Meet Terence Lightning Jr – a second-year grad student from Fort Wayne Indiana who studies photojournalism.
A name like Terence Lightning beckons inspiration and that’s exactly what Terence does; he aspires to be his true self every day while creating mental health awareness across social media. This past year, Lightning has pushed past social constructs by being gender nonconforming. He has shared his story across the popular video platform, TikTok, where he has found communities that relate to his orientation. Terence is also a member of the video game service Twitch. Here, he finds a source of income and support to fuel his newfound sense of identity.
We virtually met with Terence to take a look behind his social media presence, uncover his Ball State journey, and hear the defining experiences that led him to where he is today.
Can you describe your journey prior to Ball State University?
I was just a high schooler in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I knew I wanted to do something with content creation; something along the lines of journalism, telecommunications, or art. What’s funny is when I was editor in chief of my high school newspaper senior year, I realized I’m not the best at writing but I can be better at photography. That’s why I went the photojournalism route. Photojournalism was the reason why I came to Ball State.
I noticed that you switched your major back and forth from Photojournalism to Communication Studies. What was that like?
It was interesting because photojournalism and communications are both focused on content but with a different perspective. The communication program is more focused on interpreting the message; what does it mean and what’s the significance of it. While the journalism or t-com side of things is how we can improve that message for the next time. There’s no risk of wanting the two sides of communications. I want to be able to not only interpret and analyze messages but further improve messages.
Do you think, by taking these classes, it’s impacted the way that you present yourself to people?
I would say yes and also no, at the same time. Yes because I am more aware of my identity as a black man and how my influence on other people can affect me. I know that with the identities that you carry, you can have a big influence on other people. But then I would also say no because, on TikTok, I don’t want to make it look like I’m pretending to be someone or put on a stage front. I want to be my true, authentic self, whether it’s good, bad, grey, or ugly, I want to be as authentic as possible.
One of the identities that you publicize online is your gender fluidity. When did you start to realize you didn’t conform to a certain gender?
There was one time I was on someone’s TikTok and they wanted to meet more people in the queer community. And at that point, I thought I was just an ally because I identify as he/him, same as my gender assignment at birth, and I’m attracted to women and possibly nonbinary people. But I said, “Hi, I’m Terence. I’m just a straight black man breaking gender norms, nice to meet you” and then they responded, “Hi, we are actually gender nonconforming people, GNC is a great inclusion of the queer community” and I was like, wait, what? I’m part of the community.
Right afterward, I put out a quick TikTok. I posted, “Someone just told me that I’m part of the queer community can someone help me explain”. I also had to research what gender nonconforming was because the only time I had heard of gender nonconforming before was in academic research articles. I realized, yep, that basically checks out. I like to break gender norms. This explains who I am.
I started wearing leggings and a few things that we would call “women’s clothing” earlier on; like 2017, 2018. That’s when I started to embrace it and I went out in public a little bit more. I have dabbled in nail polish and make up, like mascara a little bit, but I didn’t get into it until this year. Actually, this year in August, I took a leap. Not only did I buy my own nail polish but I also decided, you know what, let me try biker shorts because I think guys can wear them as well.
And since then, I’ve gained more skirts, collected more crop tops. How it happened was I was playing Animal Crossing and I noticed that my villager looks great in a skirt. I wanted to see what I looked like in a skirt in real life. My first skirt was from TJ Maxx. It was a snake pattern type of skirt.
Just recently I got more into makeup like eye shadow. I still can’t do eyeliner for the life of me. I don’t want to poke myself but I’ve added more lipstick, more lip gloss. I also just recently got an eyebrow pencil and a brush, so I can actually shape my eyebrow which feels really fancy.
I am having more fun with it. Just a few weeks ago, I got my first set of dresses and it just feels great to wear them. It feels nice to be like, “Okay, yeah, it’s in the women’s section but that doesn’t mean that it’s for women”.
I want to be my true, authentic self, whether it’s good, bad, grey, or ugly, I want to be as authentic as possible.
How is it to publicize these outfits in public vs publicizing it online?
I may wear skirts or dresses inside or maybe in front of my Android phone for a few thousand people to see but it’s different. With being in public in my leggings, I know I definitely cause more of a scene because people constantly ask me, “Are you gay?” because of my appearance. I remember one time someone said that I acted or dressed gay to get women. When I tried to confront them about it, they called me a homophobic slur. There are some spaces where I know dressing the way that I want will get me harassed.
