The internet is a magical space. It offers what seem like infinite possibilities in the realm of talking with people and interaction. It is the space where I have found queer friends from almost every part of the world and interacted with artists of every gender and sexuality. The internet is also the place where almost every second day of writing is followed by a rape threat or a questioning of my identity.
The implications of an internet connection in India are immense. For most of us school-going children, the idea of the internet was not simply that of acquiring knowledge, but it was an expanded idea that encompassed everything – from our adolescent ideas of sexuality to the idea of meeting our first loves online.
In my middle-class fantasies, I dreamed of a partner who would carry me to heaven, I learned writing exclusively through sending emails to a person I did not know personally, and I learned much of my philosophy through internet articles and open source books. However, as I grew up, I understood that the large proportion of the internet was straight, white and male; and underneath the weight of their collective privilege, our brown and queer bodies were supposed to disappear.
Perhaps, because of the seemingly unlimited freedom that the internet gives us, abuse finds a special place. I was confronted with the word ‘faggot’ when I came across a big guy from the US who thought that joking about my queerness was funny. This led to a culmination in finding help through the internet cultures that were ultimately echoing the same cry for help. The internet seemed boundless in my teenage days but became more of a cage as I approached adulthood.
Rape threats for example, for most queer people, are a commonplace occurrence. For me, they’ve been coming from all sides, ever since I discovered WhatsApp. Men, queer or straight, seem to relish in showing a certain sexual dominance over others, and that leads to scary experiences. At the age of 19, I had a panic attack when I was told to “get raped” before expressing my opinion on a particular issue. In hindsight, this appears non-significant to the avowed defendants of free speech, but if we were to try and understand the real world implications of such hatred online, it would tell us a different story.
The ‘freedom of speech’ which calls for exterminating all queer voices from Earth by gagging them, raping them, or torturing them until they’re subdued, or they start to conform, is actually not freeing speech at all. The collective abuse we, as queer people, face silences us in many public groups. For me, the idea that my opinion was irrelevant because of my queerness has led me to leave certain so-called ‘safe spaces’ on WhatsApp.
The idea of the personal comfort zone being crossed at will on the internet exists primarily because consent is such a radical notion to the warriors of free speech on the internet. These are people who would share transphobic jokes and call out for women to be objectified because they find it funny. All opposition to the same is treated automatically as an attack on their freedom of speech. However, if the same speech was used in a real-life context, it would easily be classified as hate speech.
To be on the internet, to be conscious of eyes wandering around your body at every point of time, is a horrifying experience. It is also the understanding that this gaze into our private lives offers us a chance to interact with more people, and at the same time, to effectively silence us if those people find us unsuitable according to their world-view. This dichotomy is increasingly dangerous for queer teenagers who in a year or two will discover the internet.
We, as humans, need to practise consent. We need to ask permission and ask questions. Discomfort is not a problem, but sometimes, the idea of discomfort is originating from trauma. The idea that interactions needn’t be constricted by structures if we can create a respectful dialogue is a very needed one. If this happens today, then, well, you might see a lot more writers tomorrow than you’ve seen in the last decade.