Queering Tumblr: Considering Safe (Cyber)Spaces for Queer Communities

Alyse Tunnell
. Jessica MacCormack. Tumblr. [jessicamaccormackrmack.tumblr.com]
Jessica MacCormack.
The Internet has irrevocably changed the ways in which communities form. With the rise in popularity of social media websites, platforms such as Tumblr have fostered online spaces for individuals sharing similar interests and identities outside mainstream culture. The website’s structural framework combined with individual users’ ability to curate content allows for the creation of online havens for Queer communities more so than on other social media websites. My research aims to demonstrate that Tumblr‘s design interface in addition to the social expectations of its Queer communities, and the potential for individualization through image-centric content, creates a safe(r) space[1] for Queer communities online.

The concept of safe(r)-space is integral to the politics of Queer communities, both online and off. Though performed differently on the Internet, normativity is a pervasive force written into fundamental aspects of culture, and must be subverted in order to Queer cyberspace .[2] Safe(r) spaces aim to incorporate an awareness of normative and patriarchal power structures, wherein individuals are mindful of oppression.[3] The term also implies that those who are less educated about such issues will be supported to become aware of the expectations of safe(r) space, and will be “called-out” if any problematic situations arise.[4] Online, this manifests primarily in the form of textual exchange. Ultimately, creating safe(r) space is about giving consent to, and being considerate of, as many people as possible while working to reconfigure social norms in order to embrace social difference and be critical of oppression .[5]

Queering space is about changing the lens through which we understand the world from that of oppressive heteronormativity to something less binary, or, Queer. To Queer a space, the precedent of the space must change from the standard of heteronormativity into something which is oppositional, subversive, and critical of said norms—the ways in which this can be manifested are dependent upon the community. In art historian Christopher Reed’s words: “queer space is the collective creation of queer people…”[6] And since the Internet’s inception, there has been a notable lesbian and gay, if not Queer, presence online which has resulted in cyberspace often being a point of resistance for Queer communities.[7]

Queer Voices. Tumblr blog. [queer-voices.tumblr.com/].
Queer Voices. Tumblr blog. [queer-voices.tumblr.com/].
Creating safe(r) space and Queering space are relatively similar practices in that they  are focused on inclusivity and intersectionality. In order to both Queer and create safe(r) space, members must unlearn behaviours that contribute to the numerous biases that society has constructed. In Queer safe(r)-spaces, issues surrounding heteronormativity and cis-privilege tend to be focal points, often in combination with other critical discourses such as those relating to racism, ablism, colonialism, femmephobia, as well as numerous others. A number of  Tumblr blogs demonstrate inclusive models of Queered safe(r)-space. The practice of inclusivity is exemplified by the Tumblr page Safe Places Safe Space, wherein site moderators have included flashing images of flags welcoming a number identities in order to showcase their awareness of the spectrum of Queer identities. Similarly, the page Queer Voices uses text to indicate what types of users should access the page—making a pointed comment about allies. Both of these examples indicate the importance of inclusion in Queer safe(r) space practices. Particularly with the first example, the moderators go so far as to list eight distinct identities, some of which can be marginalized within Queer communities.

Safe Places Safe Space. Tumblr blog. [safe-places-safe-spaces.tumblr.com/About us].
Safe Places Safe Space. Tumblr blog. [safe-places-safe-spaces.tumblr.com/About us].
Language is an essential aspect of creating and identifying safe(r) online and physical spaces for Queer communities. Linguistics scholars Hieto Motschenbacher and Martin Stegu claim that a distinctly Queer approach to language may act as a subversive force against systemic structures.[8] Due to the disembodied state of the Internet, text is a fundamental site of subversion for Queer online communities, through both the dismantling of heteronormative rhetoric and the creation and dissemination of Queer language.[9] Poet Kathleen Fraser claims that through community-specific language, Queer individuals are able to identify allies and cement solidarity on websites like Tumblr.[10] As Fraser insinuates in her article, there is an esoteric quality to Queer language, which makes it accessible only to those that understand and know how to use it. On websites like Tumblr, Queer language becomes important for both finding and identifying with a community. The two previously mentioned blogs, among others, use language which is either specific to or has connotations which are specific to Queer communities. Here, the words asexual, intersex, gender, ally, and trans are all employed in ways that are referential to potentially Queer identities and act as markers of a Queer way of knowing. It is important to note that there is not a standard ‘Queer Language,’ but rather that multitudes of Queer individuals have created and co-opted discourse to describe themselves and their communities.