With skirts, this one time I was eating at Texas Roadhouse, and someone complimented my outfit. I felt really included even though there were a few people staring at my outfit. And when I go to the Mark III Tap Room, the oldest gay bar in Indiana, I usually get compliments from other patrons or even the owners about how good my outfit looks so it feels really nice to know that I can still be myself in public too.
You commonly voice your experience with mental health online, specifically with your hospitalization experience. How did this change your perspective on life and your career?
I was hospitalized from March 10th to the 13th; that was right before we went into lockdown and all online classes. It felt like I went from one isolated area to the next because, in psych, you don’t have that much interaction with the outside world. However, now I connect with people through the internet. They can be close, nearby, within the same city or hours away in different countries. And my old thoughts of feeling alone and hopeless aren’t true anymore.
There is an activity that I had to do when my counselor visited. We had to write down, kind of like a bucket list, different things that we liked, different places where we’d like to go. Some of them are really big things like I want to go to a Kpop concert, or I want to travel to Japan. Some of them are just small, such as sending someone photos, a letter, or gift card, or giving back to a nonprofit. At the end of the activity, one of the nurses said to make those your reasons to live. That’s when I realized that I shouldn’t end my life because I’ll be missing out on things.
I think video games were mentioned on here a lot. I knew that was really important to me. It’s what I’m doing, on Twitch, that makes me happy. And as of Friday, I became an affiliate on Twitch. And then on Sunday, my most recent stream got some of my first subscribers. So it feels like I’m doing all the right things to be happy.
Can you describe your experience with Twitch?
So on Twitch, I’m not known as Terrence Lightning. I’m known as The Light Jr. I’ve been playing this third-person shooter game called Splatoon 2 on a Nintendo switch. I decided I wanted to stream so I could have a source of income while I’m in grad school and to have a place where I can be myself and hide from toxicity. I’ve been streaming consistently for a good month now. It’s been going pretty well so far.
I will definitely say that playing these games helped me feel a lot better about myself, especially in the Splatoon community. The video game is really inclusive, they have people that come from different ethnic backgrounds and different perspectives of the queer community as well. So it’s a really safe and welcoming place for everyone.
Does social media help you feel more comfortable with presenting your authentic self to the world?
I would definitely say so. I’ve had a few negative comments and that was my first time getting that. Yet, it helped me grow a thick skin and not let things get to me. It reminded me that there are more positive comments coming my way, like, “You look great” or “Your dress, your outfit, or your makeup looks amazing” rather than worrying about the few negative ones like, “A man should look like this”. Social media does help out, especially when I feel anxious.
In fact, when I see a negative comment, I respond to it with a video because you have that feature in TikTok. And usually what happens is the commenter doesn’t respond to it. Yet, when they do, they realize their comment isn’t right or that it’s not the best way to look at things.
Do you think finding community online helped you feel heard and seen?
Yeah, definitely, because I don’t really know that many spaces where queer people can go to other than the Mark III Tap Room. TikTok, especially, has been a nice safe space for me to interact with people.
TikTok helped me be my queer self. It made me feel a little bit more comfortable and confident with my appearance. I’m also causing people to acknowledge it. They think it’s really cool. For example, there was one TikTok where I just read some of my self-motivated quotes, and my followers responded with, “Oh, this is a really good idea, I might use these.”
Is there anything else you’ve got going on?
I am working on a research study that I’m really excited about using TikTok; it’s based on how gender nonconforming men are off the app. I’m still having to go through the approval process but it’s looking good so far. I was really happy when my thesis committee said that they’re interested. It feels like I’m researching things that matter.
Who are your role models?
Two of my inspirations are musicians, Prince and Jaden Smith, they’re both black artists and black celebrities who don’t really conform to gender norms. They’re good examples of showing men that it’s okay to not conform to gender norms. Then my biggest inspiration goes out to a Twitch streamer name, Thugkage. She’s a big Naruto fan. I remember when I first came on to her stream, her whole Twitch community hyped me up and made me feel welcomed about my outfits and whatnot. Her community is so supportive. They were actually the first people I came out to as gender nonconforming. So honestly, if it wasn’t for me finding Thugkage, I don’t think I would have realized who I was as soon as I did. So I really do appreciate her. She is an amazing person.
What are you grateful for this holiday season as we’re approaching Thanksgiving?
Finding out that I’m gender-nonconforming because I was able to put together so many pieces in my life. I felt so relieved to finally understand a little bit more about myself once I realized what gender nonconforming was. I feel more accepted and that’s really awesome.