Digital Battlegrounds: the growing struggle to contest LGBT online spaces


Stephen WoodStephen_Wood200

The meteoric rise in the use of smart phones and the internet over the last ten years, both within the West and in increasing numbers in regions such as South-East Asia and Africa, has brought fresh opportunities by which we can make sense of ourselves as individuals and participate in our communities. There is now recognition amongst politicians and policy actors that these technological advances are shaping public debate in unexpected and interconnected ways.

Nowhere has this transformation been so noticeable and relevant than amongst those sexual minorities building lives in societies whose harsh cultural and legal barriers prevent open expression of non-normative sexualities. For many, lives lived online have become richer, offering resilience and strength in ways impossible on the streets or even within their home.

Opportunities for online growth

The possibilities of social media have facilitated the establishment of discreet and anonymous methods of connecting and meeting up for social support, commercial transactions, sexual and romantic encounters. In places such as China, where family plays an incredibly important part in building and maintaining social capital, there has been a growth in ‘arranged’ marriages between lesbians and gay men organised online that provide opportunities for mutually-assured social acceptance and a freedom to explore identities discreetly, especially in urban settings where kinship networks are policed less. Heavily moderated and secure online spaces on platforms such as Facebook in countries like the Philippines allow for anonymous or open organizing for social and political activism, as well as providing opportunities for HIV prevention outreach work, such as the Adam’s Love campaign in Thailand for men who love men.

As researchers, these virtual spaces provide fresh opportunities for us to engage with and hear from ‘hidden’ populations, providing we remain mindful that any data we might glean could stem from the relatively privileged in society. As my colleague Pauline Oosterhoff writes in her recent paper ‘Research Methods and Visualisation Tools for Online LGBT communities’, there are remarkable possibilities for larger scale quantitative data collection from geographically dispersed and ordinarily inaccessible participants, although not without some concerns about the quality of data and ethical considerations. With the rising expense of conducting research, this also represents a cost-effective mechanism for building research cohorts and disseminating our findings to new audiences.

The double-edged sword

This connectivity, that brings global communities closer together and feeds perceptions of users as private, individual consumers going about their business away from prying eyes, masks very real dangers. The backlash is already with us. Human rights advocate Scott Long has written extensively about the state targeting of sexual minorities communities in Egypt over the last couple of years, with police targeting LGBT people as a result of online postings that even tangentially aid in their identification. Popular gay male smartphone app Grindr (which presents profiles ordered by GPS distance between users and is thereby incredibly popular for organizing hook-ups) has the potential to identify the physical location of users and could have its functionality distorted into a tool for facilitating violence, entrapment or blackmail for unwary users. The illusory freedom of online life sometimes leaves people feeling invincible and unable to gauge the potential dangers.

As researchers and activists, we must recognize that we stand at a crucial crossroads in the maturity of the internet. In the public eye, the fiercely empowering nature of online activity still holds sway, with acres of media coverage of how democratic accountability was ignited in the ‘social media revolution’ of the Arab Spring or domestically during the recent Scottish Independence debate. These dramatic images of societies coming together in online dialogue are much more visible than the more abstract concerns about big data, cyber security, state surveillance and silencing of dissent. But their impact is devastating. In the last month alone, Scott Long has compellingly exposed the Egyptian government tendering out for tech companies able to provide tools for monitoring online traffic in incredibly intrusive ways, including for evidence of “terminology and vocabulary that are contrary to law and public morality or beyond the scope of custom and community ties”. The successful tender came from a sister company of a Californian-based US internet security firm, raising probing questions about the conflicted relationship Western states are playing in ongoing global debates around LGBT equality, as arrests, detention and abuse across Egypt of LGBT people increases dramatically.

Online activism represents a new front for citizen participation, mobilization and (in)visibility. As a relatively new area of research, there is a real need for evidence to elucidate whether or not it facilitates the emergence of voices from those parts of sexual minority communities that are usually rendered invisible, or whether we are exposed to a vocal activist base drawn from the technologically literate, relatively privileged classes in society pursuing campaigns that at times run counter to the needs and priorities of poorer LGBT people. These campaigns in turn run the risk of being unquestioned and mirrored into global policy spaces by the rapidly expanding class of well-intentioned international LGBT activist ‘clickdavists’, whose efforts could exacerbate accusations of Western cultural imperialism.

