Youth, Pride, and the Digital Divide: Keeping Today’s LGBTQ Youth Connected and Safe

Article In The Thread
Four queer teenagers using their smartphones
June 6, 2023

Early in 2021, just after turning 23, my partner began the process of coming out as nonbinary. For my partner, this means that they “feel like neither a man or woman, but somewhere in between” — hence their gender-neutral pronouns (they/them). This transition was the culmination of more than 10 years of gender dysphoria, the clinically significant distress that can manifest when someone doesn’t exclusively identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Only after a decade of self-reflection was my partner able to acknowledge the distress they were experiencing, identify it as gender dysphoria, accept that it wasn’t going to go away, and prepare to make the major life changes that transitioning can entail.

My partner isn’t an outlier — in fact, research shows that many transgender and nonbinary people report first coming out in adulthood. Interestingly, though, younger transgender and nonbinary people are coming out about their gender identity at earlier ages than older transgender and nonbinary members of the same generation. The intergenerational differences in the average ages at which transgender respondents report starting to “live in their affirmed gender” — which can include coming out — are even more dramatic. Similar trends are seen for youth coming out about their sexual orientation, both within Generation Z and intergenerationally.

But why are younger members of Generation Z coming out sooner in life than older members of the same generation, let alone members of earlier generations? While the literature on this subject is still limited, interviews with LGBTQ youth often reflect a common impetus: the internet.

The internet helps LGBTQ youth explore their identities and come out by helping them access information about sexual orientation and gender identity, connect with other young people at various stages in the process of developing their own identities, and maintain a certain degree of anonymity when starting the process of coming out online.

While the internet was around when my partner first began to struggle with gender dysphoria, it was a clumsy hotbed of pop-ups, malware, and phishing scams, and only about half of Americans had high-speed access to it. The rise of smartphones and the evolution of social media that followed truly changed the game. When my partner and I were eight years old, we were just using our family desktop computers to mess around on Microsoft Paint — and most Americans opposed same-sex marriage, so many children from the era never heard that they could identify as a member of the LGBTQ community. Now, nearly half of children between the ages of eight and 12 have their own laptops, which they can use to learn to accept themselves from online LGBTQ peers and role models.

“Why are younger members of Generation Z coming out sooner in life than older members of the same generation, let alone members of earlier generations? … the internet.”

To this day, though, not all LGBTQ youth benefit from internet access. A 2021 study found that nearly one-in-five parents of youth between the ages of eight and 18 reported that their family lacks the residential broadband necessary for reliable internet service. While some lack residential broadband because the infrastructure has yet to reach their area, many go without due to the cost of connectivity, which averages nearly $70 per month in the U.S. — and that’s not counting “junk fees.”

Even LGBTQ youth who have consistent internet access may not feel safe to access LGBTQ-related information and communicate with LGBTQ peers on insecure websites, browsers, and messaging platforms — and they’re not wrong to fear that a privacy breach could put information about their sexual orientation and gender identity into the wrong hands.

But our society is actively regressing when it comes to keeping LGBTQ youth connected, safe, and informed. More than 500 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures so far this year, and at least 70 laws — many of which have targeted LGBTQ youth, with a particular focus on trans youth — have been enacted. In addition, several federal bills have been introduced that would, if enacted, harm LGBTQ youth online. One would chill free speech and undermine encryption, a critical safeguard for protecting everyone’s data, including that of LGBTQ youth. Another could push platforms to ramp up their use of web filters — which have long been shown to block content vital for LGBTQ youth — and expand the use of both invasive age verification requirements and parental monitoring controls, disregarding the fact that more than half of LGBTQ youth wouldn’t call their homes LGBTQ-affirming.

What can we do about all this? I can’t say for sure — there aren’t easy answers, and there are complex policy negotiations beyond the purview of this piece. But I do know a lot about the additional hardships my partner — who is now my spouse — has had to push through, all because they didn’t grow up with the resources to know earlier in life that they were transgender. I know that some LGBTQ youth today have it better than my spouse did, but not all — and for many, things are getting worse. Most importantly, I know that our goal as a society is to ease the load for generations that come after us. LGBTQ youth today should and could have it better than we did — and better than they do now. It’s our responsibility to find ways via policy and cultural norms to keep LGBTQ youth connected, safe, and informed online.

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How Anti-LGBTQ Web Filters Stand Between LGBTQ Youth and the Online Resources They Need (Open Technology Institute, 2022): To protect the first amendment rights of LGBTQ youth, we need to address the creation, use, and impacts of harmful web filters.

For LGBTQ Youth, Truly Equitable Internet Access Requires End-to-End Encryption (Open Technology Institute, 2022): LGBTQ youth often manage to whom and in what contexts they are "out." We need end-to-end encryption to protect their privacy.

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