How technology has changed the LGBT+ experience

Meera Last, June 25, 2019 5 min read

We’ve come a long way 

It’s June, Pride Month. One month every year where you can see the rainbow flag and that distinct collection of letters, LGBT, stacked together, and stretched across shop fronts, over web banners, on television. Pride is a time for LGBT+ to celebrate themselves – to reflect on the immense progress that those who have come before us have made and reassert their right to self expression. 

It has been 50 years since the riots at Stonewall, when a brick was thrown in defiance of police raids on LGBT establishments. In 1969, homosexuality was still criminalised in most countries. The World Health Organisation recognised homosexuality as a mental disorder until 1994. Being able just to be was the fight to be had.

But the recent protests at teaching LGBT+ relationships in primary schools; the violent and misogynistic attack on a lesbian couple on a bus; and the deeply transphobic online campaign to remove Munroe Burgdorf from her post with the NSPCC all signal that we’ve still got a long way to go. 

So it is understandable that for some, Pride is a time to demand more. Pride still has its roots in protest and while it should be used to reflect on progress, it should also highlight current injustices and demand a greater level of scrutiny when it comes to public and visible support of the LGBT+ community. 

Has technology created positive change?

It is clear that technology has, in part, played a role in this growing wave of progress. It has the enormous power to affect change. It allows LGBT+ to connect beyond geographic and physical boundaries, and to reduce the feeling of isolation that can so commonly be part of the LGBT+ experience. Increasing the visibility of issues that affect LGBT+ people, and working to spotlight key campaigns for change, have all been emboldened by the use of technology. From the battle to introduce same-sex marriage in Taiwan, to the legalisation of homosexuality in India, to the issue of workplace discrimination in the US: all have had an online element that has catapulted the topic onto the world stage.

Social media has also helped to amplify the voices of those who have previously been marginalised and sidelined – and this new prominence has undoubtedly contributed to increasing acceptance. Online campaigns like “It Gets Better” saw famous voices speak soothingly of how good things can get. Aimed at LGBT youth struggling with coming out, it aspired to connect them together and give them hope for a better future. Since then, more content has been published on Youtube, attracting  millions of shares. Channels made by couples and individuals create a platform for them to share the stories of their relationships and daily lives, giving vulnerable young LGBT+ worldwide a beacon of hope, and working to normalise the LGBT+ experience. 

As positive voices get amplified though, so too does the negative backlash. Hate campaigns targeting prominent LGBT+ individuals bring to light the prevelance of homophobic & transphobic views that many still hold. What once might have been a narrative controlled by the dominant power structures, now has the benefit and danger of allowing everyone and anyone to give their two cents. With the debate then bleeding back into other forms of media, LGBT+ people can feel a real sense of suffocation and fear. 

Queer culture and the impact on physical spaces 

There have been other impacts of the LGBT+ community growing online. What once was discourse and interaction in real life has transferred to apps and online LGBT+ spaces; and it has likely contributed to the end of countless queer venues up and down the country. As the digital community builds, and LGBT+ people can find each other outside of the traditional spaces, cornerstones of culture have closed. However, would the campaign to save the iconic and historic Royal Vauxhall Tavern have been such a success without the aid of an incredible online movement? 

Although progress has been made in the UK and many other countries, LGBT+ people are still being persecuted in many places across the world. In 13 countries, homosexuality in punishable by death penalty. In many others, it carries a prison sentence. And even in countries we’d consider more “enlightened”, LGBT+ people still face discrimination in the workplace, and street harrassment. 

This is one of the many reasons why pride remains such an important movement and why queer communities using technology to connect and campaign for change still have the capacity to make a real difference.

The next generation of queer spaces 

LGBT+ people throughout history have found ways to connect with each other. It used to be that we would speak a “different language”. Polari, a secret language, allowed gay men to reveal themselves to each other. A green carnation, pinned to a man’s lapel, a symbol of something unspoken. Women trading violets; a careful, quiet declaration of love. Living a “secret life”. Living with the fear and threat of discovery. 

The ability of technology to foster communities has been harnessed. These tools – from dating apps like Her, to online communities like Meetup – have provided a platform for LGBT+ people to discover one another; to meet under safe circumstances than might not otherwise be possible in public. 80% of the LGBT+ community believe that dating apps – connecting together self-identifying LGBT+ people – have had a positive impact on the community as a whole. 

Technology can also provide safety in the most dangerous of circumstances – however banal it might seem to cisgendered heterosexuals. Express VPN is a popular tool – a Virtual Private Network – that some LGBT+ people use to protect their identity online when interacting in digital queer spaces. Misterbnb, a travel app dedicated to connecting LGBT+ travellers and hosts, aims to eliminate the risk of confronting homophobic abuse whilst abroad. Gaycities is essentially an interactive map that indicates where you’d find a welcome in a new place. Even blockchain has cropped up. The LGBT token is a form of cryptocurrency that hopes to empower LGBT individuals in places where they face the threat of economic persecution. The Rainbow Campaign – a global LGBT+ crowdfunding network supports businesses and individuals looking to empower the community, providing a platform for growth.

The power of digital can also be constrained by governments and regulators with ulterior motives. The removal of a swathe of content on Weibo sparked fears for China’s LGBT+ community that a government-led crackdown on queer material had been launched. A group of scientists at Stanford University faced enormous backlash when they first presented their AI that claimed to “recognise facial features related to sexual orientation”. Quite why an AI would be needed for that purpose is still a mystery.

While diversity and inclusion in tech remains a major topic of conversation, visibility is still lacking, making it important for LGBT+ people to connect with each other in the tech space. The industry has work to do to ensure that LGBT+ employees and users feel supported and represented.

We should also be mindful of how we express this support at all times, not just during Pride month. Draping a rainbow flag over your logo is an easy gesture: but to make it mean something it has to be emboldened by real support. Hiring processes, company culture, and mindfulness of people’s differences are what will make a real impact in the continued fight. 

Here are some groups to get involved with if you are interested in joining and growing the community:

Out in TechIntertech LGBT+Lesbians Who Tech LGBT TechLGBT STEMLGBTQ in TechnologyPride in STEMGay Geek London MeetupQueer Code London Meetup

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