Language further plays a role in online Queer communities with the importance of tactics such as ‘calling out’ or ‘calling in,’ and the use of trigger warnings (TW).[11] These social tactics also act as a way to perform Queerness in a text-centric paradigm. The proper use of these and other tactics results in a sort of Queer cultural capital. In a study of Queer uses Tumblr, Queer scholar Parisa Zamanian quotes one of her interviewees, Drunkandbored, who discloses how they often do not use TWs though they know they would have more followers if they did.[12] This suggests that Tumblr users are aware that their language use impacts how other users perceive, and potentially respect them.

Thus, propriety and social tactics are essential to many Queer communities online as they are some of the primary aspects for maintaining a safe(r) space. The use of these social tactics ensure that people cultivate a sense of awareness and abide by the necessary social expectations. Unlike other social media websites like Facebook, Tumblr does not require that users present their ‘authentic’ selves with real names and content related to their everyday, offline life. Instead, Tumblr is meant to foster self-expression through a platform which is primarily based on image sharing and allows users to customize their interface and change their usernames at any time. In addition to images Tumblr supports music, text, moving images, and links, all of which are made searchable by hashtagging. The potential for anonymity allows users to post content without fear of it being linked to a profile that can be traced to their lives outside of cyberspace. For instance, a user can share a Queer “Not Safe For Work (NSFW)” image on their Tumblr with members of their online communities—whom they may or may not know offline—without the same consequences as it might have on a platform like Facebook. This sense of distance between the physical and virtual world allows Tumblr users to create, support and circulate Queer imagery easily and relatively safely, without necessarily outing themselves in the process. Tumblr users may have multiple blogs, which they can change or delete at any point. Furthermore, Tumblr has strict policies relating to harassment and allows users a variety of options to help prevent it.[13]

Allie Kleber. Tumblr blog. [therewerenoturtles.tumblr.com/post/140357907606/you-can-buy-prints-of-my-queer-kinky-pinups]
Allie Kleber. Tumblr blog. [therewerenoturtles.tumblr.com/post/140357907606/you-can-buy-prints-of-my-queer-kinky-pinups]
In the Tumblr universe, identity is often shaped through one’s aesthetic, ideological, political, and in many cases erotic or sexual sensibilities. Tumblr users are curating a self image which may bear little or no relation to how they physically present themselves offline. In many cases, Tumblr users do not even necessarily post original content: rather the website encourages the circulation of content already available from other users. Sociologist and cyberethnographer Alexander Cho, particularly interested in the interaction of Queer Tumblr users, explains: “Because Tumblr is built off of connections, and because the self is articulated not merely through original posts, but chiefly through the heavily traded and rearticulated artifacts of these connections, assemblage appears to be a useful lens through which to apprehend the making of the meaning of “self” on Tumblr.”[14] Zamanian’s research on Tumblr users supports Cho’s assertion that identity is created through assemblage: what users choose to reblog and how it affects the ways in which other users perceive them.[15]  Because identity is curated through the reposting of online content, any offensive or politically incorrect choice would reflect poorly on a user’s character. Therefore reputation—and also a certain sense of identity—is reinforced through the validation of others.

Though the reblogging of media is more common, there are a number of Queer Tumblr blogs and communities which are centered around original content, particularly in relation to the presentation of users’ bodies. In these cases, portraying one’s body online is a form of self-expression, body validation, and, in the case of Queer individuals, a platform to perform their Queerness. Selfies can be essential to Queer communities, wherein the body acts as a site of Queer resistance and self-empowerment.[16] The creation and dissemination of selfies allows Tumblr users to subvert normative culture by presenting their own Queer-identified bodies that deconstruct binary notions of gender and prescriptive understandings of sexuality. However, such acts are also vulnerable and require online spaces supported by positive validation. In some Tumblr trans communities, for example, body positivity through selfies is vital to community building and creates solidarity for individuals looking to validate their bodies and document changes. Blogs such as Trans Body Positivity allow users to upload pictures of their bodies in order to garner support from the sense of community created by the website.[17] The expectation of a Queer gaze creates a layer of safety for these blogs, which is underscored by explicit aims to function as a space for positive validation—which becomes two-fold when users both have their own image validated and also become validated when they find images of other users that have similar bodies to their own.

