November 5, 2020 | Feature
staying in, coming out
exploring sexuality in quarantine through tiktok
I don’t think I had a single conversation with a friend during quarantine where I didn’t mention TikTok. And if I didn’t, TikTok was always perched somewhere at the front of my mind. This wasn’t simply because the app is addictive—anyone can tell you how they planned to watch just a few thirty-second videos only to look up from their phone three hours later—but because of the startling spark that flickered within me as I watched. Specifically, the group of people that TikTok’s algorithm had instantly learned to show me: young gay women.
Through a screen the size of two tea packets, I was entranced by their swaggering dances, eyebrow slits, hoodie fashion—but most of all, their open pursuit of women. TikTok was the opposite of the closet. It was the place where gay girls unleashed thirst traps of chin stroking and body rolls, where they riffed on homophobic parents by dressing as “my daughter’s friend from cheer” and encapsulated the thrills and burns of liking girls through moody lip-syncs.
Always visible under their bravado was a self-mocking element, a wink to the viewer that these expressions of gayness were a little bit of a costume, a way to figure out who they actually wanted to be. With that wink, I felt launched out of the comfortable blandness of self-denial and into an alternate universe of rainbow fairy lights and Carhartt beanies.
I had been seriously questioning my sexuality since fall 2019, but that was only dipping my toes in the shallows. Going on TikTok during quarantine was standing under the waterfall. I was showered with trends of gay women laughing over their past insistence that they were straight—with the pictures to prove it. My brain began pinging me with moments from my own teenage years, subtle gay awakenings I had constantly muffled. I played TikTok videos of self-acceptance over and over, mimicking the confident head nods and sly grins. Later, I’d catch myself slipping these mannerisms into conversation or, more often, into daydreams of my post-quarantine return to campus. I imagined myself dice-rolling and throwing it back on my walk between classes and, naturally, impressing the girls I used to only stare at from afar. What a simp.
These mannerisms changed me in a way that wasn’t imaginary; by embodying them, I finally understood what it meant to take up space. I had always wanted to hold myself assertively—chin tilted up, hands in pockets, wide-leg stance—but associated it with maleness and worried I’d be ridiculed for trying. My TikTok lesbians, with their khakis and undercuts, allowed me to recognize the grace in posturing, the beauty in cockiness.
But the more I related to (and crushed on) the Lesbian TikTok cohort, and the more I radiated my own gay TikTok energy, the more my suppressed memories and feelings crackled against the walls of my mind. In isolation, away from friends and meetings and distractions, I was helpless against these thoughts and where they led me, which was: You are gay, Olivia. Go, say it in the mirror, bet you won’t. You. Are. Gay.
For the first three months of quarantine, this realization led to a daily shoving match in my head: “You knew you were gay when you were eleven and fell in love at camp.” “Okay, why have you never had a girlfriend then? See, can’t be gay.”
Then I would open my phone to another will-they-won’t-they-kiss video between two of Lesbian TikTok’s stars, and I knew exactly what I wanted.
Coming out didn’t have to be scary, but I made it scary. I’m fortunate to have a family who makes me feel safe in my identity, but my self-denial trampled every effort to actually get the words out. Since before quarantine, many LGBTQ+ teens used TikTok songs like Jason Derulo’s “Get Ugly” to come out to friends and family, reducing the pressure of a formal announcement. I didn’t see this tactic working with my tech-averse parents, but as quarantine wore on, I increasingly worked TikTok into our daily conversations (and may also have aggressively practiced the “Savage” dance in our kitchen).
By the end of April, it was a joke: When I discreetly hit the whoa on our daily walk, they would sigh, “TikTok.” If I laughed at my phone, they’d roll their eyes: “TikTok.” What they couldn’t see under the teasing was the confusion that boiled in my chest, bursting hot fear all while we read books and rode bikes and cooked dinner together. Finally, as we drank in the starry air one evening on our porch, I made myself stammer out, “You know how I watch a lot of TikTok? Well, I actually only watch ones by gay girls.” My parents nodded, and the rest of my thoughts evaporated on my tongue. Did I really think I was such a big deal? But my new self-knowledge hammered on my lungs, so I added, “Uh, I like that, because it’s helpful—I mean, it’s made me see that I’m…like them.” And that was as far as I could get.
