In 2016, when Roshni Singh was in Class 9, Reliance Jio launched an offer wherein it provided customers with free SIM cards, along with 1 gigabyte of free internet per day. Singh’s parents procured a SIM card for the family, which she would use. The easy access to the internet opened up a whole new world for the teenager from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand.

She recounted, for instance, that she began watching a show hosted by Ellen DeGeneres, an American actress and comedian, on her mobile phone. On one episode, the actress Portia de Rossi appeared on the show, and before starting the interview, shared a kiss with DeGeneres.

“I was like woah! Is this something that’s normal? I didn’t know that they were married then,” recalled Singh, who identifies as a pansexual woman.

Growing up in a traditional family, Singh would wonder why only men and women married each other – but she sensed this was not a question she could ask openly. Watching DeGeneres and de Rossi kiss encouraged her to explore her queer identity. She began to Google questions about same-sex attraction and read blogs on the subject. She would also look up quizzes with titles such as “Am I gay? Am I lesbian?”

In retrospect, though, she realised that there was little point to such quizzes. “Because, if you’re looking for such a quiz then most likely you do belong to the queer community,” she said.

Singh, who is now 22, has not yet come out to her parents. But as a result of encountering and learning about queerness on the internet, she grew to become an active member of Jamshedpur’s queer community. “If it wasn’t for the internet, I would never have become so comfortable with my sexual identity,” said Singh. “There are blogs and social media accounts which explain queerness so beautifully. Growing up, I didn’t have access to this information offline.”

Like Singh, many other young Indians who grew up after access to the internet began to spread in the mid-2000s have explored and understood their queer identity primarily through online explorations. The internet has also helped them find community in other queer friends and date queer people compatible with their sexual orientation.

The advent of mobile internet allowed Roshni Singh to learn about queer experiences and communities. Today, she identifies as a pansexual woman and is an active member of Jamshedpur’s queer community. Photo: Special arrangement

In his book Digital Queer Cultures in India, cultural industries professor Rohit Dasgupta wrote, “Queer culture in India is an intersection of online and offline practices.” The internet, he added, provided queer youth with the tools to “create and redefine their queer identities, from dating and sexual bonding to politics and activism.” He noted that the “queer internet” included a variety of sites such as “gay blogs, listservs, created specifically for queer people, social networking sites such as PlanetRomeo and more generic social networking spaces such as Facebook and Instagram.”

At the same time, queer youth on the internet also often face intense hate and abuse, with little support from their family or social circles.

In one extreme such instance, from November 2023, Pranshu Yadav, a 16-year-old makeup artist from Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, was trolled viciously after an Instagram reel in which he wore a saree went viral. Within days, Yadav’s reel attracted over 50,000 comments, many of them expressing hate towards the queer community – a week later, Yadav died by suicide. Newslaundry reported that even after Yadav’s death, people continued to write hateful comments on his posts.

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While Yadav was targeted for expressing himself as a queer person, for most queer youth, even merely finding information and like-minded people online is a far from smooth process.

As a child, Roshni Singh’s friend, Krishal Prasad, who is also from Jamshedpur, was often teased about having more girls than boys as friends. He was also mocked because he was interested in dance, rather than sports.

Prasad didn’t feel safe talking to his teachers or parents about his queer identity.

“The internet was the only source that I had to turn to,” he said. In Class 6, he began looking up information on being queer on Google and encountered the terms “bicurious” and “bisexual” – on reading more about them, he felt that they described him accurately.

Though Prasad primarily read blogs that were supportive of queer people, he recounted that he did encounter hostility on some platforms. On Quora, for instance, where users ask questions on various subjects and receive answers from others in the community, he came across users who claimed that being gay was an illness that could be cured. But Prasad would simply ignore such negative comments.

Prasad recounted that at first, all the material he found that dealt with the queer experience was created by people from the West. This left the teenager with the odd impression that he was perhaps the only queer person in India, and that the rest of the community was abroad. It was only in Class 9, after he created a Facebook account, and joined a group named LGBTQ India, which comprised queer people from across the country, that he realised that India had several vibrant queer communities.

Gradually, through Facebook and later other social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, Prasad came into contact with other queer people in Jamshedpur. While Prasad met Singh through mutual offline friends, it was online that their friendship blossomed. In 2020, together with another queer friend, they launched an Instagram page called Jamshedpur Pride to spread information and connect with the local queer community. They now work under a collective called the Jamshedpur Queer Circle, which organises community meet-ups and workshops.

