The TikTok Algorithm Knew My Sexuality Better Than I Did
07.08.20

Despite being a Social Media Manager and having an embarrassing relationship with my screen time reports, as soon as I became aware of the rise of TikTok, I promised myself I would never get into it. I spent an hour on it about three months ago and managed to feel older and more irrelevant than I’ve ever felt, even though I’m 26 and live online.

But a few weeks ago, in a desperate bid to escape some of the unhappiness of having spent three months in my apartment, I re-downloaded the app. The bar was low—at most I was hoping for a dog eating a corn cob. I got the comedic relief I wanted almost immediately.

The TikTok algorithm is smart. Or, at least, I think it is. Over the past few weeks I’ve continued liking the things that I like with abandon (e.g., rollerskating, sweet moments with elderly folks, teens being teens). There are obviously problems in the way the algorithm machinates in that, depending on who you are and what you like, it can reinforce and cater to your worldview in an unproductive way. But it can also be illuminating. My feed has become curated so specifically to my tastes that it has alerted me to parts of myself I hadn’t fully embraced yet: It’s a medley of absurd animal videos, spooky happenings that are more than likely hoaxes… and queer femmes.

@catherinesofia3945

she really said “sexually…???” anywho i came out to my mom today with cupcakes #fyp

♬ original sound – catherinesofia3945

The first video I liked was of a young woman coming out to her mother with cupcakes, which spelled out “I like girls” in frosting. After she sets up the camera and nervously walks her mom through the three-word phrase, her mother gives a gruff, awkward but ultimately accepting-enough response. “Sexually?” she asks. They hug. The daughter’s excitement in sharing who she is with her mother is palpable, but at odds with its lukewarm reception. Something catches in my throat still when I watch it.

The more queer content I was served, the more I engaged. I liked videos of best friends declaring crushes on each other, which has since become an entire theme of video content on the platform. I liked videos from lesbian women married for 23 years sharing their love stories, so tender they made me cry in 15 seconds. I liked videos that made me laugh about clichés in the queer femme community (you will not find me at a Lowe’s, but you will 100% find me in the skate parks, thrift stores, and your local “forest”).

@officiallydiane1

How hot is she?? Just introducing my baby. #gay#pride#lgbtq#love #23years

♬ original sound – officiallydiane1

I’m not going to say that TikTok knew I was bisexual before I did, because I’ve had inklings for a long time. I’ve spent years denying them as the maxims of internalized biphobia dominated my conscience. Queerness was celebratory, lovable, beautiful for the people I care about, but would it be that way for me? Would the people in my life still accept me the same way? Would the love between me and a partner still take the same shape? And would my life be harder?

I’ve seen women here and there in the past, but quietly. I faced an unreasonable amount of denial about my sexuality in the past because of my background and my known desire for men. I’ve undergone enough self learning to finally acknowledge my queerness for what it is. I’m not officially “out” with everyone I know. I guess, in a way, this is it.

Spending time on TikTok has opened my eyes to the glorious breadth of identity, presentation, and sexuality in the world. I don’t mean that I was unaware of it before, per se, but the narratives I see on TikTok are uniquely joyful. I sound like a millennial when I say that for so long I associated queerness with hardship, having seen and felt the painful stories of some of my closest friends in coming to terms with their identity in their families and communities. This is not to say that stigma, trauma, and fear don’t still exist in these spaces. I know they do, tragically, and at varying levels based on which family, community, and to which identity you belong.

Queer TikTok has given me the gift of believing that my bisexuality can be a source of light, not a burden. It is a unique space of celebration, expression, empowerment. How strange to think that a platform I formerly avoided ultimately gave me the push I needed to come to terms with who I am? In a way, it makes a lot of sense. It’s my job—and my passion—as a Social Media Manager to invest time and energy in emerging social spaces to see how new stories can be told.

I didn’t expect for my own story to be revealed to me in the process. But I’m so grateful it was.

Graphic by Lorenza Centi.