Jessica MacCormack. Tumblr. [jessicamaccormackrmack.tumblr.com]
Jessica MacCormack. Tumblr. [jessicamaccormackrmack.tumblr.com]
Queer imagery is a fundamental part of Queer Tumblr communities as it functions on a number of levels to iterate users. Queer art historian Catherine Lord suggests that Queerness exists not as a constant, stable identity, but rather is referential and exists through moments of identification.[18] This is to say that one does not exist as inherently Queer, but instead becomes Queer every time one identifies with something that connotes Queerness. Hence, Tumblr’s image-centric design can play an important role in validating and performing Queerness in online communities. Users can reiterate their own Queerness by circulating images that affirm Queer identity and desires. Naturally, sexual imagery plays a significant role in this Queer identification and desire. However, the dissemination of sexual imagery is often met with accusations of obscenity, and thereafter, censorship.

Tumblr has engaged an ongoing struggle with censorship, though the website has stayed steadfast in its hosting of sexual and pornographic content.[19] Thus, erotic Queer desires are more easily performed and reiterated through Tumblr than on other social media websites due to the website’s lack of censorship. This is particularly pertinent for younger users, which the site is primarily comprised of , as Tumblr does not employ age limits on who can post and view pornographic content. With this, Tumblr enables a safe(r) space in which younger users have access to images that allow them to explore their Queer identity and desires. However, since the website was bought by Yahoo! in 2012 there have been certain restrictions on how pornographic imagery is tagged and searched for.[20] Tumblr allows users to browse in “safe mode” which blocks any blog which has been tagged NSFW.[21]

Even with the aforementioned tactics in place, Tumblr is not a perfectly safe space for Queer folks. Harassment happens. Despite this, Tumblr has managed to create a way for Queer people who share similar interests, politics, desires, aesthetics, and bodies, to find spaces that are largely accepting. Through this perceived safety Queer communities have been able to flourish in the Tumblr universe. Tumblr is an ideal online space to perform Queerness due to the image-centric design as well as the user’s ability to curate a sense of self through content while being in a relatively safe environment. Whether Tumblr achieves a safe space is debatable. However, it has created a space wherein Queer folks can learn the expectations of safe(r) spaces, including tactics such as calling out, while discovering and expanding their own sense of Queer identity.



[1] The (r) is meant to represent the fact that no space is entirely safe. Thus the use of the (r) allows people to indicate that they are aware of the expectations of safe space but are not claiming that it is perfectly safe.

[2] Janne Bromseth and Jenny Sundén. “Queering Internet Studies: Intersections Of Gender And Sexuality.” The Handbook of Internet Studies, ed. Consalvo and Charles Ess, (Oxford, UK.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015): 272, 4.

[3] The Roestone Collective. “Safe Space: Towards A Reconceptualization.” Antipode 46. no.5 (2014): 1360.

[4] Parisa Zamanian. Queer Lives: The Construction of Queer Self and Community on Tumblr. (Master’s Thesis). Sarah Lawrence College, 2014: 34-7.

[5]The Roestone Collective. “Safe Space.” Antipode 46. no.5 (2014): 1360.

[6] Christopher Reed. “Imminent Domain: Queer Space in the Built Environment.” Art Journal 55.4 (1996): 64.

[7] Nina Wakeford “Cyberqueer.” Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction. eds. Medhurst, Andy, and Sally Munt, Continuum International Publishing Group, 1997: 403, 11.

[8] Heiko Motschenbacher and Martin Stegu. “Queer Linguistic approaches to discourse.” Discourse & Society 24, no. 5 (2013): 527-8.

[9] Kathleen Fraser. “Queer Shibboleths: Language, Signalling, and Encryption in Online and Offline Networks.” .dpi Feminist Journal of Art and Digital Culture no.32 (2015). [dpi.studioxx.org/en/no/32-queer-networks/queer-shibboleths-language-signalling-and-encryption-online-and-offline].

