Artwork by: Zunaira Sethi
By: Rameen Saad
In our neo-liberal age, where the political infiltrates all areas of our lives, it is key to note the construction of identity. The global habitus puts self-actualization and identity formation on a pedestal, and offers primacy to significant markers of homogeneity, where ethnicity, religion, and nationality are a noteworthy few. Yet, identity is more complex than these confines. Rohit Dasgupta, in his book “Digital Queer Cultures in India: Politics, Intimacies and Belonging”, is noted to say, “A more appropriate and easier way to think about identity is to understand what it is not.” (2017; 31) This line evokes the notion of identity existing beyond a fixed slate, and its multiplicity crossing the corporeal ‘offline’ world and entering the space of the ‘online’ digital world.
Seeing this, I posit the question concerning the double lives of queer desi folk: is there a duality to the online and offline identities these bodies live, or an interconnectedness? Functioning as a queer Desi body in an ever-increasing digital world, I employ this paper as an exploration of what it means to exist through your Queerness in assorted spaces, and the philosophical work done to become a homosexual. Following this, I will tackle the realms of imagination that New Media has opened up, and what it means to merge the online and offline self. Finally, the notion of community and the power of empathy will be evoked, using anonymous examples of real Queer youths to outline how these spaces, while creating a different, online persona, enable these individuals to explore their identities in ways that would not have been possible without social media.
What we regard as ‘normal’ echoes the homogenization and focus on commonalities that our society promotes, tethered in place by cultural moralities. Queer as an identity is political in nature, extending as a comfortable umbrella term that “encompasses sexual as well as gender non-normative identity positions.” (Dasgupta 2017; 1) It challenges, with its very name, heteronormative stereotypes continually enforced by the status quo. Looking specifically towards those in the Desi imagination and centralizing it within South Asia, there is a strong history of colonialism that pervades our consciousness, the hangover still echoing across what is regarded as normal. Laws reify these cultural standards, such as that of the sodomy law that acts to criminalize homosexual conduct, a British colonial inheritance that outlawed acts that, in their words, are “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal.” (Watch 2013) Charges such as these forbid the very existence of Queer folk, sending a message that they “should not be seen or heard in public at all.” (Watch 2013) The reconfiguration of such treatment requires the entrance of ethics to pervade, providing a means of undoing these previous social moralities. This contends that they are those who nurture ethical ideas and dream of new kinds of freedoms, not hinged on a moral base. Here, this identity formation becomes an activism of its own, on whatever scale it is conducted on—the personal, or the public. To derive meanings from it is to note “activism … as a kind of ethical practice,” (Dave 2012; 6) a notion that was advanced by Michael Foucault in his work on the history of sexuality.
Foucault talked in detail of ‘ethical self-fashioning’, a term that “emphasized invention and creativity over the inhabiting of already given norms for proper behavior.” (Dave 2012; 7) Further, he breaks down the notion of a homosexual ascecis, providing a rethinking of ethics: it hinged on the “‘work at becoming homosexuals’—rather than ‘be[ing] obstinate in recognizing that [a person is].’” (Dave 2012; 7) Simply, this means that there is work to be done beyond purely recognizing your homosexuality; to exist with it as a known part of your identity and to function with it becomes a form of philosophical labor. The very act of going against what is considered the norm—formally referred to as “problematization”—gives birth to new emotional labors, establishing new relations as well as “arriv[ing] at a multiplicity of relationships.” (Dave 2012; 8) With this premise, new meanings are acquired and value is placed differently. (Foucault 1978)
Even with this added weight, there is a reprisal from moral norms to such an extent that it opens new creative streams to channel this ascecis into. These extend to “new forms of care and relationality,” (Dave 2012; 8) deterring from the imposed laws of nations, and of familial responsibilities. To desire the same sex leaves the individual sphere and enters a new form of sociality, one that must still be enclosed to exist. So with its enclosure, its flourishes, enabling a safety through mutual validation. In this vein, “acts of same-sex love [do not become] acts of resistance—they are experienced as acts of social and cultural invention.” (Dave 2012; 14)
Invention begins from the precipice of social interaction, and within this epoch, we enter a “new realm of imagination where queerness is played out…on digitally mediated screens.” (Dasgupta 2017; 2) As new media grew, so do queer movements—birthed through online forums, queer groups and assorted virtual spaces. Beyond the home, access was granted first through cyber cafes, then to personalized handheld devices that enabled an easier access to such channels. The internet’s pivotal role in enhancing the queer identity worked to quickly make it “a symbol of the radical change that has swept across gay and lesbian Asia” (Dasgupta 2017; 3) by embedding itself within other social spaces. Therefore, it is important to note a crossing of online and offline practices, and to navigate carefully in exploring them. The opening of new methods of imagination bring in two notions into the queer imagination, inclusive of a. the ‘interrogation’ of the self, and b. the advent of neo-liberalism.
