The experiences that gay teens have online are no less valuable than the offline connections they make with others when preparing to "come out of the closet," according to Roberto Ortiz of the University of Montreal's Department of Communications. In fact, the relationships that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth make through the Internet are true learning and socialization experiences. Policy makers and others are wrong to demean or minimize these experiences, as they can help these young people free themselves. These conclusions emerged from Ortiz's graduate research, conducted under the supervision of Professor Dominique Meunier.
Ortiz undertook retrospective interviews with young adults about the discovery of their homosexuality during their adolescence and to the path leading to their revelation of their sexual orientation to their friends and families. Ortiz and Meunier presented the findings at a conference in April in Lyon that was organized by the French collective Jeunes et médias.
Ortiz found that there are not one, but many forms of coming out of the closet. In other words, all the young adults he interviewed came out in circumstances unique to them.
However, all of them turned to the Internet when they began to feel different from the young people in their environment, in particular, by consulting specialized sites, forums, or instant messaging sites.
“As a result, they were able to make contact, anonymously or otherwise, with young people facing similar situations and to explore their sexual and emotional desires without feeling judged or rejected,” said Ortiz. These online sharing sites were testing grounds that equipped them to begin the process of affirming their sexual identity. “For young gays the Internet meets the need to resist social norms, to affirm themselves and develop a certain resilience toward those who do not accept them or who belittle them.”
To be sure, bullying – along with unwanted sexual invitations – often interfere with online exchanges. “But despite some risks, these young people were not totally defenceless. Neither were they victims,” said Ortiz. “They were able to show judgment as in their lives outside the Internet.”
In short, their online and offline experiences represented neither parallel nor separate worlds: the attendant emotions were interrelated, and both worlds had equally important value in organizing a more or less conscious strategy for announcing their sexual orientation to their friends and family.
In this regard, the transition to high school is "a critical time and reference space for young people discovering their homosexuality. For some, it is an extension of their online experiences, and for others, it is a place for creating (or not) common bonds," he said.
Initially, Ortiz assumed that the need to affirm oneself influenced the process leading to revealing one's sexual orientation for the young men he interviewed. “But it is rather the feeling of being different that seems to have been the driver.”
The feeling was akin to embracing one's difference, which is different than accepting one's difference. “Acceptance may be seen as a form of defeat, while embracing can produce pride in being different – a separate view of what is normal,” explained Ortiz, who currently works with the health organization RÉZO with gay and bisexual men.
This is why Ortiz recommends that parents and teachers also be more receptive to embracing this difference at home and school. “While bullying sometimes interferes with online exchanges, offline bullying is even more hurtful and damaging for gay teens.”
“One of the strengths of Ortiz's thesis is to raise the issue of the role that schools play or can play, especially high school, in embracing this difference,” said Professor Meunier. “His work also raises questions about the boundaries too often taken for granted between what is normal or not, and between what is said or done online and in the offline.”
This article is a translation of a piece originally published in French by Martin Lasalle.