Outed Online: The Dangers of Social Media

Crimson News Staff

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.”