Queer Visibility & Virtual Vulnerability: Pros & Cons of Social Media

For the LGBTQ+ community, online spaces have become an important source of peer connection and social support. Queer people benefit from the resources and visibility that social media provides, but is can also expose them to online hate speech and abuse.

By Hannah Gargini 22nd January 2024

Photo by Shane at Unsplash

Author image

Hannah Gargini

Mental Health Research Analyst


For the LGBTQ+ community, online spaces have become an important source of peer connection and community, information, acceptance, visibility and social support. Gender and sexual minority individuals benefit from the resources and visibility social media provides but it can also expose them to online abuse. Queer people are at increasing risk of the detrimental psychological impacts of receiving such abuse, and the dangerous real-life consequences of violent and hateful speech online.

Social media can be a great tool for the LGBTQ+ community

The internet has become an essential tool for young queer people to connect with each other and learn more about themselves, which is especially important for those who are not otherwise exposed to education and knowledge of LGBTQ+ identities. Using social media can significantly improve the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ+ youth through connecting with other LGBTQ+ peers, gaining social support and accessing information online that aids in navigating their own identities (Berger, M.N., Taba, M., Marino, J.L., Lim, M.S.C. & Skinner, S.R. 2022).

Perhaps that is why queer youth are spending significantly more time on the internet than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. According to research by The Trevor Project (2023), TikTok was rated by LGBTQ+ youth as the number one social media platform they feel the safest and most understood on. Overall, LGBTQ+ youth found online spaces more affirming than at-home or school environments.


American LGBTQ+ youth find online spaces more affirming than at home or school environments - The Trevor Project

Support gained from other LGBTQ+ and allies social media users can make a real difference. Zach Willmore began documenting his diagnosis and treatment of HIV on TikTok in early 2023. Although he received hate comments fueled by homophobia and HIV stigma, most of the comments he received were of unwavering support, commending his bravery for spreading awareness about the disease despite the surrounding stigma. “Besides the fact that I think it’s good for people to be educated on the topic of HIV, it’s really helped me get through this process” Zach says.


Screengrabs via @zachwillmore on TikTok

Support for the LGBTQ+ community on TikTok helps normalise the existence of queer people in society, promoting the visibility of queer identities to other social media users. This is especially impactful for people in parts of the world where LGBTQ+ people are less accepted or seen. Connecting with supportive communities online is associated with decreased levels of loneliness and geographical isolation for queer social media users (Escobar-Viera et al 2018).

“Thanks to this platform, most people in the region are exposed to the LGBT community for the first time, because there is no such visibility in traditional media,” Milica Crekvenjakov says to BalkanInsight. Milica is an LGBTQ+ activist and TikTok creator from Serbia, a country still yet to legalise gay marriage. But like most, she also witnesses the darker sides of social media, adding that “sometimes the LGBT community merely receives insults, but there are also calls for murder and isolation”.


Milica Crekvenjakov

The dark side of social media and its impact on LGBTQ+ people

The rate of hate speech and online abuse has been on the rise in recent years, and social platforms are consistently failing to moderate hateful and violent content. Researchers have tracked increases in violent threats and hate speech on popular social media sites, such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. For example, GLAAD's 2023 Social Media Index highlights that the current state of anti-LGBTQ+ hate and disinformation online is an "alarming public health and safety issue", and one that social media platforms are not doing enough to address.

According to a survey by the Anti-Defamation League (2023), rates of online abuse and harassment have risen in America since 2022. 33% of adults reported experiencing online hate in the previous year, up from 23% the year before, and 51% of teenagers reported experiencing online harassment in the previous year, up from 36% in 2022. The Anti-Defamation League found that among marginalised groups, LGBTQ+ people reported the greatest rates of harassment, particularly for transgender individuals. The increasing prevalence of online hate and abuse is affecting people of all demographic categories, but the LGBTQ+ community are facing the brunt of it.


Share of Americans who experienced any online harassment in the previous 12 months, by demographic group - The Anti-Defamation League (2023)

This is especially concerning as LGBTQ+ people are already more likely to struggle with common mental health problems, due to the existing climate of stigma and prejudice in their everyday lives (Stefanita & Buf 2021). Being the most targeted minority group for online harassment only intensifies the threat to the community's mental health and general well-being, leading to or worsening emotional distress, depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation and panic attacks (Nyman, H. Provozin, A. 2019). Hate speech and abuse online also impact those not personally targeted, as even observing homophobic and transphobic content across social media platforms can be emotionally taxing and traumatising, instilling fear of being targeted next.

