Since the dawn of Tumblr theory and ideology, the question of what goes into being queer has plagued the internet. Growing up on the blogging site placed many ideas in my head, but as I slowly stopped using it, I realized that those ideas were leaving me as well.
That is, until I joined TikTok in late 2020. All across my “For You” page, I’ve continued to see TikTok creators reinstate strange ideas of what it means to be queer. They extend beyond common jokes about “gaydar” or sharing hinted gazes at a party, and are instead based on far more superficial and sometimes harmful ideology. TikTok has quickly transformed being queer into a commodified physical trait, reinforcing the idea that queerness is something you can pick out of a crowd.
I noticed this idea early on, particularly in content surrounding top and bottom discourse. In discussing what “makes” a top or a bottom, there are strange videos of people’s eyes stating that people who open them wider are bottoms, while those who slightly close them are tops. To be fair, I’ve seen great significance ascribed to small, inconsequential behaviors or characteristics on the internet for years. From plaguing the lives of real bandmates being “shipped” by fans to this new TikTok trend, it seems people are obsessed with categorizing the LGBT+ experience.
This practice, however, has negative consequences: it can lead to overgeneralizations, as seen when some confuse tops and bottoms with the doms and subs of BDSM culture. Insinuating that bottoms are the same as subs plays into the “historically reinforced heteronormative assimilation” noted by Joseph Longo in his Mel Magazine piece “Straights, Calling Yourself a Bottom Doesn’t Make You an Ally.” Really, trends focusing on queer people’s sexual positions reinforce the idea that queer people need to fit into certain boxes to even be a part of the community. And when straight people take part in these TikTok trends that determine whether they are “bottoms” or “tops,” it allows people who aren’t a part of the community to infiltrate what they think is a sort of “club.”
It’s fun to think of being queer as an exclusive club, but for many people, the reality of being queer isn’t fun. I struggled for years to accept who I am. Growing up queer and not cisgender was confusing—at times, terrifying—and the internet only added to that. As a 13-year-old, being told by “queer elders” on Tumblr that my limited sexual attraction was because I was asexual and not because I was a closeted child did significant damage to how I viewed myself as well as the community I’d end up joining. The idea that all gay people fit into a box is fun to joke about with friends—but once it becomes the norm, what’s left to being queer?
When queerness is commercialized we get TikToks like this one, which showcases “types of sapphics.” One woman wears a backward hat that’s labeled as a “lesbian with a massive ego,” and another is seen in a powersuit labeled as a “mean career fem.” In another video, it’s implied that people who wear silver jewelry are gay, and people who wear gold jewelry are straight. This was probably said as a joke, but seeing queerness turned into something that can be easily identified like this is draining and damaging; if you tell a teenager on the internet that queer people only wear certain things, they’re going to believe it. Regardless of whether these stereotypes are true for some people, they cannot be the reality for everyone. In fact, it’s mostly white queer people making content like this, leaving behind queer people of color who often exist outside these ideas of queer stereotypes. Yes, some queer people dress a certain way, and yes, some queer people like a certain type of music, but these ideas become weighty after years of seeing them on the internet—am I a bad queer because I’ve listened to nothing but grunge for the last five months? Do I need to listen to Charli XCX again to shake off this “straight” aspect of myself? Of course the answer is no, but at 22 years old, I still find myself questioning it sometimes.
This commodification is not what the people before us fought for. The least we can do is not turn their legacy into judging other queer people for what sexual position they like or what color jewelry they wear. As someone who’s been very online since I was young, these discussions have become exhausting, and it’s easy to feel alone in it. It’s nice to know, though, that I’m not the only one who feels this way. At times, I worry I’m being pessimistic, even “old,” in the way that I view current LGBT discourse. But every few days I’ll see a video or article of someone saying that some particular brand of LGBT TikTok discourse originally happened on Tumblr seven years ago, and it makes me feel sane.
With the hold that TikTok currently has over the social media sphere, it feels like the Tumblr I escaped from has taken on a new name, and these ideas have slowly worked their way back into my life. Queerness isn’t about any particular way of dressing or any particular genre of music; it’s about finding yourself. It should mean finding a home amongst people who are like you, being able to exist in the world as yourself and not as some ideal into which people on the internet have boxed you.
By Kaiya Shunyata