Living in public
13 February 2015
A queer internet space with a simple goal: safe housing for gay people in India.
When Sachin Jain started an email list called GHAR in 1998, he was acting on the inspiration of anecdotes and stories from gay friends across India who struggled to find safe housing. The acronym stands for Gay Housing Assistance Resource, and functions today as a Facebook group, where more than a thousand members post housing vacancies and requests for the same. Jain updates a central database of the listings almost daily, to keep the page tidy. When newcomers break the rules – by posting partial information or irrelevant items – he adds comments with gentle reminders, always punctuated with emoticons.
Jain started GHAR to serve a purely practical purpose: connect LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people in India with each other to find safe housing. In the process, he created a nexus between online queer spaces and daily life in India. The country is home to several vibrant movements pushing for the rights of LGBT people, but still struggles with both the residue of colonial-era sodomy laws, and the fear that they might come back into force at the end of this year, if the Supreme Court bends to the cacophony of appeals before it. For queer people around the world, the internet has offered a space to explore new ideas about themselves, their hopes and dreams, their safety and potential – all in private. The internet, as it has done with many aspects of social life, has both altered and enriched the way in which some queer people think about and negotiate their identities and safety.
As communications scholar Vikki Fraser wrote, “The online spaces that queer young people increasingly engage with are important sites that exist on the periphery of heteronormative experience.” She goes on to argue that “these sites give young people their first experience of a language for queerness without derogative connotations.”
But the internet – and the acts of visiting, interacting with, and changing it – has also created new publics, new spaces in which ideas are asserted and negotiated, where politics, sometimes doused in the internalised hubris that comes from anonymity, manifest across and beyond traditional borders.
In India, queer activism flourished on list servs and Facebook groups; social life took to chatrooms, dating and hook-up sites. More than a decade ago, Scott Kugle, a professor of South Asian and Islamic Studies at Emory University, wrote on the importance of internet organising for LGBT activists, explaining that “[a]lmost all support groups in South Asia depend on the Internet connectivity for their very viability as organizations.” Moreover, he said:
Reaching out to other queer people used to be a long and arduous process. Yet now, we can access information and awareness beyond our family, our education, and our social groups. In South Asian spaces especially, this gives people the chance to explore identity and sexuality while feeling safe, and opens up a ‘privacy’ that was formerly completely lacking.
Researchers at the Association for Progressive Communications, a global network advocating universal internet access that has conducted a project about online sexualities, explained that “the internet has been a key space to facilitate the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms, especially to access critical information, build knowledge, express thoughts and beliefs, form networks and communities, and mobilise for change.”
For Sourendra, the internet gave him exactly that kind of freedom: a new public to explore in private.
For Jain, a young gay professional in Mumbai, GHAR was the bridge between two worlds – one virtual, where some queer Indians were engaging in new publics, and one worldly, which often remained mired in values that could make even the most basic aspects of life as a queer person perilous:
Within the ecosystem of queer internet spaces in India – in today’s internet-heavy times, GHAR is a segue between the real world of brick and mortar houses where we all need to live, and the internet LGBT communities that thrive but are often ephemeral, with people changing names, identities, and avatars at will.
The personal and the public
For Sourendra Das, who grew up in Kolkata, the internet offered space for exploration, and an opportunity for newfound anonymity and identity-creation. It began with simple curiosity, when his English teacher assigned him a poem called ‘Swimmer’ and he, at the time in Class Three, tested the title online. “I put ‘swimmer’ into Google. Then ‘male swimmer.’ And I went to images, and whole other things came apart from the poem. I was excited and clicked on some links, and it opened my life towards gay sites.”
Sourendra, now 24, works in fashion in Mumbai. His opening of the ‘swimmer’ door online catalysed his exploration of queer internet spaces, where he immediately felt safe being open about being gay.
Sourendra’s experience is a common one, and is supported by literature on the subject. Kugle writes:
In bygone days, chances are that a first sexual experience happened with a school friend or perhaps a relative. Now, visual images from the Internet are likely to shape sexual experience before any human touch. Coming out experiences used to be running into a neighbor at a cruising site, with the fear of disclosure gnawing at the excitement of not being so helplessly alone. Now, you can play at coming out with strangers over Internet chat.
For Sourendra, the internet gave him exactly that kind of freedom: a new public to explore in private. “I discovered more stuff online. Apart from gay porn, I found gay dating sites, gay chat forums, and realised being gay is not only about having male to male sex … there is gay painting, gay literature and so many other artistic pursuits. I was enthralled.” As Sourendra explored gay websites he felt like an insider, then – almost immediately – like an outsider again. “There were thousands [of gay people] out there on the internet, but most of them were white people or black people. I did not see Indian gay people much or I was unable to find such things. I always wondered when I was young, whether it is white people who have the right to be gay.”
