Written by Neha Gauchan
Trigger Warning* mentions of hate speech and experiences of attacks
June is the month of much anticipation, not only because it’s Pride month but also because of the beauty it holds by bringing individuals together through informal hangouts, meet-ups, close-knitted sessions, and events held and owned by-for the queer community. Although such gatherings aren’t just limited to June, a different sense of homely feeling is transported during this time for many, including me. There’s so much joy in being a part of a communal space where my queerness is celebrated, fluidity is validated, and existence is affirmed. The Nepal Pride Parade was one of many events I was looking forward to this year. The event would mark my second time organising and attending the Pride that is physical and in-person in Nepal.
The morning of 10 June 2023, the day of Nepal Pride Parade, was brimmed with colourful rainbow flags, umbrellas and face paints, banners stating “Everyone is welcome here (except queerphobes)”, “No pride for some of us without liberation for all of us” “Aspec love is love” “A for अयौनिक A for अप्रनायात्मक “ “Dalit, queer and proud” “Intersex people can be of any gender” etc, and lots and lots of solidarity in the being of queer and queerer. It felt magical, a moment in time to resist societal conformity, binaries and the cis-gendered-hetero-allonormative patriarchal structures. We took up the streets that belonged and expressed our queerness. While doing so, meant in ways, that our existence is visible, so are our identities. This also paved the way for exposure of our private selves along with the multitude of risks, both offline and online.
Privacy, Expressions and Identities in Online Spaces
With growing visibility comes vulnerabilities, and we were fortunate to not experience police brutality or anti-queer incidents physically that day, a common scene in many places worldwide where Pride marches are organised. I was talking to my friend, M, and she shared experiencing a few catcalls and hoarding of derogatory remarks from outsiders who didn’t walk the parade. M didn’t want to engage with the callers and hence ignored them. However, such calls were also happening concurrently in the Nepali social online spaces, and they weren’t exclusive to just a few individuals.
Many of my friends’ social media accounts were bombarded with anti-queer rhetoric from fake accounts and some real ones. As colourful as the photos/videos came about of the pride flags, slogans and banners, embodiment of queer bodies and expressions, or individuals simply being themselves, the comment sections were the complete opposite. Hate speech, use of slurs, misgendering individuals, rape and death threats targeted towards queer folks were rampant. Many cited that our expressions and identities were not to their liking and are unacceptable, that we are a “sin” and “we should leave the country.” Others included, “pride as a western propaganda, a foreign culture” “ini haru le desh bigaryo” “this is a threat to our children,” etc. I have not listed down the whole of the remarks because these already are very triggering.
I also witnessed many online news media portals sharing pride-related photos, captions and news articles and they were among the first ones to post even before anyone else. As of 27 June 2023, a leading online news media on Instagram garnered 810 likes with 14 comments, while another online page, branded as an account to “spread awareness” had garnered 8530 likes with 454 comments on photos of the pride day, and several other outlets receiving massive engagements. The interactions may have soared, however, at the cost of ones’ privacy and security.
Bichhen, a guest during the Pride Parade and a non-visible queer person, said she was in constant dread if her photos would be published without her consent and knowledge by the online news portals. “It was my first time attending pride with my partner. I was also openly holding hands and was dancing together with them. But when I went back home and saw many photos being shared online by these media accounts, some with consent and many without consent, I checked all their accounts one by one just to be on the safe side.” Even though Bichhen’s photos did not make it to social media, she is still cautious of herself, her sexuality, and her privacy.
Along with the invasion and questions of privacy, none of the online media accounts were accountable for the hateful comments that were shared on their own posts, many of which, including the above mentioned ones, that are still buried on their feed. The negligence of responsibility from these accounts, who have thousands of followers, show that it is only in the saying that “LGBTQIAP+ lives matter”. In reality, priority is given to the counts of views, likes, shares and interactions over queer individuals’ safety and security.
And it isn’t only the online news media who should hold accountability because the social media platforms like Meta, Tiktok, and the rest have their own part to play. The irony is that the community guidelines or standards do little to protect marginalised populations, including queer people, from the rampant violence online. GLAAD, an organisation focusing on queer advocacy, conducted their yearly Social Media Safety Index 2023 in which their scorecard is evaluated based on LGBTQIAP+ safety, privacy and expression on various social media platforms. The results show Twitter ranked the lowest followed by Youtube, Tiktok, Facebook and Instagram.
One of Instagram’s standard reads, “It’s never OK to encourage violence or attack anyone based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, disabilities, or diseases.” The second line goes “When hate speech is being shared to challenge it or to raise awareness, we may allow it. In those instances, we ask that you express your intent clearly.” The following statement contradicts the initial sub-guideline because hate speech, with any intent, done against a community or a group is in itself a violation of human rights. This in no way serves the “diverse community” that platforms advocate for. Social media platforms have seamlessly failed to mitigate the online risks and hate against marginalised populations. Rather they are known to suppress LGBTQIAP+ expressions online by disproportionately shadow banning or removing content from queer creators.
When there are arbitrary content moderation under the disguise of “community guidelines” that portray ones’ “sexual expression” online while queerphobic content remain untouched, this is the double standard that social media companies play. Attempts to curb expressions denote control of one’s agency & autonomy to freely use/ express themselves on the internet. We all know that technology is not neutral, it is biased and rather than serving the community at the margins, it favors and serves those who hold power.
The above incidents are digital rights concerns largely associated with queer identities, their bodies and expressions. These are not just accidental occurring but a broader reflection of our society —an existence of unequal power imbalance existing in real life world translating to digital world and vice versa. And that any deviation from the “non-normative” ideas of bodies are not welcomed, their voices silenced leading to the invisibilisation and erasure of our identities.
The Missing Link
What is missing within the silencing of our existence are the extreme gaps that prevail within these structures. Pride is celebrated with so much joy, love and kinship, and the support we receive is bounded within our communal bubble only. On the other hand, violence on social media platforms continues to persist alongside the negligence of the tech giants and profit-engagement-making companies/accounts. Pride comes once a year. But queer people live every other day. The capitalisation of our lives and beings that make into the headlines, at the cost of our digital and offline safety, only in June is to be questioned. Also, intentional consideration should be given to who owns these stories and how are they portrayed in the mainstream and social media spaces. Because at the end of the day, queer peoples’ autonomy over their own stories is and should be the centre of our conversation, and they have the agency to create meanings of their lived experiences, in ways that feel comfortable and safe, whether offline or online.
Pride is important, but so are our privacy, expressions, experiences and bodies which are all part of the celebration, and this is not just a single story.
Neha Gauchan is a feminist indigenous activist with a background in human rights. Her past experiences include working in the field of digital rights with a primary focus on children. Neha loves art in different forms, among which grooving to music is her favourite hobby. She also recently got her hands into digital art and films and is exploring different ways in which she can intersect her activism, indigeneity and artwork. She is an avid fan of Korean dramas and KPOP, occasionally writes her chaotic thoughts on her notepad and blog, and is a basketball enthusiast!