Prasad believes that if it weren’t for the information and connections he accessed through the internet, he would have stayed closeted his entire life. “Some of the most homophobic people I know are the ones who were forced to get married and remain closeted,” he said. “If I didn’t have the internet I might have become someone like that.”

As a child, Krishal Prasad was mocked for having more girls than boys as friends and because he was more interested in dance than sports. Access to the internet helped ensure that he could come out of the closet. Photo: Special arrangement

Smita V, whose family is from Tamil Nadu and who grew up in Ras Al Khaimah, a small city in the United Arab Emirates, recounted that they had to use a VPN to bypass the strict censorship laws in the country. These laws mandated the blocking of sites where certain words appeared that were deemed offensive, such as “gay”.

Beginning when they were in Class 6, Smita began looking up information on queer identities and communities online – it helped that they were a computer enthusiast even then.

“A lot of the information I got was by chatting with people on online forums and chatrooms,” they said. Whereas reading about same-sex attraction initially felt “scary” to the teenaged Smita, the women they spoke to online were “very kind” in talking about their experiences, making queerness seem “safe” and “acceptable”.

Offline, however, Smita didn’t feel safe sharing their queer identity with anyone around them, until they went to undergraduate college in Chennai. There, too, at first they found the environment repressive and homophobic – only a few teachers and classmates were accepting of them. “People were openly homophobic,” said Smita. They recounted that in sexuality education class, when students asked questions about same-sex attraction, they were told that homosexuality was “dirty”, “immoral” and “against god”. Through their circles, Smita heard of two seniors who left college after their queerness was revealed to members of the administration, who harassed them about it.

But some time later, Smita saw a message from a senior on Gaysi Family, an online platform for queer south Asians. The senior had written that they were looking to connect with other queer people from the college. Smita and the senior decided to meet and attend the Chennai Pride event that year. Smita was 19 years old at the time, and this was the first time they met a queer person offline.

“I call her my older lesbian mentor,” Smita said. “The first time we met, I was barely out. She gave me a copy of the book, Because I Have a Voice, the first book I’d seen on being queer in India.”

Soon, Smita developed a community of queer friends online who would meet as often as possible and support each other through problems. Once, for instance, when Smita was going through a difficult time, an online friend from Mumbai sent them a care package.

When Smita returned to visit their parents in UAE, they went on their first date with a woman. It was the same online friend from Mumbai who advised Smita about the date. “She wanted to see what I was wearing, so I had to click photos on a camera and send them to her on email,” they recalled. The two maintained a close bond over the internet, though it was only five years later that they met in person.

The support from their online community allowed Smita to be open in a way that they were not offline. “I had no chill,” they said. “Except for saying it out loud, I did everything else to indicate that I was queer.”

But this openness led to some conflicts offline. Once, when Smita had shared a post on gay rights on their Facebook account, peers from college began challenging them about it – one even approached Smita in person. Smita recounted that most of these interactions were courteous, if unwelcome.

Once, however, a few people approached Smita’s roommate and began aggressively asking her questions, such as how she could stay in the same room or change her clothes in front of Smita.

While Smita had not come out to their roommate, she was an ally to the queer cause and so chose to ignore such homophobic taunts and questions. Smita added that their hostel rules required them to wear kurtas and maintain long hair – this allowed Smita to pass as straight, minimising such uncomfortable situations.

Smita V found the atmosphere in their Chennai college stifling. But through a post on a queer website, they met another queer person on campus and began to see her as a kind of mentor. Photo: Special arrangement

Smita explained that the internet not only helped them understand their sexuality, but their gender identity as well. The process began in 2017 when they first questioned their own gender identity as a woman – as a first step, they shaved off their hair in rejection of conventional femininity. “At that time you wouldn’t find much information in queer spaces outside of the male and female binary within homosexuality,” they said.

Queer people they spoke to offline sought to box them into binary identities – Smita recounted that older queer activists insisted they were a trans man, and that Smita should just accept it. But, they said, “I knew I wasn’t a man, so I turned online, and I found a lot of info on Tumblr.”

At first, they only found narratives of non-binary persons from Western countries who were “mostly white people or south-east Asian countries where there’s a culture of unisex appearances and clothing”. There was next to nothing about Indian non-binary people. However, from 2019 onwards Smita began seeing more conversation around the topic. Today, Smita too identifies as a non-binary person.

“Non-binary people have always existed in India, but post 2019, there’s been a lot of conversation about this,” they said. “I see more and more people sharing information about this online, especially in Indian languages and I think that’s incredible,” they said.

