KOCHI: Some days ago, a 16-year-old queer teenager, Priyanshu Yadav aka Pranshu, died by suicide in Madhya Pradesh. A self-taught make-up artist, they (gender-neutral pronoun) had an Instagram channel filled with make-up-related content. Their dream was to be a famous make-up artist like popular American YouTuber James Charles. That dream, however, was snuffed out. After Pranshu posted a video of them wearing a sari for Diwali, the Class 10 students faced a barrage of cyberbullying.
There were over 4,000 hate comments under the viral post. Pranshu was ridiculed, abused and threatened. A week later, the youngster gave up on life. Though it hasn’t been established that it was cyber harassment that led to his suicide, the sheer volume of homophobic abuse he faced was cruel. Posts on Pranshu’s death, too, have been seeing queerphobic vitriol. And that includes nasty comments from Malayalis as well. What Pranshu faced – and continues to face – was not an isolated social media aberration.
Despite all the talk of being progressive, Kerala is no better. Cyberbullying against queer people in the state is at an all-time high following the recent Pride march in Malappuram, according to members of the LGBTQ+ community. So much so that a section of queer people held a demonstration in front of the state Secretariat last week to draw attention to the mounting online violence in Kerala.
Subsequently, representatives of the community met Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and handed over a plea seeking government intervention to curb cyber attacks on them. Incidentally, actor Mammootty, too, has been targeted by cyberbullies after the release of the film Kaathal, which deals with homosexuality.
‘Just want to end our existence’
Queer poet Adarsh E aka Aadhi says the severity of the issue is rising. “Numerous anonymous accounts descend on one’s posts and direct messages with abuses. They question one’s identity and existence, and shower abuse. They even abuse our parents and family,” he says.“Earlier, religious dogmas and cultural norms were used to isolate queer people. Following the pattern of rising transphobia in the West, trolls use language that sounds scientific to assert that homosexuality, transgender and non-binary identities are wrong, unscientific… a disease.”
Aadhi rues that none of these abusers are willing to have a conversation or try to understand queer people. “They just want to end our existence, wipe us off,” he says. “They don’t care about what queer people go through or the rising suicides among LGBTQ+ youth. It appears they would love to see queer people suffer.”Syama S Prabha, secretary of the NGO Queerythm, echoes similar sentiments. She notes that the “fake profiles come in packs to attack”.
“It seems as if they are constantly on the prowl, eager to gang up and pounce on queer people,” she adds. Syama also notes that the nature of attacks has changed as there is higher visibility of LGBTQ+ people in society. It’s not sporadic abuse anymore; the attacks appear more organised and sound sophisticated now, she adds.“At the time when I came out, it was common to hear comments such as ‘This is unnatural, against God’ and ‘You will go to hell’ along with name-calling,” she says. “Now, they attack us saying ‘trans/gay people spread HIV, STDs’, etc. Then, of course, there are death threats.”
Even as she exhorts queer people to stay strong and ignore faceless attacks, Syama stresses on the need for strong laws and enforcement measures to safeguard online spaces.
Notably, some online groups such as Yes Kerala have been spreading homophobia and transphobia. Yes Kerala, apparently, was on the forefront in opposing the Pride march in Malappuram. Many like Mohammed Unais, a queer youth from Kollam, have deactivated their social media profiles due to online abuse. Yet they are pursued and harassed, he says.
“The Kerala Pride WhatsApp group was infiltrated. This was during the preparation for the march in Malappuram. Voice notes from the group were leaked and used by cyber bullies,” Mohammed adds. “This scared the queer youngsters who were not yet out to their families.”He notes that the recent Pride event in Bengaluru (November 26) had more Malayali queer people than the one in Kerala.“Here, there is constant scrutiny and fear,” he says.
Even allies of the LGBTQ+ community are not spared. For instance, Malavika Binny, head of the history department at Kannur University, has come under the attack of cyberbullies for speaking out on gender and queer issues. Malavika says trolls have created at least five fake profiles using her name, and one of them promotes paedophilia. She has now filed a case.“Usernames of some cyber goons – ‘Meninist’, ‘Techhero’, etc. – hint that they are worried about their fragile masculinity,” she says.“For them, anything feminine is inferior. They attack gay people for betraying their idea of masculinity. And they believe they are protecting society and culture.”Malavika brushes aside the attacks she faces. “It is not even close to what queer people face every day,” she says.
“Abusers allege that LGBTQ+ people will groom children, and confuse them about their gender and sexuality. Queer people and allies are labelled as paedophiles. Such messages can easily influence society.”
A shocking example is the case of Padma Lakshmi, the first transgender lawyer in Kerala. She has been facing attacks online and at her workplace – the High Court! “Many of my colleagues, including court officials, don’t even consider me a human,” she says.
“Some openly say they are scared of me. From a public prosecutor who used a slur during court procedure and seniors who use discriminating language to sexually-tinted suggestive words, my legal career has so far been filled with thorns.”Padma stresses that the surge in hate towards queer people indicates that existing laws and deterrence have been ineffective. “Abusers commit offences with a sense of arrogance that they would go scot-free,” she says.“Without strong anti-discriminatory legislation and cyber laws – and stringent enforcement – the situation will not change.”
Can online abusers be booked?
A call to the Ernakulam Rural Cyber Police Station to enquire about the procedures involved in cyber-harassment cases was received with genuine concern. The officer, who attended the call, mistook this reporter to be a victim, and was at his courteous best, forthcoming to help. Later, the call was transferred to Inspector M B Latheef, who patiently explained the system. “There are various types of cybercrime – cyberbullying, impersonation, hacking and defamation, etc. They fall under different sections of the IT ACT, 2000,” he says. “Once the crime is proven, the maximum punishment is imprisonment for three years. For defamation, one has to directly approach the court.”On cyber harassment by trolls, Latheef says, if a complaint is filed, officers can track the abusive profiles and charge the people behind them. “To remove fake/anonymous accounts, we have to first alert the social platforms. Only they can remove profiles,”he adds.