My high school teammate Justin had everything going for him. I met him my freshman year of high school when we both made the varsity volleyball team. He was a social activist, always telling me how he spearheaded rallies for causes he was passionate about which I loved hearing, in part, because it brought out his recurring qualities—camaraderie with our team, love for his family, and drive to make a difference.
Our friends and family knew this part of Justin—the glowing presence—far better than I. However, little did people know, including me, that Justin was gay. That was until this news spread like a brushfire, and our entire school was informed of his LGBT affiliation.
Within hours, Justin received death threats, attacks, and harassing comments via email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms challenging his masculinity, religion(for he was Mormon), and morality. My teammates and I accepted him as he was; however, the acceptance of his close friends was muffled by the outcry of haters on social media that challenged his existence. Within the same week of our school discovering his sexual orientation, Justin killed himself. He had consumed a handful of pills before sleeping one night, only to be found dead by his mother the next morning.
Stories like this aren’t unique. Stories like this aren’t new. Stories like this keep occurring.
Because of what happened to Justin, I took a hard look at myself.
My name is Ali Shan Patel. I have roots that originate from both Pakistan and Tanzania. I’ve grown up quite modestly and conservatively, abiding by strict rules and religious values of being a Shi’a Muslim. I’ve been recognized on numerous occasions for my speeches on several conservative fiscal issues. I proudly identify and align myself with the LGBT community.
I’ve always found myself in the minority—ethnically, racially, sexually—and I embrace this position for it provides me with insight into the struggles of the few. I’ve learned empathy and compassion above all else.
I’ve often interacted with individuals that disapprove of my identity, ultimately revealing the inherent prejudices people choose to uphold. My intersectionalities culminate into who I am under my thick brown skin; however, my diversity has been condemned online and offline.
Online, high school peers would comment insensitive remarks on my social media platforms. I received tweets, comments, and messages calling me a “terrorist” or attacking my religious views. During this time, I deactivated myself from all social media platforms in order to avoid experiencing these comments. That’s when people turned to offline tactics to hurt me. There was one instance where my house was vandalized several days after I deactivated my social media accounts:
That’s when I had a realization—I had the opportunity to contribute towards a generation of acceptance and tolerance. I refuse to be passive about insensitivity and encourage positivity. I relaunched my social media platforms and continued to post pictures, articles, and comments that portray my character. Reactivating my social media accounts was tough for me due to the harassment I’ve faced in the past. I’m proud to have made that decision, and this is how they look today:
The ways people choose to navigate and portray themselves through social media leads to a shortcoming— social media users should support, rather than attack, other users. In the case of Justin, people actively chose to slander him, attacking his reputation and decisions. For me, the support of family and friends coupled with a drive to make a difference inspire me to encourage tolerance and acceptance on social media.
Now, I do not write about my life for sympathy or pity. In fact, I write this blog, illustrating my experiences and motivations, to demonstrate a choice everyone has—we, as a global community, can use social media to either slander or empower others. I choose the latter.
By no means do I consider myself a revolutionary for equality, but if someone stumbles upon my blog and finds some relief, then I feel I’m doing my part on social media. For me, I’ve learned to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
This is a call to action—social media must be used in order to progress our community towards a more peaceful world. Various social media platforms coupled with growing accessibility offers more interconnectedness and cross-cultural communication than ever before. These rapidly changing dynamics can only bolster a universal ideology of love through a culture of acceptance rather than a system of hatred—I choose to be an activist of change by condemning online hatred and accepting diversity.
I wake up each morning to a beautiful quote on my bedroom wall that reads “here’s to staring into the sun, when you used to close your eyes.” I’m constantly reminded that social media can be an outlet for experiences rather than a weapon against users.
Each time I sit at my desk, I’m greeted by a collage consisting of inspirational activists—Malala Yousafzai, W.E.B Du Bois, and Malcolm X. I don’t feign that my actions are comparable to theirs—my actions are hardly comparable to theirs. Looking at these activists reminds me that I’m making a change in whatever capacity I can, however big or small, to help others. We grow the colorful garden of equality together, seed by seed. This is my seed.