The digital space opens up new vulnerabilities, such as anxieties that are both nationalist and personal—the stance you take is emphasized. This encourages queer people to ‘interrogate’ themselves within notions of belonging, and how they navigate in this “new transnational space” (Dasgupta 2017; 4) while paying attention to their local identities. It is this interrogation that, while to an extent self-serving, allows for a conversation to begin in preexisting spaces, such as that of the media. Press coverage “related to queer issues in India can be traced back to the early 1990s,” (Dasgupta 2017; 25) both publishing the inane and uninformed, as well as the positive. There is an element of sensationalism that drives these conversations, though, and with more voices given to queer people themselves as of recently, there is a considerable shift in discourse—notable examples seen from Indian “magazines and ezines such as Gaylaxy, Pink Pages India and gaysifamily.” (Dasgupta 2017; 26)
Within this very discussion, we then view the transgression of social locations through this engagement of queer individuals in the digital era. Stemming from our previous discussion on ‘normalcy’, what is normal in our current political landscape is the heteronormativity of public spaces, where online queer spaces become “‘wishful thinking or desire…of the reading of space where queerness at a few brief points…dominates the [heterocentric] norm.” (Dasgupta 2017; 28) This forms a community that allows for the building of relationships, platonic or intimate. Territory is not claimed, but rather existing space opens up to new possibilities. Complexes are brought together, and an almost utopic world is created through safety and accommodation of sexuality, allowing mutual growth through this process of ‘interrogation’.
It is with this growth and community we evoke Foucault’s construction of neo-liberalism, evolving as a social rationality that “turn[s] the citizen subject into an entrepreneurial citizen subject.” (Dasgupta 2017; 4) Through this liberalization, “neoliberal bodies are deemed as productive and respectable,” (Dasgupta 2017; 4) this reformulation of identity. Thus, both online and offline personalities seem to merge, seeping into the daily. The evolution of space help shape identity, and thus identity shapes spaces in the same way, this structuring of queer identity grounding itself in the public sphere as well. In other words, the online influences the way you live your offline life and define yourself, though slowly, through neo-liberalization. (Foucault 1978)
Queer spaces form a subculture within cyberspace, existing both in due to and in spite of hostility. They provide an escape, allowing contact through mainstream sites, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook being a notable few. Teenagers and young adults make up the majority of this discourse as they grow up within this virtual atmosphere, using it as a social support in “an environment which appears non geographically restricted.” (Dasgupta 2017; 30) The subversiveness of this space can be grounded in its nature as a place of difference, where identities are “simultaneously represented, contested and inverted.” (Dasgupta 2017; 31)
Employing these notions, we now proceed to look at the lived experiences of queer youth online, those who find support and community within these platforms and use them as channels to promote creativity. These consented and anonymous opinions will serve to prove the ability of the online to help the functionality of queer individuals in the offline sphere.
Firstly, the space functions in its interrogatory nature to promote confession to oneself, finding validation through the confessions of others to do so. One Twitter user discusses,
“It helped me be more open about my sexuality. When I was still in the closet, seeing people who were open about their sexuality made me feel better. So now, I try to be as open as I can on Twitter and Instagram for people who are still in the closet so that they know they’re not alone and there’s nothing wrong with them. As a result, I’ve had one Twitter mutual and two real life friends come out to me and I’m really glad that I could be there for them.”
