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social sciences

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Computers, the Internet, and New Media  
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For most gay men and lesbians born before the late 1970s, their first encounter with a community of likeminded individuals is likely to have come about either via a gay magazine or through visiting a gay bar. Same-sex loving people living in rural areas, where lesbian and gay media and institutions were nonexistent or difficult to find, often experienced extreme isolation and were prevented through lack of information from networking with others who shared their interests and desires.

Since the advent of the Internet in the early 1990s, however, lesbians, gay men, and sexual and gender nonconformists of all kinds have been able to use a variety of CMC (computer-mediated communications) in order to meet and network both on- and offline. Although the existence of a "digital divide" between those with computer access and those without means that large numbers of economically disadvantaged people are still unable to make use of this technology, the Internet has undoubtedly proved revolutionary for lesbians, gay men, individuals, and a host of other people in a number of important ways.

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Community and Identity Formation

Generally speaking, families, schools, churches, youth groups, and other community organizations are not supportive of sexual or gender difference. The mass media also tend to present stereotyped and often negative images of queer people and lifestyles. As a result, young people who feel themselves to be "different" from their peers often experience feelings of alienation, self-hatred, and depression. It is no surprise that the suicide rate among lesbian and gay youth far exceeds that of those with heterosexual orientations.

Prior to the advent of the Internet, finding positive, non-biased information about sexual or gender difference was extremely difficult, given the pathological tone that most medical and psychological textbooks--often the only books on the subject of homosexuality available in libraries--adopted in relation to queer sexualities. Finding a sympathetic mentor who could help a young and questioning person come to terms with his or her feelings of alienation and difference was even more difficult. Hence, young queers had few opportunities to manage creatively an identity judged "deviant" by those around them.

What the Internet offers is a variety of safe online or "virtual" spaces in which young people can seek out information from the many websites offering guides to such things as glbtq community organizations and help-lines, as well as safe sex and peer support groups. While taking the first step into a gay bar takes a lot of courage (and is impossible for under-age youth or those in rural areas), communicating with others via a computer network can be accomplished in the relative safety of one's home, office, or local library. Although many relationships established online remain virtual, others can develop into offline friendships and even relationships, and it is becoming increasingly common for young people's debut into the gay, lesbian, or transgender worlds to be made via a computer network.

Scholars of new media have pointed out the interactive nature of much CMC, which goes far beyond searching for and downloading information. Many queers who feel different from others around them create their own home pages, which offer opportunity for self-expression and self-fashioning. The personal home page is a safe space in which queer people can communicate aspects of themselves that would be unspeakable in their offline lives (to family, teachers, bosses, or ministers).

Communication may also be done through "blogging"--the keeping of an online diary or commentary on their thoughts, ideas, or activities--or through more visual means, such as the publishing of photos and artwork on their sites. Many cross-dressers, for instance, before they have managed to network with offline communities of people who share their interests, will experiment online with their female persona, sharing photos, stories, and fantasies with other cross-dressers whose sites are linked together via web rings.

"Coming out," the definitive step toward developing a lesbian, gay, or transgender identity, increasingly occurs online for many young people, underlining the importance of the Internet as a space for self-actualization. Hence, when meeting up with others in the community for the first time, many young people are better able to negotiate these face-to-face interactions, having already tried out their gay, lesbian, or transgender identities in cyberspace.

In addition, the Internet offers a number of educational sites, including preeminently among several others, which offer a wealth of accurate information about glbtq history and culture. These sites help remedy an old, and still active, project of denial and erasure of queer history. By making people aware that glbtq individuals have made enormous contributions to the world's cultural achievements, these sites not only increase understanding of history, literature, and art, but they also help repair the damage inflicted on glbtq people by mainstream society's incessant attacks on their self-esteem.

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