Queer people have always cherished their online spaces, but COVID-19-induced quarantine is transforming the Internet into a source of queer survival. By Natalie Geisel
Two weeks ago, I found myself asking out a girl who lives over 600 miles away from me. In a pre-pandemic era, it would’ve been the typical meet-for-drinks a week later, maybe more if the night went smoothly. But as I reached week four of quarantine, feeling absolutely hopeless about my love life following stay-at-home orders and my subsequent move back home with my parents, I was instead asking her if she wanted to watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire with me — virtually. We’d click play at the same time and text throughout the lesbian film as if we were actually together, somewhat lessening my loneliness and definitely sparking the beginnings of a quarantine crush.
It’s not necessarily special to want someone to text, flirt with, or even FaceTime during this virtual time — Tinder made their Passport function free for the entirety of April to ease online connections, and Bumble promoted their voice call and video chat feature to prevent users from going on physical dates. With my lack of human touch and desire for someone to distract me from the world’s uncertainties, an online crush (dare I say, Internet girlfriend) seemed to make sense to both me and the majority of the population who don’t have a live-in partner.
I soon realized my quarantine crush was a mass gay phenomenon when I saw a sudden surge in the term “queerantine,” and users of queer dating app Lex posting pandemic-themed ads searching for e-partners, nudes exchanges, and even queer Animal Crossing friends. New terms like “funtimate” (explained in one tweet as a “close, low-key relationship w/ someone during quarantine. activities include deep unpacking and penpalship that borders fuckboi fun and soul binding intimacy”) are being coined, and lesbian meme accounts are relying on quarantine content to keep their pages active and relevant.
Being Gay on the Internet is nothing new; we’ve been using online spaces for decades to validate our queer identities, find romantic and/or sexual partners, and foster our own communities. From coming out forums and queer-centered fandoms for LGBTQ+ teens to more sex and dating-focused platforms, the virtual world for queer folks seems ever-expansive, even when we have the liberty to explore the physical one. Even after going to my first lesbian bar in Stockholm a few years ago and finding comfort in being with my real-life queer friends, I still valued those online spaces dearly — they showed me an infinite world of queer possibilities that didn’t seem entirely possible IRL. I’d typically use these online spaces to form physical connections, searching for dates on Lex or using Instagram to seek queer pals that I’d eventually meet in person.
Quarantine has reminded me to cherish the virtual queer space I’ve been crafting since high school; I value my online-only friends more than the average person and get a bit too happy when I scroll through my mostly queer Twitter feed. My pre-pandemic self — which has always fled to the Internet when craving some semblance of queer validation and community — should be more than prepared for an indefinite quarantine, especially when I’m yearning for gay comforts that can be granted through a screen, like flirty texts, lesbian movies, or a combination of the two.
Maybe things are progressing with my quarantine crush because I’m lonelier than ever, making me ignore that we don’t know when (or if!) this could ever move offline. But I also see this Internet crush as a means of performing my lesbian identity, especially as the restrictions of living back with my parents sometimes make me feel like I’m back in the closet. I have always felt a twinge of regression upon coming home from my very queer college circle to my very straight household in Georgia, yet I always felt reassurance in knowing that this was temporary — I’d be back to those queer circles in no time. But stay-at-home orders have made this short time span far longer than expected, so surrendering to regression wasn’t an option I’d like to pursue. Instead, I did what I know best — I went online.
Thanks to Tinder Passport, I suddenly found myself with a quarantine girlfriend — a relationship that strangely feels more liberating than some of my past experiences. But I’m doing more than just crushing on an online cutie; I’m staying more connected to my queer penpals on Instagram by watching (and replying!) to their typically gay stories. I’m dancing to a live DJ set from Robyn that my lesbian friend spontaneously sent me at 3pm on a Friday, and attempting to watch every single lesbian movie ever made with another set of lesbian friends. Pre-quarantine, we would get together every Sunday once our The L Word: Generation Q watch parties came to an end, filling the void by watching a new lesbian film every week. Transitioning to a virtual watch party during a pandemic feels even more comforting — and I’m not the only lesbian who thinks so. Even jumping on a FaceTime or Zoom call with my queer friends somewhat makes up for the fact that I can’t go to my trusted gay bars or attend Pride festivities this summer.
I’m not the only one who is somewhat obsessed with ensuring my queerness stays intact during quarantine — I noticed some of my queer friends and acquaintances have also been Very Online with their gay identities. Apart from the usual online quarantine crushes and spending more time than usual watching gay media, one of my newly-queer friends who is unable to explore this exciting stage of her life in physical settings is now writing about her queer desire and sending these projects to fellow queer friends. People are also finding creative ways to spend time with their queer partners, like FaceTiming to bake the same recipe together or sending deliveries of cakes for birthdays. Gay yearning has also been more prominent than usual, of course, amplified by our hunger for touch, making yearning online™ an even more unifying activity, even if it immediately leads to that heartwrenching feeling that seems impossible to cure through a virtual space.
Digital queerness isn’t only being performed in personal ways; accounts like Club Quarantine are throwing “online queer parties” that fellow queers can log onto on Zoom every night of the week. These ideas have become manifestations and new formations of the queer online spaces that quarantine has essentially demanded. Queer icon Charli XCX performed a few weeks ago, and other notable performers like Caroline Polachek and Dorian Electra followed in her footsteps, allowing the online space to gain widespread traction and over 50k followers in just the span of a month. A virtual dance party that pays tribute to the queer club scene seems like the perfect way to feel at home in our queer bodies, allowing our corporeality to connect to hundreds, even thousands, of other dancing queers through a screen.
While I haven’t logged on to digital dance parties just yet, I’m instead finding that the smallest of things prevent me from dissociating from my corporeal queer self — hearing my crush’s voice through exchanging voice memos, planning to send each other handwritten letters like a Victorian-era lesbian romance, finding joy in seeing my friend’s faces through Zoom while we watch the same gay movie.
It’s comforting to know that we’re all attempting to carve out spaces on the Internet that allow us to figure out exactly how we should be treating our queer selves. In a bizarre time such as this, where every online interaction feels draining to my physical self and I’m doing everything I possibly can to feel like a real human being, the Internet can also be a means for me to find just that; digital queer affirmation is now a source for my sanity.
At first, I assumed that seeking virtual spaces for queer connection amidst quarantine was an act of sheer boredom; spending my days texting my quarantine girlfriend and watching gay media sounds more enjoyable than sitting at home, bored. I then questioned if it’s an avoidance strategy, like binge-watching shows I’ve already seen before just to ignore the terrifying future. But now I believe that these queer online connections get me through each day due to the heavy dose of loneliness that I can’t say I’ve ever felt before. The Internet has suddenly become a source for our queer survival — regardless of whether people are stuck in a homophobic household or simply cannot stand the gay loneliness for one more moment. Especially when each day feels more hopeless, I’ll take my trusted online spaces as my gay safety blanket. ✰
Natalie Geisel is a soon-to-be grad at George Washington University studying gender and sexuality studies. She is a writer, lover of queer media, and lead editor of Camp Thirlby. You can find her at @nat.geisel and read her work at nataliegeisel.com.