"I Was Out in Real Life, But Not Online"

For writer Vanshika Dhawan, owning her sexuality in real life was easy. But typing the words, "I'm bisexual" on social media? Not so much

A desktop computer with a photo of a young brown woman wearing an off-the-shoulder top and smiling

(Photo: Vanshika Dhawan; photo illustration: Joel Louzado)

In Punjabi culture, there is a common phrase, log kya kahenge, that means, “What will people say?” The “people” it specifically refers to are those whose opinions and values we respect—and the phrase is drenched in fear of how our reputations might diminish in their eyes.

I realized I was bisexual when I was 13. It took a few years before I was willing to say the words out loud, but when I did, I was fortunate enough to be met with acceptance from close friends and family and indifference from acquaintances. And yet, when I type out the word “queer” in a tweet or “bisexual” in an Instagram post, a voice in my head whispers, “Are you sure you want to do that? Put that out in the world? Log kya kahenge?” I hesitate. Up until a few months ago, I would have deleted the word and changed the text.

“Being out on social media meant anyone could see it—including my extended family”

In defiance of log kya kahenge, my parents never judged me for who I love, and raised me not to care for what “people would say.” But I did anyway. Up until 2018, homosexuality was a crime in India, where we immigrated from, and where much of my extended family still lives. I wondered what those relatives would say about me behind closed doors if they knew—and what they would say about my parents and how they had raised me. I convinced myself that the reason I remained quiet about queer issues online was that I did not want my queer identity to be the first thing people knew about me. But really, being out on social media meant anyone could see it, including my extended family and parents’ friends. And it mattered to me. I wish it didn’t, but it mattered.

To be fair, I had reason to worry. I once had a conversation with a family friend about where I lived in Toronto. When I mentioned Church Street (as in, Church-Wellesley, the nexus of the city’s Gay Village), he made a face, mockingly saying, “Church? That’s where the gays live, don’t they?” His tone was not friendly. I remember wanting to tell him that I was queer. But then I wondered what he would say to his family if I came out to him. I wondered if he’d like me less, if he’d treat my parents differently.

It is unfortunate that bigoted folks are the ones who have no queer friends—they create environments where it’s unsafe for queer folks to be open about their identities, which only validates the erroneous idea that very few folks are actually queer. It is a vicious feedback loop that needs to be broken by someone, and I so desperately wanted to be that someone with my family friend.

Instead, I kept my mouth shut and smiled.

*Not* posting about queer issues online is a type of privilege

It took me longer than I would like to admit to realize that choosing whether or not to be out, whether online or in real life, puts me at an advantage. Living in Canada, in an urban centre like Toronto, and having progressive parents—I am so unbelievably lucky that I am not persecuted for who I love.

I now know that it is a privilege to choose when, how or even if I’ll disclose my sexuality when so many folks don’t have the same choice. So many queer youth worry about being kicked out of their homes if their parents find out about their sexuality; others are harassed and assaulted simply for existing in public with their same-sex partners. I’ve never had to worry about these specific consequences. Later, I told the story to my close friends, laughing away the discomfort and joking about how he might have reacted had I responded, “I’m actually bisexual.” My friends had created a safe space for me, and that was an example of my privilege, too.

For the most part, I have always felt free—and safe—to express who I am in person. Being out on social media would have been uncomfortable, but I had the capacity, thanks to my professional and personal support system, to take on that discomfort. So I did. I started identifying online as queer and bisexual. I am more vocal now; I speak out against the attacks on our community, talk about my experiences as a queer racialized woman in Toronto and make “bisexual” puns in Instagram captions.

Being out online is like coming out over and over again

Just because I haven’t personally experienced homophobia doesn’t mean we don’t deal with it here in Toronto. In fact, recent attacks on our community (and the heartwarming response from the queer community) are what made me realize that there is still so much work that needs to be done, and that I am so capable of being a part of it.

And being out online is a big part of that. Every time I refer to my sexuality on social media, I feel the rush of coming out all over again. Because coming out is not a one-time event. It is something that happens every time we choose to tell someone that we are queer, and there is always a risk involved—for some that is silent judgement while for others, it’s violence.

But I am not be under threat of violence, and I have started to see it as my responsibility to be out and proud for my queer peers who cannot be. It isn’t easy. It scares me every single time. That inner voice has not stopped asking me if I am sure I want to share my identity. I worry about internet trolls, and about what my aunts and uncles might say about me, or how it might change how they think of me. But acknowledging just how lucky I actually am to be living the life I am living, with the support of my parents, friends and the queer community in Toronto, makes ignoring that voice—and dealing with the ramifications—a little easier.

I can ignore that voice. I am capable of handling the potential repercussions. So many people cannot, for so many reasons. So I’ll do it for them. 


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