Trish was a sultry coed with flowing raven hair, bee-stung lips, and massive breasts. She was perfect in every way—which is why it should come as no surprise that she wasn’t real.
Trish was a woman of my creation, a catfish persona I’d crafted long before the 2010 documentary entered the zeitgeist and later spawned an MTV series, which spotlights its fair share of LGBTQ folks.
I was roughly 14 at the time. I don’t remember exactly when Trish started, but she existed solely on MSN Messenger. I’d cleverly cajole contacts from various online chat rooms to talk dirty to straight men, exchange pictures—the ones of Trish I’d source from Google Images—and sometimes convince my suitor to get naked on a webcam. It was the early internet days, when catfishing wasn’t yet part of the digital discourse; in other words, skepticism about a beautiful—albeit mysterious—online identity hadn’t yet permeated our collective conscience.
Among queer people, catfishing as another gender is not unheard of. Research is limited, but a study from the University of Queensland found that the desire to explore one’s sexuality or gender identity is one of the more prevalent reasons for catfishing. Insecurity, loneliness, and escapism were also cited. “I was catfishing women because I am attracted to women, but have never acted on it,” a female catfish told researchers. “I pretend to be a man, as I would prefer to be in the male role of a heterosexual relationship than a female in a homosexual relationship.”
“I wasn’t out of the closet, but I was curious,” 35-year-old Jacob tells NewNowNext. “Kimberly was my alias. She was popular on Tumblr at the time and posted casual and racy photos. I had an entire folder dedicated to her; there was no conceivable circumstance that I didn’t have an image for. Looking back, it was definitely creepy, but I felt there was no better option to explore my sexuality at the time. I wasn’t ready to come out [nor] had the knowledge to know I had to.”
Jacob, who once witnessed a group of men jerk off for Kimberly in their basement, eventually came out of the closet in his real life and laid his persona to rest. However, Kimberly did reemerge after a breakup. “[My ex] was bisexual and I saw him on Plenty of Fish, [an online dating service], so I made a Kimberly profile and interacted with him,” he says. “He liked her and actually talked about me—the actual me. Everything he said was incredibly kind and mature. It gave me closure.”
Others have found themselves in similar situations. A Twitter poll I posted found that one in four queer people have catfished as another gender. “People crave templates for sexual and intimate relationships because it helps them develop an understanding of how to build relationships for themselves,” Daniel Olavarria, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in identity and oppression, tells NewNowNext. “Since queer people grow up within heteronormative frameworks in society, it makes sense that many of them will use those frameworks to explore their sexuality.”
Lisha Amin, an M.Ed and sexuality educator, emphasizes the futility of these efforts. “In the end, it does a disservice to the daters and their prospects because the men that are attracted by the profile are going to be attracted to a heterosexual woman, not you.” But the unfortunate truth is that many LGBTQ people catfish as a way to feel safe as they explore their identities, and the internet provides a certain anonymity that does not exist in real-life interactions.
Though we’re seeing more and more queer relationships represented in the media and in public, Olavarria attributes this phenomenon to an implicit, longstanding hierarchy that still views heterosexual relationships as more “legitimate” than queer relationships. “Nobody wants to feel like they’re engaged in a second-rate version of a relationship,” he says, “so catfishing can often provide the opportunity to participate in that heteronormative fantasy, which gives them a feeling of access to that more ‘legitimate’ relationship.”
Amin boils this behavior down to the basic desire to feel wanted. “People who create false personas are likely designing it based off of their—and society’s—definition of physical attractiveness,” she says. “The ideas of who gets to be attractive still exists within an oppressive system that privileges certain identities—i.e., white, cisgender, thin-bodied, able-bodied.” She thinks fabricating a profile that aligns with personal and conventional ideas of attractiveness is the catfish’s way of creating a more equitable dating dynamic and a larger dating pool for themself.
Queer people may also catfish for professional security, concerned that employers discovering them on dating sites could threaten their safety or livelihood. “Currently in the U.S., LGBTQ discrimination protections are on a state-by-state basis—there are no federal protections,” Amin says. “Depending on the state, a person can be fired from a job and/or denied housing and health care due to their LGBTQ status.”
Additionally, many queer folks catfish in their teens as a way to explore their sexual orientation anonymously while still living under their parents’ roof. “This may have to do with the relative isolation of where that young person lives, social and cultural expectations, or just uncertainty around how to go about navigating their curiosity,” Olavarria says. “In those years of emerging sexual identity that awkwardly overlap with still living with one’s parents, queer teens turn to the internet—and sometimes catfishing—as a way to gain access to a traditional rite of passage of sexual exploration that fits within the restrictions imposed on them—[one their] hetero peers don’t have to deal with.”
Of course, these factors may not be mutually exclusive; a culmination of privilege and power, safety, lack of access to community, and a heterocentric society can all contribute to specific barriers for queer people that don’t exist within heterosexual, cisgender dating culture.
While there is an element of danger associated with catfishing, like the time journalist Nico Hines outed queer Olympians on Grindr or when two men in Houston were lured to their death by a fake profile, these seem to be rare cases. Through speaking with LGBTQ people who have catfished as another gender, the majority said their need for sexual self-discovery outweighed their fear of being outed or harmed.
Still, Amin raises a fair point: “It’s important to recognize that though there are many reasons why someone who is LGBTQ would catfish, that doesn’t negate the negative emotional impact that they inflict on those they are inauthentically interacting with, nor does it negate the harm of stealing the likeness of another person, especially without their consent.”
Though the deceived rarely learn of their deception, catfishing is, undoubtedly, problematic. But so, too, are the reasons many LGBTQ people feel the need to catfish in the first place: to explore their sexual attraction or gender expression within the singular model society has long found acceptable—between one heterosexual, cisgender person and another. For all the inarguable ways queer catfishing is unjust, it’s often a product of systemic discrimination against the LGBTQ community, which is, itself, unjust.
I’m not proud that I catfished, but I understand why I did it. It takes time to be confident in your sexuality when it isn’t universally accepted, and creating an online alter ego gave me the opportunity to practice dating in a space that I deemed safe. Ironically, it brought me closer to my true self.
Behind the false avatars, the Googled photos, and the co-opted identities, we ultimately just want to feel love and lust, and to be loved and lusted after. And we want to do so without fear.