Growing up in Meerut, a city under 100 kilometers from New Delhi, Dahir Kumar struggled to make sense of why, as a man, he was sexually attracted to other men. He didn’t know anyone like him, or where he could turn to. Then, aged 18, his father bought him a cellphone that let him go online. 

Kumar — whose name has been changed because he is not out yet — turned to Google with his questions, asking it: “Why am I gay?” and “Is homosexuality good?” But one question topped the rest: Are there others like me here? He was eager to connect with his community. Eventually, he found a few gay men in his city through Facebook. His new connections helped Kumar, who is now 22, join a private Facebook group where there were lots of gay men, but, he told Rest of World, “they were there mostly to hook up.” He was looking for more. “I was looking for love and friendship,” he said. “I wanted to know what other people from the community were doing, what professions they had. People I could talk to about anything.”

In 2018, a community member added him to a private Facebook group called LGBTA+ India Your Second Family, which had over 12,000 members. They would encourage each other to come out, share their fears and struggles, and bond over traumas like sexual abuse. He was delighted to have found his community. Being part of it made him feel less alone. 

But, over time, the gloss wore off. Kumar is Dalit, a member of one of the most marginalized communities in India. Dalits continue to face discrimination and violence due to their perceived low status within the ancient caste system. Even though the Facebook group preached inclusivity, Kumar increasingly felt excluded. 

In the summer of 2020, an admin from the dominant Brahmin caste posted a picture from a Pride parade that read “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy.” “[Why] do you think such controversial, random slogans are okay in Pride Parade?” the admin asked. Many of the responses were from queer men: “We should have pride for our issues, not others,” said one. “Not at all,” said another.

What should or should not be allowed in a queer space is one of the most common topics in these online groups, often initiated by gay men from privileged castes, making the discourse feel exclusionary. 

“People can have multiple identities which they deeply relate to,” Kumar said. “I am gay. And I am Dalit. I should be allowed to express both my identities freely in a safe space.”

The exclusion can be subtle, but it’s deeply felt and widespread. Rest of World spoke with 20 people with minority identities in the LGBTQIA community who said they felt alienated and discriminated online by mainstream queer groups. 

Historically, Facebook groups have been important places for the LGBTQIA community in India, providing a space for the community to connect with one another, and find solidarity, advice, and partners. They also allowed members to organize politically to fight for dignity in a queerphobic society and campaign for changes to homophobic laws. But many of these popular groups have also inherited India’s deep social divisions. Urban, upper-caste, English-speaking Indians, often identifying as men, dominate these groups as managers and members. They control the content and sideline the voices of historically marginalized communities like Dalits, Muslims, and Adivasis — a collective term for India’s indigenous peoples.

“There is no inclusive LGBTQIA community in India,” said Christy Nag, an Adivasi trans woman. 

Facing disrespect and exclusion, some members — including Nag — are creating or joining separate online spaces which reflect their lives and perspectives.

“I am gay. And I am Dalit. I should be allowed to express both my identities freely in a safe space.”

In India, private online groups for the LGBTQIA community started to form long before the country’s Supreme Court decriminalized same-sex sexual activity in 2018. They provided a safe space and anonymity, allowing members to connect, express themselves, and disseminate information about HIV/AIDS. They attracted members from different social backgrounds, and they were particularly important for people like Kumar. Offline queer spaces were typically in the upscale neighborhoods of big cities, making them inaccessible to those from less privileged backgrounds or those in smaller towns or cities. Even if they could access them, the spaces were often elitist and exclusive. Online groups seemed to break those barriers, at least initially.

In the beginning, these groups “were very important… the only spaces you kind of had, to meet people,” Rohit Dasgupta, senior lecturer in cultural industries at the University of Glasgow, told Rest of World. Dasgupta has written about India’s online queer spaces in his book Digital Queer Cultures in India. Some of the early Facebook groups were trying to bring queer folks together in “some shared sense of sexual solidarity,” without regard for class, caste, religion or race in a virtual community, said Dasgupta. But that was a “utopic idea.”

Most of the posts in larger groups like Yaariyan (“friendships”), LGBTA+ India Your Second Family, and Harmless Hugs (now renamed Harmless Social Distancing) are by queer Hindu men discussing a range of topics: gay relationships, coming out experiences, sexual positions, sex jokes, and marriage equality. Occasionally, there are questions about sexually transmitted diseases, pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP – a medication that protects against HIV), and jobs. Discussions of caste, race or religion are rare. “There are several things in these groups that we connect over as members of the queer community, but the groups are not inclusive of everyone’s experiences,” said Akshay Pakhre, a gay Dalit man from India’s western state of Maharashtra.

In the LGBTA+ India Your Second Family group, Kumar said he watched as admins policed certain voices, but let others speak freely, creating a climate that primarily encouraged queer, upper-caste Hindu men to to take over the space.

Exclusion is often experienced less as targeted or directly aggressive comments, but by the overrepresentation of majority views and the sidelining of others. Dominant-caste men often crowd the space with discussions that exclude people with different experiences. For example, Moulee, a gay activist from the Bahujan community in southern India, told Rest of World that the ongoing conversation about marriage equality feels like a privileged one, since marginalized groups are still struggling for more basic rights like education, “and queerness is not the only reason why access to education has been denied.” Ruth Chawngthu, a bisexual tribal woman from India’s northeast, said she’s left most of the online queer spaces, including Harmless Social Distancing, because they didn’t represent her concerns. “I don’t want to be a part of them anymore,” she said. 

