The year is 2011. I’m a sophomore in high school, my Aeropostale hoodie wrapped around the waist of my bootcut jeans, and life in the heart of suburban New York has never been weirder. I’m living that awkward, half-in-half-out-of-the-closet life so many LGBTQ people I know and love from my hometown have also experienced. My cousins know I’m queer, but my parents don’t; my BFF knows I’m crushing hard on girls, but none of my other friends do. I’m also on the precipice of some major adolescent milestones. I mean, I’m navigating first kisses, applying to get my driver’s permit, and prepping for the SATs.
It’s safe to say that the halls of my high school feel like my personal hell.
But there’s a place where I do feel safe. Where I’m not the only one who’s taken Lady Gaga’s Born This Way album as gospel. Where I explore my sexuality freely and without shame. The thing is, it’s not a physical place: it’s Tumblr, the glorious, complicated, online free-for-all Twitter could only ever hope to be.
Fast-forward to December 2018. I no longer use Tumblr in the same capacity that I used to—namely, to escape the stifling reality that was growing up gay in WASPY suburbia—but that doesn’t change the fact that my stomach dropped when I read yesterday’s news: Tumblr is updating its terms of service, and before the end of 2018, explicit “adult content” will no longer be allowed on the platform.
This garnered an audible “fuck no” from me for a few reasons. For one thing, it’s a tactic in line with the passage of April’s Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA-SESTA) laws, not-so-subtley designed to make sex work in the United States even more complicated for sex workers. (Tumblr’s ban kicks in on December 17, which is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Yikes.) For another, the algorithms these platforms use to determine what’s actually explicit content aren’t foolproof, especially at first; the whole censorship of LGBTQ content creators on YouTube debacle is a prime example.
For yet another, the verbiage Tumblr uses to explain how it defines adult content—”includes photos, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples, and any content… that depicts sex acts”—is a colossal mess. Note the phrase “female-presenting nipples,” which shoddily appropriates trans- and non-binary-inclusive language in a direct attempt to quell expressions of nudity, sexual or otherwise, on the internet. Because, let’s be real, what the actual hell are female-presenting nipples? You just don’t want boobs on your site, Tumblr. Forgive me, but this absurdity hits close to home, packing a punch somewhere between my heart, my tits, and my Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies minor: If you’re going to police women’s bodies and perpetuate oppressive patriarchal gender norms, please do it without the guise of trans inclusion.
Let’s rewind, though, back to the heyday of Tumblr. For the years that I kept an active Tumblr blog, on and off between 2011 and 2015, the site was my online refuge. I’d amassed a dashboard full of content from others bloggers that I couldn’t find anywhere else: tattoo and piercing advice; fan accounts of my favorite books and TV shows; and, perhaps most unique to Tumblr and important to my own journey of self-discovery, sexually explicit LGBTQ content, often created by queer people, for queer people.
Tumblr gave me space to figure myself and my identity the fuck out. Often, that meant exploring the “adult content” side of the platform, the exact kind of thing Tumblr’s owners now want to nix. It meant looking at photos and GIFs of other naked women. It meant reading lesbian erotica. It meant connecting with other queer women, with whom I bonded over a shared love of flannel shirts, Tegan and Sara songs, and yes, women’s bodies.
Could I forgo Tumblr altogether and just Google things like “lesbian sex” or “gay culture” to figure out my shit? Sure. But that felt like tapping into the great unknown, opening myself up to the hyper-sexualized “lesbians” straight men jerked off to on PornHub, not the real-life queer women navigating the thrilling highs (and shitty lows) of being openly queer on a day-to-day basis. Something about Tumblr—perhaps the sense of camaraderie I’d developed with mutual followers, or the way I’d carefully curated and filtered my feed—made me feel secure. On my Tumblr blog, I was both nameless and named, cloaked in the relative anonymity of my silly username and lack of identifying details, and identified by descriptors I’d claimed enthusiastically as I came into my own: “writer,” “feminist,” and at the time, “lesbian.”
Granted, it wasn’t a perfect thing: There were more than a few awkward moments, like the time I accidentally stumbled upon a classmate’s “porn blog” filled with photos of her nude body. (My discomfort was less with the nudity itself and more with the fact that I sat in the same Trig class as this girl and now had to pretend I hadn’t seen her naked.) But I worry that a generation of lesbian, bisexual, and queer women to come—young women like me, who rely on niche pockets of the internet to be their cultural guidebook, sapphic awakening, and sole source of inclusive sex-ed—will never know the Tumblr I knew. The Tumblr that gave me space to figure out who I was, what I wanted, and who I was attracted to without fear, and connect directly without other young women around the world who liked also women.
My now-defunct Tumblr blog was the first place I ever wrote and published the words, “I’m not straight.” It was the first digital community that made me feel like being queer could be an asset as a writer and creative, not a part of my life I had to shroud in secrecy or keep offline.
This is an obituary for the Tumblr of my youth. The Tumblr that helped make me into the queer mess I am today. Rest in peace, you beautiful, sexually explicit thing, you.