Media Lacks Queer Representation—So Gen Z Is Turning to TikTok for Change

Graphic of three TikTok videos of queer people
Graphic of three TikTok videos of queer people

Emily Ludin, HelloGiggles

From the ways they spend their time to the ways they communicate (hello, TikTok!), members of Gen Z lead very different lives than the rest of us. But as HelloGiggles' Generation Next explores, there's a lot we can learn from them—whether it's their need for mental health support, their drive for self-expression, or their commitment to making the world a more inclusive place for all.

Generation Z (anyone born between 1997 and 2012) is shaping up to be the queerest generation to date. According to a 2020 survey published by Gallup, which surveyed over 15,000 people ages 18 to 23, a whopping 16% of those youths identify as LGBTQ+.

Unfortunately, for these queer kids and young adults, areas like school curriculums and the entertainment industry are failing to incorporate LGBTQ+ representation at a frequency that is accurate and necessary. Currently, only 15 states offer public school curriculums for middle and/or high school students that are inclusive of LGBTQ+ people, history, and events. And according to GLAAD, queer characters were present in only 18% of films released in 2019, and made up just 9% of regular TV characters in 2020. In boardrooms and writing rooms alike, those in positions of power are electing to under-represent LGBTQ+ individuals, and in doing so, they're robbing queer kids of the opportunity to learn about or see people like themselves reflected.

"Straight, cisgender people have the privilege of growing up with watching TV shows and learning curriculums about groups that largely mirror their identities," certified sex therapist and queer person Casey Tanner MA, LCPC and expert for luxury pleasure product company LELO, tells HelloGiggles. "For queer folks, on the other hand, the developmental stage of adolescence can feel extraordinarily lonely because of the lack of this kind of mirroring."

This absence of representation is why both real life and virtual connections, made through social media apps like TikTok, are "extraordinarily valuable" to the queer community, says Tanner. Many Gen Zers—who make up 60% of all TikTok users—have been actively filling in those representational gaps by connecting with fellow queer users online, educating their followers about the queer community, and entertaining their fans with creative queer content.

"TikTok allows for greater creative freedom and originality compared to Instagram and Facebook," says Dylan, a 19-year-old lesbian, and self-described TikTok voyeur. "It goes beyond a selfless desire to create learning resources for other people. I think these [TikTok] creators are producing the kind of resources and videos they wish they had [growing up]."

Thanks to these resources and representations, more queer and non-LGBTQ+ individuals are going to TikTok to dive deeper into their identities and form communities. We spoke with five queer Gen Zers to learn how the social media platform has helped them do just that. Here's what they had to say.

TikTok Helped Me Come Out As Non-Binary

Riley, 20, a Kansas-based non-binary lesbian, was one of the nearly 338 million people who downloaded TikTok at the start of the pandemic, which for them, coincided with a forced move from a college dorm room back home. What began as a cure for boredom quickly turned into an outlet for community and identity exploration.

"I didn't intentionally download the app to find queer community," Riley explains. But by engaging with queer TikTok accounts for the last 18 months, they've been able to connect with more fellow queer users and creators than they would in their hometown. "Anytime, anywhere, I can go on my phone and am automatically immersed in queer culture, content, and creators, which has been great because my hometown isn't super queer," Riley says.

The LGBTQ+ corner of TikTok, including the accounts Adesso Laurenzo, James is Smiling, Kiss My Hausse, and Rain Dove, all run by non-binary creators, helped Riley figure out their own identity. "Before I'd used the app, I hadn't heard of non-binary people. But after learning about this identity from non-binary creators, I was able to be like, 'Oh, wait! That's me! I'm non-binary,'" they explain.

TikTok creators, Riley adds, gave the "avenues and tools I could use when explaining my identities to my partner, friends, and family."

"Truthfully," they say, "without it I don't think I would have been able to come out."

TikTok Helped Me Realize I'm Omnisexual

Emerson, 22, an online sex and kink educator, downloaded TikTok in February 2020 and immediately began interacting with videos addressing queer issues, history, current events, and fashion. "The algorithm caught on and started to [serve up] more of this content I love," she recalls. While in the past, Emerson had chosen not to box her sexuality into any one label, the social media app helped her gain a better understanding of "my sexuality, bettered my relationships with my queer friends, and truly opened my eyes up on all things gender."

TikTok even introduced her to omnisexuality, a type of sexuality marked by the potential for sexual attraction to people across the gender spectrum. "One day, I saw a video from a queer educator who did basic sexuality definitions and they defined omnisexual, and I actually cried and sent it to all my friends because I never had a label feel right until then," Emerson says. Because of this awareness, she adds, "Tiktok has also strengthened all of my relationships with my queer friends."

