BY ALAINA LEARY
When I first used the word "gay" to describe myself, I was 11. I'd known I liked girls as more than friends since second grade, but it wasn't until my best friend's brother told us about LGBTQ+ labels that I started using "gay" and "bisexual" as my own, alternating between the two. By the time I had the courage to tell anyone in my family, I was 13 and in my second "relationship," if you could even call it that, with another girl.
It was 2006, I was thirteen, and I spent a lot of time imagining how someday I'd want to marry a woman, and thinking about how it was only legal in Massachusetts. The only logical conclusion was that I could never move.
I knew I wanted to come out to everyone. I didn't want to hide who I was, despite my dad's well-meant warning that kids are mean and I should be cautious about when and how to come out to friends and classmates. MySpace was everyone's favorite thing at the time, so I wrote up a public post about how I was coming out the world and hit "post." Social media served as the perfect forum, because I wanted everyone to know and I didn't know how to bring it up. And, to be honest, I was a little terrified of that moment of confrontation, of making the moment all about me in confessing such an important part of myself. Social media let me blast information to the world without having to see anyone's individual reaction to the news, and the young people-pleaser in me liked that I could avoid that.
The day after my social media announcement, the tension was palpable in the air at school. Several of my friends were more indifferently curious, but a vast majority of people were nosy and rude. For the remainder of middle school, there were a handful of people who regularly bullied me about my sexuality, along with offhand offensive remarks from others. One guy walked by my lunch table every single day just to yell slurs at me. Girls would follow me home after school, pestering me with questions for the entire fifteen-minute-walk, like whether or not I looked at other girls in the locker room, and laughing at me even when I refused to answer. Another guy asked me in music class one day if I'd ever had sex with my own mom, and the only reason I got him to shut up was because I said, "No, she's dead, you asshole!" It was the one and only time I used the Dead Mom Card for dramatic effect.
But once I got home, the Internet was my safe place. I was lucky in many ways. For whatever reason, cyberbullying hadn't really caught on, at least not in my social circles.
I started spending most of my evening Internet time in LGBTQ+ online communities. Before this, I'd never had a chance to talk to anyone who identified as transgender, asexual or intersex. I didn't know any women who were gay or bisexual. I didn't know who to turn to for advice. Suddenly, I had entire communities of queer friendships online: people I talked to every day, about everything from coming out to which The L Word character was the hottest. (I always said Alice, but looking back, it's really Shane, isn't it?)
In my real life, I became less and less okay with who I was. To avoid relentless bullying following me from middle school, I applied to attend a regional high school and decided not to come out to my new classmates. I acted like a straight girl, and denied any floating rumors that had followed me there. I wasn't gay, I assured people. I was too afraid to even tell my best friend that I was gay, when she and I were walking and a classmate stopped me in the cafeteria to ask me if I really liked girls.
Online was a totally different story. I spent most of my time sending detailed messages to people I'd never met but who I felt like I knew intimately. One of my earliest online friends, C, was an openly bisexual woman who was in a relationship with a guy and a girl at the same time. She was loud and proud about who she was, involved with pride events at her high school and community. I envied her ability to be steadfastly herself, when I felt like the person I was online and the person I was in real life were two completely separate people.
It wasn't until I was midway through my sophomore year of high school that I finally came out again, this time without the use of social media, and to everyone; friends and extended family included. It was much less dramatic than my previous coming out, mainly because everything is worse when you're in middle school. By 2009, being LGBTQ+ was becoming more widely accepted and being in a relationship with a girl almost felt cool at my diverse high school. My life was no MTV's Faking It, but it was at least a step up from being verbally assaulted on a daily basis.
Through all my moments of doubt, my online queer community was there to back me up. I went from being a frequent member to a community manager, moderating the forums, approving blog posts and welcoming younger members. Before I knew it, everyone I'd grown up with online had turned into a seasoned queer, and we were all telling the next generation that yes, it does get better. It was something I never thought I'd feel, never mind be able to reassure someone else of. As a gay teenager, I'd taken all those reassuring adults and equality campaigns as, at best, a cheesy, overly-positive lens on life and, at worst, a complete lie. Back when I spent every day trying to leave my last class early without stopping at my locker so bullies wouldn’t follow me home, I couldn't have imagined that someday I would be writing to a new generation of LGBTQ+ teens to tell them they could survive.
I'm now 23, and it feels like a lifetime to remember that I've known I'm queer for over ten years. Same-sex marriage is legal in all fifty states, but I'm still living with my girlfriend in Massachusetts anyway. This spring, my online friend, C, came to visit us from the south with her husband for a week. Re-reading our old letters to each other, handwritten and sent through the mail, I couldn't believe that ten years ago, I was so terrified to be who I am, and so ashamed of being gay. My online self and my real self have merged into the same person, and I couldn't be prouder to keep fighting so other members of the community don't grow up as isolated as I did.
It's not always easy to be proud of being LGBTQ+ in real life, especially if you live in an unaccepting community. That's what I always loved about my queer community online. I talked to people internationally who lived in areas where being LGBTQ+ was a prosecutable offense, and who feared for their lives if anyone were to find out. I was friends with transgender teens who suffered familial abuse because of their gender identity. The great thing about being online is that it can be a safe space for those with no other options, as they're looking for new ways to safely and comfortably come out in their real lives. These online communities can serve as a stepping-stone and guidance as people find safe communities offline where they can be themselves.
I didn't really start to create my own offline LGBTQ+ community until I was already in college, but I barely noticed because I felt so supported by my community online. It can be so important—potentially even life-saving—to have that kind of safe, supportive community where everyone understands what one another is going through and can offer advice and unconditional love. It's incredibly validating for people to find this kind of community, on or offline, where their voice can be heard. Because of my online queer communities, I'm here today to tell this story. And that matters.
Alaina Leary is a native Bostonian studying for her MA in publishing at Emerson College. She's involved with several projects, including as a national content editor for Her Campus and social media team member for We Need Diverse Books. Her work has been published in Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Seventeen, Everyday Feminism, BUST, The Establishment, AfterEllen, and more. When she's not busy playing around with words, she spends her time surrounded by her two cats, Blue and Gansey. She can often be found re-reading her favorite books and covering everything in glitter. You can find her at alainaleary.com or on Twitter and Instagram @alainaskeys.