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Saturday, 8 May 2010

Blogging behind closed doors

Source: The Guide

By Michael K Lavers

Khalid knows how frightening it can be to live in a country where being gay is taboo.

In 2007, Khalid agreed to appear on the inaugural cover of MK, the first gay magazine in Jordan. But the shirtless photo of the young man caused a stir after the tabloids caught wind of it. The outcry was so fierce the magazine never published.

"I was still in school at the time," Khalid told Guide magazine from his home in Amman, the capital of Jordan. "People were talking about it in my school, and they didn't know it was me at the time. It was very scary because there was no one in the whole Arab world " the Middle East " who was out in the media."

Although Khalid says he never felt his life was in danger, he did face blackmail attempts from those who threatened to out him to his parents. He hid out in neighboring Lebanon until the scandal had passed.

"It's very simple as I'm talking about it, but at the time it was very big because no other media was talking about homosexuality," Khalid said. "But now, everyone in Jordan is talking about it. That's a big step in two years."

The 21-year-old model eventually returned to Jordan, where he launched the monthly webzine My Kali to give Arab gays "a better image to look up to."

"Most of the people here look to English, European and American publications," Khalid said. "Those images don't really apply here. I just wanted to give people a different image to which [they] can relate."

Khalid, who asked that his last name not be used, is one of a growing number of gays around the world who have launched online publications. Their sites serve as virtual community centers and are an increasingly important source of news and information for gays in their own countries and others around the world.

But this online activism is often dangerous, which is why most of the bloggers quoted in this article asked that their full names not be used. Some countries in which gay bloggers work ban homosexuality. Laws designed to curb homosexual activity often carry steep prison sentences --and sometimes the death penalty. Homophobic attitudes can prove equally harmful.



GuG began to blog nearly three years ago. He wanted to document what it was like to live in Uganda, a country where gays are vilified. He lives in the capital, Kampala, which he described as "the best place to hide, where the population is densest."

GayUganda, with commentary about the country's leading political and religious figures, has emerged as an important source of information about gay life in Uganda. GuG has posted dozens of items about proposed legislation in his country that would impose the death penalty for homosexuality.

The BBC's call-in television show World Have Your Say invited GuG to appear as a guest in early January to discuss the situation for gay men and lesbians in Uganda. He has also spoken with other journalists around the world, but he lamented that he cannot devote all of his time to fighting the measure. "The problem is at the moment that I have to concentrate back on bread and butter issues," said GuG.

"VISIBILITY HELPS"

In the Philippines, a piece of legislation affecting gays is a prominent topic on a blog called Bakla Ako, May Reklamo? (which translates roughly as "I'm gay, got a problem with that?") The proposed law would ban anti-gay discrimination.

AJ Matela began to blog in 2007 as a way of expressing himself. His site includes lighthearted topics ranging from discussions of gay social networking sites to videos of beauty pageants to "basically anything under the pink sun." Matela told Guide magazine that his blog continues to morph into something bigger than he originally imagined.

"Since many Filipinos are using the internet nowadays, increased visibility online helps a lot," said Matela.

The internet has become an increasingly popular place for gays to not only connect with each other, but to learn about gay-specific news, as well as government-sanctioned raids, arrests and other actions.

Mario Martinez launched his blog, Diario de un Gay Guanaco (Diary of a Gay Salvadoran), in 2007 as a way to speak out against the media's coverage of gay issues in El Salvador. He introduces himself to his readers as a journalist who is "tired of our society's hypocrisy."

In a recent post titled "It's not so bad to be a faggot if you are a priest," Martinez discusses the sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in El Salvador and the rest of the world.

"These are my experiences as a homosexual in this third-world and machismo country," Martinez explains.

Some Salvadorans have criticized his website, but Martinez says he has never felt threatened. Other gay bloggers around the world have faced far more serious threats.

Death threats forced Predrag M Azdejkovic, a gay blogger in Serbia, to delete some of his online postings. Azdejkovic, who is also the president of a gay community center in Belgrade, said he has received threatening emails from a neo-Nazi group.

He said some of his countrymen are uncomfortable with the fact he blogs for a national media outlet, but his posts are popular among young Serbs.

"Others have a problem that a gay person has a space on the national network to write," he said.

Censorship is another issue many bloggers confront.

Ricky secretly updates Gay Boy Weekly from his home in Kuwait City. His most recent posting celebrates his blog's anniversary with a picture of fireworks. Ricky routinely posts items about gay-specific news throughout the Persian Gulf, but his main challenge is remaining one step ahead of government censors.

"I'm happy that my blog is not yet blocked," he joked. "What makes me worried is that the government can say that writing about gay rights is against the law."

Mazaj, who has written Mood for Gay Syria for four years, posts information about gay-friendly coffee shops, hammams (traditional steam baths), cruising areas and hotels in Damascus, Aleppo and other Syrian cities. He said he has not faced the same difficulties that Ricky confronts in Kuwait.

"The Syrian government is a secular government," Mazaj said. "I know for sure that they know about all the places gay people go to. They don't care unless people start to demand a change in laws or ask for rights. Then it might be dangerous, but so far there have been no major troubles with the government here about the blog."

Gay bloggers can face violence from their fellow countrymen. Cuppatea maintains A Colourful Life of a Gay Kenyan from his home in Nairobi. He blogs about daily life for gay Kenyans. Cuppatea says he identifies people in his blogs by their initials or pseudonyms to protect them from being outed to their families, friends and employers.

In 2007, these fears became a reality after an anti-gay group tried to out people by posing as gay men on Facebook. The Kenyan authorities eventually stepped in, but not before the group outed three of Cuppatea's acquaintances. "Some straight people tried to shut me down, but I stressed freedom of speech on the internet," he said.

SHAPING THE CONVERSATION

Even though statistics indicate roughly a quarter of the world's total population already accesses the Web, the internet continues to gain traction as more people, especially in the developing world, continue to log on. Internet World Stats reports 74 percent of North Americans and 52 percent of Europeans have regular access to the internet, compared to 28.3 percent of Middle Easterners, 19.4 percent of Asians and 6.8 percent of Africans.

Most gay bloggers who spoke to Guide magazine said they hope their blogs play an important role in shaping the conversation about gay issues in their countries.

"I would like to think that my blog, among other gay blogs in Kenya, has people see that we exist, we are there and we walk amongst them living our lives as they would theirs," Cuppatea said. Matela agreed.

"I would like to believe that my blog helps shape the perception about homosexuality in Philippine society," he said.

Khalid remains hopeful My Kali will continue to challenge homophobic attitudes in Jordan and throughout the Middle East.

"People are easily influenced; you give them something, they read it and they admire it," he said. "I'm trying to change the very close-minded people here and the perspective of what homosexuality is. And I am trying to break that stereotypical image."

As for Ricky, he describes himself as "one small voice from the Gulf area." But he notes that he received notes from concerned readers after he stopped blogging for a couple of months.

"I didn't think that people would read what I wrote, but I discovered that there are huge numbers of people who like what I write," Ricky said. "I feel so good that they can actually hear my voice."


Michael K Lavers is the national news editor for the EDGE Media Network and managing editor of the Fire Island News. His work has appeared in The Advocate, the Village Voice and many gay and mainstream publications.

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