Who am I? What are my favourite things? What do I believe in? What do I want other people to know (and just as crucially, to think) about me? How can I sum up a multifaceted personality shaped by countless contextual, environmental and experiential factors, within a character limit?
Authenticity’s a hard thing to come by these days. The world of social media presents us with a contradiction: at the same time as we’re improving our understanding of the diversity of humanity and the futility of labels – people are more complicated than a snapshot statement on a Twitter account – we’re also labelling ourselves more than ever before. The online world, and particularly social media, encourages this by its very nature. Hashtags allow us to express a general opinion, show support for a particular cause, or generate attention for something we’re doing, without needing to form a sentence.
At the same time as we’re seeking to understand our complexity, we’re also trying to simplify ourselves. This is only likely to continue as we spend more and more of our lives online. We’re increasingly framing our identities within the parameters of a given platform and the expectations of its audience; understanding ourselves and others in terms of summary statements, dating profiles or hashtags in common. Is there a danger that we could try so hard to be who we are, that we actually lose sight of it in the avalanche of information and the hail of hashtags?
Growing up within this environment can be particularly challenging for young LGBTQ+ people. Never has this been more starkly illustrated than in the case of Keira Bell. Prescribed puberty blockers at the age of 16, Keira now feels she should have been challenged on her decision to transition to male. Her lawyer has argued that the nature of internet coverage of transgender issues could have an adverse influence on teenagers making lifechanging decisions.
After hearing her case, the high court ruled that children under 16 were unlikely to be able to give informed consent to receive puberty blockers, believing that vulnerable children had been coached by a gender clinic into giving rehearsed answers in order to access the drugs. But the ruling has been attacked by Amnesty International, Liberty and many parents of transgender children, who argue that this outcome withdraws medical care from children who need it, and moves medical decisions from doctors to judges. It’s clear that this is a complex issue with no easy answers. That’s why we need to take a step back and give young LGBTQ+ people the information, the space and the support they need to understand the way they feel.
Gaming platform Twitch recently backtracked over its use of ‘gender neutral’ term ‘womxn’ following widespread criticism from the trans community – a big lesson that it’s never wise to assume. Representing the views of such a wide spread of people with a single blanket gesture, without understanding the many nuances and the range of views involved, is a dangerous game.
Whether it’s a reaction to the intolerance of previous generations or a cynical drive for clickbait, sociologists have suggested that TikTokers pretending to be gay is a form of adolescent rebellion or nonconformity. Is this kind of ‘homiesexuality’ disrespectful, making light of the difficulties many young people have in coming out to a world that often isn’t as tolerant as it seems? Or does it make it easier for young people to understand, accept and express who they are? Social media’s a double-edged sword. While it exposes us to all manner of different people of different backgrounds and normalises traits we may never have encountered before, it doesn’t provide us with a forum for nuanced debate or detailed understanding. What is for sure is that these are interesting times, confused times, contradictory times. Teenagers aren’t the only ones learning – we’re all learning.
In the world of the hashtag, maybe terminology is key. Maybe model Emily Ratajkowski’s announcement that she’d allow her child to ‘choose’ its gender at the age of 18 – while well meant – reduces her child’s identity to the status of an item to be plucked off a shelf, based on a whim or fancy. Gender identity isn’t something you can force. It’s something innate to who a person is, something they need to understand for themselves. It’s not decided; it happens naturally. And in order for it to happen naturally, at the pace at which an individual is comfortable, we need to be wary of coercing young LGTBQ+ people into decisions they’re not ready for. Information, education and support are the key.
Even for someone whose identity, sex, expression and attraction line up in the most predictable fashion, understanding who you are – your values, the things in life that are important to you, how to act in different situations – can be difficult. It’s all part of growing up. It’s all part of the constant learning curve. That’s why we need to give our young LGBTQ+ colleagues and friends all the time and understanding they need. That doesn’t come by assuming or by pressuring them into defining themselves. That comes by being there and by listening. We’re all on a search for who we are. In an age of social solipsism, let’s give each other the time and respect to do that.