For some queer people, who also belong to other marginalised communities, the real-world consequences of expressing their identities online were even more harrowing.

Rabi Raj, a 30-year-old, non-binary, Dalit person, who grew up and lives in Belpara village in Odisha’s Belangir district, recounted that Facebook helped them build a community.

“When I used to talk to other people in Odisha, I’d find out they lived over hundreds of kilometres away,” they said. “So it was Facebook that played a huge role in connecting us, a space where we could share our anxieties, suffocation and loneliness.”

Rabi first came out on the internet, where they updated their Facebook status to declare that they were attracted to men. At that time, their profile was kept private and so only a small number of people learnt of this. Soon, however, word spread and a few people in the village approached Rabi to ask about their status. As more people learnt that Rabi was attracted to men, Rabi began to face increasing harassment. “If I sat down somewhere to speak with someone, people would assume I’m talking about sex,” they recalled. “When I partied with men friends, I would receive a lot of verbal abuse, people would say – these men can’t find girls so they’re making do with each other.”

But Rabi is glad they came out. “I used to feel so lonely before,” they said. “I came out for other queer people so that they could see me and gain confidence that there are others like them too.” Today, they know five other queer youth from their village – while some are out in the offline world, others only connect with them online for fear of persecution.

Rabi Raj, a non-binary, Dalit person, from Odisha, recounted that when people of their village learnt of Rabi’s sexual orientation, they began to harass them. But Rabi hopes that their coming out helps others do so too.

While Rabi has become a popular face in Odisha’s queer circles, they also feel marginalised within these spaces due to their Dalit identity. “When you’re Dalit or Adivasi, you don’t get space in UC-run spaces,” they said, referring to spaces dominated by upper castes.

Rabi recounted, for instance that, one time, some years ago, on a Whatsapp group for queer persons in Odisha, they shared a photo of two boys kissing at a pride march, holding a banner that read: Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy.

“There was an uproar,” they said. “People got very angry with me and said I was anti-Hindu and anti-Brahmin. They told me to remove the photo, but I didn’t.”

Another time, Rabi posted a photo of Dr BR Ambedkar on Ambedkar Jayanti on the same Whatsapp group. Again, they were asked to remove it. Rabi deleted the photo, but came to a realisation after this incident. “Babasaheb gave us all so much,” they said. “I realised if I can’t share his photo on a queer group then that space isn’t meant for Dalit-Adivasi people at all. We will have to make our own collectives.”

Today, Rabi is part of an online collective called Dalit Queer India, which seeks to provide representation and networking opportunities to queer Dalit persons in rural India. Amit, the collective’s founder, who is from a small village near Allahabad said, “There was a time where my mental health was bad and I was looking for support online. But everyone I approached, be it upper caste or other Dalit people, told me that they don’t work in my area. I then realised that we would have to organise ourselves.”

The collective’s Instagram account was started in June 2023 and has over 900 followers, including queer Dalit youth in Bihar, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra.

Some young queer people from marginalised communities draw strength from the founding principles of Indian democracy itself.

Twenty-year-old Soljar Aahil, a bisexual Adivasi man from Bhopal, works at a collective named Sangwari, where he conducts workshops about gender and the Indian constitution and also performs in street plays. He recounted that he was introduced into this line of work a few years ago, after a meeting with an activist from the NGO Jan Sahas, which works at the grassroots in various fields, including education, land rights and livelihood. The activist introduced Aahil to the Indian constitution, and explained how it could serve as a tool of empowerment. From that day on, Aahil began to see the document as a crucial part of his life.

His belief in the constitution even helped him overcome the pain of past experiences. While growing up, he said, he had received a lot of verbal abuse from society owing to his feminine demeanour – he was called words such as meetha, chakka, and hijra.

“But since I learnt about the constitution and its values, I don’t pay attention to these things because I have accepted who I am,” said Aahil.

In 2020, Aahil bought a mobile phone so that he could dress up and post photos of himself online. “For years, I had seen my friends from the LGBTQ community dress up, go outside and post beautiful photos of themselves online,” he said.

Some queer people who also belong to other marginalised groups draw strength from the founding principles of Indian democracy itself, and from rights that the constitution guarantees to all citizens. Photo: AFP

For Christy Nag, too, the internet has been a safe space to explore and assert their queer identity. Nag, an Adivasi trans woman from Asansol, West Bengal, recounted that as she was growing up in a small city without a visible queer culture, it was in “community-run spaces online” where queer ideas and narratives were available in “non-discriminatory and meaningful ways”.

