This past March, Ireland’s national LGBTQ+ youth organisation Belong To launched the ‘It’s Our Social Media’ campaign. The initiative sought to underscore the online abuse experienced by queer youth and the onus of social media platforms to abate hateful content. Joe Drennan interviewed two remarkable young people helping lead the charge.
A recent report released by Belong To showed disquieting levels of online hate, with 87 percent of young LGBTQ+ people having seen or experienced queerphobic hate and harassment on social media in the past year. Furthermore, only 21 percent of cases where users reported the behaviour saw action taken. It’s widely believed that this maltreatment of social media users comes with the territory. However, GCN spoke to two young members of the queer community who reject this sentiment.
The first, Ruairí Holohan, is a UNICEF Youth Advocate and sixth-year student from County Louth. Ruairí made local and national headlines in September 2022 for attending the UN General Assembly in New York. Even though he’s just 18 and at the beginning of his advocacy career, he’s continuing to champion LGBTQ+ issues in high circles – brushing arms with Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Queen of Spain Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano along the way.
He described the moment that inspired him to get involved in advocacy: “In second year, when we first got ‘the talk’ in school, I wondered why it was only about reproduction. Why was there nothing about the LGBTQ+ community? For all I know who’s here [in class], whether they’re out or not, all they can look at is what’s online. It’s uncensored, it’s inaccurate and it’s damaging for young minds.”
This led him to research the Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) programme in Irish schools, something he described as “not fit for purpose”. After finishing his work experience with UNICEF, he and his peers from the programme were presented with an opportunity that would eventually lead to him meeting with Micheál Martin in November 2020.
Throughout his budding career in advocacy, Holohan has experienced a complicated relationship with social media. He described on one hand how the different platforms have “truly shaped how many people my message has reached, nationally and globally.” He continued: “On the other hand, all this attention encourages hate. No matter what someone with a platform says on social media, they are destined for at least some negativity. I know from my experience; I have received quite a few negative comments. They vary from people who argue that homophobia isn’t an issue, to disturbing and hateful comments.”
This dichotomy in his social media kinship has been present in the student’s life since he was 15 years old. Despite the negative aspects, he has learned just enough to share advice with anyone else who wishes to follow a similar path. “My advice for young activists is to advocate through an organisation where possible. This protects you from directly receiving any sort of hate. At the moment, I do not advocate on my Instagram or Twitter accounts. I might do this in the future, but I don’t want to draw any hate towards my personal accounts.”
He added: “On a personal level, I would recommend people to trust their gut. If something does not feel right, don’t do it. Social media is crucial for the LGBTQ+ community to meet each other, but that does not mean that we should let our guard down. Either keep your account private or have it public but restrict any users who are bothersome.”
Social media is crucial for the LGBGTQ+ community to meet each other, but that does not mean that we should let our guard down...
Ash Caulfield, is a trans-masc, agender queer student from Donegal. Much like Ruairí Holohan, and the rest of the queer community, he has used social media to connect with new people and learn new hobbies. Though as is unfortunately expected, the 19 year-old has also been subjected to the notorious hate that’s invading social media platforms across the board.
In an article that Ash wrote for GCN as part of the “It’s Our Social Media” campaign, he narrated the positive aspects of internet communities. He learned how to play the ukulele and hone his photography skills from other people posting videos on Instagram and YouTube. Social media has also allowed him to share his photography. He said “I have a photography account on Instagram. Just being able to have a place to share it has built up my confidence.” Not only does photography help Ash to express himself, but it also has a vital personal importance in his life.
He continued: “because of my memory issues, I can’t picture people’s faces. If I also don’t have a physical reminder like a photo, I won’t always remember that certain things happened. Sometimes I’ll know that they’ve happened, or sometimes they’ll just be gone completely. So, it allows me to remember these times when I was surrounded by the people that I love, and when it felt like being at home.
“It also allows me to show people how I see them. That’s why I like photography, I can just catch them in this moment when they’re not performing or posing. It’s just them, just as they are in that moment.”
In his article, Caulfield also wrote about his “found family”. To him, that is “my friends. It’s interesting because it wasn’t so much that I found them, it was almost like I was dragged in by the ear. I know most of my friends through one person because they created a discord server during lockdown. We would have all played games together, or we would have just gone on and talked. That’s how I got to know almost all my friends.”
Not only do these friends have similar interests, but they also identify in similar ways. He detailed how the large basis of his friend group is queer, many of them being trans, and neurodivergent in some way. This “found family” of Ash’s is the same as many young queer folks around the country- finding friends with similar identities via social media when there isn’t a strong queer presence in their own locality.
