A double-edged sword: the internet as a tool for trans activism

Guest post by Mariam Gagoshashvili, Senior Program Officer, and Kim Kaletsky, Communications Officer, Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice

“A lot of our activism has moved online,” notes Tina, a trans activist from Hungary, in Mapping Digital Landscapes of Trans Activism in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, a new report from Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice and Transgender Europe (TGEU). In Central Asia and Eastern Europe (CAEE), trans communities rely on the internet in their activist, personal, and professional lives. It’s a fundamental tool not only for movement building but also for connecting with and supporting other trans people in the region. Yet the digital terrain often mirrors the physical world in its marginalization of LGBTQI communities, especially those with the least access to power: women, trans, and intersex people, particularly those who also experience racial or ethnic oppression.

Geopolitical forces at work throughout the CAEE region are intentionally restricting freedom of expression and suppressing dissent as a hegemonic form of control. For trans people, their lives are not only endangered by widespread homophobic and transphobic legislation and rhetoric, but also by governments seeking to exert stricter control over civil society and internet freedom by controlling and monitoring internet usage. Countries such as Russia, Turkey, Hungary, and Poland have all witnessed increased online surveillance, restriction of internet freedom, and closing of civil society spaces; while in other countries, such as Belarus, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan, this has been a reality for a while. All countries in this region are witnessing deterioration of freedom of expression and the right to dissent, as shown by the CIVICUS world map. “Fear is always present,” says Salima, a trans activist from Turkey. “I know that if security services want, they could easily find me via IP address, and knock on the door.”

Although the context in each country differs, trans communities throughout the region have experienced increased vulnerability in digital spaces, especially as they’ve become more visible and vocal. Activists and technologists emphasize that trans communities in CAEE, particularly trans sex workers, face blackmail, hate speech, administrative charges, government surveillance, attacks from right-wing extremists, and physical violence. Both online and offline, different forms of violence are inherently linked and have a devastating impact on nascent trans movements, which already face an increasingly hostile geopolitical context that pathologizes trans bodies and vilifies civil society.

Despite the growing number of challenges that use of digital platforms and increased online visibility have brought to CAEE trans communities, activists are finding creative ways to resist and fight back. For example, the report shares how Foundation Transgender, an NGO working with trans people, crossdressers, and genderqueer people in Russia, kept their data and their organization secure when they recognized that Russia’s “Anti-Gay Propaganda” and Yarovaya laws placed them at risk. They strategically chose to host their websites on servers based outside of Russia, because it is safer that project activities are housed elsewhere. Other trans activists have become experts in holistic security and regularly train trans community members and activists. Many activists across the region also invest in digital infrastructure such as VPN services and server storage abroad, and in tools to access blocked online content and bypass censorship. Most of these strategies are small-scale and self-funded and must be supported by the international community of funders and advocates in order to make these skills and tools available for all activists at risk.

How to defend human rights by empowering trans activists

With the growing importance of digital organizing for trans movements coupled with crackdowns on internet freedom and civil society, there is an urgent need to invest resources in trans movements in CAEE. The Mapping Digital Landscapes report outlines several key ways that the tech community can support these movements:

  • Conduct region- and country-specific research about tools being used to target trans communities (viruses, spyware, phishing, etc.) and support the creation of well-informed strategies and protection mechanisms for trans people.
  • Provide consulting on secure, accessible, and user-friendly technology that can help trans activists enhance their tech skills so they can safely use the internet.
  • Help trans-led organizations and other vulnerable sectors of civil society create easy-to-use holistic security plans with matching technology.
  • Provide funding to trans-led groups to assist them with strategizing and implementing holistic security plans that, at a minimum, include key points on personal safety online, managing internet fatigue, and developing organizational security protocols (offline and online).
  • Increase the level of protection during key online activist campaigns and events like Transgender Day of Remembrance.
  • Join petitions to secure internet freedom in local contexts all over the world.
  • Support organizations like Astraea and TGEU who are working to resource activists in these regions and build capacity to ensure digital autonomy.

Investment in the digital infrastructure of trans-led groups is crucial to supporting the continuing fight against oppression and is essential for the human rights of trans people in the CAEE region. Read the full Mapping Digital Landscapes of Trans Activism in Central Asia and Eastern Europe report to find out more or visit www.astraeafoundation.org


About Astraea:

The Astraea Lesbian Foundation For Justice is the only philanthropic organization working exclusively to advance LGBTQI human rights around the globe. We support grantee partners in the U.S. and internationally who challenge oppression and seed change, working for racial, economic, social, and gender justice. Through CommsLabs, Astraea creates participatory spaces that bolster activists’ tech, digital security, wellness/safety, communications, digital media and organizing capacities, and provides hands-on support for activists’ to build skill-sets and strategize approaches to online organizing that ensure their safety while furthering their rights agendas. CommsLabs engages activists in the fight for the open internet by building a global network at the intersection of internet freedom and LGBTQI rights that is aware of the open internet’s critical role for long-term advocacy goals.

About TGEU:

Transgender Europe is a European-based umbrella organization supporting, fighting, and advocating for the rights of trans people across Europe and Central Asia. TGEU is committed to intersectional justice and trans rights through advocacy, campaigning, researching, community building, and networking with alliances. TGEU represents more than 100 member organizations in 42 countries and coordinates global projects such as Trans Murder Monitoring. TGEU’s vision is a world free from discrimination where every person can live freely according to their gender identity or expression without interference.