Transformative spaces: How fandom creates communities of support for LGBTQ people

Brianna Dym
Nov 5 · 4 min read
A laptop with rainbow colors highlighting it.
A laptop with rainbow colors highlighting it.

Imagine that you need help for an important issue. You don’t feel comfortable turning to family or friends because you are scared they will judge you for it, and you are scared that if anyone sees you seeking out help for this, you might be ridiculed or hurt. Community centers, libraries, even google search histories might leave traces you don’t want others to find. How do you get help? One solution is that you might stumble upon this help even when you’re not looking for it.

Transformative fandom, or “fandom,” is a broad collection of online communities where people gather to create and consume creative works transformative of the source content. People might write about the continuing adventures of Harry Potter and his friends after they graduate from Hogwarts. Or explore the off-screen adventures of Uhura from the original Star Trek. In fandom, people write, draw fan art, and recut fan videos among other activities to explore the untold stories that the original media properties leave on the table. And for some members of certain pockets of transformative fandom, they have stumbled upon this community at the same time they are seeking out resources tied to their LGBTQ identity. After all, fanworks explore narratives that are not usually present in a story’s canon (official) narrative, meaning that much of the time they explore underrepresented characters and identities.

Here’s where the LGBTQ part comes in.

People usually start participating in fandom because they want to engage more with a certain media property. While they’re there, they might find stories about Captain Kirk marrying Spock after he retires, or Hermione Granger realizing she’s in love with Fleur Delacour. While reading these stories, they might recognize something about their own identity within those characters. At least, that’s one way the participants in our research study described learning about and finding resources related to coming out as LGBTQ.

In interviews with 31 LGBTQ adults in fandom, we asked them to tell us their coming out story and how they first got involved in fandom. Overwhelmingly, these two stories collided. In telling their stories, participants told us how fandom played an integral role in helping them safely explore their LGBTQ identity.

It usually starts with a realization, like how one participant described: “I had this moment where I realized I have the power to sit down, write, and make things like people like me.” In other words, fandom was a safe community, away from prying eyes, where your parents wouldn’t see “Find all the good gay shit here!” in your search history. Fandom is also unique in that all that LGBTQ identity work is situated within stories about popular characters. Where participants worried about being seen going to an LGBTQ community center, they never had to fear that they would accidentally be outed by visiting a fanfiction site or chatting about their favorite show in a fandom chatroom. Yet at the same time, these were spaces where participants could talk to other people about what it meant to identify as LGBTQ, to read about characters navigating those same struggles participants were facing in their offline lives. Stories became a community resource, and their authors mentors to help guide readers through the coming out process.

Our participants described fandom as a safe space because it was removed from other heteronormative parts of the internet and their offline lives. This is a space where people can openly express their gender and sexuality without fear of being persecuted or outed without their consent, and the layered visibility of fandom and its activities make this possible.

Why does that matter? The internet presents a lot of dangers to LGBTQ people who aren’t ready to be out yet, but also offers a lot of opportunities for those same people to find safe communities to explore their identities. Fandom is one of those safe spaces, and it stays safe because of its delicate balance between discoverability and selective visibility.

We as researchers and designers have a lot of power over those two functions. Selective visibility has been previously conceptualized as a single person’s control over how their LGBTQ identity is presented online, and to whom it is visible. Here, we consider it as a function of an entire community. What parts of a community’s support structures are visible, and to who? How do we ensure that those critical support spaces remain discoverable to the people who need to find them, while remaining hidden from bad actors?

We also need to consider how platform design and policy decisions can impact these spaces more severely than other online communities. For example, when Tumblr banned adult content from their platform, they did more than push out pornographic content. LGBTQ communities for safely exploring sexuality were also devastated in the wake of this decision, and finding a new place to resettle isn’t necessarily a straightforward task. Moving forward, we hope to continue broadening our understanding on how communities like fandom protect, support, and establish infrastructure for vulnerable populations across the internet.

This work will be presented at the ACM CSCW conference. For more details about this research, read the Full Article. Questions and comments can be sent to brianna [dot] dym [at] colorado [dot] edu.

Citation: Brianna Dym, Jed R. Brubaker, Casey Fiesler, and Bryan Semaan. 2019. “Coming Out Okay”: Community Narratives for LGBTQ Identity Recovery Work. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 3, CSCW, Article 154 (November 2019), 29 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3359256

ACM CSCW

Research from the ACM conference on computer-supported cooperative work and social computing

Brianna Dym

Written by

PhD Student of information science @ CU Boulder. Internet Rules Lab researcher.

ACM CSCW

ACM CSCW

Research from the ACM conference on computer-supported cooperative work and social computing

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