Even though there are many upsides to Ash’s experience with social media, he is also painfully aware of the common downside: hate. No one prefers a particular way we receive negativity on the platforms, but Ash believes that the way it unfolded for him was a lot more hurtful than the regular types of comments or messages. In November 2021, he wrote an article that championed the activists involved in the Stonewall Riots, in particular, the trans women of colour.
After it was shared on social media, Ash recalled how “there was a bunch of replies on Twitter. Several people were accusing me of lying, saying that I was a fiction writer, saying that I was ignoring the women who had participated and that I was creating these fake trans women. They were talking especially about Marsha P Johnson, arguing that she was never trans.
“I felt quite removed from it. I think I just kind of immediately numbed myself to it because I’m not a stranger to homophobia or transphobia - I grew up in rural Ireland.”
Ash continued: “Given that they were talking about something that I created, it did hurt a bit more. This is how some people respond to something that I’ve created; I’ve put a lot of work and time and love into it. So, it hurt that little bit more.”
For both Ruairí and Ash, social media has been a place for them to explore their talents and find people that share the same interests or identities. Even though they have both experienced the infamous hate that is widely present on all social sites, they have learned ways in which to protect themselves from this menacing side of the apps. It’s much like the advice Belong To put forward in its March campaign; “Feed the Good, Block the Bad.”
Even though this negativity can permeate a user’s experience, it doesn’t have to be that way. The remarkable young queer people who took part in this campaign are showing everyone that social media is ours, which means it’s also ours to reclaim. We can reclaim it from the hands of those who choose to spread hate and use it as a place to connect and support other members of the young LGBTQ+ community.
Seeing people like me be proud of who they were allowed me to be proud of who I was...
As part of the ‘It’s Our Social Media’ campaign, here are the experiences of young LGBTQ+ people online. To read the longer versions of these opinion pieces, visit www.gcn.ie
ORAN TOBIN 19 years old
Social media is a huge part of life for all young people. But for LGBTQ+ teens, social media helps us connect with others like us, which is especially important for those in more rural areas.
Personally I’ve found social media really helpful for learning more about the queer community, for example the struggles of trans and non-binary people. Our community is so broad and unique, and new identities are being discovered and highlighted all the time.
Growing up, my first memories of social media were watching queer YouTuber videos on the many sexualities and gender expressions in the community. What I loved about them was they were based off real peoples’ experiences, instead of from definitions of “transgender” or “homosexuality” as defined by a straight cisgender person (who historically labelled our identities as disorders).
One of the most impactful moments on social media for me (as a young gay boy), was when creators started posting coming out videos. It was really empowering to see so many people standing up for themselves and their identity. YouTube allowed them to share their voices, and allowed a whole generation of young queer people to access information that changed how they viewed themselves.
Seeing people like me be proud of who they were allowed me to be proud of who I was, which can be hard when you grow up knowing you’re different.
While social media helps us share our interests and connect with each other, it’s not entirely a safe space, and it can often leave young queer people vulnerable to bullying and unsafe attention. I’m sometimes really shocked by the exclusionary and bigoted opinions of young straight cis kids, and how little they understand the consequences their words can have.
My advice to young people online is to only follow people you know and trust, and make sure the celebrities you follow have values that align with your own. Make sure you report any account that’s being toxic towards you or a friend. Most platforms only take the complaints seriously when there are numerous reports of the same person, so being proactive about blocking and reporting accounts is incredibly beneficial.
Use social media to educate yourself. It’s not as boring as it sounds, and while not everyone has to be an advocate, it’s good to know the basic ins and outs of queer politics. We’re still a minority group that isn’t fully accepted, so being able to advocate for yourself can be a very important skill.
When having conversations about social media safety it’s important to remember that the perpetrators of harassment and bullying online are people, and that toxic, bigoted behaviour online will only stop as oppression of the LGBTQ+ community as a whole becomes eradicated. In my opinion, the best way of doing this is through spreading positive representation of queer people and making ourselves visible in the media. Homophobic attacks – whether online or in person – stem from the same root, and eliminating those hurtful, antiquated beliefs is the only way to achieve safety for queer people both in social media, and in the real world.
Social media is a great resource for our community but staying safe is much more important...
JODI FLYNN 18 years old
When I was 14, I was added to a group-chat on Instagram through a similar interest. It was lovely, as shared experiences were potent in the group, and we became quick friends. It has been years since that group-chat was made and yet I’m still in touch with all of them.
