As the EroTICs research from South Africa shows, the Internet offers a safe venue outside of the contradictions of South African society. Although constitutionally-protected, the rights of LGBTI people in South Africa are still not fully recognised and many face discrimination on the basis of their identity and sexual orientation.
Says Muholi, lesbian activist and co-founder of the Federation for the Empowerment of Women (FEW), "we continue to live on the margins of society, still struggling to claim our sexual citizenship, visibility and safety in the public sphere".
That is why the Internet is so important. The privacy and anonymity of online communities allows LGBTI people to "be anonymous and to have control of how much they wish to disclose at any stage." This is the case with the Gender Dynamix site, an online forum for transgendered individuals to share their stories about their transition to their chosen sex. Many users choose to write under pseudonyms; others choose to simply read the comments of other users rather than post themselves.
What is remarkable about the site is the level of community that has developed, despite its relatively small user base. Users share their experiences, their fears and aspirations, as well as the latest research on medical surgical interventions. But they do more than share knowledge -- the community is overwhelmingly supportive.
The importance of this sense of community cannot be overstated. For many, the process of transition is emotionally trying. As the report notes, for many transgender people life is fraught with social rejection and moralising from those who see sex and gender as divinely ordained and who view intervention in that process as suspect, immoral and indefensible.
One trans woman, Cary, shares a particularly touching story, saying she is "so scared now, I think my fear overpowers my excitement... What am I going to do about work, what is everyone going to think of me, how am I going to tell my mom, what is my sister going to say, will I have my voice trained fully by then etc. etc. Hell I’m even worried about what the security guards at the entrance to my complex are going to think."
Another woman tells how crucial this online connection can be during this period : "this was also during a very hard time for me when I isolated myself from my friends and people around me, so the Internet helped me to remain connected to reality and actually was instrumental in bringing me out of this space."
Sadly, most South Africans do not have effective access to the Internet. Internet usage is just above 10%, so many LGBTI people are unable to take advantage of this resource and are left feeling isolated and alone.
Says Vera, a transgendered woman, "it was really hard because I didn’t have any money to go and access the Internet. I found that very frustrating. As a transgender person I have to keep abreast with the latest developments in treatment in the transgender community."
But lack of access isn't the only concern. South Africa is one of many countries around the world that are considering internet filtering. Given the prejudices in wider society, and the vibrant ecosystem of sexual expression that exists online, the authors of the EroTICs report are necessarily concerned about the impact of regulation and censorship on sexual rights. They claim that any such mechanism must be "informed by the notion that Internet regulation policy must be based on empirical evidence in terms of what people’s actual and not assumed Internet usage is".
This connection, though important, is still fragile. An ill-conceived regulatory policy could severely dampen this thriving community and the threaten the rights of its members. It's imperative that governments have the facts, and equally so that they not allow societal prejudices to inform policy.