Even now, after she has come out, the internet remains a safe space to which she can turn. She recalled how recently, when she was working out of a rural area, she felt like wearing a saree – but she knew it would not be safe for her to do so publicly where she was. So, instead, she shared a photo of herself in a saree on her Instagram account. “As a queer person, expressing myself online helps me survive,” she said. “At times it is the only outlet for self-expression.”

Though many queer youth across the country have found support on the internet, even today, they have to navigate many risks that come with being online.

A 2023 report that analysed risks that LGBTQ Americans faced online noted that a large percentage of the queer community perceived that such dangers existed. The report, by the American not-profit GLAAD, which works on queer media advocacy, found that 84% of LGBTQ adults felt that there were inadequate protections online to prevent “discrimination, harassment and disinformation” against the queer community.

The accounts of Indian queer people indicate that they, too, face similar problems.

When they were in their twenties, Smita spent a fair amount of time on dating apps, such as OkCupid and Mingle. While they were there to meet queer women, more often than not they would end up encountering men impersonating women. “Six out of 10 women on Mingle would actually turn out to be men,” they said.

Some, after a few days of chatting would admit they were men, after which Smita would block them. “Others would get obsessive,” they said, recalling how one time a man used slurs on them and threatened to find them in Chennai. “Thankfully at that time I was using an alternative email account so they couldn’t do anything after I blocked them,” said Smita.

While in retrospect, Smita recognised that this was “predatory behaviour”, at the time, they recalled, it was very common on Mingle. In fact, they would often discuss strategies online with women to protect themselves from such behaviour – for instance, if Smita set up a video call with someone, they would ensure to wait for the other person to turn on the camera first, before turning on their own.

Prasad and a few others noted that in some instances, closeted queer men would target younger queer youth with threatening behaviour. He himself faced such behaviour a few years ago, when he received messages from his older, married neighbour asking to meet him. “He texted me saying, I’ve seen you, I know where you live, where your mom and dad work. You are very cute and I want to meet,” he said.

Prasad was terrified by the message since the man knew so much about him and his family. “I wondered what would happen if I said no, or if I went and met him,” he said. Prasad decided to not acquiesce to his neighbour’s demands and instead told him that he knew his wife and would take the matter up with her if the man texted him again. To his relief, the man didn’t respond.

When Prasad first set up his social media accounts, he set the status of all of them private. But later, he decided to make his profiles public so that he could use them for his activism. He soon found that strangers from the internet would occasionally leave negative comments under his photos. “If I expressed a religious or political opinion on a post somewhere, people would come to my personal account and comment there to trigger me,” he said. He recounted that they would leave comments such as – “Be a man, are you a girl, this is Western propaganda, you are mentally ill.”

Initially, Prasad would respond to the comments, offering facts to dispel misinformed slurs. “But later, I realised if these people wanted to learn, they would have learnt way before,” he said. “So I decided not to waste my energy on them, and stopped reacting to such things.”

Every queer youth I interviewed spoke of facing or knowing someone who had faced online abuse from strangers as a result of their queer identity. They also spoke of the lack of support they received from online platforms. Yes We Exist India, an Instagram account for the queer community noted in a post, “As Indian queer persons, most of us have experienced Instagram’s failure to remove homophobic content, despite reporting it to Instagram.”

Smita, who works as a project coordinator at the Association for Progressive Communications, said that “legal change needs to happen on a structural level” to ensure that social media evolves into a safer space for queer youth. They noted that users were not held accountable, even in instances in which, they argued, commenters should have been charged under abetment of suicide. “Why did so many hate comments go on Pranshu’s account?” they said. “It’s because a bunch of people commented and the algorithm decided there’s a lot of comments on this, so let’s push it to more people.”

They argued that in some ways, social media platforms were designed to reward hateful behaviour, and that minority groups suffered disproportionately as a result. “Photos of breasts are immediately deleted, but why aren’t violent and hateful comments like the ones Pranshu faced?” they said. “These platforms are not designed for safety, they are designed to be monetised. We need to push for a change, not just in policy but also design.”

One of Yes We Exist India’s pinned posts on Instagram is a guide for queer digital creators to ensure safety online. It asks creators to reflect on whether in their online activity, they want to focus on building their social media reach and follower count, or nurture safe spaces for their communities and ensure their own peace of mind.

Smita said that it was important for queer people to learn to prioritise their wellbeing over their politics. “There needs to be a conversation on how it’s okay to turn off comments,” they said. “It doesn’t make you less of an activist to exit the conversation. Sometimes you need to stay alive, to be able to fight tomorrow.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.