Offline, Sourendra continued to struggle with taunting and exclusion. Even the decision to play badminton instead of football in school drew taunts and jeers from classmates.
As he negotiated his identity as an Indian gay man both on and offline and began to explore options for leaving Kolkata, he also started to merge his online explorations with his offline needs. Chasing work assignments around the country, he endured homophobic landlords, drunk and abusive neighbours, and roommates who taunted him once they found out he was gay.
In 2012, when he landed in Mumbai, GHAR offered some hope for using online gay resources to make his offline life as a gay man comfortable and safe.
He remembers it as an immediate boost to his confidence. “GHAR got me connected to lots of homeless gay people in Mumbai, and I felt that I am not the only one who faces issues with homophobic people.”
Sourendra came out to teachers and classmates by posting a photo of a ring his then-boyfriend bought him on Facebook. His caption read: “here’s what my boyfriend’s love looks like.” Comments flooded in: some supportive, some hateful – but it was the ability to control the flow of information that gave him the most comfort:
I removed over fifty people from my friend list who felt me having a boyfriend is weird. The rest were supportive. I got hate messages, like I have become abnormal and all, but I slowly learnt to ignore them.
He toyed with various dating and hook-up sites – one of which, PlanetRomeo, currently boasts 110,000 active users in India – until the rather aggressive attention he received soured his experience. But he also enjoys the online public that the internet has offered him, and the connections have maintained for him a special meaning beyond the initial discovery and exploration. “If I am feeling lonely or suicidal, I can just post ‘lonely’ on Facebook, and my Blackberry will notify me of some 20 comments in ten minutes, then I end up feeling less lonely. And to be honest, sometimes I do like the attention that I get online.”
Regulating internet content – especially when it comes to sex and sexuality-themed items – is controversial and sensitive terrain. Social media adds an extra twist, in that it makes previously private encounters, events and moments instantly public in text and photos. Individuals, in subscribing to and connecting on social media, allow others to share information about them, and give up some control of their appearance in the online public.
In 2005, a team of researchers from the Association for Progressive Communications began a project dubbed EroTICs, which aimed to explore how emerging debates about regulation of online content affect the ways in which women use the internet, and how its role affects issues surrounding women’s sexuality, sexual expression and sexual health. One of the research sites chosen was Mumbai. They wanted to know: “How does the internet facilitate the exercise of sexual rights and the expression of sexualities, particularly of women living in different sociopolitical, economic and cultural contexts?”
EroTICs research in Mumbai showed that “queer identified respondents felt that the internet provides immeasurable freedoms – particularly under conditions of criminalization and being closeted – to find partners, social networks and for activism.” But people also reported self-censorship and curbing their full expression in order to comply with familial and societal expectations of propriety.
GHAR’s internet traffic was a mere trickle back in 2001 and, Jain says, some users remained uncomfortable sharing details or connecting with people who posted because it was impersonal and distant – even more so than the other commonly-visited queers spaces, such as chatrooms and hook-up sites.
The 2012 migration from email format to Facebook brought with it a major change, Jain says, because it made the process a part of the online social lives queer people were already living. “As compared to the e-list GHAR was earlier, Facebook makes members more ‘real’ because they have profiles. And for something as high-stakes from a safety perspective as housing, they [are] reassured by the fact that they may have mutual friends with a number of people.” Sourendra, who says he has almost always been more comfortable being ‘out’ as a gay man online than off, explains, “It is through Facebook, so you can click and see other members and if you feel their post is good to contact and see their flats for rent, you can message them personally, without having to reveal all your details.”
The benefits and dangers of the internet are fluid and contingent. Personal and public negotiation of use, amid a skein of regulations, espionage regimes and evolving technologies relies on a range of information sources, warnings and weighing of benefits and drawbacks.
In some ways, the demand has outgrown the medium. GHAR now has more than a thousand members posting housing openings and appeals in a dozen cities across India. Jain updates a central database daily, and comments on newcomers’ posts, urging them to follow the listing template he created in an attempt to formalise the process. But the delicate balance between functionality and accessibility make it impossible to chart the future. Jain laments the lack of cataloguing and weak search functions on Facebook, but says, “I don’t think a website would have the same kind of easy, organic acceptance as Facebook, so I have tried to adapt to the functionality of the group as much as possible.”
