gays and lesbians, brought together through identity politics. They took the stance of fighting for minority rights – gays and lesbians should have their rights protected just like other minorities. The problem with identity groups though is that they draw boundaries around who IS and who is NOT in these groups. Defining who is a lesbian or who is gay left a lot of people on the outside. When the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s/90s hit, this also made it easy for people to say ‘that’s a gay disease, it doesn’t affect me.’ Queer activists came in and crushed that way of thinking by pointing out that identity, let alone gender and sexuality, is socially constructed. So the heteronormative and regulatory discourses relating to sexuality are of concern to ALL of us. This helped people to see that AIDS was a concern for everyone and did a lot to get money and attention directed to the epidemic. But, without a cohesive sense of identity to keep it together, the queer movement diminished over time, especially as its confrontational tactics were sometimes seen as overkill as laws and social attitudes slowly shifted. However, we still live in a society regulated by heternormativity and there is still often discrimination toward LGBTQ people – where are we today?

4. Today we might be ‘post-gay’. Post-gay is a contested term that was first used by a former editor of Out magazine, James Collard, to critique gay politics and culture. It’s been picked up by popular press and academics over time. Associate Professor Amin Ghaziani (2011) consolidates various definitions of it to include three key elements: a) defining oneself by more than sexuality; disentangling gayness from struggle (and stereotypes, which comes from other literature); and enjoying mixed company. However, Ghaziani identifies that there is a thin line between this approach and assimilationist. Catherine Jean Nash found this in her research of self-declared ‘post-mo’ (another term like ‘post-gay’) Torontonians. They were all male, middle class, tech-savvy, and ‘gay’, which allowed them to blend in and decrease the stigma around their sexuality. This blending in and upholding of heteronormative discourses is what Lisa Duggan calls ‘homonormative’.

5. So why look at Facebook to see if we’re post-gay? A number of scholars, including Nash and Ghaziani, have looked at the exodus of gays and lesbians from ‘gay villages’ in urban areas. The trend is that people are moving out of these ‘gay ghettos’ and integrating into mixed communities. If LGBTQ-specific websites, like AfterEllen, are like gay villages (or lesbian villages), then Facebook might be very much like the mixed suburbs, with everyone from your co-workers to your granny in the neighbourhood. So, are LGBTQ people able to take a ‘post-gay’ approach of coming out on Facebook but not having their sexuality define them? To begin looking at this question, I revisited interviews I conducted with 27 LGBTQ university students about coming out and being out on Facebook. Detailed methods can be found in Duguay (2014) – the sample included 14 (11 men, 3 women) who identified as gay, 5 bisexual women, 4 lesbian women, 2 queer women, 1 pansexual woman, and one who identified as agender and asexual. I coded their stories of coming out on Facebook according to trends that resembled post-gay (acknowledgement but not definition), homonormative (blending in), or queer (confrontational) approaches.

6. What I found is that identity is a messy thing to evaluate. Participants often showed indications of a post-gay approach mixed in with homonormativity and queerness. One example is Samantha, a participant who wrote an article about being queer and then shared it on her Facebook. She was motivated by a need to challenge homophobic religious institutions and wanted people to know that “Queer people exist whether or not you tell them they can in a Catholic high school.” She also explained that coming out like this helped her get past coming out to distant acquaintances: “It just stops the concern for me that when I go home and hang out with these people they’ll be like, ‘Why didn’t you tell us this earlier?’ It’s such a silly thing because how would you contact all of these people that you don’t really keep in touch with across the country and be like, ‘Hi, just checking in, I’m gay.’ You wouldn’t do that.” And she also didn’t want to stick out in certain situations where heterosexuality is assumed: “The situations where everyone’s talking about their romantic life and I feel like I’m being burdensome…Everyone has to pause and be like, ‘Oh, you’re queer.’ Like, do we have to have a session about it? People don’t know what to do and so, yeah, I wanted to say it and stop having that fear.”

