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When I first joined TikTok (as a joke), my For You Page (FYP) was a mess of trendy dances, cute animals and generic videos. After less than a day, the app's algorithm began recommending videos that matched my interests, videos about theatre, travel and Disney. It wasn't long until I found myself deep into very niche areas of TikTok. It's how the app works: It figures you out based on sets of data which makes it seem as though it knows you better than you know yourself.
Now, a year later, I've landed in the Cynical Theatre Nerd/Social Justice/Cute Animal/Queer Writer and Wanderlust side of TikTok. The algorithm also started sending me videos related to pansexuality and demisexuality, something I hadn't realized about myself until I began using the app.
I wasn't alone in feeling as though TikTok is helping people realize they're a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Soon, videos started trending from people admitting that using the app helped them understand aspects of their sexuality that they hadn't acknowledged in themselves.
How could an app be so intuitive in so many people’s lives?
Vane Peña, a creator with more than 3 million followers on TikTok, says he doesn't believe this realization is exclusive to TIkTok, but the app "carries a big part of this phenomenon."
"I think one of the reasons that people experience realizing something about themselves after seeing a certain video, is because they’re in that process of self-acceptance," Peña said in an interview with Yahoo Canada. "I think sometimes whether they realize it or not, people like videos that they may not tell anybody else they like, but on the inside spark [something] in them. I’ve been guilty of it. Early into my self-acceptance process, I would like videos about being nonbinary to the point they were constantly back to back on my FYP. In my head I told myself it was ‘to become educated,’ and then it really clicked that it was teaching me about myself.”
In many ways, LGBTQIA+ representation in popular culture is still not where it should be. According to the latest report from GLAAD, regular characters in primetime television shows only represent the LGBTQIA+ community 10 per cent of the time. While only 5.6 per cent of U.S. adults identify as LGBT (or “other” according to the poll), 1 in 6 Gen Z adults identify as part of the community.
Without a variety of characters in shows to represent the wide range of identities in the sexuality spectrum, it makes sense that video apps like TikTok are helping people better understand the varied identities.
There was a long time when accepting communities were isolated based on location and very little representation was in the media at all, so it was hard for people to find connection, said Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and partnerships at the Human Rights Campaign.
“People need to feel connected, to have a sense of community and belonging,” she said. “That was exacerbated by COVID-19.”
That sense of community is something Peña has found so impactful. While they recognize that, like any social media, there are toxic people, there is also a strong sense of community and willingness to learn and educate people about the LGBTQIA+ community.
"For younger people, apps like these can be a space to learn what they aren’t being taught outside of social media and can help them understand themselves in ways that maybe they didn’t before," they said."And for older people, it’s a nice way to connect with the younger generations and be able to show that they’re here to share their experiences as well. Unfortunately the LGBTQ+ community has lost so many of our older members, so it’s nice when you get to see someone who has been here longer than we have sharing their experience and dropping that wisdom.”
Because TikTok is an app with an international reach, it can make an even more profound impact on people around the world. People no longer have to wait for their personal identity epiphany to take place through TV or a streaming service, because real people are creating the content every day.
“Any citizen can create a video and put it on TikTok,” Kahn said. “You can find or see someone who could be your neighbour or your sibling. This is someone that you connect with in a different way and on a visceral level. Where there have been language barriers and that sort of thing, you can [now] find content in your native or first language.”
TikTok is a place where people can share some of their deepest truths, even in ways they might not be able to share with their family or even their friends, Kahn continued. Apps like TikTok provide a safer, welcoming space for people to be who they are.
"Apps like TikTok help everyone honestly — to discover new things, and new ways to live life and work other peoples' routines into their own,” said creator Bryce Xavier. "...TikTok is providing space for creators to express themselves and engage with the LGBTQIA+ community because the app promotes LGBTQIA+ stories and love."
The algorithm might not be so magical as it is intuitive, but that doesn’t erase the impact of seeing the variety of identities there are in the world. The hashtag TikTokMadeMeGay has over four million views on the app. As people continue to find understanding in the LGBTQIA+ community, apps like TikTok may continue to be the digital safe haven they need to feel empowered.
Perhaps even empowered enough to be able to live authentically offline as well.
“People are coming to a space that is welcoming [on TikTok], they are seeing folks who are out and it can be very encouraging and reassuring,” Kahn said. “If only we could create an actual world that mimicked that.”