Admins say that groups are apolitical, but in practice what that means is they get to choose what political means. “They celebrate their Brahmin pride, and for them that is cool,” Piyush, a gay Dalit man from India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state told Rest of World. “But our caste pride is fake for them.” Piyush said that he’s tried to post about Dalit community issues in LGBTA+ India Your Second Family, but the posts haven’t been approved. 

The LGBTA+ India Your Second Family group was taken down by Facebook in November 2021, after apparently breaking the platform’s community standards on sexual imagery. The admins deny they broke any rules.

It’s not just Dalits and Adivasis who feel excluded from mainstream LGBTQIA groups. Some queer Muslims share Kumar’s frustrations. In early 2020, Queer Azaadi Mumbai, a collective of organizations and individuals who organize the pride march in Mumbai, publicly distanced itself from slogans expressing solidarity with a Muslim activist, Sharjeel Imam. Imam had been arrested the previous year for protesting against the government’s 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act, which excludes Muslim immigrants who arrived in India before 2015 from becoming citizens. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, Hindu majoritarianism and political polarization have been rising alongside violence against marginalized communities like Muslims. 

In online groups like Yaariyan, the mood has been partisan: “How does Pride become a place for religion-related sloganeering?” one comment read. “These terrorists have found safe refuge in Indian [LGBTQIA] groups,” said another. 

“There is no recognition, I think, in queer spaces, of the fact that Muslims are going through a very, very shitty time in this country,” said a Muslim member of Yaariyan, who asked to remain anonymous.

When some members try to talk about religion or caste, they face comments from trolls claiming they are dividing the queer community. This dominant narrative discourages marginalized members from expressing their life experiences, and makes them feel they are not welcome. 

There is also a stark absence of women’s voices in most online queer groups, which remain overwhelmingly male spaces. Koyel Ghosh, who identifies as a non-binary lesbian, told Rest of World that they find Yaariyan “very misogynistic. It has been very patriarchal… I have felt extremely invisibilized.” 

The content is geared toward gay men, and is often heavily sexualized. “Half of the time, they have this gym erotica going on,” said Meghna Mehra. “As an asexual woman, I feel very excluded.” She added that queer identity in these groups is often reduced to just sexual experiences, diminishing the community’s many other concerns, such as discrimination in the workplace. 

“There is no recognition, I think, in queer spaces, of the fact that Muslims are going through a very, very shitty time in this country.”

The admins of Yaariyan and Harmless Social Distancing told Rest of World that they are aware of complaints about the lack of inclusiveness in their groups, but that they prefer to focus on what they see as the main issues of the LGBTQIA community. One of the guidelines of Yaariyan clearly says, “politics and religion-based discussions will be removed unless they are related to [LGBTQIA] issues.” 

Rishu Kapur, an admin of Harmless Social Distancing, told Rest of World that personally he thinks when members talk about caste or religion, it gives the impression that the group is a divided space. While he is sympathetic to marginalized groups’ issues, they should voice them in different forums, he said.

But queer people from marginalized groups dispute that the issues can be so neatly divided. “I will discuss queer issues on Dalit platforms and Dalit issues on queer platforms. That is my politics,” Nihal Satpute, a gay Dalit man from Goa, told Rest of World. “It is their politics to keep the group to queer politics because if other things come in, that becomes uncomfortable for them,” Satpute said. “They don’t want their upper-caste privileges challenged.”

Yaariyan has six admins, of which three identify as gay men. Harmless Social Distancing has four admins, of which two identify as queer men. Representatives from Yaariyan and Harmless Social Distancing declined to comment about the caste and religious diversity of their admin teams, though both said they would like more queer women as administrators. 

The unequal power dynamics of the community are nothing new — earlier queer movements were dominated by gay men from Brahmin and other dominant castes. While they did advance the queer rights movement, they could do so because of their relative privilege, said Dasgupta from the University of Glasgow. But at the same time, there has been a “blindness” to what those power dynamics were doing to the community, Dasgupta added. “Going forward, it is going to be incumbent on us to call that out.”

“The fault lines are already there, the division is already there, we are trying to just throw the spotlight on it.”

In search of spaces that reflect their own experiences, some minority members have splintered off to create their own communities. All Sorts of Queer, or ASQ, caters to all queer people in Bengaluru, except cisgender gay men. Started by mostly queer women from dominant castes in 2014, the group emerged from a shared frustration over the overrepresentation of gay men in queer spaces, Rohini Malur, one of the founders of ASQ, told Rest of World. Another problem, Malur added, was that the queer women-only group she was part of wasn’t inclusive of some marginalized communities, including transgender people. ASQ was “an opportunity to get things right,” Malur said. Over time, the group attracted non-binary, trans, and asexual people, and currently has nearly 700 members. Malur said that she found it sad they had failed at creating inclusive mainstream spaces, but establishing separate groups was “the only way we can have a space that we own.” 

The Queer Muslim Project and the Dalit Queer Project have also launched to provide a safe space for voices otherwise marginalized in society and in popular queer spaces. 

Rafiul Alom Rahman, founder of The Queer Muslim Project, said that unified queer spaces may remain unattainable until the wider queer community reckons with the fact that the fractures within the community reflect the fractures in society.

“The fault lines are already there, the division is already there, we are trying to just throw the spotlight on it,” he said. “Just because you’re shutting your eyes to the exclusion within the community doesn’t mean that we are all equal. Equality is an aspiration, equality is not a current reality …  for all of us to be equal we should have an equal voice.”