The practical and the political
The pursuit of human rights for queer people in India is as diverse as any other facet of the country. A major push to remove the sodomy law enshrined in Indian Penal Code Section 377 reached a crescendo in 2009 when the Delhi High Court repealed the law. Since then, the Supreme Court has been contemplating appeals – a process that will expire at the end of 2013, regardless of whether a decision is issued or not, putting the achievements of recent years in jeopardy. The activism that pushed for Section 377’s repeal was rooted both in a quest for greater contemporary freedoms and in a re-claiming of India’s past by casting the law that criminalised consensual same-sex conduct as an “abhorrent alien legacy of the Raj that should have left our shores when the British did.”
Laws criminalising same-sex conduct remain in approximately 76 countries today, half of which are former British colonies. Almost none of the laws mention ‘homosexuality’ – the term wasn’t coined until 1869 – but are used for everything from political targeting (as in Malaysia) to excuses for abysmal government responses to HIV (as in Uganda). As various appeals to the decriminalisation of gay sex have been presented to India’s Supreme Court, including opposition by the Union Home Ministry, the two-justice bench has commented on everything from a changing society (in which gay sex can be seen as more normal) and the historical acceptance of homosexuality in India (referencing scriptures and paintings that pre-date the colonial era).
According to Human Rights Watch: “Colonial legislators and jurists … believed laws could inculcate European morality into resistant masses.” They brought in the legislation, in fact, because they thought ‘native’ cultures did not do enough to punish ‘perverse’ sex. The colonised needed compulsory re-education in sexual mores.” And while arrests in India under Section 377 were rare, the law gave license to authorities to harass, intimidate and detain queer people and HIV workers.
As the legal debates have taken place, queer Indians have found multiple ways to express their identities. A member of a royal lineage family in Gujarat, Manvendra Kumar Singh Gohil, came out in 2007; some Indian corporate offices have begun a push to create more LGBT-inclusive workplaces; and pride parades, gay themes in popular cinema and television, and public support from celebrities have all whittled away at the oppression many have felt.
Recent uproar over sexual violence resulted in a commission headed by former Supreme Court Chief Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma, which showed some promise when it recommended that amendments to the country’s rape laws must apply to all people, regardless of gender. The government accepted many of the commission’s sweeping recommendations, but changed the language back: Only women in India can seek legal redress for rape, which LGBT rights activists called ‘a slap in the face’ for transgender women, who experience high rates of sexual violence but remain legally categorised as men.
Jain is not a full-time activist. He works as a Spanish-language content writer for an education company. But, looking back at the days of Section 377, he says small-scale resilience can make an enormous difference in peoples’ lives:
When 377 was there, major problems used to be blackmail, harassment – verbal or physical – and sometimes violence. If you notice, all these three require an unsafe physical space to play out. Though GHAR users may be living in homophobic environments, at least if they can find each other, they get a chance to create an oasis of a safe, non-judgmental space within a flat or home to be themselves … Basic safety-oriented services are very important while the judicial process goes on, because they empower the community from within to find answers to their problems.
The benefits and dangers of the internet are fluid and contingent. Personal and public negotiation of use, amid a skein of regulations, espionage regimes and evolving technologies relies on a range of information sources, warnings and weighing of benefits and drawbacks. Online relationships can buoy confidence and forge communities. But communities can draw their own lines – sometimes not much different from the ones already, and in some cases harmfully, drawn in public.
Some observers laud the internet as a space for cutting-edge queer exploration, discovery and expression that is otherwise perilous or impossible. Others argue that the internet, being an additional normative public space, perpetuates offline norms, such as the long-debated ‘closet’. You are ‘closeted’ if you are gay and not open about it, you live ‘in the closet’ – which can create false binaries of ‘in’ and ‘out’, of ‘being (gay)’ and ‘not being’. Class, privilege, computer skills, language and access to infrastructure all act as limitations on the internet’s potential for broad inclusivity.
But the delineation and creation of new spaces – online or off – does not take away from the desire and need for safety, and that’s what Jain has been trying to maintain by keeping GHAR simple. Like Sourendra, hundreds of GHAR users have told Jain that finding gay-friendly housing made a world of difference to them. More than just security, it opened the door to friendships, social networks and relationships.
Bombay Dost, India’s first officially registered gay magazine since 1990, describes itself as a harbinger for what the internet would do for so many: “connect[ing] gay people across the country, taking away the sense of isolation and disempowerment they felt, giving them hope.”
But as Kugle wrote: “People habituated to computer use sometimes harbor the illusion that just sending information over the Internet successfully transmits that information, without realizing the complex social processes of translating information into effective transformation at the grassroots level.” He added that, “Although virtual connections can be vibrant, enlivening, and informative, they cannot replace real communities.”
This, it seems, is what Jain is trying to cleave together with GHAR: the public and the private, the practical and the exploratory, the online and the off.
~This article is from our third quarterly ‘Online-istan‘, July 2013.
~Kyle G Knight is a journalist and researcher based in Bangkok.