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June 2016

#QueerSelfLove, Intersectional Harassment, and Resilience

Content warning: This post contains a discussion of multiple types of bigoted harassment that I experienced, and provides examples of threats of violence. This section is preceded with a trigger warning and its end is also marked. Please exercise self care and skip this section if you need to.

This month’s Carnival of Aces topic of resiliency proved to be unexpectedly timely. I already knew that Ramadan would be grueling - it runs from June 6 to July 5 this year and so covers the longest days of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. Where I live, a dawn to sunset fast at the summer solstice is 18 hours long. Add to that long night prayers (tarawih) every night, and I spend most of the month in a state of sleep deprivation and profound exhaustion.

Then came the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. As a queer Muslim, this event was a much greater emotional shock than I expected. As I was just starting to regain my equilibrium after this, a tweet by Vesper led me to the #queerselflove hashtag conversation on Twitter that went viral late on the Tuesday evening immediately following Orlando.

Inspired by the diversity and positive energy that I found in this conversation, I shared my own tweet on the hashtag:

I didn’t have time for too much more, as it was late in the evening, but the conversation was still going strong the next day so I spent hours checking the hashtag for aces and queer Muslims and retweeting them.

Then the trolling started.

[Trigger warning: Discussion of bigoted harassment including examples of threats of violence ]

Nearly all of the trolling was by right-wing activists. Most of it was Islamophobic, including a number of vile racist comments about Muslims, suggestions I must be mentally disturbed to be a member of or have converted to such a religion, and the like. A few tweets implied I was in some way a race traitor for converting (I’m white). I was also told by multiple trolls that I would be stoned to death in Saudi Arabia for being queer, and I received a number of other homophobic tweets. Another line of trolling focused on my asexuality, with much of it being misogynistic at the same time, such as telling me I was only asexual (or only wear hijab, for that matter) because I’m too ugly to get a man. A few comments suggested corrective rape as a “solution” for my problems, and most of this line of trolling qualifies as sexual harassment. It was a truly toxic stew of four or five different types of prejudice, all directed at my single person because of my intersecting identities.

[End of trigger warning section]

The trolling came in three major waves, the first and the third being the most virulently Islamophobic while the second was more focused on sexualized misogyny. At one point I had to block more than 100 different users to clean out my Twitter mentions.

I’ve reported this type of harassment to Twitter in the past ([Trigger warning on contents of link] and also to Tumblr after one time it happened here) and they have declined to take action. Twitter’s anti-abuse tools are also largely ineffective against the type of trolling I experienced - each user has to be blocked individually and there is no way short of making one’s account completely private to stop the flood in the first place (this option also doesn’t work if you were away from your computer while it happened and come back later to find it already in your mentions). As well, in cases like this, the individual tweets themselves may not be extremely bad, but the cumulative effect of receiving hundreds of them is overwhelming and this is something that Twitter’s anti-abuse process doesn’t take into account. For these reasons, I simply tweeted about what was going on so that my followers were aware and blocked all the individual users who had trolled my mentions.

The way that all of this unfolded triggered memories of the period 2002 to 2003 when I was blogging actively on Muslim and political liberal issues. During a 14-month period, my blog (which was otherwise pretty obscure) was repeatedly targeted by readers of a major Islamophobic warmongering blog. Without warning at random times, I would receive a flood of Islamophobic comments on my blog and when I checked my visitor stats, I would find that a certain individual had posted a link in the comments section of the other blog to the targeted post. It was weirdly stalker-ish and I could never predict exactly what would trigger it.

The distinctive sexualized misogynistic tone of many of the comments I received 13 years ago is the same as the trolling I experienced on Twitter in the last month (and on Tumblr in the one instance). Also the same is the swarm behavior of the harassers.

Much has already been written about the pervasive nature of online harassment, of course. I’m not usually targeted by such harassment due to the relative obscurity of my online presence. However, my #queerselflove tweet went viral (it was even featured in two write-ups on the hashtag) and the particular combination of identities I represent seems to have made me an irresistible target for the trolls.

That is, it wasn’t just because I’m Muslim, or a woman, or asexual, or queer-identified, and it wasn’t even just about the mix of misogyny with both Islamophobia and acephobia that Muslim women and asexual women can experience. It was, I believe, because being queer and being Muslim at the same time are felt to be mutually exclusive and contradictory - and in the minds of some people so are being queer and being asexual. Add to that being a white convert when many bigots believe that Muslimness and whiteness are mutually incompatible, and my very existence is a challenge to their worldview on multiple levels.

For members of socially dominant groups, a challenge to their worldview can be perceived as an act of violence in itself, because it destabilizes their privilege and power. In their minds, this justifies an act of violence in return. When it’s your very identity that’s the challenge, you may face violence (such as harassment) just for occupying space in the world. The trolling I experienced after publicly stating pride in my identity was a sobering reminder that there are a good number of people out there who do not want me to exist in the particular way that I do.

Thankfully, the trolling has mostly died down as attention turned to other events, though I still receive occasional “one-off” replies on my original tweet (now over two weeks old). Not being under active siege and having some distance from the incident has also helped me to regain my emotional equilibrium and to reflect.

The trolling could hardly have come at a worse time, when I was already physically exhausted from Ramadan and emotionally fragile in the wake of the Orlando shootings. It felt at times overwhelming, especially the third wave which was the largest and worst and came after several days of relative quiet.

But I never considered giving in and I was determined throughout that they would not scare me off. I knew I had outlasted this kind of harassment before (the 2002-2003 period discussed above) and could do so again. The support of both friends and random kind strangers online helped a lot, so that I didn’t feel I was facing it alone. Participation in both asexual and Muslim communities has also strengthened my sense of identity and commitment to that self-identification. I’ve learned a lot about resilience over the years and that helped me get through this most recent period.

More than all of this, though, the #queerselflove hashtag itself helped me get through. Although there were some people trolling from the outside (most of my trolls didn’t use the hashtag so weren’t seen by anybody but me), everybody who was participating was positive and welcoming. There was no gatekeeping over who is “allowed” to identify as queer or who is “worthy” of support and learning to love themselves as they are in a world that too often does not love or support them. It was a genuinely inclusive space and represented a real diversity not just of sexuality and gender identity, but also race, religion, age, ability, and other axes. I was delighted to see dozens and dozens of aces participating and even a range of queer Muslims.

It reminded me of the best of Tumblr, without the gatekeeping and hate that has tarnished the experiences of many aces over the last five or so years. The recent round of this as “The Discourse” has largely passed me by, but #queerselflove on Twitter was a good antidote to that as well.

Above all, it showed how we all, in our many diverse and intersecting identities, can take a reclaimed slur and build something positive and beautiful for ourselves from it. This is the potential of what queer can be and I felt affirmed in identifying as queer because of it.

In this time of trials and difficulties, queer is an act of solidarity and a badge of resilience, one I am proud to wear.