When we spend so much of our time online, we’re bound to learn something while clicking and scrolling. Discover something new with Mashable’s series I learned it on the internet.
Here’s a shortlist of those who realized that I — a cis woman who’d identified as heterosexual for decades of life — was in fact actually bi, long before I realized it myself recently: my sister, all my friends, my boyfriend, and the TikTok algorithm.
On TikTok, the relationship between user and algorithm is uniquely (even sometimes uncannily) intimate. An app which seemingly contains as many multitudes of life experiences and niche communities as there are people in the world, we all start in the lowest common denominator of TikTok. Straight TikTok (as it’s popularly dubbed) initially bombards your For You Page with the silly pet videos and viral teen dances that folks who don’t use TikTok like to condescendingly reduce it to.
Quickly, though, TikTok begins reading your soul like some sort of divine digital oracle, prying open layers of your being never before known to your own conscious mind. The more you use it, the more tailored its content becomes to your deepest specificities, to the point where you get stuff that’s so relatable that it can feel like a personal attack (in the best way) or (more dangerously) even a harmful trigger from lifelong traumas.
For example: I don’t know what dark magic (read: privacy violations) immediately clued TikTok into the fact that I was half-Brazilian, but within days of first using it, Straight TikTok gave way to at first Portuguese-speaking then broader Latin TikTok. Feeling oddly seen (being white-passing and mostly American-raised, my Brazilian identity isn’t often validated), I was liberal with the likes, knowing that engagement was the surefire way to go deeper down this identity-affirming corner of the social app.
TikTok made lots of assumptions from there, throwing me right down the boundless, beautiful, and oddest multiplicities of Alt TikTok, a counter to Straight TikTok’s milquetoast mainstreamness.
Home to a wide spectrum of marginalized groups, I was giving out likes on my FYP like Oprah, smashing that heart button on every type of video: from TikTokers with disabilities, Black and Indigenous creators, political activists, body-stigma-busting fat women, and every glittering shade of the LGBTQ cornucopia. The faves were genuine, but also a way to support and help offset what I knew about the discriminatory biases in TikTok’s algorithm.
My diverse range of likes started to get more specific by the minute, though. I wasn’t just on general Black TikTok anymore, but Alt Cottagecore Middle-Class Black Girl TikTok (an actual label one creator gave her page’s vibes). Then it was Queer Latina Roller Skating Girl TikTok, Women With Non-Hyperactive ADHD TikTok, and then a double whammy of Women Loving Women (WLW) TikTok alternating between beautiful lesbian couples and baby bisexuals.
Looking back at my history of likes, the transition from queer “ally” to “salivating simp” is almost imperceptible.
There was no one precise “aha” moment. I started getting “put a finger down” challenges that wouldn’t reveal what you were putting a finger down for until the end. Then, 9-fingers deep (winkwink), I’d be congratulated for being 100% bisexual. Somewhere along the path of getting served multiple WLW Disney cosplays in a single day and even dom lesbian KinkTok roleplay — or whatever the fuck Bisexual Pirate TikTok is — deductive reasoning kind of spoke for itself.
But I will never forget the one video that was such a heat-seeking missile of a targeted attack that I was moved to finally text it to my group chat of WLW friends with a, “Wait, am I bi?” To which the overwhelming consensus was, “Magic 8 Ball says, ‘Highly Likely.'”
Serendipitously posted during Pride Month, the video shows a girl shaking her head at the caption above her head, calling out confused and/or closeted queers who say shit like, “I think everyone is a LITTLE bisexual,” to the tune of “Closer” by The Chainsmokers. When the lyrics land on the word “you,” she points straight at the screen — at me — her finger and inquisitive look piercing my hopelessly bisexual soul like Cupid’s goddamn arrow.
Oh no, the voice inside my head said, I have just been mercilessly perceived.
As someone who had, in fact, done feminist studies at a tiny liberal arts college with a gender gap of about 70 percent women, I’d of course dabbled. I’ve always been quick to bring up the Kinsey scale, to champion a true spectrum of sexuality, and to even declare (on multiple occasions) that I was, “straight, but would totally fuck that girl!”
Oh no, the voice inside my head returned, I’ve literally just been using extra words to say I was bi.
After consulting the expertise of my WLW friend group (whose mere existence, in retrospect, also should’ve clued me in on the flashing neon pink, purple, and blue flag of my raging bisexuality), I ran to my boyfriend to inform him of the “news.”
“Yeah, baby, I know. We all know,” he said kindly.
“How?!” I demanded.
Well for one, he pointed out, every time we came across a video of a hot girl while scrolling TikTok together, I’d without fail watch the whole way through, often more than once, regardless of content. (Apparently, straight girls do not tend to do this?) For another, I always breathlessly pointed out when we’d pass by a woman I found beautiful, often finding a way to send a compliment her way. (“I’m just a flirt!” I used to rationalize with a hand wave, “Obvs, I’m not actually sexually attracted to them!”) Then, I guess, there were the TED Talk-like rants I’d subject him to about the thinly veiled queer relationship in Adventure Time between Princess Bubblegum and Marcelyne the Vampire Queen — which the cowards at Cartoon Network forced creators to keep as subtext!
