Virtually Queer!


As we have seen portrayed beautifully in the Netflix hit Heartstopper growing up with an LGBTQ+ identity has never been straightforward. For those living outside of the metropolitan bubble, the local LGBTQ+ scene has always been a great source of disappointment.

Then came our saviour: tech! Connecting us like never before. Finally, we could ditch awkward meet-ups with the last of the five local gays. With whom, frankly, all you have in common is an ex-partner and the shared trauma of growing up surrounded by homophobia. Not in 2022, though! Now we can simply swipe right, adjust those distance settings, and link with people from all over the country.

We have evolved into digital humans, patched into the web via our phones and wearable devices. The new-age internet is dawning… where virtual and augmented reality becomes integrated into our day-to-day lives. Aside from immersive gaming, ridiculous headsets, and the occasional accidental smashing of material possessions, what does virtual reality (VR) offer the LGBTQ+ community?

VR yields a more authentic virtual experience than has previously been possible in the past. Why does this matter? Well… it matters because LGBTQ+ people who are undergoing the process of identity exploration can now utilise VR as a tool to aid this process. Coupled with the sense of anonymity that comes from creating a digital avatar, VR can help people have a meaningful, authentic, but anonymous existence in the digital realm. People can then join chatrooms and games built around the topics and ideas they are passionate about, meeting people to share their stories with – escaping their everyday lives.

Users can self-identify with their preferred sexual and gender identity without facing the stigma and long-lasting consequences they would in the real world. Platforms, such as Second Life, have allowed people to live an alternative existence in the digital realm for years. Enter safer spaces of their choosing, surrounded by like-minded people that they might not be able to encounter in day-to-day life. Only now, VR technology makes the whole experience feel exponentially more earnest. All good stuff, right?

Well, we have seen this before in sci-fi movies. Could these experiences lead to people preferring their digital existence? Or idealistically help people transition into their authentic selves in the real world? The jury is still out. 

 Our phones have become an extension of our bodies. I sit here writing this on my Apple MacBook, watching a movie on my iPhone whilst travelling at 30,000ft on a flight costing me less than a full tank of fuel. Our world is changing, and, according to my phone analytics, my daily average screen time is higher than I care to mention. We cannot get enough of our bulging digital diets at this pivotal time.

Every second of our digital life is traced by analytics and big data companies in what may be the biggest threat to the LGBTQ+ community. Do we really trust tech companies like Facebook and Google to have our best interests at heart when managing our personal data? Especially if you were someone living somewhere where your gender or sexual identity could land you in hot water?

“VR can play an integral role in easing the transition period through struggling with the identity exploration process”

I admit that I take my cis-gendered and abled privilege for granted on occasion. At the beginning of the journey that I went on to understand my own sexuality, there never was a eureka moment like you see in the films. Conversations that I have had with friends have made it clear that this is the same for many queer people – it is a process. Especially for those who have more complex challenges and needs. I believe that VR can play an integral role in easing the transition period through struggling with the identity exploration process.

We are currently living through a collective mental health crisis. Access to mental health services, and the efficacy of these services, are subpar at best. The numbers speak for themselves. LGBTQ+ people are disproportionately affected by mental health problems and suicide. Lockdown only increased the urgency for improvement in mental health services as the support group LGBT Hero reported a 44% increase in people accessing their services. Stonewall also found that 13% of young LGBTQ+ people reported attempting to take their own lives in the past 12 months. We are at a breaking point.

If research is correct, VR could transform how we receive therapy and mental health treatment. Being able to interact with a professional in your own home without the pressure of face-to-face interaction could allow patients to talk more candidly about their experiences. It could also increase the number of patients that professionals see in one day. This is revolutionary for people with anxiety and trauma-related issues. It is also widely expected that VR could play a pivotal role in lessening social anxiety and loneliness as a catalyst for meaningful interactions, albeit digitally.

It is foolish to assume these platforms will immediately be a safe space. As we have seen with social media platforms, they can often become a cesspit for abuse. It is down to the developers to consider vulnerable people when creating digital spaces. Developers often create games designed for cis het men as they are the biggest consumer. 

Virtual reality must break this trend, and platforms must be created with LGBTQ+ in mind accordingly. That includes ensuring all platforms have fully inclusive and customisable settings for characters and avatars. Looking forward, we tread carefully, with a ton of trepidation, but wilfully hope that VR could be a force for good for queer people all over the world.