It was enough. This summer, my parents and I shifted our language. I could point out a pretty actress in a movie; I could finally open up about the something-mores in my past who my parents had thought were just friends. My mom would nudge me when we saw a cute girl in the grocery store, and in the last weeks before the start of school, my dad helped me craft a shoot-your-shot text.
Returning to Brown during the pandemic wasn’t quite the real-life thirst trap I’d imagined, but as I sauntered around on move-in day in my button-down and snapback, with my parents smirking fondly at my sides, I knew that I had come out into something good, someone complete.
I quickly discovered I was far from alone in my quarantine-induced epic gay transformation. Most of my female friends had spent their fair share of time on Lesbian TikTok, and many had also realized their lack of attraction to men. Talking about this phenomenon the other day, my friend said she realized she was gay within a few months of quarantine, something she thinks could have taken her years otherwise. According to Chicago Tribune sex columnist Anna Pulley, quarantine has given many of us a rare opportunity to “sit—sometimes uncomfortably—with ourselves…and such openness can lead to surprising places.” Pulley’s observation echoes my own experience, having only gradually accepted my attraction to girls since first being smacked by the realization at age eleven. In quarantine, I was unprepared for the suddenness of realizing who I am actually attracted to.
Other LGBTQ+ people have found freedom in self-isolation to live their authentic sexuality and gender identities. Writer Sam MacKinnon describes how quarantine has “given me time to wear the clothes that I want and put on makeup…just do my thing, without worrying about social expectations. Because I’m not going out into the community, I’m not worried about how my work would react or how my parents would react.” I too used quarantine to experiment with style, trying on the classic “baby gay” look (impulse tattoos and doubled flannels, anyone?) to eventually find an equilibrium of something distinctly new but still me.
Quarantine’s state of apocalyptic timelessness, not to mention loneliness, has led some people to spend more of their time pursuing desire. TikTok serves this quest by providing ubiquitous thirst traps—suggestive videos that users often watch multiple times, boosting the poster’s account. But young LGBTQ+ people have also congregated on TikTok looking for a reprieve from unaccepting quarantine environments, a place to ask other young gay people questions about sexuality and express desires that are still treated as abnormal.
Though most of my high school and college friends now identify as LGBTQ+, I had never experienced queer community before TikTok. In less than 60-second videos, users candidly relate experiences from being disowned to having sex, stories that young gay people don’t often or easily get to share. Instead of serious monologues, these intimate moments are usually framed by colorful speech bubbles and song lyrics. With TikTok’s casual format, the discomfort I might have discussing these topics in real life fades. In its place, I find myself cackling—or feeling like I’ve just gotten a hug.
While the TikTok algorithm poses concerns for data privacy, it helpfully distills content to the user’s interests. Since my first minutes using the app, I’ve found myself embraced into gay TikTok and shielded from the usual barrage of straight content that dominates popular media. According to one of my gay friends, part of what makes this representation so important is that it differs from lesbian representation on TV—which is known for queerbaiting or killing off lesbian characters, many of whom are much older than us. On TikTok, my friend said, we can see lesbians who are in high school and college, in happy relationships, who aren’t flirting with women for the male gaze. These young gay women share our daydreams (picking up a girl with the “Let’s Link” dance), concerns (Amy Coney-Barrett’s appointment), struggles (finding other gays), and humor (lesbians can’t sit in chairs normally).
This summer, floating dizzily on the quarantine sea, I would set aside TikTok time before going to sleep. The cascading videos of queer jokes, smooth dances, and sweet couples sent waves of happiness rippling over me. Thousands of miles from my heroines, and only a vague number on their screens, I felt myself somewhere out there in a big gay ether next to them, laughing as we tried once again to get our moves right.