The keyboard speaks

Apr 09, 2015, 08:33 IST | Vikram Phukan

Coming out takes on another dimension, as social media gives gay persons the option to declare their sexuality at the click of a button

Before Facebook had taken such a hold over everyone’s lives, gay people could count their friends on their fingers and the social circles to which they belonged were disparate units, the workplace, the gym, the library, the laughter club.

Tom Daly (r) with boyfriend Dustin Black
Tom Daly (r) with boyfriend Dustin Black

Coming out was a life-saving moment for those who had reached the end of their tether hiding the most basic truth about themselves. The plots and intrigues made it momentous, you started out with a close friend, then a sibling, maybe someone else.

Ellen Page at a Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) conference in Las Vegas where she came out
Ellen Page at a Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) conference in Las Vegas where she came out

Parents were a frontier to conquer, as were people at work, but what made it equally sapping was that it was a process that never seemed to come to an end. Vast swathes of people simply assumed you were straight, and life became a series of closets to emerge from, without even the benefit of new clothes each time. These flesh-and-blood interactions were fraught with awkwardness, judgement and possible ridicule, and took its emotional toll on those involved.

Jodie Foster came out while receiving the Cecil B Demille award at the Golden Globes 2014
Jodie Foster came out while receiving the Cecil B Demille award at the Golden Globes 2014

Now, in the online world, where all your circles have been pulled together, sometimes including every person you ever knew, coming out can be achieved with a single click, and more and more, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer and Intersex (LGBTQI) folk have woken up to the power of such a painless deal, although real life repercussions do follow.

Service manager Suresh Ramdas at the Bangalore Pride
Service manager Suresh Ramdas at the Bangalore Pride

Open book
Arguably, simply being on a social network could mean your most private details are already publicly accessible. Security settings are a virtual minefield and even queer people, so attuned to secrecy, can leave tell-tale signs of their hidden caprices. An event invitation you accept, a group you join, photographs from that party you’re tagged in, everything is open fodder for Messrs Facebook & Co to broadcast to the world in an unexpurgated stream.

The Young and The Restless actor, Greg Rikaart
The Young and The Restless actor, Greg Rikaart

The syncing of phone numbers across various accounts, could mean that you are suggested as a ‘Person You May Know’ to someone you had casually shared your number with. Those who create ‘gay profiles’ basically, a parallel online identity to surf ‘The Other Side of Facebook’ which consists of only fitness models and struggling actors, it would seem, may be discovered by their straight (or possibly, not so straight) friends.

What I am, says IIT Mumbai PhD student, Aaditya Joshi
What I am, says IIT Mumbai PhD student, Aaditya Joshi

Facebook’s algorithms work overtime to bring about connections at any cost. A cursory glance at your friend list or your list of likes could reveal incriminating associations, which is why detective agencies hired by brides-to-be to probe a fiance’s sexuality never need to leave their computers. even if you are extra careful, there are shared characteristics that could indicate gayness.

A study of 58000 Facebook users in the US was able to identify gay men with 88 per cent accuracy. Fewer than 5 per cent had clicked obvious likes the Gay Marriage fan page, for instance. Instead, the giveaways were more universal pages like Wicked the Musical and Human Rights Campaign.

A statement
Still, for those wanting to take the plunge explicitly, and looking for textbook cases to emulate need look no further than the latest celebrity who’s decided to take a leave of absence from the closet (a simple Google search on the phrase “comes out as gay” throws up the most relevant disclosures). Press conferences are now passe except for gracious ladies ellen Page and Jodie Foster, who chose prestigious podiums to reveal all.

For others, 140 characters on Twitter, however insufficient to accommodate the weight and poignancy of such a revelation, can still be precise and unambiguous. Social commentators will then fall over one another to commend the ‘bravery’ of such individuals who appear to be putting their entire lives and careers (so contingent on public perception) on the line.

A ‘free speech’ tug-of-war ensues, between those who claim these icons as their own personal beacons of hope and those (mostly unnamed) bigots who can now give vent to the worst kind of homophobic outrage. A case in point being British diver Tom Daley who posted his ‘coming out’ video (gently titled, Something I want to say...) on Twitter.

It has since notched up more than 11 million views and a barrage of slurs and religious gripes that the young star has learnt to take in his stride. The Young and The Restless actor Greg Rikaart came out by simply posting a picture with his boyfriend and stating, “Not getting married anytime soon, but celebrating #equality tonight nonetheless.”

