“I’m so confused because there is this girl who is really pretty and nice and such a genuine person and I want to be friends with her but I’m really nervous?” narrates a freckled, teenaged-looking girl. “Weird. It’s almost like I like her but I’m not gay, so I don’t get it.” She shows the pages of an old notebook as a caption completes the joke: “Reading my ‘straight’ diary from middle school LMAO.”
I’d spent a few weeks on TikTok by this point, consistently amazed by how quickly the app seemed to sense my taste. We know little about how TikTok’s algorithm works. A cagey corporate blog post titled “How TikTok recommends videos #ForYou” mostly just explains that it watches the way you engage and gradually tailors the stream of videos to your interests. My feed had already begun to fill with “queer” content—music from queer artists, videos of queer couples, and the like—but nothing explicitly about identity. This video took me by surprise.
By this point, I had a vague notion that I was attracted to men, but had only shared this with a few close friends. I still felt confused and ashamed. I’d just begun to think about how my potential queerness may have played into previous friendships—when the video showed up in my feed, I surged with a sense of uncanny recognition. Suddenly, TikTok seemed like a portal, a place where I could more firmly figure out who I was.
At the same time, I felt deeply uneasy. As videos about queerness became more common on my feed, I started to feel uncomfortably exposed: How could TikTok know I was bisexual before I fully knew it myself?
For decades, queer people in the United States have been subjected to surveillance. In 1950, Congress issued a report titled “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government” after covertly investigating federal employees’ sexual orientation. The report declared homosexuality a mental illness and homosexuals a national security risk; employees suspected to be gay were immediately terminated. The practice was common among private employers, too. Although some states eventually had statutes prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, it wasn’t federally outlawed until June 2020.
Of course, the monitoring also extended to social spaces. Throughout the ’60s, police raids were a frequent ritual of the queer New York nightlife scene. Police officers regularly lined up gender-nonconforming folks and sent those who failed to wear the mandated three pieces of “gender appropriate clothing” to jail. And trans people are still subjected to such scrutiny on a daily basis—in the bathroom, on the playing field, at TSA.
In this environment, queer people have long worked to craft subtle ways of controlling their own visibility, signaling queerness to each other while remaining undercover to the mainstream. You can see it in customs like the “hanky code” of the ’70s, by which gay men used a system of colored bandanas to covertly flag their sexual preferences. By the ’80s, some of those symbols—the rainbow flag, the pink triangle, the lowercase lambda—became well-known markers of the rising gay liberation movement. Meanwhile, queer people were still seeking intimacy in out-of-view venues—bars, parks, piers. They found community after dark in liminal urban spaces, communicating through lingering eye contact, subtle head nods, the slight twitch of a knowing smile.
Once the digital age arrived, internet anonymity supplanted the cover of night. Sites like Tumblr and Reddit acted as queer watering holes, as teens across the world poured themselves into blog posts and suggestive GIFs that allowed them to safely bare their souls and build community across distance. In these instances, the platforms were just that—platforms, on which queer people could, using re-blogs and upvotes, determine what mattered to them.
Now, that brings us to TikTok, perhaps our generation’s closest analogue to those earlier platforms and venues. We imagine, however, that something is missing. We’re still finding community and expressing ourselves through shared signals, and (through monitored engagement) by choosing what becomes popular. But ultimately, on TikTok, it’s the algorithm that decides what gets seen and what doesn’t—when we’re visible, and to whom. The practice of coding once intended to maintain discretion has been flipped on its head, incorporated into a system of self-submitted surveillance by an enigmatic AI. To quote writer Eugene Wei, “When you gaze into TikTok, TikTok gazes into you.”
I realized I was queer when I kissed a girl at tennis camp at the age of thirteen. (Or rather, when she kissed me and I liked it.) Although I felt different than I did seven seconds before, no one around me could tell that I had changed. In true Gen-Z fashion, I turned to the internet to learn what queer people looked like and how they went about finding each other. After concluding a pixie-cut would be the surest way to subtly scream “I’m gay,” I spent most of the following years searching for other queer people. I floated through GSA, cuffed my jeans, and eventually “came out” to avoid the constant guessing game of interpreting furtive glances.
When I downloaded TikTok during my freshman year of college, the algorithm quickly clocked me. The steady stream of videos about thrifted clothing, cottagecore, and Phoebe Bridgers—along with explicit hashtags such as #wlw (women loving women) and #bisexual—loudly let me know: you’re on “gay TikTok.” But could I call this a “queer community?” The idea of queerness that I stumbled upon was completely disembodied; divorced, even, from sexual identity. It had been optimized—boiled down to a specific sartorial aesthetic, hashtag, and list of micro identity labels—all in the name of being maximally legible to a machine learning algorithm.
In some ways, I felt seen. But not entirely. While “gay TikTok” served me hashtags like #FemmeBoyFriday—which compiles videos of presumably straight boys dressing up in skirts and dresses for views and cultural caché—what was missing was the forlorn glances, sweaty palms, awkward pauses, terrible first kisses; the stumbling inherent to self-discovery. Meanwhile, a popular meme illustrates the other perspective: “When she start rubbin’ on your thighs but you only gay on TikTok.”
We will never intimately know a pre-internet queerness. By the time we reached adolescence, Tumblr was already in decline. While we recognize and appreciate the sacrifices made by previous generations that have given us the freedom to be visibly queer, it’s difficult not to romanticize prior forms of queer community, be they in physical or cyberspace. The way those spaces preserved the agency of queer people feels particularly significant.
Ultimately, TikTok’s algorithm has one goal: to hold our attention long enough to serve us more ads. The organic formation of “gay TikTok”—and all the content niches—likely serve those same business goals. There’s agency in finding community and meaning in each other’s content, as queer people have been doing with commercial media for decades. Still, there’s an unsettling imbalance of power: while TikTok learns things about us that we may not even share with close friends, its own inner workings are inscrutable. The app can see us, but we can’t see it back.
This opacity has already proved concerning. In 2019, an investigation by German publication Netzpolitik found that, in certain countries, TikTok had established a list of “special users” (queer, disabled, and fat people) whose videos were regarded as a “bullying risk” by default and capped in their reach, regardless of content. TikTok claims the list has since been retired. Still, the app’s algorithm and affordances automate and shape the ongoing co-production of what it means—and how it looks—to be queer in ways we can’t fully control or discern.
For many young people, TikTok serves as more than an app; often, it’s a site of self-discovery. And the pressure to fit into a prescribed image of queerness can easily lead you astray. But our forebears remind us that queerness is about self-definition and the freedom to continually redefine. In Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, José Esteban Muñoz warns against the way that pop culture representations of queerness ossify it, writing, “What we will really know of queerness, does not yet exist.” In other words, while the algorithm may be able to determine what we like, we can’t let it define who we are or predict who we will become.