LGBTQ Youth Online Information Communities: The Intersection of Real and Virtual Space When Information Needs Are Also Social Needs

LGBTQ Youth Online Information Communities: The Intersection of Real and Virtual Space When Information Needs Are Also Social Needs
by Elanna Erhardt


As an “under-aged” minority population that has only recently been given much needed attention in scholarly authorship over the past twenty years, LGBTQ (or queer as an all-inclusive term) youth have information needs and desires peculiar to people experiencing information poverty as Chatman (2010) explored in her research on marginalized populations. In the literature, youth most frequently refers to those between the ages of 20 to 18 (Gaffney, 2014), but can refer to those as old as 22 (Hammer, 2003). Often, experiences outside of mainstream or dominant culture are given less careful attention in research despite needed improvements of information accessibility and understanding of information needs. Queer youth frequently have information needs directly related to identity development and peer support, which are most readily satisfied with social media sites that intersect with real places, such as Facebook and Tumblr.

Being below the legal age of adulthood, this population is considered dependent on parents or legal guardians as well as government institutions such as public schools that tend to restrict queer youth from un-filtered, uninterrupted access to the internet. Because of this restricted access, many queer youth find themselves feeling isolated (Driver, 2005). Those with greater access to the internet use it to connect to discussions about what it means to be queer, identity development, sexual health concerns, and shared history. Exploration of the lives and information needs of queer youth will help make these needs more widely known and possibly influence the people and institutions on which queer youth are dependent to change their technology policies especially for queer youth.

This analysis will address some of the lived experiences of queer youth in several specific aspects. First, this analysis will explore information seeking behavior and needs, which vary widely depending on the resources available to each person, their economic background, and home environment. Also, queer youth perceptions of information services can have great impact on how they decide to search, whether this involves perceptions of library services or of technology and information available on the internet. A third aspect is ethical and legal issues that affect information access among queer youth, which ranges from internet filters in schools to library collection management. Fourth, this analysis will explore emerging technology use among this community that is often linked to their dependent status. Finally there will be an analysis of the digital divide issues that queer youth experience. Each one of these areas delves into a different aspect of how queer youth function as an information community and the ways in which they find themselves isolated from such communities.

Literature Review
Evident in the research is a need among queer youth for social learning in their information-seeking behaviors. Although all of the literature available on queer youth information communities cites a need for more research, there is ample scholarship to establish an understanding of the basic needs of this community. Among the available scholarship are articles from public librarians, psychology researchers, academic librarians, and LIS doctorate researchers. Each of these different types of scholarship offers a unique perspective on queer youth communities. Public librarians, for example, provide an inside look at collection development as seen in works like “No Longer Safe: West Bend, Young Adult Literature and Conservative Library Activism” (Gaffney, 2014). Also, scholarship in psychology offers an objective, quantitative perspective on the experiences of queer youth in the information-seeking process. The information available from LIS doctorate researchers offers an in-depth, qualitative perspective on the needs and difficulties experienced in this community.

The literature as a whole gives a clear understanding that, when the information is available, online information communities provide a place for social learning that combines both virtual and real worlds; ‘‘online contexts permeate and influence online situations, and online situations and experiences always feed back into offline experience” (Gray, 2006, p. 6). It should also become clear in this analysis that identity formation is an integral part of queer youth online information communities, which is incredibly difficult for those living in rural areas who are not exposed to as much diversity or as many people (Bond, Hefner, & Drogos, 2008).

A particularly unfortunate difficulty cited amongst public librarians and some high school librarians is the tendency for those working in collection development to censor the collection according to community biases and personal beliefs. This sort of censorship also happens, often unintentionally, in public schools whose internet access is filtered to exclude all age-inappropriate websites. This is especially problematic for students wanting to research topics to do with sex and sexuality, which include a term that is often filtered. Management of databases can be equally flawed, as cited in one study, “OPACs [in a southern region of the United States] often did not contain any LGBTQ-related words, making it impossible to retrieve the titles using a keyword search” (Hughes-Hassel, Overberg, & Harris, August 2012, p. 13). The evidence for library censure provides a clear understanding that queer youth are an underserved population (Alexander & Miselis, 2007).

