#QueerInTheCapital: Exploring Social Media and Queer Identity in Ottawa

As well-known social media specialist Simon Mainwaring famously wrote: “The role of social media is critical because it helps to spread cognitive dissonance by connecting thought leaders and activists to ordinary citizens rapidly expanding the network of people who become willing to take action.”

Social media, digital storytelling and the Internet have played an integral role in the success of modern activist movements by fostering a sense of belonging to a community that transcends borders. These online spaces provide a digital space to tell stories in a way that is uniquely engaging and easily shared to a global audience, and they do it in a way that the mass media was never able to accomplish.

By allowing these communities to finally control their own narrative, digital media (or “new” media) allows for accurate representation that brings with it a sense of control over how they are presented to the wider world.

“The great thing about social media is that when we see these pop stars exploiting the LGBTQ community, or when we see these one-note queer characters in film, we can now say right away ‘hey, that’s not cool’ and people who can do something about it might actually be listening.”

Ryan Lewis, 25

In 2016, the LGBTIQ+ Refugee Digital Storytelling Project (spearheaded by Wendy McGuire) used digital storytelling to profile several LGBTQ refugees who were members of the Toronto Metropolitan Community Church. Each of the six participants created audio recordings telling their stories, which were then shared with the wider church community.

Victoria St. Michael Photo

In a follow-up report written after the project’s completion, McGuire claims that digital storytelling facilitates agency, visibility and connection among participants and other members of a broader community.

According to McGuire, in a closing story circle, the participants expressed feelings of relief. “This project brought their private pain into public visibility, where they could make sense of it in a supportive community,” she wrote in the article, published in the 2018 Transnational Social Review Journal.

Although I believe that McGuire’s findings captured an accurate snapshot of one of digital media’s biggest benefits, I think she only scratched the tip of the iceberg. 

Since the advent of social media, the ability for digital storytelling to facilitate this sense of belonging has amplified tenfold. For many marginalized communities, social media platforms are a safe haven of self-expression, giving them a platform on which to express themselves and tell their stories to an unprecedentedly vast audience.

We see it with every explosive hashtag, from #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo and #TimesUp. Even if you are not directly affected by a particular issue, social media gives us an insight into the experiences of others in a way that has never before been possible.

To test McGuire’s claims, I decided to recreate and modernize her project by using video to share the stories of several members of Ottawa’s LGBTQ+ community. This time, however, I decided to focus more on how social media has helped them build a sense of identity and belonging within the community.

Much like the participants of McGuire’s original project, the community members I interviewed conveyed feelings of relief in digital media’s ability to share their stories in a way that is most authentic to them.

When it came to more traditional forms of mass media like television, film and even music, the recurring sentiment was that the lack of control over how the community is presented has led to inaccurate representation that encourages potentially harmful stereotypes.

“Seriously, what’s in my panties? That’s such an insignificant part of my life. And nobody knows! You don’t know, they don’t know, nobody in my workplace knows unless I’ve talked to them about what’s down there. And why would I? Nobody is actually that fixated on that part of my life, because it doesn’t matter. And I think that’s why the mass media fails so much.”

Tamara Wiens, 52

Nancy Thumim echoed these sentiments in her book Self Representation and Digital Culture. Thumim notes that self-representation no longer requires third parties to step in and influence how these stories will be told.

“In the online setting people do not need broadcasters to provide a platform, to invite or to edit their self-representations,” she explains.

Throughout the chapter, Thumim reiterates social media’s importance as a platform that allows people to speak for themselves. She cites an ever-increasing pervasiveness of user-generated media that has become an essential part of online participation. 

That being said, she does refer to three major types of mediation (institutional, cultural and textual mediation) that still occur in online spaces, especially on privatized networks owned by corporate giants like Facebook and Google. Thanks to algorithms, filters and ‘community guidelines,’ our self-expression in these spaces is sometimes more moderated than we realize. 

