For LGBTQ creators and users, TikTok was space — even if imperfect — to reclaim identity, sexuality. That is now lost
'TikTok inspired me to come out to my mother. It was thrilling to see so much talent in one place,' says one queer user
What happens when two countries engage in a military standoff at a shared border?
In the context of the Galwan Valley clash, one of the consequences is a palpable anti-China sentiment in TV news debates, newsrooms, and households, as politicians and public figures urge Indians to boycott Chinese products.
As part of an unconventional move in foreign policy, the IT Ministry announced that 59 Chinese apps would be banned, citing the reason that they are engaged in activities that are "prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, the security of the state and public order".
One of the apps in question is TikTok, owned by ByteDance. The app, which allows users to watch and make short videos of themselves, enthralled Indian audiences in a way that few other apps have — reminiscent of the appeal of Vine, Dubsmash and Instagram. However, this isn't the first time that the app has been banned in the country: In April 2019, it faced similar action because of its 'pornographic' content and exposing children to sexual predators, among other reasons.
It was also derided by many for the 'cringe' content it is supposedly home to — a claim rooted in classist disdain for videos created by the working class, who found a platform in the app. It wasn’t long before the app became a safe haven for queer content creators. There was an upsurge of queer creators in drag, whose content included makeup tutorials, lip-syncing, and videos reclaiming their identity and sexuality.
The recent ban has hit queer users in particular: all evidence of the digital empowerment they gained through the app has vanished into thin air.
For Chennai-based Valerie Jay, a transwoman, TikTok meant having a sense of belonging to the trans community. “I’d spend hours scrolling and basking in queerness, it was liberating in a way. The app was easy to use and I could make videos about pride and politics with great ease.” Valerie isn’t fully convinced by the government’s decision to ban the app. “If it really is a national security concern, then I have a feeling the government owes us an explanation. How are teenagers lip-syncing to Meghan Thee Stallion a national security concern?”
Valerie doesn’t believe that other social media platforms can provide the same space as TikTok did. “You didn’t have to be tech-savvy to understand and use TikTok. I don’t think this ease exists in other platforms.”
Siya Mahajan from Satna, Madhya Pradesh says she misses the global audience she once enjoyed — she had close to 90,000 followers on the platform. She used to upload song covers and videos related to pride and politics. “It was inspiring to see so many people from across the globe be comfortable in their sexuality and identity,” she says. In an IGTV video which she uploaded shortly after the news of the ban, Siya began with “Don’t call me an anti-national, please. I am not against the government’s decision, but they should’ve thought about creators like us.”
Siya tried out Indian video-based apps and found that they were riddled with glitches. “Apps like Mitron and Chingari are filled with bugs and don’t have a nice interface. I don’t think anything can replace TikTok,” she adds.
Hyderabad-based Mohammed Kaif, who went by the name ‘Candy’ on the app, terms the ban as being ‘painful’. “I used to put in a lot of work into my videos and I made friends because of it, too. I was sad to to see TikTok go,” he says. Shivani Natholia, a queer content creator based in Surat, remains optimistic. “I’m okay with the app being banned if it is in national interest. TikTok gave a platform to hidden talent, but we will move past this and find something else. The platform may be gone, but my talent isn’t going anywhere,” she asserts.
Many aren't convinced that the ban will have its intended effect. “If the app had over 120 million users, China has already gained what it wanted. As citizens of India, we must abide by the government rules, but I don’t think it was right on its part to simply ban the app. Banning a handful of Chinese apps is futile when big Chinese companies have flourishing businesses in India,” says Hashbrownie, a Delhi-based drag queen.
The ripples of the ban are being felt across the border too, since Indians constitute the audience for content creators in neighbouring countries. Lalita Chhetri, who is based in Bhutan, points out the impact that the ban has had on her performance. “Most of my audience was from India. My views and reach have been affected since the ban was implemented."
Zora, a Mumbai-based artist and student, would spend a lot of their time on the platform, watching and replaying videos. “TikTok meant representation for the queer and working-class communities... All my life I have seen the community only from the lens of the privileged, it was on TikTok that I saw queer folks from less privileged sections of society," they explain.
Queer users and creators have much to say about its positives, but it is not as though they are in denial about the security and censorship concerns that the app has been criticised for. "TikTok had its flaws. Every app out there extracts data from its users and makes money by selling it. TikTok isn’t an exception in this regard,” Zora says.
Another criticism is that the app had become a platform for violence and its glorification. "There are good and bad people in every community. We cannot direct our hate for one element towards a whole app or community of users,” says Delhi-based drag queen Prashant Chauhan.
Prashant had over a hundred thousand followers. He considered the app a hobby. “I am not keen on shifting all my TikTok videos to Instagram, since I use Instagram for my professional work,” he says. He has been performing as a dancer for the last 12 years, and a drag queen for the last year. “The hate on TikTok pushed me to create more content,” he says. He also raises questions about what banning the app could achieve. “I don’t quite understand the reason behind the ban. Banning apps isn’t going to win us a war or avenge dead soldiers. It’s quite futile,” he says.
Viewers and followers of queer creators reminisce about the joy the app brought to them. Siddhant Talwar, an artist and student at Tufts University, misses the sense of validation TikTok gave him. “As a student in the US, I would watch plenty of queer creators on the app, but I couldn’t relate to them. My identity as a queer Indian man is very different. After I returned to India and stumbled upon desi TikTok stars, I was elated. It meant so much to be able to see my body and identity get representation.”
For Varooni Tuteja, a transwoman studying at the University of Delhi, the platform signified comfort. “The app was a safe haven for me. It allowed me to relate to other trans women and our issues across the globe... I was waiting for my exams to end so that I could start making videos of my own, but I guess that’s not happening anymore,” she laments.
TikTok is possibly the first social media platform to be at the receiving end of considerable hate and scrutiny. Transphobic and queerphobic memes and jokes made at the expense of TikTok creators abound. “We are a queerphobic country, so an app that highlights queer voices was bound to receive hate of this sort. Haven't celebrities like Karan Johar and Bobby Darling received queerphobic hate too?” asks Zora.
In 2018, a Chennai resident died by suicide after their family, friends and followers mocked them for posting TikTok videos where they featured wearing women's clothes. “Every TikTok user was labelled as ‘homo’. Especially after the whole Carryminati issue. If TikTok-ers move to a new platform, that platform too will be labelled as ‘homo’," says Hashbrownie.
In an infamous online brawl which consisted of a series of 'YouTube vs TikTok' videos, YouTube-er Carryminati came under fire for using homophobic and transphobic slurs against TikTok creators. But this hatred, which took the form of queerphobia, existed before the brawl too. One only needs to look at the comments section of queer Indian TikTok users’ Instagram accounts to know the extent of the hate — remarks like “You’re here to pollute this app too?” and “You should kill yourself" are not uncommon.
“The anti-queer hate directed at TikTok and its creators became worse when certain famous influencers started spreading it. It was merely a gimmick to garner more views and followers from homophobic and sexist channels," says Noida-based Yashi Sinha.
Yashi began making TikTok videos in 2018 and gained a decent following in the last year for his videos on makeup and activism. “I feel really sad for creators from small towns. They had finally found a platform for themselves,” Yashi says.
Hope about the return of the app lingers on in the community. “TikTok inspired me to come out to my mother. I miss making content and the comfort the app gave me. It was thrilling to see so much talent in one place. I do hope the app makes a comeback,” says Zora.
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