They specifically founded their own sexuality through this channel, allowing themselves to be open in a new way. Similarly, another Twitter user remarks,
“I’ve connected with many queer people online and I’ve actually managed to help a couple of people come to terms with their sexuality especially within the context of brown households, because I share the same experiences that force us to live double lives. We can’t be who we are at home, but we can be exactly who we want to be online, [as well as] outside.”
From their responses, there was a general consensus of the nature of the conversation that had improved about the subject at hand. As one remarked, it allowed the conversation to grow past previous small circles of friends into a global discussion from such platforms.
Beyond the scope of discussions, it opened avenues of intimacy through the positive reinforcement of a supportive environment. One user described how, through transgressing transnational borders, she bonded with someone completely different to her personal sheltered upbringing, describing her as “a punk in the most literal sense…short, dyed hair, wanted to get tattoos, swore frequently, all the stereotypes…[she] was very sheltered but [they] bonded anyways,” and entered an exclusively online relationship. This promoted new areas of creativity through this purely digital space: the user wrote about their relationship publicly, while her significant other displayed her affection through means that differed from the norms, such as drawing their first kiss and posting it online. Sadly, her parents discovered the relationship, but though banned from talking, they made use of various other platforms, such as email, direct messaging through apps that were not meant for contact, and others that enabled them to keep their connection blossoming. Their eventual breakup, too, was online, thus displaying how the cyber-sphere allowed for the fruition of a relationship that would not have been able to exist in the Pakistani public domain.
Creativity and self-expression has now, through the notion of homosexual ascecis employed and explained above, allowed for artistic endeavors to flourish in an environment that views queer identities as existing and functioning. From things such as painting a queer piece for an art class, as an Instagram user offers, to contributing to magazines and ezines for another, different ways of being queer become pronounced. The discussion of complexities of identity thus enter the mix, and for a few to “realize how important it is to have that support to stick to your identity and be proud of it.”
Even with these leaps, there is still an extremely abundant hostility pervading forums and acting to police identity, as to deter from heteronormativity comes to clash with cultural orals and norms. One Twitter user brought up important facts; that though there is a way to access different dimensions of your personality online, even going as far as to maintain an online persona, there is still a very critical form of harassment pervading social streams. She relayed how she had experienced these forms of harassment from her fellow students at her university, who would continually call her out for expressing her individuality online and subject her to online as well as offline abuse. The notion of ‘dragging’ people comes up; as these individuals take it upon themselves to morally police those they feel stray from the norm. She expressed how she feels there is an element of delusion to this online code-switching, one where there cannot be freedom what with these moral forces acting to oppress those who dare to act against the customs.
Even with the notions of inclusivity, of a new dimension of space, and of the allowance of different types of identity, there is an overbearing presence of these hostile forces that act to silence queer voices. In spite of this, they continue to exist, reforming again and again in their own mini forms of activism that occurs through their very existence. It is important, thus, to see how queer online identities work to allow the existence of the queer in the offline, though hidden and policed. Using these notions of identity formation within the framework of one as an existing queer body, I then proceeded to locate the queer cyberspace within this created identity, and thus in a neo-liberal landscape. With these grounded theories and notions, I presented the lived experiences of queer bodies through my own informal primary research, through consented opinions attained from young, queer Desi bodies.
Power relies on community and in empathy, enabling the formation of queer bodies. This empathy translates to grander gestures of political dissent, of self-actualizing art, and, most importantly, with self-love through recognition of your true self.
Dasgupta, Rohit K. 2017. Digital queer cultures in India : politics, intimacies and belonging. London: Routledge. Accessed May 18, 2020.
Dave, Naisargi. 2012. Queer Activism in India: A Story in the Anthropology of Ethics. Durham: Duke University Press. Accessed May 18, 2020.
Foucault, Michel, Michel Foucault, Michel Foucault, and Michel Foucault. 1978. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books. Accessed May 18, 2020.
Watch, Human Rights. 2013. This Alien Legacy: The Origins of “Sodomy” Laws in British Colonialism. London: University of London Press. Accessed May 18, 2020.
Bio: Rameen can be contacted on Twitter at @rosiermn.