Another important theme in the literature is the difference between passive and social media. As opposed to several generations ago, the most recent generations can, in most cases, access the internet to use social media sites where they can consume information in a variety of ways including passive consumption, interactive reciprocation, or a bit of both. Social media is especially important for those who are uncomfortable expressing themselves in real spaces or who seek guidance in LGBTQ cultures (Bond, Hefner, & Drogos, 2008). Passive media, however, allows only for consumption of fixed images and information, which precludes queer youth from the interaction necessary to support a sense of community and group identity. This lack of group affiliation and ability to self-express is inconclusively linked to a high percentage of queer youth self-harming and suicide (McDermott, Rowen, & Piela, 2013).

There are still many gaps in the literature. Primarily, the literature is not entirely inclusive of race and transgender/transsexual experiences. Some authors chose not to research these communities for fear of delving into a stigmatized population within an already marginalized group. Among the articles found, only one included the experience of a youth of color. As research on this population began very recently, all of the literature cites a need for further research and is reluctant to claim concrete findings. Also needing further research are the ways youth utilize the internet, high school library cataloging practices, and identity-related information seeking.

The data needed to explore the topic of queer youth online information communities was generated over a three-month span of time during a process of several stages of research, beginning with a narrowing of the specific population to be studied, and continuing with three subsequent stages of information gathering. Each stage brought greater insight to the specificity of issues experienced among queer youth while seeking or choosing not to seek information. Key search terms assigned to the more substantive articles were used to find related articles, and bibliographies of relevant articles were used to further narrow the search. The information is generally qualitative except for some instances of psychological research that offer quantitative data.

Interviews were also conducted to generate a more comprehensive perspective. Interviewees were found using Facebook and personal connections to the queer youth community local to Humboldt County. As can be easily surmised, youth of any background and identity are difficult to establish time and date agreements in order to meet, so while I wished to provide more personal conversations to reflect what was found in the literature, this was not feasible. Teens are still considered dependent and are a sort of “captive” population in that they have both parents and state and federal institutions such as schools and at risk youth services, which dictate their rights of consent and often determine how their time is spent. So, in some instances when it may have been preferable to obtain more interviews, I conducted only one or found adults who work with this population to help provide more data and illustrations of queer youth information seeking experiences.

Among the LGBTQ community there are countless forms of identity and even more disparate experiences of those identities. Despite so many differences, the queer youth community generally gather around the same information needs online and in real space. However, being part of the same minority unites many of their information-seeking habits. Queer youth often seek people with similar experiences (Driver, 2005), information about other coming out stories (Hamar, 2003), and explanations of shared cultural heritage (Gray, 2009). As Fisher and Durance explain, “information communities anticipate and often form around people’s needs to get and use information” (2003, p. 8).

One of the most common forms of information seeking among queer youth is social networking, which youth use to find stories similar to their own as a way to inform their understanding of culture and collective experiences (Driver, 2005). As opposed to dominant, heteronormative culture, queer youth do not have the same number of role models to inform their social learning, so much of this dearth of information is sought online, especially in rural areas where many people may not feel comfortable openly expressing their identities. To fill this gap, several forms of searching are used. Primarily, most queer youth take in information passively in a transient manner, hopping from one site with multiple participant entries to another to find what they seek. Occasionally, a semi-participatory group will form around a particular concern where multiple people will engage in conversation, but leave sparse comments before conducting further search is the most common form of participation.

Firefly Mizera is a queer, transgender youth who engages in a sort of transitory online information community. Hir experience is documented in this analysis as a combination of personalizing information and exploring information-seeking behaviors. Before illustrating hir experience, two concepts must be explained. First, within LGBTQ culture, it is common for people to experience a different sex and gender than is normative in the dominant culture. This means that someone who has female genitals may have an androgynous, male or other gender presentation. Some people who experience this identify as transgender, trans sexual or simply as trans*, and prefer to be referred to with gender neutral pronouns such as zie, hir and hirs. The spellings for these pronouns vary among communities, but the meaning is the same. Second, Firefly has experienced a level of technology access that is difficult to achieve for many queer youth. Zie is aware of this privilege and of hir middle class background which place her among queer youth with fewer information barriers that often relate to economic and regional background.