TikTok Reminded Me That I'm Queer Enough

You've heard of imposter syndrome in a work environment. But have you ever heard of queer imposter syndrome? While it's not an official medical diagnosis, queer imposter syndrome is the colloquial term people within the LGBTQ+ community use to describe the feeling of not being queer "enough." Predicated on the idea that there is only one way to be queer, queer imposter syndrome can be incredibly isolating, painful, and discomforting for the people experiencing it, including 21-year-old Mari Rose, a North Carolina-based bisexual woman. Rose says that entering her first queer relationship in 2019, increased her feelings of queer inadequacy. "Before this relationship, I had only ever been in straight-presenting relationships, which led me to struggle with not feeling queer enough for my girlfriend or her friend group," she explains, adding that experiencing overt discrimination for being in an outwardly queer relationship for the first time played a significant role in this feeling of not being "enough."

However, immersing herself in the LGBTQ+ TikTok community, and #bisexual creators in particular, reminded Rose that there's no right or wrong way to be queer. "Every time I open the app I get to see how queer people look, dress, act, present in all different ways," she says. "Eventually, this exposure helped me come to terms with the fact that I am queer and bisexual enough and always will be."

TikTok Helped Me Connect With Queer POC

Sydney, 24, is a sexuality professional who works to empower humans to reconnect with their sexual selves by breaking up with social norms. Originally, they downloaded TikTok to watch other sexuality professionals' content, but what they ultimately found was a queer community of color. Sydney, who is Chinese American, found that by engaging with, commenting on, and sharing TikToks made by QPOCs for QPOCs, "I've been able to connect with more queer non-cis people of color—especially more queer non-cis Asians across the diaspora—than I ever have offline," they say.

Watching QPOC on TikTok, like @tallsmoloverthinkinitall and @mielakl, explore their sexuality and gender presentation helped Sydney feel comfortable exploring their sexuality, gender, and gender presentation offline. "Now, I better understand my sexuality as a bisexual (mostly sapphic person) and non-binary femme, and have given myself 'permission' to start using she/they pronouns," they say.

TikTok Gave Me Acces To The Queer Community

Growing up in a conservative Ohio town, Dylan knew she was a lesbian, but kept her sexuality hidden. As soon as she arrived on a college campus, though, she became a member of her school's LGBTQ+ alliance, made a queer friend group, and started openly dating women. "I didn't realize how much of myself I had been hiding until I got the chance to be out of the closet," the now 19-year-old says.

When her college shut down due to the pandemic last year, Dylan was forced to return home, losing the ability to be out and around queer people overnight. "I downloaded TikTok [because] I was in a sad funk and somehow stumbled on some lesbian creators," she recalls, noting Ashley Gavin, Marth W, and Alissa and Sam as three of her favorites. "Getting to watch lesbian creators makes me feel like I am still immersed in the lesbian community...even if nobody I am spending time with in my hometown knows I am queer."

How to find your own queer TikTok community

Start by searching queer hashtags on the platform (like #bisexual, #queer, and #lesbian), following the creators in this article, and engaging (i.e. commenting and liking) with users who are creating queer content you enjoy. If you're looking to learn from queer sexuality experts, start by following one or two, while if you're looking for lesbian #couplegoals, say, you'll want to start by following different couples' profiles. The TikTok algorithm will do the rest by adding more queer accounts to your "For You" page.

The one drawback of the app's algorithm, though, is that it can create a pretty darn homologous user experience. If, for example, you engage with the content of a few white cis-lesbians, TikTok may only give you content like that on your feed, tricking you into believing all queer people are white, cisgender, slender, able-bodied folks. However, that is just a small part of the queer community. In reality, there is a vast spectrum of queer culture, politics, and sexual behavior to engage with on TikTok.

Engage with a variety of queer creators to keep your feed as diverse as the queer community itself. From there, it's up to you exactly how you interact. If consuming content is enough to make you feel immersed in the queer community, do that. If, however, you're interested in making friends you can talk to or even hang out with offline, you'll need to invite users to converse with you through comments, DM-slides, and by creating side-by-side content with viral videos.

Keep in mind that some users will have more energy and bandwidth to engage with you than others. After all, while some TikTok users have turned the platform into their full-time jobs, most have not had that luxury or the desire. So, when you reach out with questions, comments, or even encouragement, don't let any lack of response deter you from reaching out to other LGBTQ+ users in the future.