The potential for online spaces to foster strong communities and civic participation amongst those facing discrimination as a consequence of their sexual identities remains great, yet are being contested aggressively by opponents. Even amongst sexual minorities themselves, the dynamics of social media use are reshaping communities and civil society in under-examined ways that are potentially troubling and warrant further research. With activists and academics pressured on a daily basis to put their energies into the viscerally immediate ‘ground war’ of embattled LGBT communities, we ignore the online ‘air war’ at our peril.

Stephen Wood is a Research Officer on the Sexuality and Development Programme within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS. He can be found on Twitter as: StephenWood_UK

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Our marriage: When lesbians marry gay men in China


Kate HawkinsKate Hawkins

He Xiao Pei, a long-time partner and collaborator of the Sexuality and Development Programme and Pathways of Women’s Empowerment, recently launched a new documentary. I was lucky to attend a screening of the film at the University of Sussex just before Christmas. The film, Our Marriage, is an exploration of the lives of four lesbians who decided to marry gay men in order to secretly pursue their relationships with their girlfriends and at the same time fulfil their families’ deep-seated desire that they get married. The sense of respect and responsibility that the marriage partners feel towards their parents, and the avoidance of social ridicule and tricky questions about their child’s sexuality, also play a large role in their decision to stage elaborate and glamorous sham ceremonies. The film has already been shown in Thailand to positive reviews.

Heteronormativity in China
In China, as one of the women in the documentary explained, nobody is allowed to be single. Whilst a burgeoning lesbian social scene is becoming more visible in large cities, heteronormative attitudes force people, heterosexual and homosexual alike, into marriages which they would rather avoid. Marriage can provide social acceptance, but it also gives you certain economic benefits such as access to social housing. Whilst homosexuality is not illegal in China there are no plans to introduce same sex marriage. Activists like He have argued against campaigns for same sex marriage suggesting that the institution of marriage itself should be challenged as it supports patriarchal norms and is detrimental to all people, whether they are gay, straight or bisexual.

Searching for a spouse
The documentary is another reminder of the links between information and communication technologies and sexuality in low- and middle-income countries. Information about couples interested in a contract marriage and hook ups can be made online through QQ and other web platforms. These sites have also attracted heterosexuals looking for a contract marriage to reduce family pressure.

Getting wed
The film approaches the subject matter with a large dose of humour. In fact the documentary gently satirises and ridicules the institution of marriage itself. Usually plainly dressed women are shown in dramatic wedding dresses crooning love songs to their ‘fiancés’ in scenes that prompt giggles from the audiences. Stretch limos transport family members to huge, elaborate receptions. Displays of wealth and social networks are definitely a big part of saving face. But beneath the veneer of ‘respectability’ none of these marriages are real, and no legal marriage documents are ever signed.

That’s not to say that the couples involved don’t have a clear idea of the arrangement that they are entering into. Documents are drawn up by the marriage partners beforehand specifying that they will have no interference in each other’s finances and that they waive the right to inheritance, they agree to tell each other their whereabouts (as few couples actually live together after marriage), they discuss how they will raise potential children and where they would live, finally, there is an agreement that in the case of major illness the ‘marriage’ will be dissolved. No ‘till death us do part’ for these couples! But it is not like you can have a contract marriage with just anyone, being friends is important. One women’s potential husband asked her to have surgery to ‘fix’ her face so she would look pretty in front of his family and friends. Unsurprisingly his generous offer was rejected.

Accessing the film
To protect the identities of the lesbians in the film the documentary is not available online and it hasn’t been shown in China for the same reason. But the women involved felt strongly that they wanted their story to be told. Some feminists told them that they are cheats and liars for entering into contract marriages. That sham marriages are a compromise and that they should challenge convention by ‘coming out’. But these women wanted to document the difficult reality that they are facing. In many ways the documentary is a love story, a story of the love the women feel for their families and the lengths that they will go to in order to protect them. It deserves a wider airing. If you are interested in showing the film please contact He Xiao Pei directly on

Kate Hawkins is a member of the Sexuality and Development Programme International Advisory Group. She is the Director of Pamoja Communications and recently co-edited Women, Sexuality and the Political Power of Pleasure.

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