Zie is well adept in hir information seeking behavior (Wilson, 2000) to fill hir needs, and zie fits well with those considered “super-encounterers” who encounter information on a regular basis and find this to be an important part of their information-seeking experience (Erdelez 1998). Hir information needs are very similar to those of the gay and lesbian population who tend to seek community, self-acceptance, identity, and politics. Zie also fits among more general information communities as zie observes, comments, interacts, and creates, all at varying times (Harlon, Bruce, & Lupton, 2012). Firefly uses internet media to share hir experiences and to find multiple perspectives as can be found among many queer youth (Driver, 2005). Since Firefly is more aware of how to search for information than many queer youth, hir form of search aligns with the theory of broad scanning, “characterized by exhaustive and flexible information seeking in a wide range of sources” (Heinstrom, 2004, p. 241). Zie generally looks for information “from other real human beings about queer and trans* topics” (personal communication). This means that zie looks for information that is written by others similar to hir whose writing gives a feeling of personal connection.

But not all of hir information needs can be met via online information seeking. As zie explained, “gender-queer fashion, specific personal experiences relating to people’s transitions, emotional experiences, meeting with others in real life and…integrating queerness and apirituality [are] very complex things that need to be worked out in a real conversation with a person” (F. Mizera, personal communication, October 4, 2014). This need for in-person communication is broadly experienced among queer youth to combine experiences of real and virtual places. Firefly has opportunities to connect with other trans* people and combine rich, virtual, and real experiences in hir daily experience to which few other queer youth documented in the literature have access.

A common difficulty in this particular community is finding reliable information and knowing how to judge the authority of socially created information found on social network sites. Frequently, queer youth will judge information authority by whether the information came from a professional source or a trusted person, though popularity and self-confidence in writing style were more frequently used as indicators of authority (Harlon, Bruce, & Lupton, 2012, p. 579). Along with many other youth, Firefly finds that there are ways of judging the writing quality that help identify reliable information. Zie explained, “if they use academic language or if they seem to be ranting, if someone is trying to include all sorts of weird fancy phrases” then zie will not trust the author (F. Mizera, personal communication, October 4, 2014). This sort of authority judgment is important, especially in online spaces where authors can maintain full anonymity and withhold information supporting the validity of their writing.

Perception of information services also has a substantial impact on queer youth information communities. Factors such as how youth perceive information resources at their schools, public libraries and on the web can change the quality and quantity of information they encounter. Much of this perception has to do with the regional locations where youth live. When discussing youth living in rural areas with high rates of poverty, it is important to acknowledge the reduced access these individuals have to technology, transportation and the various home environments they experience. The experiences of at-risk youth receiving assistance from county facilities will be discussed later, as their information needs and difficulties require individual explanation. The experiences being explored in this section deal broadly with rural poverty and are illustrated with an example from Humboldt County, Northern California.

Most people living in rural areas with increased rates of poverty are the last to see and purchase new technologies. Though, one information-seeking practice remains the same as in more urban and metropolitan areas: people tend to use their smart phones and personal computers more than library services for their information needs. Libraries have primarily been “places of access to information, whether this access is to books, whether this access is to electronic materials,” though this is not necessarily how libraries in rural areas function (Schmidt, 2014). In areas like Humboldt County, where the poverty rate is approximately 33% (2010), libraries have just enough funding to keep their doors open, which does not leave available funds for technology purchases. So libraries like the Eureka Public Library mostly attract families with small children who need help supporting language acquisition, adults needing help to improve their literacy, elderly patrons who enjoy perusing and the transient population looking for temporary shelter and some information. The composition of patronage in Humboldt County reflects the population and its steady rise of impoverished citizens. Though the population is rising, the area is gaining residents who need services like DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) rather than an influx of middle class residents who would be able to boost the economy.

