The closet and the digital

(Featured image: Beatriz Varella)

We are living in a moment where advances in human rights always seem to go hand in hand with conservative setbacks in response to the space won by social movements as “voices heard.” On the issue of LGBTI rights, this is not different. Just like women and black people have been taking “two steps forward one step back”, LGBTI activism has been bringing forth good news amidst daily homo and transphobic violence. Even in countries strongly rooted in the so-called macho culture, activists have been winning historical struggles for rights such as same-sex legal union, children adoption and decriminalization. Would we be witnessing the rise of a “gay spring” in the middle of hard times?  If so, what has been the general role played by new media on it?

In the book Digital Activism in the Social Media Era, edited by Bruce Mustvairo, a range of authors discusses in an overall optimistic view how mobile phone innovations and social media became a powerful tool for activists pro-democracy to push for social change in sub-saharian Africa. The chapter on gender and LGBTI movements online, of Ashley Currier and Julie Moreau, offers a very critical vision though. Although the authors affirm the democratic potential of digital media for the organization of LGBT activism, the three cases analyzed are important reminders that “digital media can also reverse democratic gains through providing outlets for hate speech, amplify political repression through heightened surveillance strategies, or even just result in misguided involvement of extraneous actors that can undermine activists ’ intentions”[1].

The chapter is above all a healthy counter-voice to the impulse for a techno-deterministic discourse and a contribution for a sharper view of the interaction between social media and social change, especially in complex political contexts. It also reflects the valid argument that “new media encourage self-segregation and polarization as people seek out only information that reinforces their prior beliefs, offering ever more opportunities for the spread of hate, misinformation, and prejudice”[2]. Thus, the findings of the research dialogue with other authors claims for the adoption of “a more nuanced view of new media’s role in democratization and social change, one that recognizes that new media can have both positive and negative effects”[3].

In our blog #resist, the relations between new media, activism/advocacy and development have been also debated in different angles, corroborating with those arguments. So, departing from a view of “communication technologies and civil society organizations as forces that constitute each other”[4], I would like to argue for the general positive impact of the new media, with a highlight on social media, for the recent blooming of gay activism. First, there is a notion, expressed by relevant voices of the field, that much progress in LGBTI rights has been done as in the past years and new media platforms are inseparable from this context both for its role strengthening ties and exchanges within and among movements, and raising awareness and engagement across borders. Even Africa, continent at times painted as “entirely homophobic” for concentrating most of the countries where being gay is illegal, can also be taken in account in this big frame since countries like South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Kenya and Zambia, among others, have achieved paradigmatic advances in recent years with the support of a range digital voices.

Moreover, where traditional media varies from highly contaminated by a heteronormative discourses that distort or even “erase” the LGBTI cause from public sphere to a ”witch hunt” attitude legitimated by the state, new media has been the actual space of resistance, voice and call for action. The words of Dercio Tsandzana, blogger and activist of Lambda organization, which had a fundamental role in the decriminalization of homo and lesbian relationships in Mozambique in 2015, summarize this potencial:

In newspapers you can’t find it, in local media they don’t talk about it, but you can go to Facebook and find Lambda: ‘Look for us, we exist.

In a transnational level, another recent example of this potential is the Twitter and Facebook community Where Love is Illegal, launched in 2015. The page documents and shares first-person “LGBTI stories of discrimination and survival from around the world” and collect donations to grassroots organizations that fight against persecution based on sexuality and gender identity. Currently with almost 10.000 followers on Facebook and more than one thousand on Twitter, it offers a place for gays, lesbians and transgenders around the world – with a noteworthy participation of people from arab countriesto share their strong narratives and testimonials with the hashtag #whereloveisillegal. The organizers of the page describe themselves as a group of people that “believes that stories have the ability to connect people, transform opinions, open minds, and change policies.” (About – Where Love is Illegal Facebook page)  

Again, we have evidence that social media has a fundamental importance in allowing LGBTI voices to be organized, heard and amplified – even when producing backlashes as a side effect. Moreover, as Currier and Moreau put it, quoting Mejias 2013, p. 104, “digital communication and strategies ‘ extend the opportunities for dissent that are available to the wired citizen, and the organization and expression of voice and action against authority acquires an unprecedented scale ’ as activists can reach distant audiences´.” If we now can get inspired by those people stories and brave activists like Clare Byarugaba and Cleo Kambugu (see the trailer of doc “The Pearl of Africa”, about her story), this is due, in a great extent, to the use of new media plataforms by LGBTI activists and organizations and their endeavor towards raising awareness also on “us”, the “distant audiences” of the struggles.

