The night before we are scheduled to meet Prayag*, the phone buzzes. “Do I have to reveal my identity,” asks the 28-year-old. When we finally meet, Prayag is visibly nervous. It has taken months of therapy for him to be in this room. A sip of water, a few moments of quiet reflection and Prayag is ready to open up about the incident that changed his life. “I was chatting with this guy for about two weeks. I was comfortable with him, so I asked him to meet me.”
“I went thinking that I’m meeting a nice guy,” he goes on to detail the incident from July 25, 2017. “I waited there for about half-an-hour. I was just about to leave when someone touched my shoulder. When I turned around, there were three guys.”
“It turned out to be a group of three strangers that I had never seen in my life and were far from the person who I was chatting with,” he says, his smile barely masking his agitation. However, he continues with his story, fidgeting in the swivel chair. “They clearly were goons and made no pretence to hide it.”
Before Prayag could react to the situation, the three men started frisking him for money, even threatening to smash his car. When he resisted, they shamed him for having used Grindr and threatened to disclose his sexuality to his family. “It was a planned and well-rehearsed extortion, which they seemed to have had some experience in doing on a regular basis, as I later realized,” he says.
“I went to an ATM with an old card, so they would not be able to access my account. But then they called the police, who was involved with them.” After three long hours, Prayag contacted a few friends, who gave the “goons” some money, convincing them to leave. But Prayag continued to carry the horrors of his experience with him. “What started as a simple encounter to meet someone interesting turned into a nightmare,” he says. “I’ve not been able to trust anybody since that day.”
The Ayush Nautiyal murder
Prayag’s story is just one of several others that fail to be addressed as the queer community in India still continues to fly under the radar. It wasn’t until the murder of 21-year-old Delhi University student Ayush Nautiyal that the spotlight shifted towards the Indian LGBTQ+.
On March 22, 2018, Ayush met Ishtiaq, a man he had been chatting with on Tinder for 10 days. On their third meeting, however, a heated argument led to Ishtiaq hitting Ayush with a hammer multiple times, resulting in his death. Following the murder, Ishtiaq even made a ransom call to the victim’s parents while he disposed-off the body in a drain in Delhi’s Dwarka Sector 13.
Soon after the murder, lawyers, activists and mental healthcare professionals held a meeting, where they discussed the risks presented by these online dating apps. Suraj Sanap (30), who has been involved with several such cases as a legal officer with the Lawyers Collective, says, “I have heard of instances where even some of our heterosexual friends face harassment and blackmail through dating apps. But, I think, the problem is intensified when the law is against you, especially if you’re not even out.”
A much larger problem
For Manas* (27), using dating apps was a way to “figure out what being gay was” as he wasn’t out of the closet when he first joined PlanetRomeo in 2010. “I had just moved to a new city and I thought it would be great to meet people from the community.”
However, a seemingly harmless encounter with a person he had been talking to on the app quickly turned ugly. “I met this person and we decided to go to his place, just him and I. Until then there was no question of getting physical or anything,” he says.
“The next set of incidents I remember somewhat in flashes. I remember the room was very dark and I was quite drunk and I remember this guy taking my clothes off and I asked him, ‘What are we doing? This was not the plan.’ He just took things into his own hands and decided to strip my clothes, flip me over and penetrate me. There was no protection used, no form of lubrication used and it was insanely painful. And this was one of my first experiences of having sex with someone. It was so painful that I passed out.”
After the incident, Manas found blame in himself for having gone to a stranger’s house in an inebriated state. He adds, “It was only until 3 years back, after having talked to a few close friends and my sister, that I realised that a ‘no,’ means no.”
Another victim, Ashish* (25), narrates how things quickly went south when a man, whom he had been talking to on PlanetRomeo, asked details about one of his friends. Sensing that something was off, Ashish got the person to tell him his intentions with the friend. When Ashish informed his friend, it enraged the person.
“He came back two days later saying, ‘We’ve done something to your friend.’ Then, he said, ‘I know where you live. I know where you work and I’m gonna come get you.’.” Tensed, Ashish tried contacting his friend but couldn’t reach him. He hadn’t paid much heed to the threats he had received, being more concerned about the safety of his friend, until two more people texted him on the same dating app, pressing him to believe what the guy was saying. It was then that Ashish became truly scared, both for himself and his friend.
Such incidents, unfortunately, are pretty common, according to Gautam Yadav (27), a program officer at the NGO The Humsafar Trust. “Every second day, I get a call about a case, be it about extortion, robbery, etc,” says Yadav. The Humsafar Trust offers victims counselling, or even legal recourse, which is rarely what the victims want.
Why are these crimes never reported?
“I think there’s a bit of shame attached to the whole thing and also because the gender is men, people don’t know how to approach it either,” says Manas. “In the sense, what do you do after that? How do you report it? Do you actually go to a police station?”
According to Yadav, most victims choose not to take legal action due to the fear of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which criminalises “unnatural sex”. “A lot of people bear the misconception that they can be prosecuted under Section 377 on the basis of their sexual orientation alone. Which is not true.”
Incidentally, the IPC does have provisions to report blackmail specific to Section 377. People who have been threatened under the law can report it under Section 389 which can land perpetrators with a life sentence. “The problem is that the police don’t understand the law. And most people don’t even know that the law exists,” says Sanap, who asserts that cases of extortion were reported within months of the Supreme Court’s decision to reinstate Section 377.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) is an 1861 British Raj law that was introduced to criminalise any kind of sex that went against the ‘order of nature’, including gay sex. In 2009, the Delhi High Court had struck down the law, paving the way for LGBT+ rights to take centre stage. However, four years later, the Supreme Court set that order aside, leaving the law to be dealt by the Parliament.
“If Section 377 hadn’t existed, a lot of people, who faced extortion, or their lives were made difficult, wouldn’t have had it happen to them. They (extortionists) wouldn’t have a subject to torture you on,” says Prayag.
Are dating apps responsible?
“We encourage our community to report any instance of misconduct via the self-reporting tool featured on all Tinder profiles or online. In the event that we receive such a report, our dedicated community team takes appropriate measures, which may include removing the profile or banning the user,” Tinder tells InUth, adding that they have a “zero-tolerance policy” for online harassment.
However, Prayag does not have a favourable impression of these apps. “Dating apps are essentially money-making applications. To them, the numbers are everything. If the numbers come from fake IDs or real IDs, they really don’t care.”
On the other hand, Yadav says, “I don’t think that the entire responsibility should fall on the dating platforms. Today, you cannot even think of Facebook as a safe space, or any other social media or emails, for that matter. But people do fall into the trap of fake emails. So, it’s not just that the social media is in the wrong. We must, too, take some precautions.”
In April 2018, Grindr was found to have shared details of its user profiles—including email addresses, phone IDs and sexual health information—with two outside companies. The gay dating app has repeatedly come under fire for having security vulnerabilities around the location data. With so many security flaws surfacing coupled with internalised prejudice, distrust among users is at an all-time high. According to Time Well Spent survey, 77 percent of Grindr users reported feeling unhappy. Yet, a lot of people from the queer community are quite dependent on these apps in order to socialize.
Rishabh* was mugged when he called a guy to his place and feels that using these apps is like holding a double-edged sword. “These apps, for better or for worse, have become an integral part of the dating scenario, because, while homosexuality continues to be illegal in India, there are no other spaces where people can meet. So the apps become kind of necessary that way. It’s a necessary evil.”
*names have been changed to protect the identity of individuals