I’ve silently been using TikTok and Instagram Reels to be more ‘myself’. I try not to be overt, just subtle hints of queerness, and of being non-binary. There’s something about how short-form video content has given us this new power to document our lives, outside of the pressures of engagement and social media reach. People with small accounts, private accounts, or their “finstas”, are making this kind of video content. It’s freeing, but the people it’s the most freeing for are queer and non-binary folk.
This content gives us control over our narratives, it gives us the chance to celebrate our lives and our joys. In a country like Pakistan where I’m based, where homosexuality is criminalised and where a war is being waged against transgender people, unadulterated queer joy is hard to come by. So the community is finding this joy on TikTok and on Reels, and I’m no different.
Mushba Said (she/they), a queer content creator based out of Pakistan, agreed that TikTok and Reels have done a lot for queer rights and advocacy. “In the case of TikToks, trends are easy ways for creators to make a point without putting in too much effort and I've learned more about queerness from 15 to 30 second videos than I have from say longer videos. More importantly, because it's so easy to make, you have more kinds of queer people participating. So this means being able to see more brown queers [on the internet], for example,” she says.
Towards the end of December, following a string of wedding events, I compiled my looks into multiple reels and TikToks to post. I felt good in those clothes, I knew I looked good too, so I only just wanted to share. It was probably 2 days after I posted the last one of the videos I had, when I started noticing a lot of TikTok notifications for comments I was getting. I opened the app, the video has over 25,000 views, the most for anything I ever posted. The comments were horrible. Outside of a few supportive comments that mostly came from friends, the onslaught was tremendous. I was called everything from the human form of haemorrhoids, the curse of God Themself, and “a sign of humanity’s end”. I wasn’t surprised by any of it, however, what did catch me off guard was just how fast it happened. Comments were pouring in, and the haters were seeping into the rest of my content, commenting there too. Most of the commentators were rather creative with their comments, name-calling and general derogatory slurs. However, there was a sub-sect of people watching who had basic questions like “Are you gay?”, and I don’t know what level of dissociation I’m at right now, but I can say, those comments did make me laugh, because they just really wanted to confirm before they posted any hate.
Jokes aside, this hatred wasn’t unexpected. People who dress outside of the binary are attacked and trolled online, be it in Pakistan or the West. Transgender people, non-binary folk, whoever you may be, it seems as though the act of living outside of the binary is one that is unforgivable, and one worthy of receiving hateful messaging and trolling.
Hira*, a transgender woman, based out of Lahore, experienced trolling on her private TikTok channel not too long ago. “TikTok has, for a while, become a safe space for us! I loved it there. Actually, my guru pushed me to use the app,” she said, adding, “the rest of us are on there, it's a loving place, come! I was very careful with who I let into my account, but some idiot found their way in and attacked me.” Hira was a victim of trolling and doxxing. A random user, someone she thought she knew, trolled her endlessly, recorded her TikToks off of another phone and spread lies about her being a sex worker on the internet. Her number and location were leaked, and Hira was bullied for days with calls from men asking to hire her for the night. Hira said that the community factor on TikTok is strong, but the haters, she says, “ruin all the fun.”
Transgender people, non-binary folk, whoever you may be, it seems as though the act of living outside of the binary is one that is unforgivable, and one worthy of receiving hateful messaging and trolling.
On TikTok, each new notification from the app was making me increasingly nervous. I imagined the video being downloaded, being shared on the internet, with people openly hating and openly commenting on me, my body, my orientation and basically, my life. It got to a point where I was battling myself from taking the videos down – it was a fight between saving face or saving my right to express myself. It felt like there was no light at the end of this particular tunnel, little did I know that this video represented strength and freedom to a silent few.
Sense of Community
Amongst the hatred, there were people who were messaging me, both on TikTok and Instagram who were looking for support. These were mostly young people, in university or just starting their careers, and were questioning their heteronormativity and were living with a deep sense of duality and self-hatred. They all had no one in their lives to guide them through this period, and they were messaging to check if I could help them, hoping that I wouldn’t turn them down. It was heartwarming to know that I could have that effect, but also it was a painful reminder of what those years were like for me.
