The other day I logged onto Quora, a site where anyone can post a question and crowd source answers. One of my recent answers got upvoted, (the equivalent of a like), by a few users. This was the question:
“My dad told me when i was younger, ‘if you ever come out as gay or trans, I’ll beat the gay out of you.’ He is an over the top hardcore Christian… so it’s kind of hard for me to believe that he just said it to ‘protect’ me. my mom wants to schedule a trip so I can visit my two brothers and my dad, but my brother already told him about me being a ‘fake gender.’ should I go on this trip? I haven’t seen my brothers and my dad for nearly 5 years.”
Like me, a lot of people felt compelled to answer, many of them gay or transgender. So many queer people find themselves threatened by religious groups or family members, and many jump at the chance to share their experiences or offer advice. At the time of publication, this question sits on top of 30 answers that run the gamut.
One user writes, “My own father, a devout Mormon, once said if he ever had a gay son he’d be out on the street. Yet, here I am an openly bisexual trans woman living with my parents.” Another pleads, “Don’t go!” while a third splits the difference with the observation, “I know they’re family but they are effectively abusing you because you’re gay.”
Questions like this fill the queer spaces across Quora. On message boards with names like “LGBT-You” or “Sapphics”, young, struggling individuals can ask hundreds of people for help with a problem and get a myriad of answers. This younger crowd uses the site as a resource for help with their own identities, conflict resolution or even when picking out a new name after coming out as transgender.
Once a question goes up, anyone can answer, but the majority of responses come from an older, more experienced crowd. Most questions get a long list of answers offering many different takes on the issue at hand, but collectively assure the person who asked that he, she or they are not alone.
When user Janet Ybarra-Nance saw a request for stories about times members of the trans community overcame anxiety, she jumped at the chance to answer.
She wrote, “My personal example of overcoming anxiety? [It was] the many months I lived at a women’s homeless shelter after my then-wife and I lost our house. We were assigned to a particular shelter by a pair of social workers, who asked me never to reveal my trans status in the shelter.”
Janet described how she eventually connected with her fellow unhoused ladies and earned herself the nickname Janet from Another Planet. She loved it.
“[To] never [have] to disclose my trans status turned out to be a blessing: for the first time in my life, I wasn’t ‘a trans woman named Janet,’ but rather just ‘Janet, one of the girls,’” she explained.
Quora’s format of posing a question to a crowd so that each post gets a long list of answers has proven to be invaluable for queer folks online. Here is a place where someone with a genuine question like “Can someone define gender-fluid for me? Like, what does it mean?” can hear from people who actually identify as genderfluid. This practice of honest, vulnerable moments combined with real responses makes for a slow, thoughtful conversation – a very different experience from the screaming matches that happen on other sites.
The chance to reach a new generation of struggling queer kids as an older out queer person proves to be impossible to pass up. And questions don’t disappear after they get answered, so any conversation can get a new response at any time.
When asked in a phone interview about what it means to her to have the chance to speak directly to a younger generation of queer folks, Janet said, “It’s terribly important. Incredibly important.” Janet, 51, identifies as a “woman of transgender experience,” and loves the chance to speak directly to people who have questions about trans people.
She went on to say that the site allows her to dive into the nuances of a trans identity in a text that’s richer and more genuine.
“Everyone’s trying out all these new words and labels, like, Who am I?” she said. “An exploration of labels and categories can be useful. I’m a woman of transgender experience, but there are days when I feel more masculine. I’m still transgender. People are people. You don’t have to fit into these little boxes. That’s a common theme I try to get across.”
Like all social media, Quora has its trolls. However, it also has a good reporting system so that offensive questions or queries that feel they might be intended to harm can get taken down right away. Also, trolls in the answer column can get downvoted (or disliked) and fall to the bottom of responses where they’re easier to ignore.
That communal crowd control only further separates Quora from sites like Facebook and it’s adopted child Instagram, which encourage short, fun videos, memes, or a single quote. On Quora, the long-form answer seems to always get more love than a quick image (though many users combine the two) so every moment feels like an intimate conversation.
Janet said that anytime she comes across one of these, she tries to take a moment to discern if the question is truly someone trolling or a person who falls into what she calls the “I just don’t know” category.
“I happened to answer a question the other day” Janet said. “It was, ‘Can trans women become pregnant after they transition?’”
At first glance, this could feel like a jab at the trans community, but Janet sees these queries as a potential opportunity.
“Maybe they’ve never met a trans person,” she said. “So, you try to educate people. I use this as an opportunity and hope that somebody on the other side could benefit. It’s cheesy, but, if one person reads that answer and comes away with a better understanding, it can make a difference.”
What stands out to me about Quora’s queer spaces is how they provide a chance for people who feel forgotten to get together and see one another, give each other some time and empathy, and help someone in their community. It’s a place to take a stand and show one another that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.
Lindsay Redifer is a professional freelance writer and editor who lives in Mexico with her wife and many dogs. You can learn more about her here or follow her newsletter My Book Outline to get more of her writing.