Young Gay Men Talk About the Dangers of Having to Hide Their Love Lives

Many gay teens use apps to explore their sexuality in secret, which can put them at risk of being abused or exploited.
March 14, 2018, 4:40pm
Photo by Flickr user Hamza Butt | CC BY 2.0

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

On the night of February 18, 17-year-old Orlando Boldewijn disappeared in the Dutch city of The Hague, after a Grindr date he hadn't told his friends or family about. The student's body was found eight days later in a pond in the Ypenburg neighborhood of the city. It's still uncertain what exactly happened to Orlando Boldewijn, but the case has started a conversation in the Netherlands about the safety of gay teenagers exploring their sexuality through secret meetings.

Apps like Grindr are often a refuge for teens looking for a way into the gay scene—because they have either yet to come out, or they don't really know anyone else their age who is openly gay. On top of that, there's the fear of being bullied at school if they're spotted on dates or in gay bars. While dating sites and apps are a way for gay teens to explore their sexuality with acceptance in a sometimes hostile society, they can mean users find themselves in a vulnerable position—agreeing to meet older men they haven't met before, in unfamiliar places.

To find out more about the effect that can have on queer kids' lives, we spoke to four young men about their experience with secretly dating through sites and apps.

Robin, 19, Utrecht

VICE: When was your first time on a gay dating site?
Robin: When I was about 13 years old I visited a website for gay teenagers. The site created a safe space to meet other young people who hadn't come out yet—it made you upload a photo of your ID and someone on staff was on hand to check your identity via webcam. By the time I turned 18 and was out of the closet, I had already tried dating apps like Grindr and Tinder.

What were your experiences with Grindr like?
It was completely different from what I was used to. I was suddenly getting unsolicited dick pics and the tone of the messages was much more aggressive.

Were you meeting up with people when you were still a minor?
I was about 16 when I went on my first date with a guy, but he was around my age. And I've gone on dates with men who turned out to be older, but had catfished me by pretending they were my age. At that point, I was still in the closet, so I would go on these dates in secret. But actually, about a month ago, I had a particularly bad experience with an older man who had used a fake profile.

Can you tell me about that experience?
He told me he was 19, but when he arrived at my place he looked about 40. He sort of pushed his way into my house and forced me to do some sexual things that I didn't want to do. I was just in shock, but I got the feeling that it would be better to cooperate than risk things getting worse if I resisted. Afterward, I found out that this guy had approached me several times before and had probably planned the whole thing for a while. Since then, I’ve become even more careful than I was before. Dating is very difficult as a young queer person—it’s awful how some older men try to abuse us.

Souffian*, 24, Amsterdam

VICE: When was your first time on a dating site?
Souffian: I was 15 and still in the closet. I knew that I was attracted to men, but at that time I just wanted to discover and learn more about my sexuality and experiment with it. I ended up on websites like Bullchat and GayRomeo, where I mainly chatted to older guys.

Didn't you know people your age to date?
No, I didn't know anyone who was out. But then at the same time, I also hadn't told people that I was gay. I was afraid that it would get back to my parents and everyone in our Moroccan community would find out. That's why I had to date in secret.

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Where were you going on these dates?
The guys I was meeting were a lot older, so they would invite me over to their houses. When I think back on it now, I sometimes feel so abused. A 30-year-old knows that dating a 15-year-old is wrong. In my opinion, apps and sites like GayRomeo, Bullchat, and Grindr are not the right way for gay teenagers to learn about the gay scene. What I was doing was really dangerous but at the time, it didn't feel like I had any other options. I couldn't go to a bar to flirt like my straight friends did because I was afraid that someone would see me in a gay bar and tell everyone. I was taking these risks just to get some kind of a connection with the gay scene.

Did you ever tell anyone where you were?
No, and now I realize how dangerous that was. I was deliberately going on dates in neighborhoods where nobody knew me. It felt like I was living a double life and I never spoke about what I was experiencing with friends or family members, which made me feel really lonely. And then to suppress that feeling of loneliness, I would just meet up with another guy. But once I came out of the closet, I was able to get in touch with guys my own age.

Kürsat, 21, Amsterdam

VICE: When was your first time on a gay dating site?
Kürsat: When I was 17 years old. I hadn't come out yet and I didn’t want to go to local gay spots. But even though I was a bit scared, I created an online profile using my real name and photo because I figured that anyone who found me there had to be gay as well. I soon noticed that the chats were mainly focused on sex and there was also a lot of drug dealing going on. I don't think these kinds of sites are safe enough for gay teenagers. For me, it lead to some very bad experiences dating older men.

What were some of those experiences like?
When I told this one date who was in his late 20s that I didn't feel comfortable anymore, he ignored what I was saying and kept on touching me. I was so shocked and left as soon as I could. This other time, when I was 19, a guy locked his front door while we were inside. It was the second time I had met up with him, but he suddenly started behaving weirdly so I eventually had to sneak out. Did anyone know where you were?
No. At the time, I felt so ashamed about my sexuality I didn't dare say anything. But that experience made me realize I needed to talk about what I was up to—and ever since then, I've always told someone where I'll be.

How do you think the gay dating scene can be made safer for young men?
The abuse of young boys who haven't come out yet is so common that we need the entire community to come together and support each other better. Gay teenagers are fragile—apps like Grindr should block minors from using it.

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Jasper, 20, Utrecht

VICE: When was your first time on a gay dating site?
Jasper: I was 16, and it felt like my only way of connecting with the gay scene. At the time, some family members and good friends knew I was gay, but I didn't know a lot of gay guys that I could date.

What was your experience like on these websites?
Just lots of older men talking to me in a sexually aggressive way. Some have even offered me money to have sex with them.

Did you meet up with any of them?
No. I was living in a small town and it wasn't really possible. But I was very careful and only started dating once I was living on my own.

When you went on dates, did you tell anyone where you were going?
Not at first, but I quickly learned my lesson. When I was 17, I arranged a date with this guy, but when I arrived at his place, there were a bunch of other guys there all taking speed. I texted my parents to come pick me up. I would have been happy to meet in public, but a lot of guys on these sites only want to meet at their place. Sometimes, it's because they're only focused on having sex, but sometimes they haven't come out yet and are still struggling with their sexuality.

How do you think the gay scene can be made safer for young men?
I think it's up to parents and schools to teach queer young people to be more careful about dating. We only seem to warn girls about meeting up with strange men. With boys, we generally assume they're tough and can take care of themselves, which is unfair. Most people don't know anything about how dating works in the gay scene. Within that scene, we should be talking about sexual harassment and abuse a lot more. *Name has been changed to protect identity

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