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

Our Policy and Research Officer, Tom McGrath, reflects on what we do and do not know about LGBTQ+ people's experiences of the digital divide.

How do LGBTQ+ people experience digital inclusion/digital exclusion? Who do we exclude by going online? Who do we include? What are the differences between LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ History Month and I wanted to take this opportunity to pose these questions about how we understand LGBTQ+ life online and how to support LGBTQ+ people who aren’t online. 

The digital divides that LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ people make use of social media, compared with just 58% of the general public. And reports by Stonewall note that young LGBTQ+ people “regularly go online to seek help and support.” 

The internet has the potential to provide LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ people. 

In many ways, people might assume that the experiences of digitally excluded LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ people just as they are for people who are straight, or people who are cisgender.

But we also know that young LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ 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, digital inclusion, and belonging. 

There are clear challenges that the LGBTQ+ community face online which many straight and/or cisgender individuals – particularly men – do not face. Perhaps most notably, LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ 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 LGBTQ+ people are subject to racism as well as discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation, with Stonewall reporting that a majority (51%) of Black, Asian, and minority ethnic LGBTQ+ people face discrimination within the LGBTQ+ community.

Thankfully, more work is being done to explore LGBTQ+ people’s experiences. For instance, a new project, led by Dr Kira Allmann at Oxford University and Tim Allsop, looks at queer rural experiences with a focus on how “connection and disconnection.” Meanwhile, 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 into, and policy-making on, LGBTQ+ people’s experiences online must go beyond experiences in online dating – we hope to support more work on this in the future.

Tom McGrath

Policy and Research Officer

Tom coordinates our Data Poverty Lab and fellowship scheme, helping to design more affordable solutions for the internet. He supports our advocacy by writing consultation responses and working closely with parliamentarians to fix the digital divide for good. Tom also monitors external statistical releases and designs qualitative research projects.