The State of Queer Dating Apps in Homophobic Society: Empowerment, Danger, and Censorship

by Patrick Drown

In many countries where homophobia is rampant, the LGBT dating scene begins exclusively online. Where it’s difficult and possibly dangerous to be out as a gay man or woman, individuals struggle to find a same-sex partner. But the rise of dating apps like Grindr for exclusively gay men, Her for exclusively gay women, and many other dating apps like Tinder that allow for matches of all sexual orientations have allowed queer people to find out who in their area is also seeking a same sex relationship.

Revealing one's sexuality on an LGBT dating app can feel less risky than being out offline. Most users of these apps are queer people seeking partners, lessening the potential danger and prejudice for those identifying as queer. The guesswork that would normally come along with finding a same sex partner in a homophobic society is erased through using queer dating apps. These applications also can provide users with the ability to connect and network within the LGBT community, a community that can be hard to identify in a homophobic atmosphere. The gathering places of the LGBT community in some countries are almost exclusively online: Sun Mo, a Chinese user of the Chinese gay dating app Blued said, “In America, if you don’t use Grindr, you can go to a gay bar. You can find gay people around. In China, apart from Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai — in smaller cities, and in the countryside — you can’t find any gay organizations or gay bars whatsoever.” In the same way that queer people in rural areas of the US often rely upon dating apps to meet new potential partners, LGBT people in urban areas of homophobic countries rely on queer dating apps as well. 

Yet as some queer people feel empowered by the ability to connect with more members of the LGBT community, some simultaneously feel endangered. Queer dating apps suggest new partners based on the user’s location. Through using the application, it’s possible to see the members of the LGBT community in the area and exactly how many feet away they are. This information in the wrong hands can make tracking queer individuals much easier for police in homophobic countries. To test the feasibility of finding someone’s exact location using a gay dating app, Nguyen Phong Hoang and two other researchers at Kyoto University used a methodology called trilateration to track users. By looking at how far away different users are on Grindr or similar apps, it is possible to determine an exact location by combining the distance measurement from three points surrounding them. Aware of this security risk, many apps have allowed users to opt out from sharing their distance from other users, but Hoang says that it’s still possible to track users even if they don’t share their location data. The app still shares the order in closeness of other users even if it doesn’t share the exact distance. Through what Hoang calls “colluding trilateration,” it is still possible to track users. Using two fake accounts and GPS spoofing software like Fake GPS , it is possible to position the fake accounts slightly closer and slightly further away from a target until a very small circular location is determined.

Authorities in homophobic societies using sophisticated algorithms to track gay dating app users in the same manner as Hoang describes is unheard of, but authorities still are using these apps to single out LGBT people through simpler methods. Many stories exist in Egypt and Syria of authorities or individuals creating fake accounts, setting up dates with men on gay dating apps, and attacking these men upon their arrival. Referencing a period of violence towards the LGBT community in Egypt in 2013, Karim Ahmad said, "In the current climate, I no longer dare to use applications to meet people...Undercover police agents use the applications to set up meetings with gays in cafes. It's a trap." In Syria, members of ISIS use social media to identify and and subsequently kill gay men. In one of the most shocking events of its kind, a serial killer in Pakistan confessed to using a gay dating app, Manjam, to meet three men in their homes in Lahore, where he drugged and strangled them. The event caused many LGBT Pakistanis to delete their profiles on Grindr and similar apps. Events like this are one of the reasons why individuals on queer dating apps usually don’t show their faces in profiles and often give fake names.

While the incidence of individuals using queer dating apps to find and harm gay men is sparse within the US, it isn’t unheard of. In 2014 Ali Muhammad Brown used Grindr to convince two men to meet him outside of “R Place,” a popular gay bar in Seattle, and then killed them both in his car. The June 12th mass shooting that ended the lives of 49 clubgoers at a LGBT club in Orlando is a reminder that identifying oneself as LGBT remains a risk even in the US.

Underscoring the serious dangers involved with LGBT dating through phone applications and other online platforms, LGBT human rights defenders from the Middle East and North African region joined forces with the Tactical Technology Collective and Front Line Defenders to create a guide for digital security for LGBT individuals using gay dating applications. The guide includes basic explanations on how to keep your profiles on social media and gay dating apps as secure as possible and how to assess your own digital security risk. Focusing on the Middle East and North African region, the guide also provides profiles of 22 Arab countries, including the legality of same-sex relationships in each country and the countries’ history of attacks on and censorship of the LGBT community.

The danger of using queer dating apps in certain countries is clear, but some LGBT communities struggle even to access queer dating apps. Turkey, a country that has seen an increase of conservative political voices in recent years, banned Grindr in 2013 as a “protection measure.” Turkey also famously banned YouTube from 2007 to 2010 because of a video that insulted the country’s most venerated leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The word “gay “ in Turkey is part of a list of words that are banned from being used as domain names within the country.

Turkey isn’t the only place the LGBT community experiences censorship. Just days before the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, anti-gay Russian hackers deleted 70,000 accounts on the popular gay dating app Hunters. App users received the text: “Warning: You will be arrested and jailed for gay propaganda in Sochi according to Russian Federal Law 135 Section 6.” Considering that Hunters has around 100,000 accounts in Russia, a large portion of their Russian users were locked out of their accounts. Only around 30,000 accounts were recovered.

Countries with more LGBT friendly tech policies aren’t exempt from censoring queer dating apps. Samsung in South Korea banned the gay dating app Hornet from their app store in 2013, noting that, “due to the local moral values or laws, content containing LGBT is not allowed,” according to a letter sent from Samsung to the CEO of Hornet. Google Play also removed the gay dating app Jack’d in its South Korean app store, though the app remains popular among South Koreans using VPNs based in other countries.

While queer dating apps have the ability to connect the LGBT community like never before, queer communities still must weigh the benefits of these apps against the vulnerabilities that these apps can create for the community. The danger of being tracked by using a dating app is real for many who identify as LGBT. Still, not all LGBT communities even have access to queer dating apps, as seen in the instances of app censorship in Turkey, Russia, South Korea, and other countries. The CEO of Grindr, Joel Simkhai, stated: “oppression starts with the strangling of free speech and just like the burning of books in the past, today it's done by cutting off people’s access to technology.” The owners of censored queer dating apps as well as LGBT activists around the world have endeavored to show that discrimination towards LGBT people can exist not only in face to face interactions but in cyberspace as well.