Sarah Kelly was getting a divorce from her husband – a “COVID divorce,” as it were – and resigned herself to the idea of a spinsterly existence. But a year later, tired of that, she began mulling over her future. She simultaneously downloaded TikTok.
What (rather, who) started to crowd her feed? Lesbians. Did that mean … could it be … was Kelly actually a lesbian too?
Yes.
“Seeing people who came out later in life and that that narrative was a possibility also really helped me feel more comfortable in this space,” says the 39-year-old.
Social media apps like TikTok use algorithms to determine the content they show you, and some users say the results clued them in on the fact that they were queer before they realized it themselves. Experts say it’s not like these platforms can actually tell you you’re LGBTQ – but they evidently could awaken what you’ve been missing.
“Platforms like TikTok pick up on your passive behaviors, like the amount of time you stay on a video before scrolling onward, to optimize content they think you’ll be interested in,” says Gregory Serapio-García, a PhD candidate in the department of psychology at the University of Cambridge in England. “Therefore, someone who doesn’t know that they’re LGBTQ, but unconsciously spends more time viewing queer and queer-adjacent content could be tagged as queer without actively engaging with queer content.”
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Kelly isn’t sure what prompted TikTok to send queer videos her way. Maybe she clicked on one and that rainbow-fied her feed. She started dating her husband at age 20 and split at age 38; her sexuality always felt irrelevant due to the monogamous nature of her relationship.
But the internet had a lot to show her. “Does our sexuality impact which social media content we want to view? Sure,” says Monica Eaton-Cardone, co-founder and COO of financial tech company Chargebacks911. “Is it also possible that the viewing patterns of people who’re still trying to determine their sexuality will have certain commonalities that an algorithm could exploit? Sure. But the algorithm still wouldn’t ‘know’ that you’re gay or straight or anything else.”
Kelly quickly found a girlfriend and feels more aligned with herself.
“Actually being with a woman, emotionally and physically intimately with a woman, has made it very clear that this is something that was missing from my life before,” she says.
While definitive conclusions are hard to come by, “it seems reasonable and plausible that exposure to queer content on social media could help empower a closeted person to come out by reducing their negative feelings about queerness and affirming their sexual identity,” Serapio-García says.
Danny Pence, who is asexual and nonbinary – only just came to terms with their sexuality and gender identity.
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“I wasn’t using TikTok for very long before my feed was a mix of (Dungeons & Dragons) and queer TikTok,” says the 31-year-old from Greenville, Ohio. “Twitter is another prime example. Almost all of their suggested tweets and follows are from people who are somewhere on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.”
And in retrospect, Pence’s feelings were there. “I was pretty oblivious to it in the past, but with hindsight being 20/20, it’s pretty damn obvious looking back,” they say. “I would say that perhaps being raised in the church caused me to repress a lot of things or to misidentify them as simply fetishes.”
Sarah Connor knew she was queer before she started using TikTok – though the app figured out the 24-year-old in 45 minutes.
“I have always followed a lot of queer entertainment stuff, like ‘Drag Race,’ a lot of queer singers and musicians,” she says. “So I don’t know if it knew from my other social media use that that was a thing that I was interested in.”
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The app did, however, push Connor further out of the closet. Sending gay TikTok videos back and forth to her friends makes it easier to talk about.
Kelly has since deleted TikTok. After all, it is a time suck. But what if TikTok has more in store for her?
No thanks, she’s all set: “I can’t afford more life revelations at this point.”
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