A collage of popular queer TikTok creators.
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Dating tip: If you want to really get to know someone, take a scroll through their TikTok “For You” page. From there, a stream of 15-second video and audio clips will teach you about the many little idiosyncrasies and bizarre interests you might need to know to move things along with that prospective special someone.

I gave this a try recently, sheepishly offering my niche “For You” page tab for my date to peruse. Looking over her shoulder as she surveyed the likes of my meticulously-cultivated, liberal-parents/outfit-of-the-day/iced-coffee/wlw (women loving women) “sides” of TikTok, I quickly realized the majority of the videos that the app’s algorithm had strung together for me were all tinged with a certain level of, well, gayness.

Like many other Gen Z-ers, I first bought into the TikTok craze in those fateful months leading up to the shutdown of public life mid-March, when the COVID-19 outbreak was officially declared a global pandemic. A few months prior, I had begun frequenting the app as a kind of Youtube-esque platform that seemed to cater to the rapidly-shrinking attention spans of people my age with its pocket-sized videos. And it was also around this time that I first began to seriously question my (non) heterosexuality, talking to my LGBTQ+ friends about their experiences and tip-toeing into the sphere of gay dating apps.

After having been sent home, along with all of my other peers, I unintentionally entered a kind of real-life case study testing the following variables: quarantine isolation, sexual identity formation and a platform called TikTok that had proliferated the global digital sphere. Having just separated from the LGBTQ+ community I found at the University of Michigan, mid-quarantine TikTok meant I could continue learning about and seeing diverse representations of queer femmes across the world. With this, I could circumvent the kind of reductive representations of queer women long broadcasted to me across mainstream media. 

Upon my own reflection and after numerous conversations had with other queer-identifying Gen Z-ers on and off campus, I can say with confidence that these non-heterosexual ideations have always existed. TikTok has simply concreted and digitalized the breadth of queer experience — from finding your style to “coming out” to navigating your first queer relationship. And this visibility carries invaluable significance to LGBTQ+ Gen Z-ers across the world who, due to their religion or familial background or local community, may not be able to find any other, relatable queer content to consume. 

A crash course on queer community and cultivating safe spaces

The need to access cultural content representative of queer identity has been a fundamental struggle within the LGBTQ+ community, which has been forming our own spaces separate from heteronormative culture for decades. From the century-long proliferation of New York City’s ball culture, a performance phenomenon developed by and for queer people of color, to the advent of Queercore punk music in the 70s and 80s, the cultivation of subcultures distinct from heteronormative norms has been a trademark of forming and nurturing queer identity. 

TikTok’s ability to digitize this formation of queer subculture is not entirely unprecedented — the online platform Tumblr accomplished a similar feat when it gained prominence among Gen Z-ers in the 2010s. In an article for the Cinema Journal, American Studies professor Allison McCracken likens Tumblr to “an alternative, tuition-free classroom, a powerful site of youth media literacy, identity formation, and political awareness that often reproduces cultural studies methods of media analysis. Tumblr’s design makes today’s progressive youth subcultures (including ‘LGBTQ-identified fans’) ‘on the ground’ visible to us.”

The idea of “on the ground” queer visibility, or completely authentic portrayals of queerness, is exceptionally important for a community that has been historically stigmatized and caricatured by mainstream media for decades — specifically for queer women. Lesbian representation reflected in TV and movies during my childhood met a dead-end of pixie-haircut and flannel-clad stereotypes. Platforms like Tumblr and TikTok are so successful in countering these types of reductive tropes because they place the power back in the hands of content-creators — real-life gay women whose mere existence and visibility dismantle heteronormative stigmas of femme queerness. 

Towa Bird, Avery Cyrus, Marthe Woertman, Sof Adelle and countless other leading queer content creators on TikTok are showing us that women-loving women come in every shape, size, color and gender presentation — and you don’t even need cable TV to access that level of representation. Emma Carey of Them Magazine elaborated on the significance of this particular lineup of creators.

“Through sapphic TikTok and its numerous fandoms, young queer women and femmes are carving out a space to connect with each other, especially at a time when many physical LGBTQ+ spaces are inaccessible due to the pandemic,” Carey explained.  “(Towa) Bird and her contemporaries are more than just relatable influencers, heartthrobs, or icons of the moment. They are the vanguard of a community greater than themselves, within which queer youths are redefining what safety and belonging can look like online.”

The typified “gay” genres of TikTok content have become so much more than little viral videos — they’ve become spaces of community and solidarity. And the effects of the sapphic community in particular are being felt across campus, with queer femmes finding their own ways into coveted, queer TikTok algorithms.

“It is so hard to find interesting and relatable queer communities on other forms of social media (other than TikTok),” LSA junior Marlon Rajan wrote in an email to The Michigan Daily. “The queer tiktok community … at least, the cottage/diy/lesbian/non-binary side of TikTok that I’m on … continues to grow and change as my interests do the same.”

For LSA sophomore Anastasia Hernando, the nature of the app — with the algorithm crafting genres of content dubbed the “sides of TikTok” — has allowed digital connections to translate into prospective friendships with other queer people.

“Sometimes I feel as though these ‘Sides of TikTok’ have really made it easier for people to be exposed to more welcoming areas (of the Internet),” Hernando wrote in an with  The Daily. “I think (TikTok) has really provided those who have never been able to access a queer community the ability to relate and even make mutual social media friends. Especially since you can follow someone on Instagram through the TikTok app very easily, people have been connecting on multiple platforms.” 