Thumim reminds us that self-representation is not ever free of mediation, but it is always mediated differently in different settings. This claim was echoed by 52-year-old Tamara Wiens, who mentioned that, although these limitations do exist, corporations filter what is appropriate largely through the court of public opinion. In a society that is becoming increasingly progressive, so too are the filters and guidelines put forward by media corporations.

Although they have the potential to impede progress, Wiens also touched on the potential for these filters and guidelines to help make online social networks a safe place for the LGBTQ+ community to express themselves. Rules against spam and hate speech keep ‘haters’ and ‘trolls’ at bay.

However, she does point out that social media activists should be aware that our online activity is unlikely to convert a ‘hater.’ For this, marginalized communities must continue to translate their online passion into offline actions.

Alex Tetreault, 28, also mentioned this. He says in the video that, as useful as social media can be, the widespread exposure it provides can also provoke backlash.

“We’re still fighting, obviously. That’s why we still have the pride parades and the rallies. That’s why you still hear the horror stories of people in the community getting attacked and kids killing themselves. Internet trolls are more powerful than I think they realize. But, you know, so are we. That’s why we still fight. Social media just makes it easier to do that. It’s a step in the right direction.”

Alex Tetreault, 28

For many, social media is a safe haven, providing a sometimes-necessary buffer between themselves and those who wield the gavel. Instagram, for example, is widely used by members of the queer community to bend the rules of gender and break down stereotypes in a supportive environment.

All of the participants in my video discussed Instagram in a positive light, especially when it comes to its power to use imagery (and even video) as a tool for self-expression among members of the queer community. 

A 2016 report by the UK government’s department for Culture, Media and Sport found that there were over twice as many LGBTQ+ users on Instagram than there were heterosexual users.  

“In a stunning turn of events,” reported Pink News, a popular LGBTQ+ news site following the release of the report, “there are a lot of gays on Instagram.”

The report also found that 46 per cent of all Instagram users in the UK are between the ages of 16 and 24, which is consistent with the claims made by Orlando Blacksmith, 24, who says he uses Instagram to express his “best queer self” without judgement from those in his life – friends, family members and Elders from his community in Waswanipi, Quebec – who might not agree with his lifestyle choices. 

Orlando Blacksmith Photo/Instagram

“Facebook is still kind of old school,” Blacksmith said. “There are a lot more young people – young queer people, especially – on Instagram. Not that I actively hide who I am on Facebook or anything, I just feel better posting that kind of thing on Instagram where I know it won’t negatively affect my life when I go visit back home.” 

This brings us back to Thumim’s concept of cultural mediation, which says that there are still social factors that could forcibly mute a person’s online self-expression on certain platforms.

Ryan Lewis, 25, spoke about this as well. He also discussed self-editing in the form of being selective about what you share, adding that photo filters are another way to self-mediate and curate the image of yourself that you project online.

“Despite that I still think social media lets you be your most authentic self, though,” Lewis added. “Because the important thing is that it’s you who is deciding how you’re being portrayed. You don’t get that kind of control with other kinds of media.”

I realize that by discussing this purely from the standpoint of the LGBTQ+ community, I am still only scratching the tip of the iceberg. Social media is used in many different ways, by many different communities who are all leaping at the chance to have their voices heard. 

From the black community who turned a hashtag into a global phenomenon that inspires radical social change, to Indigenous men, women and youth like the #Sealfie activists who use social media to preserve and reclaim their culture, it is clear that we are experiencing an age of reclamation on many fronts. Not only are marginalized communities using digital media to garner support with each other, they are also using it to reach out to those beyond their own communities. 

Social and digital media are doing something unique, treading where no media has gone before – it is giving a voice to the voiceless.

Whether my little video project will blow up or fade into obscurity remains to be seen. However, each participant has assured me – just as McGuire claims that the participants of her original digital storytelling project assured her – that having the opportunity for their stories to be told their way will always be more important than likes and clicks.