Because the internet and worldwide communication have become so effective and accessible in recent years, the whole world has become so much smaller. Through popular social media websites and networks personal information have become so much more accessible as well and this includes information about sexuality. Unfortunately, there is a dark side to the fabulous world of instant communication.
It’s now hard to imagine a time when social media sites like Facebook didn’t alert us to our friends’ birthdays or give us a way to connect with people almost effortlessly. It’s even harder to remember when the back pages of gay magazines and newspapers were full of personal classifieds, (the days before Manhunt, Gaydar and QL M2M), and when people didn’t use mobile phones, let alone Grindr.
None of us would want to return to a time when you had to come out utterly alone. No one is arguing that the access gained via the internet to support services and counselling is a bad thing, particularly for geographically isolated or closeted members of our community. But it’s really important to remember that with all of these amazing positives, there are very real negatives that are only starting to emerge if recent American events are anything to go by.
Imagine for a second what it must be like to come out as a gay teenager these days. In the last year, several gay young people have taken their own lives because of bullying and intimidation – terrible weapons that still happen in the real world, but are far too often backed up in cowardly ways online. It’s not just friends sniggering together in the classroom about their gay peers; it’s not anymore the writing on toilet walls. It’s now the (often anonymous) creation of a hate-filled Facebook group; it’s the immediate outing of someone to an entire school via SMS message two minutes after they disclose.
It’s just not possible anymore to control information without serious effort, particularly when you’re talking about young people for whom important life lessons – like who is worthy of trust- simply haven’t been learned. In a tragic, and the most recent, suicide to come out of the US, Jamey Rodemeyer experienced the ‘perfect storm’ of bullying. Not only was the face-to-face bullying he faced at his school so intense that he had to switch to a new campus, but this harassment and vilification continued unmercifully on his Facebook page and blog. He put up a brave fight – telling his online attackers to back off and writing about his newfound confidence in being gay. But ultimately poor Jamey felt that he had no other option but to take his own life.
To youngsters coming out, being liked and fitting in is just as important as it used to be, but now it’s happening in an environment that is very, very public. Bullies no longer have to put their names to blistering attacks, and can often hide threats behind imagined identities. Your bullies are allowing the anonymity of the internet to bring out their absolute worst, their troll-nature.
If this is the kind of thing that is happening to you, it’s important to remember that for every troll there are 100 posi-trolls – the internet can be an amazingly supportive place if you know where to look. Websites like It Gets Better and YouTube are full of amazing stories that work as antidote to hate-filled rubbish. It’s also important not to think that your bully is interested in any logical argument or that by fighting back you’ll be able to stop them – this is the main difference between cyber-bullying and bullying in real life.
Blocking, reporting and deleting is what Trolls hate the most. And just like in real life, South Africa has laws against vilification and hate speech that includes online content.
But most importantly, it’s critical that you talk about the things you’re going through with the people you trust. Sometimes, this is your family, your friends or a professional like a teacher or counsellor. They’ll probably tell you exactly what we would – online bullies don’t know the real you at all. Therefore the best they can do is lie about you, and the truth always win out in the end.