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Outed Online: The Dangers of Social Media

By Mariel A. Klein, Contributing Writer

On a quiet night in Lowell House dining hall, one Harvard senior—who agreed only to be identified by the pseudonym Ivar—smiled reluctantly and glanced at his hands as he recounted a conversation he never expected to have.

“I get this call from my mom, and she’s like, ‘Why the hell are you going to a LGBT dating event?’” he said. “She was going through this whole thing like, ‘Please don’t do this, please don’t do this to me!’”

Ivar, an international student who identifies as queer, was inadvertently outed to all of his Facebook friends a couple of years ago after deciding to RSVP to his first queer dating event on the site. Unbeknownst to Ivar, the event showed up on his profile and was visible to confused family and friends from his hometown, where he said talking about queerness is “taboo.”

Ivar, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because he is not out to everyone in his hometown, said that he was “shocked” and “upset” that all of his Facebook friends could see the post. He wanted to hit a ‘delete’ button, but realized he was too late.

“It was suddenly a test of emotions,” said Ivar, who immediately began questioning himself after the incident. “‘Why are you doing this? Why is this happening? You’ve come so far, don’t do this to yourself,’” he told himself.

Ivar is not the only Harvard student who has been inadvertently outed via Facebook—several other students shared similar stories of how their sexuality was exposed via the Internet. These incidents reveal a constant danger with social media use—despite the privacy settings sites offer, the difficulty of keeping information private remains.

Queer students, especially, have found that ‘the closet’ on the Internet does not provide a very good lock.

A Latch Left Undone?

As social media blurs the lines between home life and academic life, Harvard students interviewed said that those who are still coming to terms with their sexuality may have a particularly hard time keeping their identity secret until they feel ready to come out.

Fred, a sophomore who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because people in his hometown do not know that he is queer, was not out to his family when he joined Queer Students and Allies at Harvard.

“My dad used to be really, really, really unaccepting of queer people, like he hated them,” Fred said.

Fred’s Harvard friends posted on his Facebook page about BGLTQ groups, and his family and friends saw the posts before he could censor them. His sudden outing provoked a harsh reaction from his dad.

“My dad asked me, ‘Why are you a homosexual?’” Fred said.

Understanding Facebook’s privacy settings can be challenging, particularly due to frequent policy changes. Because of incidents like these, students said that they have become more cautious when using social media sites.

“I know a lot of people who are very careful about how they use social media during that process between realizing that they’re queer and deciding to fully come out,” said Allison Gofman ’14, a leader of the queer Jewish organization BAGELS. “I certainly did that too during the process.”

Since his inadvertent coming-out, Ivar said that he has been particularly mindful about his presence on social media.

“Now whenever I post stuff like, ‘I’m going to this event,’ or I post, ‘I’m very happy that gay rights is legal here,’ I’ll usually make it visible to certain friends,” Ivar added.

Queer Confidential

Most of the BGLTQ groups on campus have varying forms of privacy clauses in their constitutions that allow students to hide or censor their membership to preserve confidentiality.

“Some [queer groups] are especially focused on being safe spaces where people can kind of explore themselves and come to terms with themselves,” Gofman said. “It’s important that you feel free to have people to talk to without having that go out to the whole world.”

QSA, the largest queer student group on campus, goes to great lengths to ensure students’ privacy by instituting policies regarding posting photos or recording names of members who speak during meetings. They also allow club officers to go by aliases on their website.

“In the end, because it’s such a sensitive topic, I think [confidentiality] is something we always need to take into consideration in everything that we do,” QSA Co-Chair Neimy K. Escobar '15 said.

Though these organizations have taken conscientious measures to preserve confidentiality, concerns about being outed over social media persist, and student group leaders said that they will continue to go to great lengths to ensure that their members feel safe.

“You may not talk to members outside of QSA about queer-related things if you don’t have permission beforehand, because we don’t want to out anyone,” QSA Political Co-Chair W. Powell Eddins '16 said.

Doors Wide Open

Although Ivar and Fred said that their initial experiences of being inadvertently outed were traumatic and stressful, both ultimately embraced their sexuality and reconciled with their families.

Upon the insistence of his stepmother, Fred’s father gradually became more accepting of his son’s sexuality.

“It was a little bit awkward because he makes hard comments sometimes or is completely inappropriate, but for the most part he’s been supportive,” Fred said.

Ivar said that his mother has also “gotten used to” his sexuality. He then later came out to his father, whose initial resistance turned into acceptance over time.

“Maybe it was good that I pressed ‘Attend’ [on that Facebook event] because I found out that even people back home, despite the social stigma of [homosexuality], are really supportive,” Ivar said.

Meanwhile, Harvard administrators have made strides in making the College a welcoming space for queer students. In 2011, the College established the Office of BGLTQ Student Life, which offers more support for queer students by providing queer resources, hosting events, and maintaining a safe space in Boylston Hall. In 2011, the Office of Student Life initiated a pilot program for gender-neutral housing in six undergraduate houses.

Despite the challenges of confronting one’s sexual identity at school, students now said that they feel more comfortable expressing their sexuality and exploring their identities at Harvard.

“Should I not be free to express myself regardless? Back home I can’t do it, but while I’m here I feel I at least should have the opportunity to express myself in a place where it’s permitted,” Ivar said.

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