The Search Queer-ies

How the internet is shaping the next generation of LGBTQAI+ youth and how we can help

Growing up in the Bible Belt during my middle and high school years, I was faced with a conservative community that pretended like “other people” didn’t exist. I was given such a narrow view of being “gay” or “straight,” and once I realized in high school that I’m not heterosexual, I struggled to find out which term did fit me. I stumbled through identifying myself, and while this helped me along in my journey, it also created a lot of confusion and pain since I felt adrift. I isolated myself, became trapped in a whirlwind of self hate and anxiety, and I turned to the computer for solace and made online friends who helped me through those hard times. It was only then that I found “transgender” and everything clicked.

The reason why none of the previous terms fit me was because they are about sexuality and how they relate to me being a woman. The real issue was that I wasn’t a woman at all. I had always known this in an subconscious sort of way, but I didn’t have the language for it until the moment I found out that other gender identities exist, that being transgender is something that many others in the world identify as. It wasn’t until then that I realized I wasn’t alone.

Because of these challenges in the “real world,” a large portion of queer youth are turning to the internet for validation, support, and escape.

In our increasingly globalized world, technology has allowed us to connect with others across towns, across countries, and across the world. We are able to self-organize and talk, help each other, and create a broader sense of community. We are learning that we can shape this global community and create a safe space that transcends geography.

I recently became a proud member of the trans community on Tumblr. My dashboard is constantly flooded with news, pop culture, and discussions on trans issues and accomplishments. I try my best to keep track of the ever expanding topic — trust me, it’s tough — but even then, I’m barely scratching the surface. There’s so much information on the web, so many safe spaces and safe people, so many people within the community and its allies trying to make a difference. I see trans and gender queer youth that are younger than me sharing their stories and helping each other understand what we’re all going through, posting selfies and trying so hard to love themselves and realize that they’re valid, and every single instance I see fills me with so much pride and joy that it often becomes overwhelming.

It is a simple fact that finding others that are going through the same things as you creates a sense of comradery and validation. We seek comfort in others in hard times, and more often than not, the presence of like-minded individuals helps us get through our hard times. However, the still present taboo of being part of the LGBTQAI+ community has made finding these other people hard. While it is getting better, many still are not exposed to these other sexualities and gender identities, especially in heavily religious or conservative communities. Many of the people that I have talked to, both in my personal and academic life, have said the same thing:

The first step is “knowing what to Google.”

Typing “gay” in a search engine can lead to many things, not all of them particularly helpful. Many results are even problematic or hateful, and for someone who is already struggling, finding these results and absorbing the hate that is prevalent in our world can make things worse. What I am proposing is a way to help those that need help finding the support they need. In order to help queer youth, we need to utilize these tools that we already have at our advantage and find ways to better them for social good. While there are many online groups and pockets of communities that are doing a wonderful job, we need to help LGBTQAI+ youth find them.

This is why I am proposing a change to search engines that could allow for queer youth and older individuals who are struggling to have a more guided, intuitive search engine experience.

I’ve been calling this change the NoHateSearch, and it would employ the same techniques that search engines are already utilizing with SafeSearch, which filters out adult content through algorithms that recognize keywords, images, domain names, and other content that could be flagged as “adult.” The same technique could be applied to filter out slurs for the queer community, extremist sites, and hateful imagery. Other possibilities include:

  • Notifications on potentially harmful websites that show up if the user chooses not to employ the NoHateSearch
  • Community feedback to mark unsafe/hateful websites
  • A guided experience to narrow results to the most helpful sites — for example, if a user were to type “transgender” into a search engine, a series of questions could appear next to the search results that offer suggestions like “I think I might be transgender,” “I think my child might be transgender,” or “What does it mean?” It could even narrow down further with the following options being “I want to read about it” or “I want to talk to a professional,” with the latter option leading the user to LGBTQAI+ help hotlines

I made it through the most volatile years of my life. I hit rock bottom and clawed my way out. I came out stronger, wiser, and with more love for myself. My dream is that one day, people like me won’t have to go through the struggles I went through. I know this is a big dream, but I do think it’s possible. It will take time and baby steps, and I truly believe that this is a small, but potentially powerful step.

For more information on my project, please check out my research tumblr.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to post them below.