To mark Pride month, one of our counsellors explores the idea of being out online only. What does that mean? Why might that be?
Coming out is a really big thing to do and ultimately you are never sure of the response you will get. In today’s world with seemingly increasing anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment and legislation, is it any wonder that people are thinking twice about coming out? Connection, love and acceptance from others is an inbuilt desire for most people and from back before any kind of modern society it was fundamental for our survival as individuals and as a community. If those around you didn’t accept you and at least hold you in some regard there was a chance that vital food sources and shelter would not be shared with you.
That need for connection is directly linked with survival. In today’s world with that seeming increasing anti-LGBTQIA+ sentiment our true gender identity, sexual orientation and even the type of relationship we want may not be something that we feel our friends and family can accept let alone allow us to fully and freely express, let alone explore. So, maybe being out online is the only way we feel we can safely be that part of ourselves and get that much needed acceptance?
One of the things that the internet has done is allow people to connect with people that they wouldn’t normally be able to. An online presence can allow you to feel more like yourself and express things you would not in your ‘real world’ life. You can feel you have more control over what you put out into the world about yourself. Many social media platforms can allow a high level of anonymity, leaving you free to explore your gender and sexual identity and what feels right for you with potentially very few fears anyone who may know you outside of that platform being able to identify you even if they do come across you. Plus, the bonus that you may connect with others who feel similarly, thus creating a community of acceptance and love.
I first came across the idea of being only out online recently when I was made aware of a growing phenomenon of people being out on dating sites but not in other areas of their life. Whilst dating sites may seem to have less anonymity in terms of needing to have pictures of yourself on your profile; many sites have settings that can make your profile entirely invisible to people who you don’t want to see you. For instance: controlling the geographical areas that you want potential matches to be in/ come from; only users with certain sexual orientations or gender identities being able to see your profile etc. Whilst there might still be a risk that your dating profile could get back to someone you know, and all that could result in that. Depending on how it gets back to others there could be another question there about how that person who knows you found you… But all that aside, being out online on a dating site also comes with the hope that you find someone(s) who love, accept and fully appreciate you for who are.
But what about other online platforms? Again, many of them, though there is a feeling of platforms trying to tighten up on this, still allow for a high level anonymity with: avatars rather than profile pictures; usernames (which can be anything you want them to be) are the only visible identifying name you want; dates of birth can be different or cake days can be used instead of dates of birth. Once again you can create communities around you that are not based on who is geographically close to you but who shares your values, outlooks and/or beliefs and whilst creating an echo chamber can cause it’s own problems, an echo chamber of love an acceptance for who you are as a person is also a really powerful, moving, affirming and empowering experience.
In the type of therapy I practice we believe that everyone has an innate drive to enhance and maintain their existence. If the best and safest way that someone feels able to express themselves is to only be out online, I trust that that is the case; they are the expert in their own lives. Where humans are always looking for self- expression and to embrace all of who we are, and also looking for love and acceptance from those around them; if our experience and expression of ourselves are at odds with the conditions under which we will receive love and acceptance from those geographically around us then we must look to other places and explore other ways to receive them.
However, there is an underlying question here for me, which is why aren’t people coming out to those closest to them? In America states are passing laws that require teachers and other care givers to out people to their parents. But where is the conversation or question why aren’t these people coming out to their parents themselves? Is it because they know they will be rejected, because they fear they will get rejected? Is it because they aren’t sure? And do parents have the right to know everything about their child? Children owe nothing to their parents, that oft said and unanswerable statement to parents from a child of ‘I didn’t ask to be born!’ is true. They did not, parents decided that a child should be born, or bought into their lives- not all parents/ care givers/ guardians are biologically related to us. But does this mean they are entitled to know all about their children’s lives and inner worlds? I would like to think we would all like to know, because we care. We all want to be there for the children around us. But if they don’t want to share things with their parents/ guardians/ caregivers then what are those adults doing, expressing around their children that makes them feel they would be rejected? I would argue that any child who keeps their sexuality, gender identity from their loved ones is doing so to protect and spare themselves parents from the pain and anguish of rejection. Coming out to someone who is not your parent, caregiver, guardian is a sign of wanting to embrace and explore that part of yourself in a safe, supportive and accepting space. And the person you are coming out to presumably they believe you can create that space and be that support? Why do some want to take that away from people? Why would we make getting help and support even harder in a world in which accessing support and care in general is hard and often in affordable, let alone for the LGBTQIA+ community who have one of the highest rates of mental ill-health and suicide?
If the place they can get support and care, love and acceptance, and find a safe supportive place to explore and express all of who they are is the internet be that on dating sites, social media platforms or other online forums then that is both a wonderful thing but also a sad indictment of our society that we cannot make these spaces physical as well as digital.
By Charlie Gould-Smith
Charlie is Lead Counsellor at Southampton Counselling Practice, and a Person-Centred Counsellor. Charlie works with all types of clients, but is particularly passionate about working with LGBTQIA+ issues. You can find her profile to book a session with her here.