Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to ban TikTok unless a U.S.-owned company buys the video-sharing social platform by mid-September (45 days after his signing). According to the executive order, the app, developed by Chinese-owned company ByteDance, “threaten[s] the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” And though the implications of the TikTok ban have yet to be spelled out, Variety reports that it may mean the app would eventually stop working on American smartphones. While there’s speculation that Microsoft, which is U.S.-owned, may purchase TikTok, the platform’s future remains unclear, and if it does get banned, its LGBTQ+ users who have found a sense of community using the app will be disproportionately harmed.
In 2020, TikTok has gained popularity and a notably young base of users. Data suggests 80 percent of U.S. users are between 16 and 34 years old. And given that only an estimated 65 percent of people aged 21 to 34 years identify as heterosexual, and only 48 percent of people 16 to 21 do, it stands to reason that a sizable percentage TikTok users identify as queer.
This is important because whenever queer people create content, it’s an act of resilience in that they’re generating proof that marginalized gender and sexual minorities not only exist but are also powerful. What’s so uniquely valuable about TikTok, specifically for queer users, is that its algorithm actually helps queer folks find, support, and bolster each other. That’s because the content each user is served on their personal “For You” page is generated based on their own previous activity. “So, once you engage with one or two gay accounts, the accounts TikTok recommends to you become similarly gay,” says, Gabrielle Alexa Noel, bisexual advocate, founder of Bi Girls Club, and author of the forthcoming book, How To Live With the Internet and Not Let It Ruin Your Life. “You could literally never see straight TikTok content ever again if you don’t want to.”
In other words, the platform’s algorithm makes finding and engaging with queer creators easy, which is important for people in the queer community who are looking to connect in a safe space.
How queer TikTok became a necessary safe space during quarantine
While people in the LGBTQ+ community were surely using TikTok long before the pandemic hit, when shelter-in-place orders were put in place in mid-March, the app’s popularity boomed: Between March 1 and 31, nearly 338 million users stuck at home and looking to connect downloaded TikTok from the Apple App Store and Google Play, The New York Times reports. Naturally, many of those new users were queer.
But, according to queer-inclusive therapists, boredom and a newfound desire for human connection weren’t the only factors that brought LGBTQ+ users to TikTok during quarantine. Survival also played a part. The pandemic forced many people in the LGBTQ+ community into uncomfortable and unsafe living situations, notably by needing to share space with homophobic and transphobic relatives and roommates, who either ignore or downright reject their identities, says counselor Maggie McCleary, LGPC, who specializes in queer-inclusive services. “Typically, when a queer client is in a dangerous living situation, our number one goal is to find ways for them to be out of the house as much as possible,” they say.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has made that impossible for many people. Now, a number of folks who might have previously only been at home to sleep find themselves there all the time. For some, this has meant hiding their identity; for others, it’s meant being forced back into the closet; and for others still, it’s meant feeling a constant looming threat of homelessness.
Amanda*, 16, for example, says, “my parents don’t know I’m queer, but when my sister came out, they disowned her. So, yeah… there’s a lot of pressure to remain in the closet.” And Matt*, 27, says, “it took the self-reflection I’ve done in quarantine to realize that I’m genderqueer, but now I’m afraid to come out because my roommate would flip—he’s just very narrow-minded.”
“Having an online community where [queer people] can have real conversations with other queer folks, laugh, see other queer people thriving, and see their identity represented on a screen could be what gets them through the day.” —Rae McDaniel, LCPC
For those who, like Amanda and Matt, feel unsupported or unsafe in their current environment, TikTok has been crucially important for offering a digital safe space when a physical one may not exist. “Having an online community where they can have real conversations with other queer folks, laugh, see other queer people thriving, and see their identity represented on a screen could be what gets them through the day,” says Rae McDaniel, LCPC, a licensed clinical counselor and gender and sex therapist.
“I don’t actively post on TikTok, but scrolling though all the [content from] out-and-proud gay folks gets me really excited about having enough money to move out, and finally be out,” says Matt. Amanda, who’s more active on the platform, says she’s also found salvation through TikTok. “Originally, I downloaded TikTok as a joke, but it’s one of the only ways I’ve managed to stay sane while living with my parents,” she says.
TikTok has also been a helpful resource for a number of queer people who are out and accepted by their family members. “It’s [connected me to a] queer community at time when I can’t meet up with my queer friends IRL,” says Olivia Zayas Ryan, 23, a femme, queer, bisexual writer and TikTok user.
“Don’t tell my professors, but I honestly might be learning more about queerness on TikTok than I did in my Queer Theory 101 class.” —Cassie, college student
Cassie, 20, a college student who has been living at home since March of 2020 and isn’t planning to return to campus for the fall semester, echoes Ryan’s sentiment. “I had such a big queer community at college. Like, all my friends are gay, and now I’m cut off from literally all of them.” TikTok, she says, has helped her to regularly engage with queer content and queer people the way she had back at school. “Don’t tell my professors, but I honestly might be learning more about queerness on TikTok than I did in my Queer Theory 101 class.”
The queer community would grieve a TikTok ban, but ultimately survive
If the TikTok ban goes through, McCleary predicts a collective grieving process will ensue among all of the app’s users. But for queer users? “That grieving process is going to require mourning both the app and the community they received from it,” they say. For Barbara*, 30, McClearly’s sentiment is especially on-point. “I’m a closeted bisexual woman, and [TikTok’s] literally my only outlet to meet other queer women. I’ll be gutted if it gets banned.”
But after that mourning process, Hope Glassman, therapist in training at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center in NYC, predicts a new avenue for community will emerge out of necessity—and maybe even a stronger one. “We will undoubtedly find the next welcoming digital space to share with each other and call home,” they say. “Losing an outlet like TikTok could even pave the way for queer-led, queer-created online-community spaces that perfectly suit our community’s needs.”
And while it would be kismet if Instagram’s just-launched Reels, which is basically a dupe of TikTok, could be that platform, Noel isn’t convinced. “Instagram’s discovery page is the app’s afterthought, while for TikTok, it’s the focus. It just doesn’t have the same community-building potential.” That’s why she, like Glassman, is hopeful that an entirely new queer-inclusive platform will emerge in the event of a TikTok ban.
As we wait to see what the future holds for TikTok, though, Jesse Kahn, LCSW-R, CST, and director and sex therapist at the Gender & Sexuality Therapy Center, suggests that people who identify as queer lean into other online outlets, like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. “Filling the social media platforms you do still have access to with other queer folks will help you continue feeling celebrated and connected to your queer and transgender communities,” they say. And that will remain true, no matter TikTok’s fate.
* Names changed to protect the privacy and safety of sources
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