Friday, June 21, 2024

Love in the Time of Closets: How LGBT+ Teens Turned to Online Spaces to Discover Themselves

Before I came out, I had a girlfriend. Her name was (I think?) LilyPotter7728, and she was a user on Habbo Hotel. Habbo Hotel is an MMO which became popular in the early noughties. Users play as blocky humanoids and are tasked with decorating themed rooms and chatting with virtual strangers. It’s like a cross between The Sims and Chatroulette, if Chatroulette was populated entirely by Lego figurines, rather than chronic masturbators. Our ‘dates’ consisted of regular visits to the Habbo Hotel massage parlour (yes, that was a thing), where we’d attempt to circumvent the draconian censorship rules on Habbo’s chat function by mangling the spelling of various suggestive phrases. 

Looking back, there is a high probability that LilyPotter7728 was not who she said she was. But then again, neither was I. Instead of admitting that I was really a closeted 12 year old with burgeoning cystic acne and social anxiety, I spent my time on Habbo Hotel masquerading as a series of handsome male avatars, uniformly stating that my age was 21, as though any self-respecting 21 year old, named Josh, or Ben, or Ryan, with sparkling blue eyes and swoopy blonde hair would be caught anywhere near Habbo.

The possibilities for abuse in the construction of online personas has long been the target of moral panic. One needs only to look at the controversy which met Habbo after they became the subject of a Channel 4 exposé – although, to be fair, unfortunately it appears that the site was literally overrun with paedophiles

These sites weren’t just playgrounds for nefarious purposes, though. A recent study conducted by Tinder revealed that 1 in 5 LGBT people come out online before telling their loved ones IRL. And if you only look at Gen Z respondents, that number jumps to 75%, suggesting that the virtual-first method of coming out is becoming even more commonplace. Indeed, discussing the topic within my friendship group revealed that lying about one’s identity online was almost a ubiquitous queer experience, with the levels of deception ranging from a gentle massaging of the truth, to the construction of entirely new identities, which bore little resemblance to the confused teenager behind the screen. 

LGBT teens online
Habbo Hotel was just one of the many online spaces LGBT+ teens flocked to.

For me, my dalliances as Josh/Ben/Ryan were more of a pantomime, rather than the first, tentative steps on the journey of realising who I truly was. Puberty was kicking in, and somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I knew that I was attracted to girls. I also knew that I was a 12 year old girl, growing up in rural Northern Ireland, and that my fragile, prepubescent ego wasn’t ready to tackle those slippery questions of identity just yet. Role-playing as Josh/Ben/Ryan was an outlet for me to explore my attraction in the least transgressive way I could think of. For a few hours, I wanted to be a boy who liked girls. I wasn’t ready to question what it would mean to be a girl who liked girls. 

I wasn’t alone in my exploits. At around the same time, my friend E (who now identifies as a lesbian), was spending her formative years on Habbo Hotel. E was slightly more self-actualised than I was – unlike me, she played as an ‘enhanced’ version of herself, using her real name and hair colour, slightly adjusting her age and location. And slightly more wholesomely, she frequented ‘LGBT Wonderland’, Habbo’s equivalent of a gay bar, rather than the seedier haunts of the massage parlour and the strip club.

However, the convergence between her online identity and her real life was not entirely seamless. After months of talking, one of her Habbo conquests asked to turn her webcam on in MSN. E “freaked the fuck out” and dumped her, suddenly faced with the realisation that this was “a real human girl on the screen!” and that their meeting face-to-face might “mean something.” It was several years before E would come out IRL. In the early 2000s, LGBT representation was far from mainstream – despite a number of political milestones, the cultural tides had not yet begun to turn. LGBT media representation was still flimsy, sporadic, and frequently offensive. Like many queer teenagers, E turned to online subcultures – the exploration of her identity was mediated through the use of several different platforms: writing detailed gay fanfiction on Harry Potter RPG boards, fangirling on Tumblr, working up the courage to change her MSN status to a rainbow flag, then panic-strickenly changing it back whenever her friends came back online (‘It was a lot of admin!’).

While much has been made of the corrosive effects of trolling, and how internet anonymity has spread toxicity and mistrust throughout online spaces, and through culture more generally, one of the things that struck me when interviewing for this piece is the incredible kindness my interviewees received during their formative experiences. S described stumbling across an “unbelievably kind” community of queer women on a fanart website, who she grants with giving her a blueprint of what living life as a queer person could be like, even helping her set up a website for her artwork: “I had all these examples of older queer people living their lives and doing bits. I didn’t come out to anyone until much later in life, but thanks to them, I felt so incredibly comfortable internally.” Similarly, T credits the “vast, anonymous space” of virtual world IMVU with allowing them to feel able to “ask questions about [her] identity.” T sums it up: “It didn’t feel like it had any bearing on real life, because it wasn’t real life.”

Source: Twitter

Another striking element is how frequently LGBT teenagers gravitated towards games which involved vast, open worlds, life simulation and community building: The Sims, Habbo Hotel, IMVU, World of Warcraft, to name but a few. These games reward a combination of creativity and relationship building, alongside routine and repetition. It’s easy to see why teenagers who are isolated and yearning to express themselves, while simultaneously dealing with high levels of stress and confusion might particularly gel with this type of gameplay. It’s the same combination of soothing orderliness and unbridled creativity which has made Animal Crossing: New Horizons such a hit, in a time of unprecedented global upheaval. 

The desire to develop, manage and train various aspects of your identity is one many queer people can identify with. R, unable to express their gender identity through their clothing in real life, spent hours painstakingly picking out outfits for their avatar in Tony Hawke: Pro Skater – baggy jeans, knee-pads, t-shirts under shirts. E described being inordinately excited when a hack for The Sims was discovered which instantly categorised the sexuality of other Sims characters: “I just really, really wished I could do that in real life.” And even faced with limitless possibilities, the modestness of some of the fantasies described touched me – B recalled, as a curious teenager coming up with a fantasy persona on IMVU, deciding to become “a woman in my thirties, just living in London with a girlfriend.” Similarly, another interviewee described creating her straight best friend, who she had an unrequited crush on, as a Sims character, only to act out having an illicit affair with her while she was married to a man – “even in a virtual world, she couldn’t properly be with me!”

With teenagers more likely to express themselves on TikTok and Snapchat, and the concept of MMOs becoming more and more quaint, it’s difficult to think of a virtual platform which allows LGBT teenagers the same levels of consequence-free creativity and anonymity as the virtual worlds mentioned above. The pressure to create a seamless online brand, with a consistent identity across various platforms is rising, and could dampen the spirit of chaotic, multifarious experimentation so many millennials thrived in while figuring out their sexualities. I worry for the LGBT teenagers cracking under the pressure to present a coherent self to the world when nothing about your feelings is coherent. With the disruption of COVID-19 interrupting adolescent development and moving larger and larger chunks of our lives online, perhaps it’s time video game companies took a leaf from Habbo’s book, and encouraged teenagers to build their own worlds once more.  Just no massage parlours this time, please. 

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