No Indian equivalent exists although a certain choreographer had tweeted a similar image of his current bromance which had the gay networks creaking and heaving the post was hastily retracted. The ‘receding timeline’ of Twitter makes it more a platform for celebrity statements, which invariably become the subject of a trend and stay afloat. Regular people with limited followers end up just tweeting to nobody in particular, which is why the Facebook model, where popularity is more egalitarian works so well.

The Chronicle
events manager Ankur Bhojane came out publicly by writing a testimonial piece called Wind beneath my wings for the Pune-based queer channel, The Queer Chronicle, which he shared on his Facebook timeline. It’s a poignant account of his relationship with his mother, her unconditional (even spirited) acceptance of his sexuality, and his coming to terms with her untimely death.

This very personal journey became the conduit to a more public avowal, and the response was heartening. Despite the underlying tragedy, it was a story that brought hope and succour to many and for Bhojane, it was a cathartic release. A PhD student at IIT Mumbai, Aaditya Joshi, also posted an article about coming out to his family that helped in reaching out to the world at large. “I posted it with a restricted audience at first, and then expanded it slowly.

It was almost like a FYI, really, since I had already told those who were close to me in person,” recalls Joshi. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Bullies from high school posted supportive comments — it was a turnaround that was especially heart-warming. They were also those who defriended him, and stopped acknowledging him publicly. “In the end, posting the article allowed me to come out in my own terms, and explain it properly to counter whatever notions are still carried about gay people,” he signs off.

Sometimes personal activism pushes the reveal, as in the case of BITS alumni, Ramkrishna Sinha, who had posted a flyer of a talk he wanted to deliver called, ‘Demystifying Sexual Orientation’. In one of the campus Facebook groups, the post was deleted, but later allowed based on support shown by Sinha’s peers.

There were no untoward reactions but the talk didn’t take place ultimately, but through his zeal, Sinha had certainly contributed towards creating a more inclusive atmosphere in his alma mater. Similarly, the emerging culture of pride marches in India also empowers many. Services manager, Suresh Ramdas, had a striking dream in which he had climbed to the top of a mountain and proclaimed to the world that he was gay.

That very day, he posted a Facebook Life event, ‘Finally out of the closet!!!’ He included a picture from the first pride parade he had participated in that very month, standing proudly in front of a rainbow flag. The post amassed 300 likes in no time and four months on, messages of support continue to arrive.

Net revolution
It is not as if all of this is without precedence. echoes of it can be found in the ‘noughties’, when the internet revolution saw a proliferation of queer bloggers in India, thriving in the open, expressing themselves without censure, their true identities sometimes masked only by the flimsiest smokescreen. The blogs offered a captivating peek into the inner lives of gay men and women. Loneliness was a leitmotif, but so were accounts of burgeoning sexual discovery recounted with glorious self-mockery. Homophobic politicians of the day were favoured whipping boys.

even celebrated activist Ashok Row Kavi entered the fray with a post, “Gay men learnt that by going to Freida’s for a new hairdo and then wearing some zug-mug Chirag Din shirt, they’ll make the men fall at their feet! But, of course, nothing like that ever happens. Just as straight men can’t get within a mile of Rekha, most Bumbaiya queens end up with fellow queens. It is pomfrets by the pair in Crawford Market, sweeties.”

Blog log
Some blogs acquired cult followings, Sour Apple Martini and engaying India come to mind. Their authors were possibly the first Indian men to happily embrace cyber notoriety, effectively ‘outing’ themselves with their brand of outspoken candour. Others had niche readerships, but taken altogether (Bombay Dost maintained an online repository of LGBTQI-themed blogs), they represented the collective psyche of a generation ready to crawl out of the woodwork.

Cautionary tales were thick on the ground, one writer (a popular figure in gay circles, known for his culinary soirees) wrote about finally succumbing to the lure of liposuction (even then, desirability hinged precariously upon the superficial). By cruel irony, it was to be his last post in real life, the surgery was botched and his blog became an online shrine to a dear departed friend (‘RIP’ slowly but surely emerging as glib shorthand for internet-era condolences).

In many ways, these ‘freedom blogs’ were the first halting attempts by those living completely repressed lives to dispatch their stories into the public domain, albeit anonymously, but nursing within, the deep desire to be acknowledged and cherished and seen for what they truly were. They spawned a tangle of interconnected lives and were, in essence, the true precursors to the instant gratification universe ushered in first by the now archaic Orkut, and later by Facebook and Twitter.

It’s a pity that many of these accounts, so historically significant for an invisibilised minority, have been obsoleted by rapidly evolving technology, and in many cases, only fragments in the Wayback Machine survive. Hopefully, the nuggets of upliftment, in these more connected times, will have more staying power.

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