Open Grindr in London and you’re presented with a grid of eligible men, mostly looking for hook-ups. Open the app in Beirut and you’re more likely to see headless torsos, as few are willing to publicly out themselves. In Tokyo, oddly, dozens of users have replaced their profile pictures with images of food, since many dislike showing their faces online but have large image folders of meals they have photographed.
Dating app use differs between cultures, but nowhere is the difference in Grindr more stark than the 72 countries wherein same-sex activity is illegal. The app can be a positive force in those societies, helping to build LGBT communities in places where there are no safe spaces to congregate. But it can also be dangerous – a hotbed for catfish, thieves and undercover police, creating a society in which sharing a photo of your face can get you jailed.
As a result, Grindr includes several safety features in what it calls “dangerous neighbourhood countries”, like Uganda where 67 were charged after a raid on a gay bar earlier this month, Indonesia where two men were publicly caned after they were caught having sex, or Egypt where police are known to use Grindr to entrap and arrest gay men. In such countries, Grindr offers advice in local languages about how to meet safely and disables their location feature by default, meaning it is easier for LGBT users at risk to remain hidden.
We spoke about Grindr experiences with five people from countries where it is illegal or taboo to be gay. Each is simply the perspective of one person and not representative of the whole country: experiences differ depending on social, economic and geographical context.
CAIRO, EGYPT, 25
“Dating apps are trendy in Egypt now. It’s useful if you’re gay because it’s dangerous to flirt with someone in real life – your gaydar might fail, and it would be a scandal if he turned out to be straight.
Grindr can bring people together, especially since you can’t be open about your sexuality in public. I have close gay friends I met from Grindr. When I first struggled with my sexuality, seeing people on Grindr helped me realise I wasn’t alone in this world.
But Grindr has pros and cons. I feel it ruins some values. I don’t like the idea that you can say you’re looking for ‘right now’ or sleep with someone as soon as you meet them. It feels inhuman. I like smiles and love letters and the ‘guy next door’.
Police use Grindr to entrap and arrest gay people. I was never caught, but we live in an atmosphere of fear. I have to hide my sexuality and do everything in discretion. Having to live in secrecy is its own kind of punishment. Despite the dangers, I use Grindr because I take precautions. I can detect police by checking people’s ages, speaking English, or looking at their Instagram or Facebook.
But you can’t detect thieves. I met one guy after chatting for a long time. We were the same age, from the same neighbourhood. We went to a sports track to try and have sex there. We started kissing, but I soon felt someone snatching my phone from my hand. I looked up and there was another guy who looked absolutely terrible, carrying a knife. He was swearing at me and when I tried to defend myself he stabbed me in the thigh. Suddenly there were about seven guys running towards me. I ran to hide, then remembered the guy I was kissing. I had left him behind. I looked back and saw him laughing with the others. He had been working together with the thieves.
I got away and just needed two stitches, but I couldn’t go to the police. What could I tell them? If you explain and say you’re gay, maybe they’ll get your phone back but then arrest you for being gay. It’s a lose-lose game.
I haven’t travelled, but I imagine in a place like London or Paris, people don’t have to use Grindr. You’re not tracked by the police and you can’t go to jail for using the app. You have bars, parades and social activities where you can meet in an organic way. Why would you need Grindr?”
JAKARTA, INDONESIA, 26
“When I first used Grindr in Jakarta seven years ago, it was very different. That’s how I met my boyfriend, and we’re still together today. But now the app is blocked by the government, along with all gay dating apps, so we must use a VPN [virtual private network] to access it. I grew up using the app because it was the only door to meetings in the community, but today the users are abusing it. Now Grindr is full of escorts, drug dealers and undercover police.
Same-sex activity is not illegal here, but people still view homosexuality very badly, except in the upper classes. I wouldn’t turn Grindr on in a public place like a restaurant in case people saw the topless torsos on my phone screen. Few people have face photos on their profiles here.
And the police can get us under different charges. They aren’t paid well so extortion is common. Our new president has made good changes to the country, but his efforts to combat corruption have only made police more aggressive. They demand bribes if you’re caught with drugs. Police go on Grindr pretending to be really hot guys looking for chemsex. If you’re educated you can tell it’s suspicious, so the people who fall in the trap are mostly older or less educated guys. Police sometimes join gay orgies, too, staying undercover until people start using drugs, when then start making arrests.
I live in a house with security, and am careful only to meet guys at my place. I’ve never had a dangerous situation. But class difference in Indonesia deeply affects LGBT life, and people with lower incomes, like those who rent rooms, are in more danger. Someone might come over for sex but bring a friend who waits outside to demand money afterwards. If you live in one of thirty rooms in a big house, and a guy threatens to scream that you’re gay, you’d probably pay just to keep them quiet. You’d be scared of getting kicked out if your landlord learns about your sexuality.
Most people here use Grindr because they’re looking for fun. Sure something bad can happen, but the chances are quite small. You just need to be smart. Even though I stopped using it five months ago, I’ll probably download it again sometime when I’m bored.”
TEHRAN, IRAN, 36
“In Iran most guys don’t want anyone to know about their sexual orientation, so it can be hard to find people to meet. Grindr is blocked here so we have to use a VPN, and when you get online, a lot of people send fake photos or want you to pay for sex. You cannot trust anyone on Grindr in Tehran.
