ASIA

In countries where gay sex is taboo, Grindr and other apps open a (sometimes perilous) window

Within the quietly thriving gay scene in India’s entertainment and financial capital, one thing appears to be common.

“Everybody from the gay community is using Grindr,” Inder Vhatwar, a Mumbai fashion entrepreneur, said of the dating app geared toward gay men.

Despite a national law banning same-sex intercourse, tens of thousands of gay Indians use Grindr for social networking, dating and, yes, sex. As in many other Asian countries where homosexuality is outlawed or taboo, Grindr and similar apps have opened up a new digital frontier for gays but also raised concerns about privacy, safety and government clampdowns.

Grindr’s international appeal is in the spotlight following the announcement Monday that a Chinese gaming company had purchased a majority stake the Hollywood start-up for $93 million. The deal with Beijing Kunlun World Wide Technology Co. values Grindr, founded in 2009, at $155 million.

Company founder and Chief Executive Joel Simkhai said the sale would allow Grindr to accelerate the growth of “the largest network for gay men in the world.”

That includes users in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- where homosexuality is illegal on the grounds that it’s un-Islamic -- and in China, where not long ago gays and lesbians had so few ways to meet that they formed surreptitious communities around public toilets, parks and bathhouses.

After news of the sale, Beijing Kunlun’s stock shot up more than 10% in China, highlighting a huge demand among the country’s gay community for new ways to connect.

Homosexuality was a criminal offense in China until 1997 and classified as a psychological disorder until 2001. Chinese authorities do not recognize same-sex marriages, and many Chinese families, employers and schools still consider homosexuality taboo, forcing many Chinese gays and lesbians to keep their sexuality a secret.

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Grindr is far from China’s most popular gay dating app. That position is held by Blued, a homegrown start-up founded by an ex-policeman, Ma Baoli, in 2012. Blued has attracted 22 million gay male users, accounting for about 85% of China’s gay dating app market, the company wrote in a 2015 report. Half its users are between 18 and 25 years old.

“Blued is more important for Chinese people than Grindr is for Americans,” said Sun Mo, 25, a media operations manager at the Beijing LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Center.

“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.”

Indian cities, too, have only handfuls of gay-friendly bars, and members of the LGBT community say the country’s conservative views on marriage and family keep many of them in the closet. But India’s Grindr community is diverse, ranging from male sex workers to orthodox Hindus, users say.

“If you download the app, you will be shocked to notice how many gay men are around you,” said Ashok Row Kavi, founder of the Humsafar Trust, a gay rights organization in Mumbai. “At any one time on Grindr, there are 100 to 200 gay men in a one-kilometer [half-mile] radius.

“Sexual behaviors are coming way out in urban places, and Grindr is bringing out the best and worst of them.”

In 2013, India’s Supreme Court reinstated a 153-year-old law criminalizing sex “against the order of nature,” which includes same-sex relations. While the law does not ban homosexuality – and few gays have been prosecuted under it – activists say thieves and corrupt cops have used it to harass and blackmail sexual minorities.

Grindr, which uses a cellphone’s GPS function to pinpoint a user’s location, has made it easier to find targets, users say.

Vhatwar, who runs one of Mumbai’s only clothing companies aimed at gay men, said a friend recently invited a man he met on Grindr back to his apartment and got undressed. A second man showed up and the two threatened to disclose the incident, making off with the victim’s laptop, iPad and wallet, said Vhatwar.

When Vhatwar and his friend went to report the incident, the police took hours to register the complaint. Four men were arrested but later released on bail, he said.

In India, “any person using any dating app should be cautious,” Vhatwar said. “During initial chatting, you do not disclose personal details and even when you decide to meet, you make sure you meet at a public place. Then you decide whether you want to go further.”

Kavi said the problem has gotten so serious that gay community leaders have set up a crisis management cell to assist Grindr blackmail victims.

In Pakistan in April 2014, a serial killer confessed to using a gay dating app, Manjam, to meet three men at their homes in Lahore, where he drugged and strangled them. The case shocked gay circles and prompted many people to delete their profiles on Grindr and similar apps. Many Grindr users don’t show their faces in profile pictures; others give fake names.

Despite legal prohibitions, Pakistan’s gay community flourishes in the shadows in Lahore and other major cities. Dating apps help people meet in a country where it is illegal for the Muslim majority to drink alcohol.

“We do not have gay bars – in fact, we do not have any bars, so there are not a lot of places for people to meet specifically for sex,” said Iqbal Qasim, executive director of the Naz Male Health Alliance in Lahore.

“Grindr is one of the main avenues that people have to meet each other within the LGBT community.”

The government bans many LGBT-related sites, but Grindr remains widely used. And while there has been at least one case of a Facebook post leading to a jail sentence in Pakistan – for hate speech – there is no known case of a Grindr user being arrested.

“The authorities … are probably not even aware of Grindr,” Qasim said.

Few countries have gone so far as to ban the app. Authorities in Muslim-majority Turkey blocked Grindr in 2013 as a “protection measure,” a move that activists have challenged in the country’s constitutional court.

China, which operates one of the world’s most extensive censorship regimes, has not touched gay dating apps. Yet the country’s political environment is volatile — officials have recently tightened controls over social media — and users say a clampdown isn’t unthinkable.

A 23-year-old master’s student in Shanghai who asked to be identified only by his surname, Chou, said he met his first boyfriend through a Grindr competitor, the U.S.-based app Jack’d. Chou described it as “a very, very good memory for me, even though we’ve broken up by now.”

If the Chinese government attempts to interfere with such apps, “it’s going to be a big issue,” Chou said. “They’d be blocking a way for people to find happiness — a way to love and be loved by another person.”

Bengali reported from Mumbai and Kaiman from Beijing. Special correspondents Parth M.N. in Mumbai and Yingzhi Yang in Beijing contributed to this report.

Follow @SBengali and @JRKaiman on Twitter

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