And, well, when you lay it all out like that…
But my TikTok-fueled bisexual awakening might actually speak less to the omnipotence of the app’s algorithm, and more to how heteronormativity is truly one helluva drug.
Sure, TikTok bombarded me with the thirst traps of my exact type of domineering masc lady queers, who reduced me to a puddle of drool I could no longer deny. But I also recalled a pivotal moment in college when I briefly questioned my heterosexuality, only to have a lesbian friend roll her eyes and chastise me for being one of those straight girls who leads Actual Queer Women on. I figured she must know better. So I never pursued any of my lady crushes in college, which meant I never experimented much sexually, which made me conclude that I couldn’t call myself bisexual if I’d never had actual sex with a woman. I also didn’t really enjoy lesbian porn much, though the fact that I’d often find myself fixating on the woman during heterosexual porn should’ve clued me into that probably coming more from how mainstream lesbian porn is designed for straight men.
The ubiquity of heterormativity, even when unwittingly perpetrated by members of the queer community, is such an effective self-sustaining cycle. Aside from being met with queer-gating (something I’ve since learned bi folks often experience), I had a hard time identifying my attraction to women as genuine attraction, simply because it felt different to how I was attracted to men.
Heteronormativity is truly one helluva drug.
So much of women’s sexuality — of my sexuality — can feel defined by that carnivorous kind of validation you get from men. I met no societal resistance in fully embodying and exploring my desire for men, either (which, to be clear, was and is insatiable slut levels of wanting that peen.) But in retrospect, I wonder how many men I slept with not because I was truly attracted to them, but because I got off on how much they wanted me.
My attraction to women comes with a different texture of eroticism. With women (and bare with a baby bi, here), the attraction feels more shared, more mutual, more tender rather than possessive. It’s no less raw or hot or all-consuming, don’t get me wrong. But for me at least, it comes more from a place of equality rather than just power play. I love the way women seem to see right through me, to know me, without us really needing to say a word.
I am still, as it turns out, a sexual submissive through-and-through, regardless of what gender my would-be partner is. But, ignorantly and unknowingly, I’d been limiting my concept of who could embody dominant sexual personas to cis men. But when TikTok sent me down that glorious rabbit hole of masc women (who know exactly what they’re doing, btw), I realized my attraction was not to men, but a certain type of masculinity. It didn’t matter which body or genitalia that presentation came with.
There is something about TikTok that feels particularly suited to these journeys of sexual self-discovery and, in the case of women loving women, I don’t think it’s just the prescient algorithm. The short-form video format lends itself to lightning bolt-like jolts of soul-bearing nakedness, with the POV camera angles bucking conventions of the male gaze, which entrenches the language of film and TV in heterosexual male desire.
In fairness to me, I’m far from the only one who missed their inner gay for a long time — only to have her pop out like a queer jack-in-the-box throughout a near year-long quarantine that led many of us to join TikTok. There was the baby bi mom, and scores of others who no longer had to publicly perform their heterosexuality during lockdown — only to realize that, hey, maybe I’m not heterosexual at all?
Flooded with video after video affirming my suspicions, reflecting my exact experiences as they happened to others, the change in my sexual identity was so normalized on TikTok that I didn’t even feel like I needed to formally “come out.” I thought this safe home I’d found to foster my baby bisexuality online would extend into the real world.
But I was in for a rude awakening.
Testing out my bisexuality on other platforms, casually referring to it on Twitter, posting pictures of myself decked out in a rainbow skate outfit (which I bought before realizing I was queer), I received nothing but unquestioning support and validation. Eventually, I realized I should probably let some members of my family know before they learned through one of these posts, though.
Daunted by the idea of trying to tell my Latina Catholic mother and Swiss Army veteran father (who’s had a crass running joke about me being a “lesbian” ever since I first declared myself a feminist at age 12), I chose the sibling closest to me. Seeing as how gender studies was one of her majors in college too, I thought it was a shoo-in. I sent an off-handed, joke-y but serious, “btw I’m bi now!” text, believing that’s all that would be needed to receive the same nonchalant acceptance I found online.
It was not.
I didn’t receive a response for two days. Hurt and panicked by what was potentially my first mild experience of homophobia, I called them out. They responded by insisting we need to have a phone call for such “serious” conversations. As I calmly tried to express my hurt on said call, I was told my text had been enough to make this sibling worry about my mental wellbeing. They said I should be more understanding of why it’d be hard for them to (and I’m paraphrasing) “think you were one way for twenty-eight years” before having to contend with me deciding I was now “something else.”
But I wasn’t “something else,” I tried to explain, voice shaking. I hadn’t knowingly been deceiving or hiding this part of me. I’d simply discovered a more appropriate label. But it was like we were speaking different languages. Other family members were more accepting, thankfully. There are many ways I’m exceptionally lucky, my IRL environment as supportive as Baby Bi TikTok. Namely, I’m in a loving relationship with a man who never once mistook any of it as a threat, instead giving me all the space in the world to understand this new facet of my sexuality.
I don’t have it all figured out yet. But at least when someone asks if I listen to Girl in Red on social media, I know to answer with a resounding, “Yes,” even though I’ve never listened to a single one of her songs. And for now, that’s enough.