How do LGBTQ+ people experience the digital divide(s)?

By Tom McGrath

This blog post originally appeared on The Good Things Foundation blog on 25th February 2021.

How do LGBT+ people experience digital inclusion/digital exclusion? Who do we exclude by going online? Who do we include? What are the differences between LGBT+ people online and those who identify as heterosexual and those whose gender identity matches that which they were assigned at birth (cisgender)?

We’re coming to the end of LGBT+ History Month and I wanted to take this opportunity to pose these questions about how we understand LGBT+ life online and how to support LGBT+ people who aren’t online. 

The digital divides that LGBT+ people experience are relatively under-researched, partly due to insufficient data collection – an issue which the Government has highlighted in the past. As a result, it is not possible to provide clear answers within the space of this blog.

There are some indications that LGBT+ people might be more likely to use the internet than others, although there appears to be a dearth of research, particularly in the UK. For instance, a 2013 paper published by the LGBT Tech Partnership in the US suggests that 80% of LGBT+ people make use of social media, compared with just 58% of the general public. And reports by Stonewall note that young LGBT+ people “regularly go online to seek help and support.” The internet has the potential to provide LGBT+ people with access to communities and comfort that they would otherwise be excluded from, particularly if they are not ‘out’ to their family and friends offline. Indeed, this is how I’ve experienced the internet as a bi person, and I’ve recognised the value of the internet as a tool for social inclusion amongst LGBT+ people. 

In many ways, people might assume that the experiences of digitally excluded LGBT+ people will be the same as for the general public, with over 9 million people in the UK being unable to use the internet independently, according to Lloyds. Issues of low digital skills, poverty, and confidence are certain to occur amongst LGBT+ people just as they are for people who are straight, or people who are cisgender. But we also know that young LGBT+ people experience higher levels of homelessness and poverty than heterosexual, cisgender people. Naturally, this has a significant effect on digital inclusion, particularly during Covid-19 when many public facilities – like libraries or community centres – are closed due to lockdown. And the wider impacts of the digital divide on LGBT+ people appear to be under-researched. Searching for studies about internet use by sexuality yields frustrating results, often diminishing our experiences to dating apps, rather than incorporating a broader understanding of online safety and digital inclusion. 

There are clear challenges that the LGBT+ community face online which many straight and/or cisgender individuals – particularly men – do not face. Perhaps most notably, LGBT+ people are frequent targets for abuse, trolling, and discrimination online, and the new innovations of the pandemic have altered how these forms of online abuse occur. For instance, Ben Hunte from the BBC recently reported on how a group of students celebrating Black and LGBT+ culture were subjected to racist and homophobic attacks via Zoom. These challenges pose additional needs in terms of online safety training which need to be incorporated into digital skills support.

We also need to be cautious about implying that all LGBT+ people’s experiences online are uniform – rather than one ‘digital divide,’ it may be appropriate to say that the community experiences multiple ‘divides,’ even amongst the LGBT+ community themselves. For instance, I have been lucky enough to not encounter much online abuse for my sexuality, but many trans and non-binary people experience these issues on a regular basis – even from other ‘LGB’ people. And as highlighted above, Black, Asian, and minority ethnic LGBT+ people are subject to racism as well as discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, with Stonewall reportingthat a majority (51%) of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic LGBT+ people face discrimination within the LGBT+ community.

Thankfully, more work is being done to explore LGBT+ people’s experiences. For instance, a new project, led by Dr Kira Allmann at Oxford University and Tim Allsop, an actor, writer, and director, looks at queer rural experiences with a focus on how “connection and disconnection.” And our aim at Good Things Foundation is for a world where everyone benefits from digital. Everyone needs to be able to use the internet and technology safely to truly take advantage of these benefits, whether it’s meeting like-minded people online or developing more basic digital skills. Future research and policy-making into LGBT+ people’s experiences online need to go beyond just online dating and we hope to support more work on this in the future.