Turn On, Tune In, Come Out
Gay and lesbian community is more likely to network online and read blogs.
Gay and lesbian adults are more likely to be members of Facebook and MySpace and to read blogs than their heterosexual counterparts, a new survey from Harris Interactive/Witeck-Combs Communications, Inc. has found. The online, nationwide poll surveyed 3,000 adults, ages 18 and over, 404 of whom self-identified as gay or lesbian.
More than half of gay and lesbian respondents reported reading blogs (55 percent) versus more than a third of heterosexuals (38 percent). The interest in blogs has increased over recent years, as in March 2008, just over half of gay respondents (51 percent) reported interest in blogs, marking a jump from November 2006, when less than a third of gay and lesbian respondents (31 percent) reporting reading blogs.
What kinds of blogs are people in the gay and lesbian community reading? Just over a third (34 percent) keep up with current events and news through online blogs, versus less than a quarter of heterosexuals (22 percent).
“Mainstream media is often void of issues impacting the LBGT community directly. Finding ‘our’ news requires deeper digging,” explains Devon Christopher, publisher of Bleu Magazine, which celebrates hip hop and gay culture as expressed through fashion, lifestyle and entertainment.
For community organizer, writer and comic Kelli Dunham, who is a lesbian, blogs offer ways for people excluded from the mainstream to be a part of something bigger.
“My belief is that—and of course this is a generalization—LGBT people tend to be very deliberate in their actions and activities. I grew up in a small town in rural Wisconsin,” Dunham explains. “I didn't know anyone who looked like me. I had to make a deliberate choice to embrace who I was and that I didn't fit in the rigid gender binary.”
“Once you make a deliberate choice to put honoring your own authenticity over fitting in with the dominant culture, you also tend to tune out of some of the other influences of dominant culture, such as advertising, mainstream magazines, [and so on],” Dunham adds. “So we go to blogs and social networking sites for our information and our entertainment.”
More gays and lesbians read entertainment blogs as well, with one-quarter (25 percent) reporting that they read the pop culture blogs, compared with only 15 percent of heterosexual adults.
“I think it can generally be said that the GLBT community is more active in supporting and participating in the Arts,” says board certified psychiatrist Loren A. Olson, MD, who is openly gay. “Monitoring entertainment blogs helps us follow that interest.”
The GLBT community is also more likely to follow political trends through blogs, as over one-quarter (28 percent) follow politics this way, an increase from 23 percent in March 2008. Among heterosexuals, only 14 percent reported reading political blogs as of May 2009.
“As a minority community we are very interested in several political issues related to gay rights, [such as] Defense of Marriage, Gay Marriage, Don't Ask Don't Tell, and Employment Discrimination,” Olson adds. “These issues are of vital importance to us.”
Travel blogs are also more popular among the GLBT community, with 14 percent of gay and lesbian respondents, versus only 8 percent of heterosexuals, reporting that they read these blogs.
As social networking sites have gained popularity, more than half of gay and lesbian respondents (55 percent) reported that they are members of Facebook, compared with 46 percent of heterosexual adults. Also, less than a third of heterosexuals report being members on MySpace (30 percent) versus 43 percent of gay and lesbian respondents.
LinkedIn, the business-related social networking site, also leads among the gay and lesbian community, as only 13 percent of heterosexuals stated that they are members, while 23 percent of homosexuals did. Moreover, one out of five gays and lesbians tweet on Twitter (20 percent), while only 12 percent of heterosexual adults do.
The gay community’s strong Internet presence offers marketers and advertisers a direct way to reach this group. “It creates a unique environment that allows you to speak directly to your audience,” Christopher says. “No more throwing it on the wall and hoping it will stick. Now you can have a direct impact.”
Businesses that acknowledge and honor gay and lesbian consumers stand to reap many benefits. “The advertisers and marketers that are first to understand the GLBT communities’ particular commitment to online communities will be greatly rewarded in sales and brand loyalty,” says Joseph Tolton, managing director of Blur Advertising, pastor and founder of GayByGod.net.
“The lesson is simple as African Americans were loyal for decades to brands like Cadillac and AT&T, the GLBT community will be a customer for years to come to the company’s that affirm its economic power first,” Tolton adds.
The GLBT community’s spending power is significant, and the connections that gays and lesbians make on the Internet are valuable. “It shows that this community will be listened to and respected regardless of the void in mainstream media,” he adds. “The power to mobilize by ‘any means necessary’ is what our democracy is all about.”