The poverty rate and geographic isolation – due to the long expanse of the 101 through the redwood forest and poor road conditions – of this area have a huge effect on information-seeking habits, technology perceptions, and associations with libraries among queer youth, which relates to Chatman’s concept of situational relevance as Fulton articulates her of information poverty, “utility, in which relevance addressed an individual’s need and offered the potential for shaping ‘a collective perception about the ways in which new knowledge is brought into a social system’” (2010, p. 10). In her scholarship, Chatman explored the information-seeking habits of marginalized populations, who each had their own proclivities toward secrecy and deception depending on how they perceived their situations, privacy, and marginalized status. Queer youth have many of the same proclivities as they navigate the coming-out process and try to maintain privacy while seeking information about identity and community. As stated earlier, many feel unwilling to utilize reference services as they fear exposure and are unsure about whether their privacy will be protected. Rural, queer youth communities manifest very differently than in urban or metropolitan areas as transportation, technology access, and multiple perspectives are not as easily accessible.

Another interviewee, Tyler Wing, has a slightly less insular perspective on privacy and spoke about his frequent visits with the librarians at his high school and the community college he attended. It has been argued that “in a time when we are grappling more deeply with the nature of securing support, we need to think more carefully about the continuum of librarian visibility (LaRue, 2010). The visibility of librarians was not a problem for Tyler as he sought conversations independently, but this is not the case for every rural, queer youth. These past few years, he has experienced less need for library services because of the internet access he has via his iPhone. The work he does brings him to the library as his clients who have various physical and mental disabilities use their time with him to be driven to the library for access to books and periodicals (T. Wing, personal communication, October 17, 2014). Since attaining a smart phone, his clients have been the only reason for him to go to the library, and this is largely because their services are irrelevant to him. Even in the external environment, online, the Humboldt County website fails to serve much of the population as it does not advertise services to attract a wide variety of people. Schmidt (2011) explains that library websites are notorious for having a lot of information cluttering each page of their sites, but should focus on greater simplicity. This is the opposite for the Eureka Public Library as the site offers minimal selections, mostly consisting of links to other government services.

Tyler also explained his daily internet use, “Tumblr is where I see the more radical, critique-y things. [I] go online to see body-positive images, better equal representation, or filtered representation I should say. Facebook is where I keep up with local queer culture and Sister stuff [Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence]” (T. Wing, personal communication, October 17, 2014). His use of the internet reflects Bevins-Tatum’s (2010) description of patron needs for familiarity, simplicity, and quality in libraries. Since these aspects are not all available to him at the local library, he finds them independently on the internet. When questioned about his library use, Tyler replied, “[I go there] mostly [with] my clients. What attracts me there is whatever my clients needs are, so, giving clients access to information. When I was a student, I went to the library pretty frequently, but that’s not how it is now. I go a couple times a week…I kind of had to. Um, study and it was open safe space. Um, you know, kuz I would take high school classes in the morning and college classes were later at night. I didn’t have safe space at home and I had a lot of studying to do and I’d get distracted. It was always warm and dry, and I could find people I knew there. And WiFi, and comfy chairs (T. Wing, personal communication, October 17, 2014).”

The experience Tyler related in the interview aligns with much of the literature concerning rural queer youth. School libraries were places of refuge for him in many ways, but also offered limited access to information as Gray (2009) explores through numerous interviews.

Within school and public libraries, there have been multiple legal and ethical dilemmas that restrict queer youth from accessing information relevant to their experiences. Among them are community and self-censorship in libraries. Unfortunately, censorship is a widespread problem for queer youth living in conservative and/or rural areas. Though it is well known that policies do not always dictate how librarians chose to embody their professions, progressive steps are being taken in libraries in the form of “the LBR [Library Bill of Rights], revised in 1948, 1961, 1967, and 1980, has numerous supporting interpretive documents that have been updated regularly, most recently in 2004 and 2005, including two reaffirmations of access for youth” (Dresang, 2006, p. 175).

Continually, adult censorship of child and youth information access has been a significant problem. For example, youth intellectual freedom suffered huge losses when “in February 1996, the Communications Decency Act (CDA) was signed into law by president Clinton as a way to keep ‘indecent’ material from anyone under the age of 18” (Krug, 2009, p. 2829). Librarians responded immediately, citing that:

1. The act was unconstitutional because the term ‘indecent’ was vague, permitting widely varying interpretations. The developmental differences and information needs young children and older teens was not distinguished.

