Why Are Our Online Spaces Still Failing To Protect Indian Queer Communities?

To honour Pranshu's legacy, we have to ensure that we create a climate that nurtures and loves, rather than resorting to hate and denigration towards individuals who are doing nothing but expressing their art and their inner selves.
To honour Pranshu's legacy, we have to ensure that we create a climate that nurtures and loves, rather than resorting to hate and denigration towards individuals who are doing nothing but expressing their art and their inner selves. Pranshu

In the paradoxical landscape of the internet, where connectivity should foster understanding, a disheartening reality unfolds. A virtual world that often brings people together, has also become a breeding ground for the worst facets of humanity. Behind the safety of screens, individuals engage in behaviours online that, if replicated in real life, would incur immediate consequences. The shared digital space, laden with anonymity and detachment, empowers bullies and renders the vulnerable even more susceptible to harm. Bullying, once confined to physical realms, is now intricately interwoven into the narrative of online trends and meme culture, perpetuating a toxic cycle of cruelty that thrives in the shadows of the digital realm.

The recent death of Priyanshu Yadav, popularly known as Pranshu, a queer, 16-year-old aspiring social media influencer and 10th-grade student from Ujjain, illustrates an already prevalent epidemic of cyberbullying. Living with his single mother, Preeti, Pranshu faced derogatory comments and homophobic slurs on social media as he expressed himself through videos featuring saris and makeup. Despite showcasing his talent as a makeup artist and content creator with over 15,000 Instagram followers, the barrage of negativity became overwhelming. The young teenager, with aspirations of influencing through his online presence, chose to end his life by hanging himself. Pranshu's final Instagram post, dated November 12, featuring him in a red saree, became a focal point for homophobic comments and online abuse, highlighting the severity of cyberbullying's impact on vulnerable individuals.

We tend to associate homophobia with older generations in India, but the truth is that children as young as 10 and 11 are actively participating in online spaces, leaving violently hateful comments about individuals embracing their queer identities. In contrast to heartening stories of individuals evolving towards understanding and acceptance of the queer community, the current wave of online vitriol transcends the label of homophobia; it is undeniably blatant hate. The narrative has shifted from a fear or ignorance of what one doesn't understand to a glaring rejection of it.

Another question also arises — who is enabling such hate? TikTok is banned in India but users from other countries unanimously agree that the Instagram comment section is possibly the filthiest place on the internet. So much so that as an obsessive user myself I deliberately avoid opening the comments on posts that may trigger me because I can anticipate how stomach-turning the hate can get there. And despite what Meta claims about their "community standards" and removing ".... hate speech, harassment, threats of violence and other content that has the potential to silence others or cause harm", it does absolutely nothing to restrict the harrasment of queer communities.

In fact, the algorithm often makes sure that such posts reach the very same audience that carries out acts of hate. The absolute motherload of content that is Instagram, it's obvious that not every reel or post will elicit the same amount of positivity from a user no matter how much it is about their niche interests. And since attention is the currency the app operates on, the algorithm prioritizes engagement over anything. It's fair to say that hate is a far stronger form of engagement than love. Commenting on a post that makes us angry or upset happens more mechanically than appreciating something. If you're a feminist, you'll tend to speak up against misogynistic narratives more than someone who care less about the issue and hence you're more likely to come across such content since you're engaging with it.

Similarly content by queer people usually attracts all kinds of homophobes online since they tend to unfailingly show their hate in the comments, driving up the engagement and keeping months-old reels alive through debates in the comments with the allies. You'd think there'd be overwhelming support and sympathy for a 16-year-old ending his life but Pranshu's last post from November 12 has comments from people celebrating his death; some as fresh as a few minutes ago, with no action from the Instagram team managing their "community standards". At what point can we hold these platforms accountable for their hypocrisy; for hopping on the pride train every June with their rainbow-coloured filters but failing to protect the community when needed?

As far as the scum that polluted Pranshu's posts with consistent hate going back years, who pave over a sincere conversation about mental health and accountability with more "jokes", where do they think all this leads to? Since when does being heartless become the new cool? Dark humour was always an avenue for the oppressed to alchemize their pain and take back power that was stolen from them by their oppressors. This was until the new generation of bigots started subscribing to twisted notions of a subversive narrative that glamorized hate, painting it as rebellion and anti-establishment. These people base their hate in an attempt to be 'against the grain' which is inclusivity in the current times. But it's only counterculture when it opposes mainstream society. How is hating the queer community and feminine expression 'different' or 'edgy' or 'alternative' when they're the ones still struggling to find their footing in a heternormative culture?

Pranshu was passionate about make-up and beauty that he taught himself through YouTube. Despite academic pressures, he built an online community based purely off his skills and vision. He had the courage to nurture his craft; one that can be so easily frowned upon in a tier-2 city, and share it with the world, simultaneously building a space for feminine and queer expression, unlike the trolls with low-self-esteem who hide behind private accounts. Damini, the founder of Moon Manicures, shares how passionate Pranshu was about his craft, actively reaching out and collaborating on content as well as designing innovative looks based on her products. Remarkably, even amid the demands of 10th-grade exams, Pranshu exhibited a work ethic far beyond his years, setting deadlines and managing expectations with an integrity that transcended his age. Described as an absolute sweetheart by those who know him, Pranshu leaves behind a legacy of resilience, creativity, and the profound impact of a light extinguished too soon.

To honour Pranshu's legacy, we have to ensure that we create a climate that nurtures and loves, rather than resorting to hate and denigration towards individuals who are doing nothing but expressing their art and their inner selves. As idealistic as it might sound in a world that's cynical and jaded, we have to make sure that no one else endures the bullying that Pranshu did. We have to do better, both for Pranshu and everyone else who's ever been made to feel less because of hate or intolerance.

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