"Leave No One Behind" Group Exhibition Vol1: do not leave online spaces behind: queer experiences on social media

Artist: Nao Mursalzade Description: Growing up in conservative settings, many young people have struggled with dating life and particularly queer people face significant challenges in romantic and intimate relationships in Azerbaijan. Although there are no official prohibitions in the country to ban any kind of sexual activity after the age of 16, intimacy between couples and premarital sex is widely condemned. Openly talking about dating and romantic relationships to parents and some friends is generally challenging and particularly women who are publicly together with a partner before engagement or marriage are mostly stigmatized. In a country where even “traditional” relationships are not experienced to the fullest, LGBTI+s struggle the most in dating and sex life. Same-sex acts have been legal in the country since 2001, but, queer identities and experiences are unaccepted and ignored in Azerbaijan, and attempt to voice the needs and just simply the existence of the community bring restrictions, confrontations, and even violent reactions. Understanding the circumstances in the country, many queer people oppress their identity and choose to hide it from friends, family, and colleagues for their safety and security. When it comes to dating, the community is not mostly able to ask questions or share their status with friends and family circles. Growing up, they also have not seen any real healthy examples of queer relationships and the situation puts the dating life of LGBTI+s in a very precarious situation. The lack of safe spaces to socialize and spend time with the community also adds up to the existing problems. Baku only offers certain LGBTI+ friendly and relatively safe spaces for the community, but even the incident in 2022 where two gays were attacked in the central street proves that even the most assumingly safer parts of the city are not that secure after all. The lack of support mechanisms, conversations, and media coverage of queer experiences leaves many LGBTI+s to go through different and mainly tough dating experiences that they had to explore and experience firsthand on their own. Considering the precarious settings in the country, the majority of the community finds it easier, safer, and more convenient to socialize on social media platforms and dating apps. The article reflects on the personal experiences of 12 LGBTI+ participants who attended a community meeting to talk about their stories, challenges, and struggles in the pursuit of romantic and sexual relationships through online dating apps. Initially, many mentioned that “femme phobia” is one of the major challenges gays face on dating apps. Many people on queer dating platforms put on their bios “no fems, please”, meaning they are preferably looking for more masculine partners which is a significant sign of internalized phobia and misogyny. In 2019, the most famous queer dating app in the country “Hornet”, banned the “NoFem” hashtag, which means "feminines do not write". Following the Hornet user's manual, such words as "About you: nofem" cannot be indicated in the profile text anymore. The hashtag and similar texts have been removed from users’ profiles, and other users are not able to see them. Further, catfishing was discussed as a major challenge. Lesbian participants mentioned that there are not many options for them when it comes to online dating and they do not have the privilege of exclusive platforms such as “Grindr” and “Hornet” which are introduced as queer dating apps, but mostly occupied by gay users. The situation leaves lesbians with the only choice of “Tinder” and many commented that they have encountered fake profiles where an assumingly “woman’s” profile is managed by a man. The majority of the participants also argued that there is not a fully secure online space regarding queer dating. There are many “DL” profiles which means Down Low and is basically a man who is seen publicly as straight, identifies and ‘acts’ straight; but secretly is attracted to or has sex with other men. DL profiles are usually empty and there are no visible photos on their accounts. Participants added that “they aggressively ask for your photos, but never get back with their own”. Mostly, due to safety and security reasons, many people on online queer platforms do not publicly share their photos and a participant added that “almost 75% of profiles are without or with a fake photo”. A few comments were also mentioned that “some sent photos from very far angles where you are not able to identify the user or they send photos with sunglasses on”. General aggression was also mentioned as a big struggle. Mainly, people do not understand that “no means no”. Rejected users start to follow up on the conversation and get aggressive when they are refused repeatedly. Additionally, one of the participants mentioned that “when you use a bit of sweet language, they act like you are in a relationship with them. They start to “own” you which makes me feel really uncomfortable”. Further, it was discussed that users get aggressive when you ask to meet them in public for the first date and take things from there. Many agreed that the majority of the meetings are happening in private settings and there are many recorded cases of abuse and violence. Likewise, a trans participant mentioned that her body is always sexualized on dating apps. Trans people are mostly seen as “sex objects” or sex workers by the majority of the users of queer dating platforms and the alarming levels of transphobia, shaming, and stereotypes about the community make it highly challenging for trans folks to find a romantic partner. She added, “I encountered some cases where people were pitying me and it also felt very hurtful and wrong”. Last, she discussed that deadnaming is also widespread and users mostly straightforwardly ask very private questions with no ethics or filters about her body parts. In conclusion, dating apps are assumingly the most preferred and assumingly safe space for LGBTI+s to explore their curiosity, find a romantic/sex partner, start a relationship, or just make friends in the country, however, after discussions, participants concluded that it is not that safe after all. Many unfortunate situations have occurred in the country where LGBTI+s were harassed, catfished, and blackmailed by people they met on dating apps. Towards the end of the discussion, participants shared some safety measures such as sharing their live location with a friend while going on a date, video approving the person before the meeting, and letting someone in advance the address they are visiting.

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