2. Congress neglected to consider private efforts to protect children, such as parents using filtering software at home.

3. Youth are not automatically exposed to all internet content. Youth are responsible for the information they seek. (Krug, 2009, p. 2829).

This is only one example of the many instances when state and federal politics have restricted youth access to information, citing that they are protecting youth from “explicit material.” A different perception of youth that librarians frequently adopt is that they are young people whose best protection from harm is knowledge, which means that youth should be taught how to search the internet and informed about the harmful content they may encounter.

An example of community censorship of library collections is given in the article “No Longer Safe: West Bend, Young Adult Literature, and Conservative Library Activism,” documenting a legal battle between a librarian at the West Bend Memorial Library in Wisconsin who was faced with a lawsuit over providing LGBTQ literature in the library collection. A local conservative group was offended at the provision of such material. The argument from the conservative group was presented on a group members blog, “self-described conservative Ginny Maziarka…complained on her blog, WISSUP (Wisconsin Speaks Up), that Pekoll’s attention to youth requests was unfair because ‘children do not pay taxes, so obviously their requests and desires do not trump the taxpayers [sic]’” (Gaffney, 2014, p. 730). This argument belies the group’s intent to censor non-heterosexual content for youth, citing that taxes are the primary reason for their conviction that collection development be changed. An insight missing from their argument is that libraries were constructed as places of free access to information, constructed to support intellectual freedom.

But censorship is done for other reasons as well, “unfortunately, many librarians practice self-censorship or censorship by omission. An attempt to avoid conflict by not including LGBTQ-themed materials in their collections. Another variant of self-censorship occurs when librarians assume their patrons do not need LGBTQ-themed information because they do not ask for it” (Milelis, 2007, p. 44). While some librarians chose not to include LGBTQ materials in their collections, others facilitate quiet inclusion. Quiet inclusion means that the books are present in both the OPAC and the youth collection, but are not given appropriate key terms that would make them searchable. This is done to make the materials available without attracting negative community attention. Another unfortunate aspect of this form of collection development is that many queer youth, as discussed above, are not comfortable asking reference questions, so if they do not find the materials by perusing the stacks, the are likely never to find stories and histories relevant to them. Additionally, choosing to quietly include LGBTQ literature in a collection has its own set of biases.

When discussing queer youth access to information and technology, it is critical to remember the “captive” nature of their dependent status, which makes them accountable to their parents or legal guardians, their schools and other state and federal institutions. Their being a “captive” population made it particularly difficult to obtain a larger number of interviews. In an endeavor to create an accurate portrayal of queer youth access to technology and information, I have interviewed a 15-year-old female youth, Marie Presser, and an at-risk youth social worker, Patrick Malloy. To be clear, Marie is not an at-risk youth; her experience shows how family dynamics can interfere with information access.

To begin, there are broad analyses of youth access to technology, but these studies have primarily been done in university settings where student computers are made available and the population is primarily composed of individuals with economic privilege (Cassidy, Colmenares, Jones, Manolovitz, Shen, & Vieria, 2012). Public high school settings, however, offer a better sampling of more common economic backgrounds. Marie is part of a family living below the poverty line. She attends McKinleyville High School and identifies as a cis-gender female with a homo-flexible sexuality. She says of herself, “[m]y family is pretty low income, and I have a mom, but no dad. He left when I was under a year old. I’m white with some European ancestry. I have a little Seneca Iroquois from my maternal grandfather, but not enough to make a difference with that tribe and nation” (M. Presser, personal communication, November 13, 2014).

When asked how much access she has to the internet, Marie said that her mother bought a computer for her family to use, but she rarely has access to it other than late nights. Instead of letting her children use the computer for homework, her mother plays solitaire for several hours most nights to relieve stress from work. So, the computer is not used as it was intended. Sometimes, at night, Marie will use the computer for access to online chat rooms. But this, too, is complicated, as the internet connection in her home is dial-up and she worries that she will wake her family. Also, she does not use the computer for personal use when it is free during the daytime as she worries that family members will interrupt her and see her activity.