“There are very real resulting harms to LGBTQ people online including a chilling effect on LGBTQ freedom of expression for fear of being targeted and the sheer traumatic psychological impact of being relentlessly exposed to slurs and hateful conduct.”

GLAAD 2023

The psychological impacts of being subjected to online hate and harassment because of one's gender or sexual orientation can be particularly damaging to young people, who might develop an internalised sense of self-blame, and through feeling unable to express their gender or sexuality, may seek to comply to society's cis- and hetero-normative expectations. Not only do young people often withdraw from expressing their true selves because of self-blame and fear of becoming targets of online harassment, but many will withdraw from participating in society altogether, restricting their potential for identity-building and learning through interacting with others. (Keighly, R. 2021). 

Transgender internet personality Dylan Mulvaney received intense transphobic backlash for an Instagram video promoting Bud-Light beer. “What transpired from that video was more bullying and transphobia than I could have ever imagined,”, she said in a TikTok video addressing the situation. The hate got so intense that she was “ridiculed in public”, and left her too scared to leave the house. She adds, “I have felt a loneliness that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”


Transgender internet personality Dylan Mulvaney

The wider impact of online hate speech

Those regularly witnessing online hate speech may become desensitised to the extent of its abusive and hurtful reality. People who are continuously exposed to hate speech targeting marginalised groups of which they are not part of may begin to have an increased bias toward those targeted, such as the LGBTQ+ community. Many begin to feel less sympathy towards targeted groups as instances of hate speech become normalised to them, increasing the risk of worsening prejudice. However, it is also suggested that positive attitudes towards marginalised groups may contribute to sensitising others to the true severity of abuse and discrimination that they face, preventing the normalisation that allows hate speech to escalate. (Soral, W., Bilewicz, M., Winiewski, M., 2017).

One of the consequences of escalating online hate is the growing threat of real-world violence. Violent hate crime perpetrators have frequently been linked to online communities that support and propagate extreme and discriminatory views against people of colour and the LGBTQ+ community. The perpetrator of the anti-LGBTQ+ Colorado nightclub shooting, Anderson Aldrich, has been accused of creating a “free-speech” website, used to anonymously share racist and anti-Semitic content. Similarly, it was discovered that Patrick Crusius, the gunman behind the 2019 El Paso shooting that specifically targeted Latinos, had published a 'manifesto' on the website 8chan, outlining his plans before carrying out 23 murders with racist motivations. 

Failing to moderate the abuse of marginalised groups online enables the hostility that motivates hate crime offline. Even though people may not view online harassment as serious as offline abuse, allowing a culture of hate and stigma to grow in online communities can have serious harmful consequences for people of all marginalised groups.

What do the social media companies do about it?

Even though social media companies have policies in place declaring that harassment and hate speech are not tolerated, the reality is that abuse is still rampant online, often with little to no consequences for the perpetrators. Despite TikTok stating on their community guidelines that they "do not allow any hateful behaviour, hate speech, or promotion of hateful ideologies,", The Institute for Strategic Dialogue reported findings that the platform actually "enables hatred", targeting minority groups including the LGBTQ+ community, POC, and religious groups. The report outlined that algorithms and TikTok features such as viral sounds and filters are being exploited to spread and amplify hateful and extremist content to unsuspecting TikTok users, despite the content going against community guidelines.

Since Elon Musk purchased the platform Twitter (or X), it has gained notoriety for devolving into a hotspot for far-right views and unconfined racism, transphobia, and anti-semitism. While Twitter was described as already being "a hellscape before Musk took over", the platform has deteriorated as a result of a growing hate culture that Musk has encouraged. Disguised as "free speech", Musk has used his powerful and influential platform to share tweets spreading transphobic and anti-semitic rhetoric, as well as using his platform to suggest that Twitter's former head of trust and safety Yoel Roth, a gay man, has supported letting children into gay dating apps, feeding into the "groomer" trope.

"If the owner of Twitter himself is pushing false and hateful content against his former head of safety, what can we expect from his platform?"

Bhaskar Chakravorti

GLAAD found that Twitter was the only major platform that decreased in SMSI score (GLAAD’s Social Media Safety Index) between 2022 and 2023. Instagram and Facebook, both run by Meta, increased in score due to recent efforts such as prohibiting targeted misgendering, and gender identity policy enforcement training for moderators. However, the platforms are still falling behind as there are no policies in place that prohibit targeted deadnaming, and enforcement of the misgendering ban requires the instance being reported by the individual and does not protect public figures.