In 2013, in response to a gay friend invitation on Facebook, I marched for the first time in my life in a street protest against a bill that sought to establish the infamous “gay cure” in my country. Two years later, my hetero presence was no longer new in the LGBTI protests. Like other straight people expressing active solidarity with the gay movement, I had been reached and mobilized for years by Facebook events, beijaços[5] buzzed on Twitter and for brave declarations of national and international celebrities publicly assuming homosexuality, just to name a few things. I have this feeling that we were only there, waiting to be attracted once and for all to a struggle that, despite its existence for many decades, was finally cracking all possible borders and coming out of invisibility in both virtual and physical environments.

There is no doubt that we still speak from our “algorithmic bubbles” and from realities far from being parameters for all countries. But apparently the LGBTI movement is on the same path as the women´s movement: building, not without enormous barriers at the local level and the heroic work of many activists, a transnational “space of autonomy” ”made of an interaction between (…) flows on Internet and wireless communication networks, and the space of places of the occupied sites and of symbolic buildings targeted by protest actions”[6]. In this context, new media should be approached also in its capability to build bridges not only across geographic borders, but also across genders and sexual orientations, as cases like “Where Love is Illegal” and others show.

Advocate for the rights of sexual, ethnic and religious minorities, be it in the off or online “worlds”, is far from easy. Whoever is woman, gay or non-white knows that to exist in this world is, a priori, to #resist, and that having your voice heard and considered can be a dangerous task once hatred is ironically “democratic”: it may be hidden inside family, society and state – sometimes in all at once. In a reality where the influence of conservative mentality in politics and society is still strong, growing and posing a new wave of threats to LGBTI rights, it seems to me then that the new media keeps playing a fundamental role. Moreover, it is in the blogosphere and social media, to a great extent, that we still find what traditional media generally lacks: diverse voices and informed awareness of LGBTI rights. From those places of resistance, organization and action, the LGBTI agenda has been conquering new frontiers every day.

[1] Mutsvairo, B. (2016). Digital Activism in the Social Media Era. Cham: Springer International Publishing. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/malmo/detail.action?docID=4769281

[2] Aday, S., Farrell, H., Lynch, M. et al. 2010: Blogs and Bullets: New Media in Contentious Politics, Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace

[3] Burrell, J. (2008). Problematic Empowerment: West African Internet Scams as Strategic Misrepresentation. Information Technologies And International Development, 4(4), 15-30. http://dx.doi.org/10.1162/itid.2008.00024Burrell, J. (2008).

[4] Kavada, A. (2014). Transnational Civil Society and Social Movements, in Gwinn Wilkins, K., Tufte, T., and Obregon, R. (eds.) The Handbook of Development Communication and Social Change, 351–369. Chicester: John Wiley & Sons, 2014., p 363

[5] A kind of protest that consists of kissing your partner uninterruptedly in public spaces where an episode of homophobia happened.

[6]  Castells, M. (2015) Networks of outrage and hope: Social movements in the Internet age. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Polity Press

2 Comments

  1. Guillermina

    Great post, Fernanda, and very inspiring! While I was reading, I couldn’t help but drawing a paralell to activist art (I was thinking, for instance, about Zanele Muholi, who coincidentally started off as a photographer for Behind The Mask, one of the case studies in the chapter you quote by Currier and Moreau), and how it can also be a space for resistance. Of course new media may seem like a more democratic space (and art has no place in this university assignment, but you had me reflecting there ;)) and surely more anonymous—and therefore safer in some circumstances—, with room for ample diversity of voices.
    I very much liked your idea of cross-gender and cross-sexual-identity bridges, and the affordances of new media in that sense. If nothing else, we can only hope 🙂

    1. Fernanda

      Thank you, Guilermina! It is interesting because when writing this post and the others, I always had – in the back of my head – this idea of the power of arts in relation to human rights matters and the internet. And now I see I am not alone. I think that arts are also a place of resistance and a powerful bridge builder in many senses, specially when combined with ICTs and new media. If you look at the work of Zanele and others, you actually see this force in action. In my first post, I approached this briefly when talking about the work of Awol Erizku as a culture jammer using western iconography to empower black women – and now we know about it because of the spread of a bild of Beyoncé on social media. In my second, I commented the culture makers of Brazilian favelas ressignifying technologies as a way to re-write their stories and empower themselves. What gives me hope is exactly this mix of transgression promoted by the artists and how this is not confined to niches anymore thanks to internet.

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