LSA sophomore Abby Christian acknowledged TikTok’s queer femme community as both a safe space and an area for education and continued introspection.

“I think TikTok has helped me feel more comfortable in figuring out or being in the in-between space on certain queer identities,” Christian wrote in an email to The Daily. “Especially in regards to gender identity, I’ve been trying to figure out what feels right for me and it’s so comforting to know that others are having the same experience and I’m not alone.”

TikTok has cracked the queer code

In conjunction with the app’s ability to foster queer communities, TikTok’s “on-the-ground” queer visibility has been characterized by a considerable shift toward candid depictions of queer presentation. That is, it’s begun to democratize the physical “codes” that signify that a person, (in this case, a female-identifying person) is … you know. 

In my experience, the jewelry box of queer femme “signals” promoted on TikTok contains the following: Chelsea boots, tattoos, nose piercings, cuffed jeans and a primitive affinity for indie-sad-girl artists like Julia Jacklin and Phoebe Bridgers. When I see any one of or a combination of these things, I can usually assume that a female-identifying person’s response to the weighted “are you gay?” question is affirmative. 

Carey elaborated on this phenomenon of queer femmes asking the question in a kind of secret, coded language and the ways sapphic TikTok has concretized this experience.

“Sapphic TikTok has grown to develop a distinct culture of its own, and queer signaling has been an important way for users to find each other through a coded language of identification,” Carey said. “‘Do you listen to girl in red?’ — a reference to the lesbian Norwegian pop star Marie Ulven — is a stand-in for asking a woman if she’s queer. Other signals include using the cello theme from ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire,’ wearing Doc Martens, making wacky earrings, and so much more.”

While today these typified queer “codes” have been packaged into 15-second TikTok videos and catchy audio clips, their origins prove much more serious in nature, once used as a means for avoiding antigay violence and homophobia.

Researchers in a study by the National Library of Medicine noted the role of appearance in the perception of queer identity.

“Given the vulnerability gay men and lesbians face in terms of anti-gay violence and prejudice, perceptual accuracy provides self-protection, both on a physical level and on a cultural level, as queer people attempt to convey their sexuality outside of the awareness of heteronormative society,” the study reads. 

Before “listening to girl in red” and “cuffed jeans” were a thing, queer people found many other inconspicuous ways to express their non-heterosexuality. Common practices included asking someone if they were a “friend of Dorothy” in the 50s or following the hallowed “hanky code” of the 70s and 80s — which allowed queer men to express their sexuality via the pre-determined color-code of their handkerchief. With these kinds of “secret signals,” LGBTQ+ people were able to circumvent being on the receiving end of explicit homophobia and transphobia while still making their queerness known to the folks who mattered: other queer people. 

Thus, while this phenomenon has always existed in some form within the LGBTQ+ community, TikTok has widely democratized and concretized the experience — curating a tangible set of images, audios and texts that queer people can consume and learn as widely-recognized “signals.” And for people like me who continue to sort out their place in the LGBTQ+ sphere, TikTok’s treasure trove of accessible resources has been essential in learning and adapting to this secret language.

All about the algorithm: Avoiding the “wrong side” of TikTok

I would be remiss not to acknowledge one of the severe disadvantages of a platform like TikTok that seems to instantaneously filter and distribute content: falling into the wrong algorithm. With a highly-intricate “recommendation system” that has been coded to respond to what kinds of videos you like, comment on and even quickly scroll past, the idea is each user’s algorithm would be highly-personalized and effectively infinite. You like dog videos? And then you press “heart” on a dog video? Welcome to an algorithm that pushes endless dog videos, better known as the “dog video” side of TikTok. 

This also means that, after pressing one wrong “heart” or clicking on one wrong hashtag — like #straightflag or #superstraight — you can quickly land yourself in a not-so-favorable algorithm. This motivates detrimental effects for queer folks who would rather not come across homophobic slurs or transphobic sentiment like “pick a gender” just one swipe after their regularly-scheduled, queer programming.

The good, the bad and the gay

In the process of creating this “thinkpiece” of sorts, I posted a poll on my Instagram story just to gauge interest among my LGBTQ+ peers: “Do you think TikTok (and the LGBTQ+ community it’s fostered) has increased the rate at which/amount of young people coming out as LGBTQ+?” 

Within minutes, my direct messages were peppered with new, blue notifications from friends and peers I hadn’t heard from in months (some of whom I never even knew openly identified as LGBTQ+). In their messages, they spoke candidly about TikTok’s queer community and the increase in LGBTQ+ representation and even how the app has sparked a queer curiosity in them they hadn’t channeled before.

TikTok and other Gen Z-centric platforms like it have been thoroughly criticized for their lack of true, human connection. But all I know is this: In the age of virtual classes and breakout rooms and heartless niceties sent via Zoom chat, I found my first blip of something that felt like a real connection via TikTok. It was this globally-resonant little dance app that led people I hadn’t spoken face-to-face to in over a year into my Instagram DM’s — opening up about something as personal as sexuality. And for that, I am forever grateful for TikTok, and all the good, the bad and the gay it brings.


Statement Columnist Grace Tucker can be reached at tuckergr@umich.edu.