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How Cultural Dogmas and Social Media Affect Queer Identity and Community-building

This blog is part of a collaboration with Headstream’s Youth Collective Program, which aims to uplift the voices of creative young leaders and nurture a future generation that can confidently shape a safer and more responsible digital world. 

“Cochón.” That’s what I was called growing up in Nicaragua. The term cochón means queer in English. As a kid, I grew up surrounded by women. My aunt raised me and my sister since my mother immigrated to the U.S. when I was two, and all my closest friends were girls. Traditionally, women in my family sew and weave; it’s an intergenerational tradition for them. Because of my aunt, I, too, learned to sew and would help her make curtains to sell and decorate her home.

Nonetheless, these activities—sewing, notoriously nontraditional for men—were seen as a threat to the heteronormative, patriarchal status quo in my neighborhood. At school, boys my age kept calling me cochón and started to verbally and physically bully me, to the point where I didn’t feel safe at school and stopped attending for months. In Nicaragua, Cochónes have one fate: systematic uncertainty. Some can be socially silenced or politically oppressed. Others endure prejudice and discrimination. Transgenders disappear. And physical and sexual abuse in the streets are weapons of prejudice. Queer people in Nicaragua are reified to one idea: disruptors of social order. We disrupt the heteronormative, and such acts are sinful, morally incorrect, and must be punished.

From what I witnessed growing up, I believe any type of “punishment” is an act of violence, whether verbal or physical, that only seeks to undermine human dignity and integrity. But in a country that perpetuates structural violence, we were living within a dysfunctional system that inflicts damage on people like us. In my head, all I could ask was, “When is it gonna be my turn?” My turn to disappear or get beaten up in the street. This is all to say that queer people in Nicaragua not only have to endure social subjugation but also political ills that further dehumanize and alienate us.

Extending my wings, starting a new life

Toni Morrison, my favorite contemporary writer, coined a metaphor I have extended to my own life: flying as an escape from danger, toward liberation. Morrison believed one could really, truly, faithfully fly—with actual wings and everything. I embraced this metaphor fully upon my arrival in the U.S. back in 2018, when my mother sent for me and my sister. I saw this move as my own flight, my own escape from the cultural prison I inherited, and a chance to start a new life.

Here, my mother was more supportive of my sexual orientation and gave me the space to explore and heal. However, this monumental change came with more alienation, one that I hadn’t felt before. As a non-native English speaker and first-generation student, I was thrown into a system and country with no friends or social support. Luckily, I found a sense of community and a support system online.

Finding support online

In a recent report by Hopelab and Common Sense Media, it was found that Latine youth find “social media more critical for getting support or advice when they need it compared to their white peers (50% vs. 60%).” For me, this was the case. Platforms like Facebook continue to be the main source of communication with my family back in Nicaragua because of phone line expenses. Because of Facebook, I was actually able to see my mother on camera for the first time when I was eight years old after she immigrated when I was two. I also used social media platforms like YouTube to learn English. I would watch YouTube videos of other immigrants sharing their experience in navigating high school; the communities on Reddit, furthermore, immeasurably assisted me in learning native sayings and words in English. And, of course, Google Translate was my best friend—alongside Taylor Swift’s songs, which profusely helped me perfect my native pronunciation and expand my vocabulary.

Back in April, I had the opportunity to co-lead a social media panel at Meta’s headquarters in New York City. Some of my fellow panelists were also queer—they said social media helped them find a true value and identity in their lives. I resonate with their experience.

Self-discovery and queer experiences online

When it comes to self-discovery and identity, LGBTQ+ youth’s experiences with social media platforms aren’t monolithic—but this does not mean they are conducive to always attaining positive outcomes, either. In the same study by Hopelab and Common Sense Media, Latine reported being “about twice as likely as white young people (40% vs. 21%) to have taken a permanent break from social media due to harassment or other negative experiences online.” While it is true that I found a community online, social media undeniably exacerbated my alienation. I internalized body dissatisfaction because of the saturation of perfectly unattainable bodies online. This resulted in an eating disorder because of the prevalence of “healthy dieting” back in 2018.

I would say, though, that for a kid growing up witnessing extreme levels of political dominion and censorship, social media served as an outlet for hope and exploration. I gained hope and inspiration from YouTubers back in 2018 talking about their identity and the visibility of LGBTQ+ youth’s lived experiences on Instagram.

I leave you with this: all my life I was told I needed to be fixed. Fixed because I was exhibiting non-heterosexual stereotypes. And fixed because they knew I was hiding who I am—queer. Queerness isn’t just a June celebration. To be queer means to go against traditional dogmas and institutions that have established social order through heterosexual dominion and propaganda. Now, sometimes, going against that is indeed terrifying and intimidating. But the future is queer.


About the author:

A student at Columbia University in the City of New York, José is pursuing a degree in cognitive science and Latine studies. José’s passion for multicultural intersectionality, scientific research, and enriching the journeys of first-generation and Latine students gives him a unique point of view and a powerful voice leading the way for a new generation of leaders. An impassioned speaker, a personable and engaging individual, and a dedicated mental health advocate, José is well-positioned to be an impactful changemaker not only in the lives of his peers but on every level of youth behavioral health engagement and accessibility.

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