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Mona in Cairo has three Facebook profiles: a heterosexual male one for her family and school friends, who know her only as “Abdul”; a heterosexual female one, through which she can explore being a woman; and a transgender one, through which she can interact with the online community that she has found of people like her. Mona also discovered a black-market source for estrogen online; however, her changing appearance began to attract hostile responses on the city’s streets, and some of the elders in the gay community prevailed upon her to limit her transgender explorations to her room and her webcam.
In a poor Chennai neighborhood, an enterprising transgender woman named Lalitha Yogi has set up the “Mermaid Studio” in her room; people from all over India come here to experiment with being transgender online. Charlotte Wolf, a young transgender woman from Ann Arbor, Michigan, developed her female self when she took on female avatars in massively multiplayer online role-playing games. I have met transgender people in the US who began researching gender transition by watching YouTube videos online before puberty, and who now post bulletins of their own transitions online.
Things are tougher in other parts of the world. In Syria, the Assad regime monitors gay websites and uses the intelligence it gathers against gay Syrians; similarly, Israel attempts to blackmail gay Palestinians into being collaborators. Jerome, a teenager who had to flee his home in western Uganda at the age of 15 when he was discovered with another boy, used Facebook to find other gay people; among the men he found online was a gang that entrapped, tortured and extorted him. He fled to Kenya, where he is now a refugee. In early February, he said he was arrested with thirty-one other Ugandan queer refugees while attending a party celebrating the successful resettlement of one refugee. He was held for two days and alleges he was tortured.
Beyoncé is a teenager from a provincial Egyptian town. When his parents discovered his double life, they shaved his head and dragged him through town behind a horse cart before locking him in his room for a month, beating him every day. He kept himself alive by posting “It Gets Better” videos on YouTube advising other young people in similar situations. Lena Klimova, a young journalist in the Urals, has set up a website called Children-404, which does the same thing for Russian youth that LGBT organizations can no longer reach because of the country’s legislation forbidding “gay propaganda.”