The feeling is Virtual |

7 mins

The feeling is Virtual

For LGTBQ+ people, finding support, friendship, understanding or solidarity can be difficult when our local communities may not match our identities or beliefs. It is no surprise to find that virtual connections have fulfilled those needs for many. Nicole Lee shares her own experience of discovering comfort can come from alternative sources.

The first time a woman broke my heart, I was 33. At the time, most of my close friends were straight cis women celebrating their wedding anniversaries to straight cis men. They consoled me and channeled memories from their own experiences of heartbreak, but my pain wasn’t present for them. Break-ups were a memory from a previous stage of their lives, far removed from their day-to-day experiences of monogamous marriage and parenthood.

I tried talking to my single straight friends, but dating was something they’d grown to approach with caution after decades of experience. Unlike them, I felt like a teenager who had been broken up with for the first time since I only dated boys in my teens and twenties, before I knew I was gay. Those friends tried to hold space for me but talking with them felt unhelpful.

Finally, I reached out to Chloe: someone I’d met through a mutual Instagram connection who hosted LGBTQ+ friendship matches the year before.

I’ve never met Chloe in real life. She lives in New Zealand, and I live in Ireland. At the time, we were just acquaintances, but she was navigating a recent heartbreak, too, and we immediately understood each other. After exchanging a few messages, I realised she related to what I was experiencing in a way that my in-person friends did not.

With an 11-hour time difference between us, we talked through the pain of being rejected by someone we loved, the challenges of long-distance relationships, and how it feels to fully step into your queer identity in your 30’s. We swapped stories about our respective break-ups, our exes, and the texts we regretted sending them. I shared a playlist that I’d made to walk me through the emotional heartache, and she told me how well it articulated her own pain. Everything resonated. And I didn’t feel alone anymore.

For my straight friends, my break-up was unrelatable, but Chloe understood completely.

And because she was a few months ahead of me in the heartache, talking with her helped me visualise a path forward. She normalised having big all-consuming feelings and gave me hope for how I could be feeling better soon. Her presence was the healing energy I needed to feel less isolated in my pain. I’m so grateful for the patience, kindness, and gentleness she showed me when I was struggling, and I often talk about her as an example of how impactful queer community can be.

When I describe queer community, I typically reflect on the sense of comfort and belonging I feel when I’m in an LGBTQ+ centred space. I think about queer poetry readings, vegan sandwich shops with rainbow flags decorating their doors, and local parks filled with families celebrating Pride in June. I also think about all of the LGBTQ+ resources organised for the community by places like the Outhouse and the Dublin Lesbian Line.

I feel lucky to have access to so many queer-owned businesses and community spaces. I feel free to talk openly about my feelings and experiences. Outside of these designated safe spaces, I often censor myself. I hesitate and assess before I share information about my dating life. I worry that a seemingly kind stranger will change their tone when they realise I’m gay.

Ideally everyone would have access to an LGBTQ+ community centre or gay bar in their city, but physical spaces are not accessible for everyone, and walking into a queer space for the first time can be an intimidating experience, especially for someone who is newly out. Plus, the quality and availability of physical LGBTQ+ spaces are often limited by factors like funding, transportation, and population.

In addition to a lack of queer-specific community centres, LGBTQ+ people living in rural areas are less likely to have access to LGBTQ-informed support groups and medical providers. According to a study by The Trevor Project in the US, nearly half (49 percent) of LGBTQ+ youth living in rural areas and small towns said their community is unaccepting of LGBTQ+ people compared to only 26 percent of those in urban and suburban areas.

In these cases, virtual queer spaces are a convenient and accessible way to offer community, support, and LGBTQ+ centred education across long distances. Something as simple as following LGBTQ+ people on Twitter and TikTok can provide connection and confidence for queer people to find their voices. For someone who is in the process of figuring out their LGBTQ+ identity, niche virtual communities can offer affirming life-saving supports.

Like many of you, I’m still feeling heartbroken and infuriated over the loss of Brianna Ghey. She was such an incredible teenager and her impact continues to be felt by so many. I keep thinking about how she should still be here, freely living and being a light for other trans youth.

One of the things that struck me the most after her death was a testimony I read from a teenager who only knew Brianna from TikTok. The two never met in real life, but their friendship offered this person hope, comfort and understanding. Their connection has had me thinking about the power of virtual queer community and how important this kind of space is for people who would feel isolated without it, myself included.

The first time I fully relied on virtual queer community was when I moved to Ireland in 2020. In response to the pandemic, established LGBTQ+ creators were moving their platforms to social media and queer spaces were rushing to create online events to support and sustain their communities.

I joined a few Ireland-based Meetup groups, and one of them was hosting a virtual event inviting new and old members to enjoy chats over zoom. I was nervous that everyone else would already know each other, but I challenged myself to join the chat, and I was welcomed immediately. I met cis women and trans women who identified as bi, lesbian, and queer, and we ended up chatting for almost five hours! After the zoom, we agreed that we’d all felt starved for social community, and we created a WhatsApp group chat which became a support group, of sorts.

Group chats have a reputation of being annoying, but this one became a lifeline. The chat quickly grew to include about 30 women and non-binary people ranging in age from 19 to 55. We talked daily and that chat gave me a sense of routine and comfort during an incredibly challenging time.

We cheered each other through newly formed longdistance relationships, comforted each other through Covid fears, and talked about queer topics in an incredibly caring and intimate setting. When someone needed to find a queer-informed therapist, everyone rallied to help her. This seemed remarkable, and yet, it was exactly what I’d expect from a group of queers.

That space offered connection, solidarity, and support. We could vent about homophobic and transphobic experiences and fantasise about starting our own safe community full of our chosen family after the pandemic was over. It was the best kind of community support for people who were newly out and struggling during lockdown.

Hearing stories about what other people were going through was comforting. And the community was incredible. When someone needed to vent, others were ready to hop onto a zoom. When someone was feeling overwhelmed, we could offer support. When someone needed a distraction, we could play an online game.

Those lovely, validating, and intimate conversations were an incredible resource. I often forgot that I was chatting with people who were only a few miles away since we weren’t able to meet in person. Discovering that virtual queer space gave me hope for a post-lockdown social life. I wanted to stay in Ireland so that I could hang out with these people in person. This LGBTQ+ group chat was a mirror of the queer community I’ve found in life. It felt connecting, comforting, and healing.

For many of us, shifting to an online community was circumstantial. During lockdown, everything from drag performers demoing makeup tutorials to colleges hosting LGBTQ+ speakers migrated to virtual events. While many communities have shifted back to in-person meetings, virtual connections are still an important and necessary part of LGBTQ+ community.

Online communities provide a vast pool of people to connect with across distances, this is especially true for those living in countries that don’t support LGBTQ+ rights, and for those in areas without adequate resources to host these events. Continuing to offer events via livestream makes them more accessible for immunocompromised people, those with disabilities, accessibility challenges, and anyone who doesn’t live in cities that regularly host queer events.

Queer community is essential, and virtual community is a life-changing option for many, especially those who aren’t out to their family and contacts. With online communities, people can tailor the community to include exactly what they need: those who make them feel safe and understood, and privacy can be protected by blocking those who don’t meet those needs.

Virtual LGBTQ+ communities feel reflective, inclusive, and safe, and everyone deserves that. I’m always going to be thankful for meeting Chloe. We’re such similar people with similar experiences and it’s wild to consider that we never would have met without a virtual queer community.

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The feeling is Virtual
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