Marie has several ways to circumvent these problems: “I use Facebook to talk with other queer folks at school about things that I don’t want my other classmates to hear. I feel pretty private, so I keep a lot of the things that feel personal to online conversations when I get to use my friend’s computer” (M. Presser, personal communication, November 13, 2014).

This is a fairly common experience among queer youth in the literature; most youth cite a desire for privacy. Then, there is her familiarity with technology. In general, Marie feels ill-equipped to handle technology, even when she is given access at school, “I really don’t have a lot of access to technology at home, so it feels difficult to ask what’s available at school since I really don’t know how to use any of it” (M. Presser, personal communication, November 13, 2014). This feels frustrating to her, but Marie understands that her difficulty in feeling confident in the learning process has to do with her limited access and time to spend with technology.

Another aspect to youth access to technology is a consideration of youth who are considered at-risk. When asked about the legal constraints associated with giving technology access to the population of houseless and homeless youth he works with, Patrick replied, “The biggest barrier to youth having access to things is parental permission…but we’re talking about youth on the streets. That’s not an issue because they don’t have parents who care or are even present or around” (P. Malloy, personal communication, Novermber 8, 2014). He went on to explain that there are extremely rare instances when parents are present and require their own consent to be given prior to any given activity. However, there are some parents who come to the organizations to spend time with their children, and that is one of the biggest difficulties to overcome when navigating youth personal boundaries and parental demands.

Another difficulty that Patrick experiences is access to technology for youth who he serves. When asked about the level of access youth have to the internet and technology, he responded, “100% of the youth have access to the internet. But because that’s a sampling error – but because both of the places I work for provide unsupervised internet access. A good number of youth I work with have smart phones with access to the internet. I work at three different sites. The one, everyone is over eighteen. The internet access at both of the other sites I work with is extremely unreliable. At least once a week, there will be internet connective problems. And additionally, both places don’t offer WiFi access intentionally. So if they need to use their phone or laptop, they’re not able… Every new person has this complaint. But in addition to that, the internet will go down frequently. And there’s no on-site IT support. The agency has two dozen or more locations all with their own networks. I have no idea how big my agency is. It has one IT guy” (P. Malloy, personal communication, Novermber 8, 2014).

Some additional barriers to internet and technology access Patrick shared that at-risk youth experience are lack of transportation, weather, and biases against public facilities. Since most youth do not make enough money to afford cars, their ability to travel long distances is limited, and especially so when it is raining, as most youth do not want to leave their shelters when it is pouring rain outside. Understandably, youth who already are associated with programs for homeless and houseless youth do not want to further demote their social status by frequenting the library, so just a small number of them utilize the Eureka Public Library.

In return to the broad consideration of queer youth information communities in general, readers should take from this analysis the many complexities that govern who has access and how much, owing to their economic, regional, dependency, and familial dynamic situations. Queer youth have countless different life paths, and each one has its own challenges. The common experience that draws them together is their shared identity and culture. It is their disparate connections that help them to create and recreate what it means to be queer, provide support through experiences of isolation and search for what concepts of identity feel most natural. As long as this population is socially constructed as dependents, they will experience struggles with autonomy and access. In most cases, queer youth information needs are not being fully met because of their situations. As legislation continues to be battled out and queer youth find themselves with fewer resources and points of access than they need, it will be helpful if schools consider changing their internet filter settings, and if libraries begin to market their services specifically to this population. A particularly great advancement for this population would be a non-profit service dedicated to offering free online and WiFi access to queer youth as well as some community programming to merge virtual and real worlds. As many of the difficulties queer youth experience are due to lack of funds and legal restraints, it will take a truly innovative influence to begin offering relevant technology and internet access to this population.


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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Laurel Brenner

    Great article! For my Information Communities INFO 200 class, I just examined this same population – though in a much more cursory way of course. The LGBTQ youth community is so “ripe” for utilizing online and social media technology, but the barriers for some are unfortunately high. So glad to have seen this article!

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