If you check my Twitter profile today, you'll see that I've clearly stated that I'm gay. But when I joined the platform in 2009, I wouldn't dare reveal that part of myself.
Back then, my "exploration" of the digital world as a gay man was still veiled. I began making friends (OK, boyfriends too) on the chatting app mIRC (I guess you can tell how old I am now), as well as gay-centric sites, internet forums, and apps like Grindr. Then 2013 came along, and I finally felt brave enough to come out on Twitter—the social media where I'd been most active. At the time, too, I was working as a full-time journalist in Jakarta. And I wanted to "rebel."
Lately, as I've made more gay friends on Twitter, the less I can ignore one interesting phenomenon: most of them don't use their real names or use pictures of themselves. When they do have pictures of their faces, they will have stickers covering their identifying features. They are virtually faceless.
People having alternative social media accounts isn't uncommon at all. Just like how people have finsta accounts on Instagram, people have multiple accounts on Twitter. Some of my friends have a second Twitter account for voicing certain opinions that would probably jeopardize their career if they were made "public." Others use theirs so they can browse porn freely.
What’s interesting about these "masked" accounts I interact with is that each of them really is a manifestation of the person's true self. Not all of them were created just for porn or shitposting.
People are "themselves" by tweeting about their daily lives—where they're having lunch, where they're going on holiday, what they're wearing, whom they're going on a date with—all without revealing their faces.
My curiosity led me to start some conversations with some of them.
Adrian*, 30, told me that expressing his identity as a gay man to his family or coworkers isn’t an option.
“It’s still not safe to be gay in Indonesia," he told me on DM. "One of my underclassmen in university got suspended—or maybe expelled, I don’t remember the details—because they found out he was dating a man on campus. I’ve also heard stories of people getting fired for dating a man.”
Adrian also points to the frequent police raids on private property after being tipped off about alleged "sex parties."
“They’re violating the private sphere. And why are they the only ones getting fired, as if all the other employees are so holy?”
Adrian, who at the time of writing had garnered 1,559 followers on Twitter, told me that the platform is a safe place to express his sexuality. When he started his second account in early 2016, Adrian was still afraid of the possibility that his profile might pop up on his work colleagues' feeds through the "suggested friends" feature on Twitter.
The photos he uploads to his Twitter account only show his face covered with stickers. Even though he admits to enjoying sexual content here and there, Adrian is more thankful for Twitter as a place to channel his "gayness," and to find friends and of course, boyfriends.
“I’ve met some of my best friends on Twitter," he said. "It’s also where I met my current boyfriend."
Adrian met his boyfriend almost two years ago. It started with an exchange of tweets until the now-boyfriend posted a tweet looking for a model for a photo shoot. Adrian built up the courage to come to an audition. The photoshoot never happened, but the chemistry between the two continued. The two men decided to quietly begin a relationship. Just like anyone in a relationship, Adrian frequently updates his timeline with tweets and photos of his boyfriend, albeit with caution, so they won't be outed as a gay couple. In the latest photos of them together, Adrian's face is covered with a sticker of a koala, and his boyfriend's a sticker of a pig.
Adrian's Twitter account is on private right now, for an added layer of safety. Despite all the obstacles that make it difficult for him to come out, he feels Twitter is an alternative realm where he can be himself.
What I realized about people like Adrian is that they've come out without actually coming out. It's like being a part of a community... where nobody knows anybody 100 percent.
For Arya*, 26, having to wear a virtual mask is a small price to pay for some sense of freedom. The 26-year-old has been active on Twitter since 2014, and back then he used the account to post lengthy rants about whatever came to mind.
“I used to have a second account on Facebook too, it was just for fun or to find dates," Arya told me. "This was before Grindr. I was also part of a few regional Facebook groups."
In his rants, he made sure to never bring up his sexuality. But since he started following several people on Twitter who are publicly gay, he's become inspired to be more vocal about LGBTQ-related conversations online. This virtual and sometimes anonymous community, he said, is his "alternate life."
“For me, Twitter already has it all," he said. "We can build our own community and hold conversations on that platform. We've started a group where people can communicate with each other through DMs." He told me there are celebrities and public officials among them.
“We discuss everything, and sometimes we end up collaborating on projects in real life too,” he said.
But as the gay Twitter community grows bigger, and as his alternate self becomes more well-known, Arya told me that he has to watch what he tweets more now. He currently has over 3,400 followers, which is not a lot in the social media world, but it's still a lot of people to hide from.
“It’s not as comfortable as it used to be,” he said.
As an Indonesian gay man living outside of Indonesia, I know I have the privilege to express my sexuality and views related to my identities without the constant fear of online bullying, doxxing, or police raids. But I wonder when my fellow gay friends can have these conversations freely and safely. Will there ever be a day where we can take off our virtual masks? Will there ever be a day where revealing your full identity doesn't feel like social suicide?
But maybe instead of wishing for something too far ahead in the future, it's better to just appreciate the community that we have today. I spoke to Satrya*, the person who created the account @AlterAwards and hashtag #AlterAwards2019 to highlight queer Twitter accounts that are unique, educational or funny. He told me that the gay Twitter community in Indonesia is important because we need platforms where we can safely talk about things like sexual health issues, art, and mental health.
Most importantly, it's where people can feel a little less lonely in this increasingly homophobic country. Sometimes, that's more than enough.
"Twitter is user-friendly. With its fast-paced environment, the LGBTQ community in Indonesia can easily find their clique, important information, and so on,” he said. “But the main reason they join Twitter is to find friends. Many of them are real-life friends now."
*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.
Amahl S. Azwar is an Indonesian freelance writer who currently lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with his boyfriend.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.