Crucially, it was one of the other Irish members of this group-chat that introduced me to Belong To. It became a second home to me extremely quickly and taught me so much about queer culture, history and experiences that I simply hadn’t known about before. The fact that it was a casual passing comment online that pushed me to research the youth group and become a part of it is wild to me.
Social media is extremely important for the LGBTQ+ community, from meeting other members of the community to connect with, to being a place of safety for those without support in their offline lives.
Compared to traditional media; online forums, magazines and other forms of social media are much more effective in terms of representation and news in the LGBTQ+ community. Outlets such as GCN have certainly helped me stay up to date with any information I may have ever found to be necessary or interesting. I find myself fascinated scrolling through articles and posts online relating to queer culture and find it to be extremely productive in understanding my history as a queer person. Social media posts shared between friends, family and followers is an extremely efficient way of extending information to others, whether they be allies or other members of the community- this information can be positive or negative, vital or simply entertaining, but whatever it is, the ability to share it so quickly is incredible.
Unfortunately, not everything relating to social media is positive for members of the LGBTQ+ community. 87 percent of LGBTQ+ young people have witnessed or experienced some form of harassment online. I have experienced harassment online related to my sexuality. I have had people call me slurs, comment demeaning things about my sexuality and even privately message me to tell me how “disgusting” they think I am. Nowadays, I simply report, block and delete the message, never allowing it to hurt me, but when I was younger and much newer to social media, this was terrifying. Back then I never knew how to react, I ignored anything said - but that didn’t mean I hadn’t seen it.
The amount of harassment towards the LGBTQ+ community online is something that does not surprise me in the slightest. Free speech is something so necessary, yet hate speech is so harmful to our society and unfortunately some people will not change. I encourage people to block any words or users that are offensive or harmful and to be extremely careful who you allow to follow and/ or message you. Social media is a great resource for our community but staying safe is much more important. Both positivity and negativity will always be visible on any online platform for anyone, but particularly for the LGBTQ+ community. We can find great things on social media as long as we are vigilant and safe.
We can promote positive content to make social media a more positive place for LGBTQ+ young people...
AOIBHÍN COPELAND 18 years old
As an LGBTQ+ young person in Ireland, I recognise both the positives and negatives associated with social media.
During lockdown, I saw an ad on Instagram to join an online youth group run by Limerick Youth Service. I decided to message the account and I was told that this group ran weekly on Zoom. Although I was nervous about meeting new people, I found that it was a great way to get outside my comfort zone to meet and connect with people I wouldn’t have otherwise met without social media.
I strongly believe that social media is especially important for the LGBTQ+ community. Personally, I think that queer content creators inform and empower young people all over the world. One example would be Jamie Raines ( jammidodger). He raises awareness about and discusses a variety of topics related to the trans community. Jamie also talks about his own experience of socially and medically transitioning. He combats myths about transgender people with the truth, which I think is essential for the queer youth who view his content.
Another example would be Cian Griffin (gaylgeoiri), an Irish content creator. He promotes the Irish language by posting videos, vocabulary, and relatable memes ‘as gaeilge’. He is also part of ‘Na Gaeil Aeracha’, an LGBTQ+ inclusive GAA club in Dublin.
I think social media is essential for the queer community as it gives us access to LGBTQ+ news outlets. This allows people to be more aware of news specific to the queer community that sometimes wouldn’t be discussed on the radio.
On the other hand, social media can also result in young people experiencing online harassment. Social media is convenient and easy to use, but it is powerful, and oftentimes dangerous. While social media can be a useful tool for being in contact with people, it is also used to spread hate and expose young people to hurtful comments. As a young person myself, I do my best to limit the amount of negativity I view on my social media. I do this by having a private account. This gives me the power to only accept follow requests from people that I know. It also limits the amount of people who have access to my social media which lowers the possibility of receiving hateful comments and unwanted messages.
I feel like young people need to follow accounts that spread both positivity and kindness. This lowers the amount of anti-LGBTQ+ content that they could witness online. It is essential for people to recognise influencers and content creators who have the intention of sharing positive messages and take care and consideration before posting things on social media.
Report and block people who could potentially or have posted content that is hurtful and hateful towards any particular person or community. These types of people can also be avoided by not accepting follow requests from people you don’t know, people with no profile picture, or people without a bio.
I strongly believe that we can promote positive content to make social media a more positive place for LGBTQ+ young people. This can be done by sharing and supporting individuals or organisations online that strive to make social media more diverse and more inclusive for queer people.