[10] Ibid.

[11] Calling out, for instance, is used to ensure that people stay accountable for their actions (Zamanian 2014: 21) by allowing users to confront each other about problematic language, ideally, in a non-accusatory way.

[12]  Parisa Zamanian. Queer Lives, 2014: 41.

[13] Tumblr. “Tumblr Community Guidelines.”  Posted January 26, 2015. [tumblr.com/policy/en/community].

[14] Alexander Cho. “Queer Tumblrs, Networked Counterpublics.” (Conference Paper, Boston, Massachusetts. 2011). International Communications Association.18.

[15] Ibid. 35.

[16] Katrin Tiidenberg. “Bringing sexy back: Reclaiming the body aesthetic via self-shooting.” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace issue 8, no. 1 (2014) [cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2014021701]

[17] Trans Body Positivity [transbodypositivity.tumblr.com]

[18] Catherine Lord, interview by Paul Clinton. “Queer Time and Place.” frieze Magazine 163 (2014). [frieze.com/issue/article/queer-time-and-place].

[19] Digital Strategy Consulting. “Tumblr Sparks Controversy With Porn Tag Bans – Digital Intelligence Daily Digital Marketing Research.”(2013). Date Accessed: November 20th. 2015. [digitalstrategyconsulting.com/intelligence/2013/07/tumblr_sparks_controversy_with_porn_tag_bans.php]

[20] Ibid.

[21] Tumblr. “Tumblr Community Guidelines.”



Bromseth, Janne, and Jenny Sundén. “Queering Internet Studies: Intersections Of Gender And Sexuality.” in The Handbook of Internet Studies, edited by Mia Consalvo and Charles Ess, 270-299. Oxford, UK.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

Cho, Alexander. “Queer Tumblrs, Networked Counterpublics.” Confernce Paper. International Communications Association. Boston, Massachusetts. May 2011. 1-37.

Connell, Catherine. “Fashionable Resistance: Queer ‘Fa(T)Shion’ Blogging As    Counterdiscourse.” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 41.1-2 (2013): 209-224.

Digital Strategy Consulting. “Tumblr Sparks Controversy With Porn Tag Bans – Digital Intelligence Daily Digital Marketing Research.” (2013). Date Accessed: November 20th. 2015. [digitalstrategyconsulting.com/intelligence/2013/07/tumblr_sparks_controversy_with_porn_tag_bans.php]

Fraser, Kathleen. “Queer Shibboleths: Language, Signalling, and Encryption in Online and Offline Networks.”.dpi Feminist Journal of Art and Digital Culture 32 (2015). [dpi.studioxx.org/en/no/32-queer-networks/queer-shibboleths-language-signalling-and-encryption-online-and-offline].

Lord, Catherine. “Queer Time and Place.” interview by Paul Clinton. frieze Magazine no. 163 (2014). [frieze.com/issue/article/queer-time-and-place/].

Motschenbacher, Heiko, and Martin Stegu. “Queer Linguistic approaches to discourse.” Discourse & Society 24, no. 5 (2013): 519-535.

Reed, Christopher. “Imminent domain: Queer space in the built environment.” Art Journal 55.4 (1996): 64-70.

The Roestone Collective. “Safe Space: Towards A Reconceptualization.” Antipode 46. no. 5 (2014): 1346-1365.

The Rogue Feminist. “Defending Yourself Against Harassers On Tumblr” Posted December 31, 2014. [theroguefeminist.Tumblr.com/post/53769730185/defending-yourself-against-harassers-on-Tumblr].

Tiidenberg, Katrin. “Bringing sexy back: Reclaiming the body aesthetic via self-shooting.” Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace issue 8, no. 1 (2014). [cyberpsychology.eu/view.php?cisloclanku=2014021701]

Tumblr. “Tumblr Community Guidelines.” Posted January 26, 2015. [tumblr.com/policy/en/community].

Wakeford, Nina. “Cyberqueer.” In Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Critical Introduction, edited by And Medhurst and Sally Munt. London: Cassell, 1997. 403-15.

Zamanian, Parisa. Queer Lives: The Construction of Queer Self and Community on Tumblr. Master’s Thesis. Sarah Lawrence College, 2014.

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