US

Lesbians and queer women say TikTok made them realize they’re gay

  • TikTok’s algorithm can give users the impression that the app reads their minds.
  • Four women who previously only dated men said TikTok made them realize they were, in fact, queer.
  • They cited warm videos of lesbian relationships and an open discussion of “compulsory heterosexuality”.

Alayna Fender was browsing TikTok on her couch when she broke down into uncontrollable sobbing. Her ex-fiancé and partner of 10 years had moved out two weeks earlier, but Fender wasn’t crying because she missed him.

Instead, Fender was moved to tears by a TikTok video of two lesbians in love.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I wish it was me, but it’s not my life. I made my choice.’ Then I paused and realized, ‘Wait a minute. could be my life now,'” Fender told Insider.

Prior to joining TikTok in 2019, Fender had identified as bisexual for six years. But she said she hid her feelings for women and only dated men.

As the app’s algorithm showed her video after video of lesbians coming out as female — women who looked like her, but who rarely appear in mainstream media — she was filled with emotion.

“Every time I went on TikTok I was confronted with these feelings,” Fender said. “I was confronted with these other people who were living a life that I wish I could have lived.” She decided to come out as a lesbian.

Fender is one of four women who told Insider that TikTok’s algorithm led them to a queer awakening later in life. All had previously identified as heterosexual or had only had heterosexual relationships.

Women said they joined TikTok to escape pandemic boredom or despair, only to find themselves drawn to videos of women kissing, dancing sexy in thirst traps or discussing compulsory heterosexuality – l idea that women are socialized to assume that they must love and be in relationships with men.

As their “For You” pages were filled with queer content, the women began to question the years they had spent only pursuing relationships with men. Three became lesbians and one queer. All said their time on the app had been an overwhelming experience as they discovered an alternative to popular culture that rarely shows women romantically loving other women.

“When they threw me a queer TikTok, it stuck, and now I’m dating women and seeing all these amazing female-loving female couples on my feed,” said Natalie Kelley, a 25-year-old content creator. years, to Insider. “It’s really empowering and really cool to have that in my life.”

TikTok’s algorithm quickly drove women to queer content

At 49, Vanessa Williamson hadn’t been in the dating market since 2017. Previously, she’d only dated men occasionally, and never for more than a few months at a time when the relationship fizzled out.

In 2020, Williamson’s sister suggested he join TikTok. As Williamson initially browsed the app, she saw many cute dog and cat videos. Then came the videos of political views that Williamson disagreed with, so she kept scrolling, she said. When she came across a series of videos showing beautiful women with short hair or talking about signs that a viewer might be gay, Williamson stopped and listened. Similar videos started popping up in his feed.

“After you’ve seen five or six of them, you start to be like, ‘I keep seeing myself,'” Williamson said.

TikTok uses an algorithm designed to push people into niche communities. According to a report from The New York Times, TikTok engineers have created an equation that rates each click and how a user does, and how long they spend on a given video. As the algorithm gets more of this data, it feeds viewers more videos like the ones that previously caught their attention. For users, it can often feel like TikTok is reading the deepest thoughts of their minds.

The other three women told Insider they had similar experiences to Williamson’s. Initially, their TikTok FYPs fed them trendy dances from some of the biggest faces on the platform, like Addison Rae. After a few weeks, these “straight” videos were replaced by increasingly frequent videos of queer women.

Kelley initially assumed that the increase in queer content was a sign that she was a big LGBTQ ally.

But when she couldn’t stop watching a TikTok of a strikingly beautiful woman, she said she felt confused about her sexuality for the first time.

For some women, TikTok lifted the veil of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’

Kelley said she hadn’t been exposed to many same-sex relationships before joining TikTok. But it all clicked when she saw a TikTok video that explained compulsory heterosexuality, pointing her to a viral Google doc on the subject.

“Women learn from an early age that making men happy is our job,” wrote Anjeli Luz, the document’s creator. “We’re supposed to be pretty for men, we’re supposed to change the way we talk so men take us more seriously, we’re supposed to want a man’s love more than anything… When we’re trained since childhood to see romantic/sex relationships with men – and only men – as major life goals, how do you separate that from what you want?”

“Once I started hearing terms like that, it kind of gave me that window to go through,” Kelley said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is an experience that other people have had, and I have the right to embody that experience.'”

While Kelley first read the document in mid-2020, it wasn’t until she moved to Portland, Oregon, and discussed her feelings with a friend and a therapist, that she felt empowered to come out as a lesbian in early 2021.

Williamson said she had a similar experience. She dated men out of curiosity when she was younger, because all of her peers were.

“I was like, ‘What’s important here?'” Williamson said. “I had feelings and urges, they just didn’t include a man.” She said the word “lesbian” wasn’t in her vocabulary at the time, so she didn’t even think she could be one.

Compulsory heterosexuality “creates an obligation to respect the status quo,” Luna Matatas, pleasure educator and creator of Peg the Patriarchy, told Cosmopolitan. “It could prevent someone from exploring their sexuality and gender or honoring what they know to be true about their sexual orientation.”

As more Americans identify as gay than ever before, homophobia also plays a role. Ashley Matheson, a TikTok creator who now identifies as a queer woman, grew up in a Catholic community where she said she learned to hate gay people. It wasn’t until she saw TikTok videos of women showing romantic affection towards other women that she realized she could have it herself.

Matheson said some users who come across her queer content, which she started doing after she came out, will try to convince her that she is wrong about her sexuality.

“Being directly on TikTok has made it very difficult to be part of the gay community because my comments are filled with men saying what they think,” Matheson said. “They used to always comment and say I couldn’t be gay because I was previously in a heterosexual relationship. It’s super disabling.”

Getting out because of an app is hard – but the feeling of freedom is worth it

Three months after downloading TikTok, Williamson came out as a lesbian to her sister and then to her mother. She said she felt empowered to buy the clothes she really loves to wear — hoodies, flannels and hats — after seeing other women doing the same on TikTok.

She also dated a woman for a few months during the pandemic.

“It was really exciting. I discovered that I love being nurturing and caring and taking care of someone,” Williamson said.

All of the women said their families and close friends were generally supportive of their release. But doing it during a pandemic has brought on feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Fender had to hang out with his family and share the news of his broken engagement on FaceTime. Her online community helped, but it couldn’t replace a real hug, she said.

Williamson was able to attend an in-person event with other lesbians, which gave her a taste of community. But a recent cancer diagnosis has made it difficult to meet gay women in person, as his immunocompromised status in the pandemic prevents him from attending social events.

For Fender, the most brutal part of coming out was hurting someone she loved – her ex-fiancé. Still, it’s hard to have regrets, she says, because freedom is so nice.

“If you had told me two or three years ago that this would be my life, I would have laughed in your face and probably cried myself to sleep,” she said. “I wanted it so badly.”

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