the algorithm

TikTok Made Me Gay

Photo: Catherine Delahaye/Getty Images

Okay, but was I also gay for the 25ish years of my life before my Awakening? Yeah, probably. Still, had I not gotten TikTok, I’d probably be sitting around wondering what the fuck was wrong with me right now.

After downloading the wildly addictive app on my iPhone a little over a year ago, my screen-time reports cranked up to a horrific, albeit impressive and not at all surprising, eight hours a day. I found myself snort-laughing at an endless stream of videos that included, but were not limited to, animated bees twerking to a remix of a Russian cereal jingle. This idyllic content couldn’t have been more perfectly tailored for me if I handpicked the videos myself.

But there was one thing TikTok was getting wrong: TikTok thought I was … a lesbian? 

If you happen to be unfamiliar with the app, know this: You are no match for TikTok’s algorithm. By way of sorcery, TikTok learns your every interest, tendency, and pattern based on how you interact with its content, even if that’s just watching a video mostly through. What that means is TikTok knows you better than you know yourself. And it will show you more of what you like, even if you didn’t know you liked it yet.

For me, I can only assume it started with lingering on a video of a gay pop star. So? I like her music. Then came the thirst traps, then the thrift hauls. I mean, I also like rocking a secondhand Carhartt pant, so?! Next came the the “Disaster Bisexuals,” “Gay Panics,” and “Hey Mamas.” All of a sudden, almost every video on my For You page included a “Woman Loving Woman” hashtag. I was confused and yet somehow … more addicted than ever?

I’m not gay, I thought, but these lesbians are like … really hot. 

Then one fated night whilst scrolling the app, my thumb stopped dead in its tracks. I took in her long brown hair, thick eyebrows, deep brown eyes. Her hotness alone would have caught my attention, but what proceeded will go down in my personal content-viewing history as the Most Subtly Pornographic Video ever.

The plot: Our protagonist sits at a pottery wheel, drops a mound of clay on its surface, and begins molding it into a cup or hollow vessel of sorts. She looks seductively at the camera, mouth ajar, as we cut to a close-up of her hands where she slowly (extremely slowly!) shoves two fingers into the too-wet clay.

I let the video loop again and again, eventually gathering the strength to send the link to every person I’ve texted in my entire life. My friend’s reviews were disappointing at best:

“This is extremely cringey.”

“Is this what you’re doing at 3am?”

“Why is she wasting clay?”

Truthfully, I’d had hunches that I might not actually be that into boys. By 26, I’d dated exactly one. It lasted for a miserable year and a half during which I fell desperately in love with the performative normalcy that came with a boyfriend. You’re always doing great when you’re dating a guy, right?! The rest of my “dating life” featured a pattern in which I’d wake up one day to suddenly find whatever guy I was “seeing” repulsive, preferring to vomit in my own hands than see him again.

But even with a dating record that screamed “viscerally unattracted to men,” I hadn’t considered “gayness” a possibility. Sure, maybe my eyes lingered on a nice pair of boobs at the gym, but that’s just science. Plus, I, for one, did not “look” like a “lesbian.” Exhibit A: long hair. Exhibit B: state school sorority. And finally, exhibit C: a penchant for slutty little titty tops. Sigh. I know.

It seemed as if growing up in the queer-friendly world of Brooklyn hadn’t exactly spared me the internalization of ye olde offensive “middle-school gym teacher” stereotype: stocky, cargo shorts, choppy haircuts.

As much as I’d like to claim victim to the questionable-at-best pop-culture lesbian portrayals of my youth, a world in which “dyke” serves as the ultimate insult (see: Mean Girls and Bring It On), it’s my own fault. I’d hardly sought out a different, more nuanced understanding of gayness in 2021. Not only did I avoid questioning my own compulsory heterosexuality (a concept I learned about on, you guessed it, TikTok), but I failed to actually look at and listen to the queer communities I interacted with every day.

No shit, the lesbian community is diverse, dynamic, and extremely exciting. No shit, there are no rules as to what lesbians look like, sound like, or even believe in. No shit, your identity can be expressed however you want. But I simply couldn’t face the concept of “the lesbian” because it meant I’d have to actually question myself. How much did I have to hate me to refuse to face such a massive part of who I am? Internalized homophobia had gotten the best of me, and it took the TikTok overlord’s interference to look myself in the eyes and say, “Wait, what?”

This hiding-in-plain-sight portal into the world of online lesbians remains the most honest portrayal of gayness I’ve seen on any screen. And my own lesbianism now felt relatable, approachable, palatable. After a few weeks of sobbing to my therapist, I bravely adjusted my Hinge settings to “Interested in Women.”

Six months later, I’m lying in bed still scrolling when my beautiful pottery angel returns to my screen. This time, she’s joined by a bronzed blonde. The gorgeous duo share a stool and together shove but a mere four fingers into the wet mound. Again, drool.

I copy the link and send it off to my new girlfriend.

“Dude, have you seen the pottery girl TikToks? She has a friend…”

Within 30 seconds, I feel my phone vibrate.

“Oh fuck off I cant even watch this shit it’s too hot it’s not fair.”

Painful as it is to think doom-scrolling AI-selected content was the thing that alerted me to my years of internalized homophobia and vicious cycle of self-hate, boy am I thrilled I downloaded that stupid fucking app.

TikTok Made Me Gay