The social opportunities that the Internet offers are vital to the strength of the gay and lesbian cohort, say experts. ”From a mental health perspective, one of the biggest risks for GLBT people, especially the GLBT elderly, is loneliness,” Olson says. “Although virtual friendships lack some of the intimacy and depth of face to face relationships, those are not always possible for some of us. The possibility of maintaining a connection to our community is essential to ward of isolation, which in the past, became increasingly important for some GLBT as they began to age.”
Younger gays and lesbians also benefit from online connections, says Theresa Nolan, division director of NYC Programs at Green Chimneys Children's Services, a non-profit organization that helps children and young adults in need. Nolan oversees the LGBTQ youth programming at Green Chimneys.
“A lot of homeless youth always have a cell phone and an email account, they all have a social networking account, are on MySpace or Facebook,” Nolan explains. “There is the equivalency factor; online it doesn’t matter if you are homeless, you can connect with people and get information. It is free at the library or at a program where there is a place to go online.”
For gay and lesbian youth in need, going online helps soothe their feelings of loneliness and isolation. “It helps them feel like they are still connected to the world,” Nolan says. “Young adults that are LGBT-identified don’t have much of a community, or whatever they are connected to is not LGBT affirming.”
Going public with one’s sexual orientation is easier within an online community than in real life. “Coming out is less stigmatized online than in person,” she adds. “I know people who were not out in terms of their hometowns, but came out later in life; on MySpace or Facebook they are out. It is an easy way to come out without having to come out.”
Olson says that coming out continues to be a challenge for older gays and lesbians, and that Internet resources help them as well as adolescents. ”There are many men, self-identified as gay, but who remain in heterosexual marriages or lead entirely closeted existences,” Olson maintains. “There are also men who live in cultures with strong prohibitions against homosexuality; for them, having relationships with other men is dangerous.”
Some of these closeted individuals may belong to highly religious communities where homosexuality is considered a sin. For them, too, the Internet can offer support, Tolton says.
“In the era of the Internet, the web has empowered GLBT people to build a centralized community for the first time in our history. This in addition to the ability to be ‘out’ in private makes the Internet a perfect vehicle for the GLBT community to interact, share ideas, find partnership, learn how to come out, uncover resources, build networks, entertain itself, mobilize politically and find faith,” Tolton explains.
“I have built this online faith community in part to reach those that are deeply closeted and geographically isolated,” he adds. “Now, they have a local church, pastor, and prayer circle that is not only affirming but is accessible twenty-four, seven. I anticipate that GayByGod is going to become an intimate mega church for our community, and will be a critical source of inspiration for its members to live well everyday as well as a strong force to advance our communal cause.”
Perhaps having another online resource to offer guidance and support will help improve mental health issues that plague the GLBT community, in which the rate of teen suicides has been cause for alarm.
“Although I have focused on mature men, the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of suicide in adolescents with about three times the rate in homosexual adolescents, the Internet remains an essential tool for exploring sexual orientation,” Olson notes.
“In my own research of mature gay men, the rate of suicide is rarely considered,” Olson, who is writing a book about coming out in mid-life, says. “One of the major factors in suicide prevention is the development of a strong social support network. For men and women with same-sex orientation, the Internet provides a very useful tool for developing support as one goes through the sometimes painful process of coming out.”
For Dunham, Facebook has served a special purpose for her and other gays and lesbians. “LGBT people use social networking because we are always in search of our tribe. If you grow up thinking the very core of who you are is wrong or sinful, you need to find like-minded people who can reassure you, [that] yes, LGBT people can live full lives, have happy relationships, [and so on],” she explains.
“[We] make chosen families but because we are statistically less likely to have kids, we move around a lot,” she says. “Many of my Facebook friends are people I consider family, yet they live in California and Oregon while I live in New York. Using tools that help me understand what their daily lives are like helps our friendships stay strong even when we are geographically separated.”
Nolan says the future for LGBT youth is promising, with the Internet and an increasingly aware society offering more advantages for them than in the past. “Youth are more comfortable coming out than their predecessors were thirty years ago,” she says. “They are more comfortable with themselves, and they don’t have to feel alone, with sites like Matthew’s Place to go to, they know that they are not the only one.”
“Feeling like part of a community gives them a confidence boost, and might help them seek out other groups when they go to school. They enjoy better mental health, more self-confidence, and less isolation than people did in the past,” Nolan concludes.
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