Written by Jo Maenzanise (they/them)
Image by Shingi Rice
Coming out to my family — or as Niecy Nash put it, coming into myself — and deciding to navigate society as an openly queer person set me on the path to create an identity that isn’t constrained by cisheteronormative patriarchy. The choice to determine how I wanted to present myself to the world was ultimately mine to make.
Anyone who pays close attention to my posts on Twitter posts knows that they range from intellectually stimulating and politically conscious to just downright raunchy. I’m loud. And yes, I’m a bit wild. But I wasn’t always this vocal maverick.
As I built my network of Facebook friends several years ago, I sought to connect with people who knew about dismantling white supremacy; feminism and intersectionality; deconstructing gender and so on. I too wanted to learn about these concepts. I wanted to be part of an online community that would make me feel safe as a queer person. Even though I wasn’t openly queer at that time, I still wanted the comfort of seeing people who looked like me. I wanted the fabulously constant reminder that there was nothing wrong with queerness and everything wrong with a society that failed to embrace the diversity of humans.
Soon, I was connecting with several feminists and LGBT+ people who would play a key role in my own journey of owning and disowning, of becoming and unbecoming. Along that journey, I’d also sadly learn that some feminists were/are queerphobic and some LGBT+ individuals weren’t/aren’t feminist. It was clear that sharing a marginalised identity isn’t tantamount to sharing the same politics. Still, I witnessed the carefree manner in which my acquaintances shared parts of themselves with the online community. Some were sex workers. Some loved sex and valued their sexual pleasure. Some embraced being queer. These feminists shared perspectives and experiences on issues including living with HIV, African spirituality, reproductive rights, queerness, sexuality and asexuality and mental illnesses. They were unashamed. That was their superpower.
I found my own voice and began to use my platforms to share my opinions and experiences on issues that had been so stigmatised that many of us were uncomfortable talking about them. Along with my connections, I was queering — going against — society’s rules.
It’s true that our very existence as LGBT+ folks is an act of queering. However, anyone — regardless of their gender or sexual orientation — can queer societal expectations. The women reclaiming power over their bodies or sexuality and even openly expressing their desires are queering conventions that served to strip them of their bodily autonomy and reduce them to objects of male gratification. In fact, anyone embracing and presenting themselves in a particular way that can be seen by most as defying society’s rules queers those rules.
The beauty of queering societal expectations is that we can devise our own ways of relating to ourselves and each other. We are able to give more empowering and less denigrating meaning to our behaviours or languages. On the other hand, queering sets us up for “punishment” by those who take offense when we not only choose to live our lives on our own terms but are vocal about this and even advocate for the right of others to do so.
It’s no surprise then that those of us choosing to disregard society’s “code of conduct” are often targets of harassment from individuals who benefit from those rules or have accepted them as a static part of life. We experience ostracism and are often denied access to certain spaces. We are passed up for job opportunities. We are violated in many ways, or even killed. Those of us using our online platforms to express ourselves to the world in a manner that ruffles so many feathers open ourselves up to violation.
The violence we endure or risk enduring is rooted in and seeks to perpetuate the unequal power dynamics existing among the different genders. Women and LGBT+ individuals are often targets of this gender-based violence. Reclaiming power by resisting society’s laws is often seen as grounds to punish the targeted groups. With widespread access to the internet, this violence has only become prevalent online.
The Association for Progressive Communication (APC) defines gender-based violence occurring online as “acts of violence committed, abetted, or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as mobile phones, social media platforms, and email.”
In an interview with UN Women, Cecilia M. Maundu, a Kenya-based journalist and specialist in gender digital safety, said that online violence includes bullying, trolling, cyberstalking, defamation and hate speech, public shaming, and identity theft and hacking. Online violence, much like offline violence, is often perpetrated by men who, while they can also face the repercussions of defying gendered expectations, are the beneficiaries of systems and beliefs that many of us are standing up against.
Jordan, an openly transsexual Zimbabwean woman, uses her online platforms to speak up on various socio-political injustices including the marginalisation of Zimbabwe’s LGBT community. As a result, she draws attention from overt transphobes and those who fetishise our bodies. Jordan regularly receives sexually charged messages which quickly descend into threats of rape or physical violence when she doesn’t entertain those men who simply want to use transgender folks to fulfil their sexual desires.
“These online engagements make me feel unsafe both offline and online.”
Many of us have had to devise ways to deal with online violence and reduce the harm inflicted upon us. Jordan says she doesn’t engage with anyone she feels may have ulterior motives. Having had offline experiences where suspicious strangers were following her, Jordan also ensures she never publicises her location in case some people might track her down. Some people decide not to engage in online conversations that might expose them to online gender-based violence (OGBV).
Grace, a 21-year-old queer South African woman, says sharing the same space with violent men sees her avoid posting or engaging with content that draws their attention as it often shakes the patriarchal foundation upon which their manhood is built. While her Twitter account is public, there are some who have had to privatise theirs in a bid to limit access to their opinions.
Then there are those who decide to permanently leave the online space. Cecilia, whose work as a journalist is mainly centred on improving the internet experiences of groups that are vulnerable to OGBV, believes this self-censorship is what the abusers want. She also adds that when we are forced to muzzle our voices, our fundamental right to freedom of information or expression is under attack.
I’m aware of all these risks that come attached to having a voice on the internet. Just like I’m aware of the risks of being visibly queer in a world that hates people who look like me and punishes us for loudly and proudly existing. I’ve lost connections and work opportunities. I’ve had my posts shared with family which has only further strained some relationships. While I’ve had to restrict access to my Facebook account which I’m no longer active on, I have resolved not to control who can access my Twitter account. I’ve had enough! My decision not to restrict who views my publicised posts is an act of rebellion against unrelenting enablers of systems that dictate or confine our actions. Does this mean I don’t take any measures to protect myself from OGBV? No! Does this mean I don’t value my health? Far from it!
I value my mental health and online safety. This is why I’m not afraid to use the block button or report those individuals who have egos so fragile they feel personally attacked when we take back power over our identities. Also, and I know I’m not the only one swearing by this rule, I rarely check comments to my posts. And thanks to Twitter’s new-ish feature, I can now turn off the comments section or choose who can comment so conveniently conservative queerphobes don’t bother me with their often uninformed and never solicited opinions. Refusing to engage in emotionally taxing debates with people who are often vested in misunderstanding me has not only saved me time, but it has also helped me manage my anxiety levels. My experience on the net is much healthier.
Despite OGBV, I still value the contributions my unorthodox posts make in shifting the narrative surrounding various aspects of our lives. And seeing more people create or engage with online content that shakes the foundations of suppressive systems emboldens me. If more of us can raise our metaphorical middle fingers to cisheteronormative patriarchy, that system is bound to become less powerful.
Written by Jo Maenzanise (they/them)
Jo is a queer non-binary writer with a keen interest in mental health; sexual health; LGBT rights and experiences. Their words have found a home on various publications like HOLAA, Adventures From, This Is Africa, Daily Vox, No Strings NG, Pink News, Wear Your Voice Mag and Black Youth Project. Check out their Twitter profile and take a peek into their wild mind.
Illustration by Rendani Nemakhavhani