Gigi Gorgeous, a transgender woman famous for being a YouTuber and actress, spoke out to abcnews about the reality of receiving hate as an LGBTQ+ public figure. “I have days where I don’t read the comments, for sure.” She says, “It can really hit you deep. And you can act like it doesn’t, but it really does.” With Instagram and Facebook failing to safeguard public figures from transphobic hate speech, it allows hate speech to thrive in celebrity and internet personality comment sections, giving abusive hate speech a platform to reach large audiences.


Screengrab via @gigigorgeous on Instagram

YouTube also raised its SMSI score this year, with improvements such as educating moderators on LGBTQ+ issues and improvements in diversity reporting, however, GLAAD reported that there are still no policies in place against deadnaming or misgendering.

Despite platforms appearing to make improvements and efforts to create a secure online environment for LGBTQ+ users, a 2023 social media investigation by Global Witness uncovered the harsh reality of the ongoing absence of moderation and protection. Their investigation consisted of submitting adverts containing hate speech against the LGBTQ+ community to TikTok, Instagram and Facebook in Ireland. The ten advertisements that they submitted to the platforms included extreme and violent speech, including “burn all gays”, and calls for the “trans lobby” to be murdered (none of which were published). 

Shockingly, YouTube and TikTok approved all ten adverts, while Facebook rejected only two. All three sites accepted adverts that promoted violent homophobia and violence against transgender women, emphasising the critical progress that has yet to be made to overcome hatred and protect users from violent online abuse.

Jenni Olson, GLAAD's senior director of social media safety, believes that platforms aren't doing what they can to stop hate speech because they are "profiting from Anti-LGBT hate". Influential and powerful figures inciting prejudice and hate online may be motivated by politics, with intentions to garner political power, or to dismantle the rights of particular minority groups, such as the LGBTQ+ community. "The consequences are becoming really disastrous that people are believing these things and taking violent actions", says Jenni Olson

“Dehumanising anti-LGBTQ content on social media such as misinformation and hate have an outsized impact on real world violence and harmful anti-LGBTQ legislation, but social media platforms too often fail at enforcing their own policies regarding such content”

GLAAD 2023

Ways of fighting online hate speech

What can be done to make a difference and lessen the harm that social media is having on the LGBTQ+ community? Knowing that positive attitudes towards minority groups can help to sensitise people to the true offensive extent of hate speech (Soral, W., Bilewicz, M. & Winiewski, M. 2017), it is all the more important that we spread understanding and support for marginalised and targeted groups at a time when many are becoming desensitised to and normalising abuse.

Leading with positivity

Spreading positivity may even help prevent trolls from sharing hateful comments in the first place, "If they see just one hate speech comment, they string together a hundred others. But if they notice a lot of positive comments, even when they thought they were going to leave something negative, there is less chance that they will write it.”, says Milica, Serbian LGBTQ+ activist and TikTok creator.

Focusing on the many positive sides of being on social media and engaging with your communities can bring greater comfort and lessen the toll that trolls and hate speech have on your mental health and well-being. Gigi Gorgeous told ABC News Live, “You have to look at the positive. There could be one hundred positive comments and one negative one. It’s better to focus on all the good.”

Changing perspectives

But sometimes the hate comments can be out of control, and while social media platforms are not doing enough to prevent this, we can learn something valuable from those who have learned ways to cope with it. Jeffrey Marsh, a non-binary TikTok creator and a victim of excessive hate speech online, shares that they deal with the hoards of hate they receive online by applying a mindset consisting of two beliefs. The first is their belief that they reflect what needs to be healed in others. “I want to be a mirror that reflects what needs to be healed for everyone. And that is certainly going to include people that hate me deeply,”, they say.

Second, they believe that those who post hate speech may really be struggling themselves, and Jeffrey shares that they feel a great deal of sympathy and understanding toward them. “I assume the people that hate me most continue to hate me so that they don’t have to face their own pain (...) That brings me a whole lot of empathy, kindness, and love for those folks.”


Image of Jeffrey Marsh from Facebook

Fighting back

Fighting back against online hate doesn’t have to be confrontational. Awareness of the growing issue and impact of online hatred is just one step towards progress. Reporting instances of abuse, cyberbullying and hate speech is an important tool in holding websites accountable for the hate hosted on their platforms. Incidents of online hatred can be reported to organisations that combat hate, such as StopHateUK, Internet Watch Foundation, or even to the police. In the UK, threatening or aiming to incite hatred is a hate crime, and includes online activity such as posts calling for violence against a person or group of people.

While the internet can expose us to hatred and prejudice, it is also a vital source of support, communication, and knowledge for the LGBTQ+ community, allowing people to connect with others like them and learn more about their own and others' identities. Promoting the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ social media users is something we all can contribute to, by continuing to use the internet to spread support, kindness and solidarity toward all those who are vulnerable to online hate.