The legal punishment for homosexuality in Iran is very serious, even execution, but since there are protests against the regime at the moment, the authorities are focused on political violence. Saying bad things about the regime would be more serious than a gay relationship. As long as you keep it private, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing.
It’s even possible for gay couples to live together in Tehran. Lots of young guys are interested in men. Obviously it would be different in small cities, where you can’t be openly gay in your family or community, but in Tehran it’s more or less fine.
Over five years I met maybe 30 or 35 guys from apps. I do worry about the dangers in meeting gay people, so I prefer to talk before we meet and make sure it’s not somebody connected to my home life or work, because if people find out about your orientation you could lose your job. It takes time to find someone trustworthy, but I haven’t had any bad experiences. But I’m also quite a risky guy, and so have met guys in places like the cabins of public baths – that was stressful but didn’t feel dangerous.
I don’t have any gay friends. If I meet guys it’s not for hobbies or going to the cafe, just for sex, nothing more. I’m bi, married, and generally satisfied by my family. My wife doesn’t know that I have relations with men occasionally. I feel bad about it and will tell her someday, but I’m trying to satisfy her in life because I really love her. I would say about 5 – 10% of married men in Tehran are like me, looking for sexual experiences outside of marriage. I think this is because we don’t have sexual freedom. If men and women were more free to meet sexually, fewer married men would look to other men for sex.”
KINGSTON, JAMAICA, 25
“Grindr has become very popular in the gay community here in the last couple of years, particularly among foreigners, or those who want to meet them. When I first used it I was looking for something serious, but when I discovered it’s mostly about hook-ups, I just went with the flow. I found some aspects of it positive, made a lot of friends and had a couple of flings, but I’d get annoyed when someone sent me nudes or nagged me about meeting up.
The LGBT community in Jamaica is a small pool, so I used Grindr to find something new. I found that locals who are not out use the app to hook up. They don’t want to be in the public eye because Jamaica can be very homophobic, depending on your family.
I know openly gay people from wealthy families, but if you’re lower class and out, people will look down at you. It can be dangerous. I live downtown, in the heart of the ghetto, and have lived there all my life. I’m open about my sexuality, too – I don’t think there’s a closet big enough to hold me. I don’t come across discrimination because my family has a name and respect in the community. But I have friends in the same area who have been attacked. Two of them are seeking asylum in the US.
I wasn’t worried about the dangers of Grindr at first. I met this guy who was very nice and polite, and we went out for drinks. We were talking in a bar and I went to the bathroom. I came back to find he had left and taken my phone. When I messaged him later he replied with homophobic slurs. That’s how I found out there are straight men who use Grindr to meet gay men to rob them. Sometimes people get badly beaten or stabbed. I have a friend who was outed through Grindr. Someone took screenshots of his conversations and then sent them to everybody, forcing him to leave the community. Then there are gay men who use Grindr to meet foreigners and rob them, selling their phones to have a dollar to eat. It can be how they make a living.
After my phone got stolen I stopped using the app. I got out before anything serious could happen. But there’s good and bad. I never had a serious relationship from the app, but I have a friend who met his Canadian lover on Grindr then migrated to Canada. Now they live together. Also, an organisation here promoting HIV awareness uses Grindr to encourage men who have sex with men to get tested. Grindr has been very helpful for them to reach people in the community.”
KAMPALA, UGANDA, 29
“There used to be a bar in Kampala that was a completely queer space, but two weeks ago it got raided. I was there when it happened and got arrested. Luckily I have connections and could get out, but that was our only spot. Since there are few places to meet, Grindr is popular and important in the culture.
For the longest time I thought I was the only queer person in my hometown, which is outside Kampala. Then when I was home for Christmas break after I got Grindr, I saw a bunch of people online. I was like: “Where the hell were these people when I was living here?!” My sexuality is easy to spot – I’m like a giraffe in a sea of buffaloes – but no one had ever approached me before.
I use Grindr for hook-ups. Our culture doesn’t create a space for queer people to have relationships, so I wrote off the idea early. But the level of paranoia and fear makes it difficult. I haven’t been thrown out by my family, but I know people who have and are treated like pariahs, even by people who don’t know them. That makes it hard to live in a society where the places you live, study and work are all dictated by who you know.
I don’t feel any danger using Grindr, but some do. They are afraid of someone, even a queer person, finding out about their sexuality and using that information to blackmail them. A few years ago at the height of the hysteria about homosexuality, a newspaper published photos of a hundred LGBT guys, many taken from Grindr. It was awful. Many had to flee the country.
Obviously there are differences in class. Access to Grindr means you need internet and a smartphone. I met a guy on Grindr but then he had to sell his phone to pay rent. After that we just texted and called, which was cheaper for him. I think a lot of people are like that.
I have made friends on Grindr, and I think apps help build gay community. Our community is so small anyway, everyone knows each other. Sometimes people on the app know my name before we’ve ever met. It also builds self-esteem. Human beings need to have their attractiveness validated, to feel someone fancies them. That’s why you see many people chatting on Grindr but few actually meeting up. It’s healthy. It helps us feel less alone.”