It’s cute when a new gay dating site enters the Indian market and claims to be an app that offers more than just vapid hookups. They offer so much more, you know, like a different message tone, a new interface colour, even smaller thumbnails. Oh and also, there is no other feeling like being rejected for the same picture across five different platforms.
In truth, however, barring a few tweaks in their features, most dating apps on the Indian market are the same. This is a world where faceless profiles share unsolicited dick pics and call your mother horrible things if you don’t like their “tool”. The worst part? That despite a post-Section 377 India seeing a rise in the usage of apps like Grindr, Blued, Romeo, cases of harassment, extortion and bullying have also escalated.
“Extortion gangs used to create fake accounts on apps like Grindr and Romeo and threaten to out gay men they catfished online, under the garb of Section 377,” says Koninika Roy, Advocacy Manager at The Humsafar Trust, Mumbai’s first openly gay community-based organisation. Roy, along with fellow activist and colleague Vivek Patil, has been keeping a tab on the number of extortion cases post the reading down of the archaic law. And the numbers are alarming. To catch everyone up, Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code prohibited anal sex between homosexuals, and other acts such as felatio and cunnilingus. Now one might assume that these extortion rings would slowly dissipate after the September 6, 2018, verdict by the Supreme Court, that decriminalised gay sex. In reality though, they haven’t.
A few days after the mysterious death of Shalu, a transgender woman, in Kerala, it is disconcerting to know that queer people are still unsafe, irrespective of the city or town. Roy says, “While earlier it was the fear of being outed, now it is the fear of being beaten up for either being effeminate/trans or living your true identity openly.” Since the SC verdict, The Humsafar Trust alone has dealt with around 25 cases of extortion, theft and online harassment. These include people taking screenshots of conversations and pictures on Grindr and threatening to send them over WhatsApp to the victims’ family members, high fun (sex on drugs) gone wrong, and harassment by landlords/cops/doctors. These are cases that are registered in Mumbai alone. Several other victims never speak up because of the fear the extortionists instill in them.
Ashish Pandya, who is a known face in the Mumbai queer space, opened up about what happened to him, on a queer group on Facebook, following which an avalanche of comments started pouring in with people sharing their experiences. On a work trip, Pandya decided to use his weekend to hang out with someone. “I encountered a profile and soon, we exchanged pictures and numbers,” he tells VICE. “He was near my hotel and insisted on meeting up immediately after the call. I didn’t tell him which hotel I was in but decided to meet him nonetheless.”
On reaching there, however, he met a stranger claiming to be the man he was chatting with. “When I showed him the picture on my phone to prove him wrong, he grabbed my hand and started abusing me. He immediately called someone on the phone and said, “Ye gaandu nakhre kar raha hai (This fucker is being dramatic).” I started screaming and tried to extract myself, but suddenly, another man appeared and held me from the other side. All this in broad daylight.” He finally punched and kicked his way out to run towards a rickshaw. His extortionists kept calling, claiming that they had screenshots that could ruin him—till Ashish blocked their numbers.
Over the last couple of years, both PlanetRomeo and Grindr have started verifying pictures and adding Facebook as a login option to weed out anonymous accounts, but it hasn’t helped much in my opinion. You still see a range of faceless torsos on the app, nipples staring back at you blankly. For extortionists, these apps are a perfect balance of anonymity and desperation to find enough men to screw over on a regular basis. The fear of being outed and cast out stops most men from ever reporting what they go through.
Last week, while scrolling through random Facebook stories, I found my friend’s live stream where he was talking to a guy who looked brutally beaten up. He mentioned what happened to him on the stream and I immediately tracked him down to get his story. He didn’t wish to reveal his real identity. So, we’ll call him Tarun. What started as a normal conversation on Blued, turned out to be a nightmare for the 24-year-old student. He had only been using the app for a couple of months, when he met someone on it he started chatting with. “He seemed like a total boy next door,” says Tarun. "We spoke about everything from work to family to sex.”
Within two weeks of chatting, Tarun was off to Govandi, a suburb of Mumbai, to meet his new friend. With the ‘friend’ though were a bunch of other men who stole Tarun’s phone, took his money, and then broke his nose. “I thought of fighting back, but my odds were bad. They hit me twice in my face. They kept abusing me, calling me meetha and gud (homophobic slang). When my nose started bleeding profusely, they let me go.” This incident forced Tarun to come out to his mother a day after all of this happened. He went to the cops too but they refused to register the complaint because Tarun was unsure about the exact locale in which he was attacked.
Now, it’s unfair to purely blame a dating app for such incidents. But it’s interesting to know that while dating apps have started marketing themselves in India more vociferously post the Section 377 verdict (on Romeo alone, there are over 90,000 men with active accounts in India), the gangs that are targeting men like Tarun are also assured that there will be more men signing up on dating sites and serving as easy prey. While Tarun and Ashish are educated men who belong to relatively more privileged sections of the society, those who aren’t as well-versed with technology or their rights are more vulnerable.
Ishaan Sethi noticed this issue when he first moved to India in 2014. And in a bid to address it, he created his own version of an online dating site in the form of Delta. “Delta has a trust score that determines how many sparks (our version of a direct message) a user can get," he says. "Users can connect various social accounts to drive a higher trust score. The social accounts that one connects also undergo algorithmic checks to ensure their authenticity. And selfie verifications also allow users to verify themselves vis-à-vis their profile pictures to minimise chances of catfishing.”
But despite these measures, the queer community is still a long way from feeling safe, both online and offline. “Today the law is on our side but the stigma remains,“ Ashish continues. “I would like to tell people to use dating sites cautiously. Get to really know the person you’re chatting with. Go through their Facebook and Instagram, and make sure to meet in a public place. Don’t let your hormones take over and don’t let anyone walk over you. Dating is not illegal, neither is being gay. If you ever encounter such things, contact NGOs in your area or talk to cops alongside a lawyer. Remember that you are not a lesser mortal.”
And even though I agree with Ashish, stories such as these make me even more skeptical about meeting men online. Maybe gay matrimonial apps are next in line for us to try?
Follow Navin Noronha on Twitter.