Mushba shared how they’ve felt the same sense of ‘community’ on their page. “I think as a small creator you're aware of who your audience is literally, like sometimes you know them or there are just 3 degrees of separation. Gen Z is built differently, and they definitely benefit from the presence of more experienced and older queer people online.”
I’m the type of person who believes in the power of paying it forward. I was helped by someone when I was in a similar headspace years ago, how could I deny the same of others? There was still fear involved – what if they report me? What if they out me?
It was a risk worth taking, in my opinion and I took it. As it stands today, it is a risk that I don’t regret. That being said, being in such a situation is also a major responsibility. Mushba also echoes this and says, “Some people really embrace the western notion of queerness, which is very white, racist, fatphobic and misogynist. It's more important to assert/encourage a cultural sense of queerness that is independent of western ideas which is funny since the only way we can really operate as 'open' queers is through coding and being fluent in English.”
These videos, while bringing attention to my queerness in a negative way, also shone a light for people who were unsure of their own sexualities and gender identities; maybe the act of creating content is not only for yourself, but rather for the common good too. People have trolled through the ages, from face-to-face encounters and protests in person, to faceless hatred on social media, what has continued along with it is the need to create. In a time when being ‘who you are’ is hotly contested, not only in Pakistan, but world over, content creation and queer content is a respite; a reminder that queer joy exists and that queer joy is just as valid.
Hussain* was one of the people who reached out to me after watching my TikTok. At first I had my apprehensions about trusting anyone who had messaged me, just because how fragile any privilege I hold becomes, the moment knowledge of my queerness spreads outside of my control. However, Hussain spoke to me continuously, and it felt genuine. For the purposes of this story (and with his consent), I asked about why he chose to trust me with his most intimate secret.
Maybe the act of creating content is not only for yourself, but rather for the common good too.
“You weren’t the first person I reached out to on social media about being gay, I messaged a lot of influencers and creators, the ones that were obvious, and the ones that everyone would say were queer. I would never get responses, at most a like on my message.” Hussain understands why people would be cautious about this topic online so he was surprised when I replied to him. “I’m not messaging or speaking to anyone out of lust or anything, I need to understand myself, [and] my feelings. I feel very alone at home, among my siblings and family but seeing certain content creators living their best lives on TikTok, even if it may be curated or whatever, makes me happy,” he says. Hussain exclaimed about how it made him feel like maybe that life could be his someday, till then, the content he’s seeing gives him hope and gives him the ability to live vicariously through those creators.
Restraint to Rewards
A lot of our conversations on social media tend to revolve around hatred, after all, it’s only natural to focus on what is glaring at you in the face, however, the biggest benefits on social media platforms like TikTok is that it is accessible and can help foster community. There will always be hatred, as we’re seeing in Pakistan, where trans rights are being questioned despite a law protecting the community’s identity and rights. But this is also something we’re seeing in other parts of the world too, from Egypt all the way to the UK where the recent murder of a trans youth has sparked controversy. Being vocal on social media sadly comes with a price, but its reward is almost always overlooked. Many people like Hussain exist, across gender identities and age, questioning and wondering about the thoughts in their head, yearning for the day they too can live their lives, unfiltered and without restraint.
For queer people, the communities they’re born into might become toxic, so they look for other means of finding a group, a family. Social media is helping us do that.
Community is important, it is what keeps us going, it is what keeps us alive. For queer people, the communities they’re born into might become toxic, so they look for other means of finding a group, a family. Social media is helping us do that, and it is beautiful and heartwarming to watch it unfold. The question one must ask is just how much backlash, social media anger and trolling they’re willing to take. Our existence, our equality, and our innate desire to take part in the world as equals is unfortunately still a political demand for us, and we have to keep going. When we talk about a truly equitable internet experience, we have to look at it through a feminist lens leading towards making a feminist internet, because, without the freedom of expression, consent and the promise that anonymity is respected, the internet cannot truly be equitable, especially for minorities around the world.
Younger creators are louder and prouder than us older queers, and they must be celebrated for that, they must be encouraged and they must be supported. Media innately has power, and in this age of social media, we must wield whatever power we have to keep our heads above the water.