7. There were however some recurring trends. The first was that many participants had ‘post-gay’ intentions – they wanted to come out, have it acknowledged, and then move past it without having their sexuality define them. Robert explained: “[Facebook] is a really good tool for me to broadcast that I am gay to people who I would never feel like coming out to in real life… I don’t want to run the risk of having a confrontation in real life so if I have it on Facebook, they can take it in, deal with it themselves and then it’s over and done with and I never had to say anything.” Similarly, Brianne changed her ‘interested in’ to women and said about it that “It’s easier than telling everyone separately – not that everyone, like, I couldn’t rely on everyone checking that kind of thing, because obviously my friends know my birthday and my gender and all the other things on that page. So I couldn’t rely on them checking it but just in case they did, it was there.” She touches on a key point that many participants noted: It was difficult to tailor the volume of coming out expressions in order to fulfill post-gay aspirations. Announcements could be seen as too loud while changing profile information could go overlooked.

8. For some participants who took this post-gay approach, their description of being ‘out’ in everyday life on Facebook more closely resembles an approach of blending in. Henrik came out by posting his relationship status but explained that he hesitates to post anything political: “For example, if I sat down with a lot of people that I didn’t know that well and there was an advert that had gay people in it but they were like, I don’t know, drinking Diet Coke together or something then I wouldn’t feel that uncomfortable about it. And then if it was about gay people being political, I would feel more uncomfortable about it, and then if it was gay people having sex, I’d probably be feeling more uncomfortable.” Henrik touches on something that queer theorist Michael Warner has written about at length, which is the privatization of gay sex. Gay sex is seen as something that is meant to be hid away, kept inside the household, bound up in domestic partnerships, monogamy, and coupledom that look exactly heterosexual pairings. In contrast, heterosexual sex is everywhere, we live in a culture of heterosexuality that is on billboards, it’s evident in the baby photos in people’s wallets that testify to heterosexual sex, it’s as ubiquitous as the air around us. So no wonder it’s difficult for Henrik and others to challenge heteronormativity or to not feel uncomfortable about Facebook posts that do. In fact, the dominance of heteronormativity can have an overall silencing effect, making alternative sexualities seem invisible. Jennifer explained that this is why she came out on Facebook: “If I were face-to-face, I probably wouldn’t have done it… I would have just said it to myself several times and then nothing would have actually [come out].”

9. Just like Nash’s post-mo Torontonians, I also found a number of factors that made it harder or easier for people to take a post-gay approach. The first is sexuality – almost everyone who talked about their sexuality not defining them identified as gay or lesbian. Mackenzie, who identifies as asexual, said that Facebook fell short for coming out: “I don’t think there’s really an option that describes accurately how I feel.” Participants’ physical location also played a role in that their Facebook audiences often reflected networks in urban, liberal environments. Elizabeth said, “[My city] is not a metropolis but I came from a very small part of the world and suddenly I could really, really enjoy being gay.” Ethnicity and culture were also factors. Marco, who came out in a status update, noted he was an exception: “[For Italians] the message that passes is like, ‘You are gay, keep it for yourself.’” Finally, digital literacy played a role in that individuals who could tailor their coming out statements to liberal audiences more often put indications of their sexuality on Facebook. Erin described that discovering certain privacy settings allowed her to post about her relationship with her girlfriend: “When I found out you could block some people I was just like, oh okay, I can put it up now.”

10. So what can we conclude from this? I still have some analysis yet to do but I think these preliminary findings point to a sense that many young LGBTQ people have post-gay aspirations that come up against heteronormative constraints (wanting to be accepted, not wanting to be stigmatised or stereotyped). This results in activity that mostly serves the purpose of blending in or homonormativity. Therefore, Facebook can help some in the sense of how it helps people to get the word out about their sexuality if they wish to, but Facebook is not transformative in terms of coming out and being out because we have not yet transformed society’s heteronormativity.

11. References (and rainbow books)

12. More refs

13. Questions?! (Of course this is also where I babble about the study’s limitations)

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