In BLACKOUT, a series made possible by Jigsaw, VICE News takes viewers across the globe, from Pakistan to Belarus, to examine technology's role in the ongoing fight for free expression.
(The author of this story asked that his name not be used to protect his safety.)
Three years ago, shortly before the holy month of Ramadan began, I launched a website for QueerPK. Short for Queer Pakistan, the organization is an LGBTQIA media and advocacy group in a country in which homosexuality is technically illegal. The site took off like wildfire.
One of our very first posts was entitled "Have a Queer Ramadan This Year," and it attracted a lot of trolls. We were called "Jewish agents" and an "abomination," and were accused of being the cause of earthquakes.
I was aware of and knew people from the educated elite class in Pakistan who were relatively accepting of LGBTQIA people. But being a gay man from a lower-middle class background, I also knew firsthand the serious risks many people faced. So I started QueerPK to raise LGBTQIA visibility, foster a community, teach both physical and sexual safety — one of our first campaigns promoted the use of condoms — and engage the media.
Having worked in the media, I knew it could help people come to terms with their sexuality by letting them know they are not alone. Though we couldn't produce our own videos, we were able to take videos produced elsewhere and translate them. I collaborated with producers from around the world, subtitled their videos in Urdu, and released them on our platform. Soon we had producers contacting us and waving copyrights, allowing us to reproduce videos as we saw fit for a local audience.
Watch VICE News' Blackout: Pakistan, about the plight of that country's LGBTQ community.
But in the meantime, the backlash continued — and it worsened as we started to post more often. Our slogan was "Don't hate us, know us." This clearly was not taken to heart by everyone.
In comments and private messages, people started calling for "death for whoever is behind the project." A friend of mine even told me I had gone too far, saying that while he could accept my "lewd" lifestyle, he objected to the way I was "corrupting" people.
I got a phone call from someone who said, "We're watching you," and that I should quit my "online activities." His number was blocked, and when I called the cellular company to request the number, I was told that I would need to go to the police first. But for me, that, of course, was impossible.
By September of 2013, I was admittedly panicked. Some concerned activist friends were suggesting I shut down the project and run it from outside Pakistan; I ultimately decided to do neither. That month, however, the site became inaccessible, and a message from the federal government's Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) stated that QueerPK was "not safe" to be viewed in the country.
I contacted international media outlets to inform them of the ban, and stories ran in several places, including the BBC and CNN. AFP interviewed the spokesperson of the PTA, who said the website was "against Islam."
I transferred the site to a new domain, and announced it on social media platforms and mailing lists. However, the government soon banned this site as well. Since the project was self-financed and had only volunteers on whom to rely, I couldn't keep up with the game of online hide-and-seek. By early 2014, the project was dead.
I have been attempting a third re-launch, but I am not optimistic about the future. I would still be battling the government if this was a fair fight, but when you're accused of doing something "anti-Islam" and "anti-Pakistan," the government essentially has license to deal with you as it deems fit. I now sometimes ask God why he made me gay in a society like Pakistan.
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