In this two-part series, TNM examines the effects of technology via dating apps and sites on queer men and their relationships, specifically looking at incidents of blackmail, extortion and theft. In this first part, we look at the modus operandi of these incidents, speak to the victims and the LGBTQ+ community’s response and support at these times.
Two years ago, TK* – a bisexual, married man in his mid-thirties – logged on to a gay dating app on his phone like any other time. Soon, his phone was going off with notifications, one of the profiles appealed to him, and he began chatting with the person on the other end. After a flurry of exchanged texts, they decided to meet up in person, later that evening at a lodge. “It was just a casual meetup. Sex wasn’t part of the agenda,” TK says. In the lodge’s room, TK was offered a drink by his date, and he chose to have a soft drink instead. “That’s the last thing that I remember,” he tells TNM.
A couple of hours later, he woke up alone in the room, head throbbing, feeling dizzy and completely lost. He got out of the room, searched for his parked car and then drove to a close friend’s house. After sleeping it off, he checked for his belongings, and noticed that he had everything else but his gold chain had been stolen. “At this point, I realised that I’d been drugged with the soft drink,” he admits.
“I quickly shared the story with my common friends in the [LGBTQ+] community including my prepatrator’s online handle from the dating app. Then, I went back to the lodge and demanded that they show me the identity proof used to book the lodge’s room. I took a photo and shared it with friends,” he says, “It turned out to be a bogus address and a photoshopped ID card.”
TK began to circulate his story in the community and soon discovered that incidents with this exact modus operandi had occured before. “I began to hear similar stories through the community from Andhra Pradesh, Chennai, Coimbatore, Tiruchi and Bengaluru. Someone from my own town got in touch with me because they wanted to confide their own horrifying incident to an empathetic ear,” he tells us.
“This other guy was a closeted and married gay man,” TK tells TNM. “The same method was used to rob him for his jewellery. In his case, he had gone missing for a full day, which got his family involved. His wife and brother-in-law had set out to search for him and tracked him to the lodge. The man at the desk told them that he’d come there with a man and he was outed,” he explains.
“Other similar incidents have resulted in the victim being robbed of their clothes and being left naked in the room,” he adds. None of these stories involved any sexual relations, according to TK. “I’d have rationalised the situation and told myself, at least I got to have sex and might have concluded that it was worth it – but I was just looking for some companionship,” he says quite heartbreakingly. “Though, I’ve got a strong suspicion that this con man isn’t gay or bisexual, he’s just exploiting the community through this dating app,” he hazards.
“More than being robbed, it is the vulnerability and the shame that stings. It feels like we were emotionally betrayed by this con man, who was taking advantage of the guilt around our sexuality,” TK adds. “And that feeling of powerlessness and fear is something I’ll never be able to forget.”
There is still strength in numbers
“These incidents of blackmail, extortion and theft are quite common,” says Mahesh Natarajan, a counsellor with the Bangalore-based InnerSight. “And technology has simply made it easier to execute the plan and gain from it,” he says. “Just a couple of weeks ago on the Facebook page of a support group, there was such a story. A gay man made plans to hook up with another man through this dating app, and had even shared the location of his home. At the agreed upon time, the man showed up to his address with three other men, and they physically assaulted him. And then, on the threat of outing him, they made him transfer money to them via his phone,” he tells TNM.
“That’s the trouble, these dating apps and sites have made it easier for people from the community to meet and socialise without scrutiny from society but it has also opened them to these crimes. It has also meant a wealth of compromising pictures and video recordings that could be used as incriminating evidence to shame the gay man later,” he explains.
When TNM tells TK’s story to Mahesh, he says he has heard of similar stories too. “In many of the cases, married, bisexual and closeted men on the down low are mostly on the receiving end of these situations,” he adds. “The method might vary in each individual case but there’s an overall, established pattern. The victim is identified, then he’s assaulted and then threatened with being outed to his family or at his workplace, and the victim is made to pay up to avoid this outcome,” he tells us painting a typical scene.
“Most times, it is a one-time exchange – though there have been times that the victim has been groomed over time,” he adds. Then, Mahesh gives us an example of a latter situation. “I was consulted by a gay man, who was out in the community but not to his family. He’s met someone from this dating app and over a few months they grew into a relationship. Some time into their relationship, the gay man even introduced his partner to his family as a close friend. At first, the demands were just gifts, but soon he was demanding cash on the threat of outing him to his family,” he says. In this case, Mahesh had to work with the gay man to help him sift the emotional from the extortion. “We had to put in a lot of sessions to work out that he was being manipulated and used,” he explains.
For Mahesh, the work has been to reinforce in these victims that one is less likely to be blackmailed if one stays connected to the LGBTQ+ community in one’s city. “We work with them to build inroads into the community and make friends. If they want to take legal action, we point them in the right direction. We also encourage them to meet people and understand the way others might have come out, and hope that the more they become comfortable in their own skin that they’ll make this same decision too. But we don’t push them to do so, we realise this is slow, long work,” Mahesh tells TNM. “Now, with many of the corporate entities having diversity and inclusivity cells, we encourage them to get in touch with their coordinator at work and participate in those activities too,” he adds.
Shame still remains the first hurdle
Technology has also enabled quick communication between members of the community, who have banded together to help out the victims in many cases, says Srini Muktha, a volunteer with the Bangalore-based Good As You, the longest-running LGBTQ+ support group in the country. “I’ve been put in touch with victims through WhatsApp through common friends in the community, and we’ve come together to try and offer help and support in the ways that we can,” he tells TNM. “We reach out to them, try to meet them and comfort them. In a way, we offer peer counselling and lessons learned from other such incidents. We also invite them to the support group – because we want them to know that they are not alone in this world,” he says. “I’ve come to see through the many stories that the ones who isolate themselves from the community are cherry-picked by these con men,” he adds.
Though in some case, the victim is too burned by this experience to reach out beyond a short, confessional phone call. “Closeted people don’t want to be seen as “activists” and “symbols” of anything and they’d rather silently suffer and hope it all goes away quietly,” he says. “They just want a sounding board or a shoulder to cry on, and that’s usually good enough. There have been times that we’ve helped them follow up on the incident. We’ve put them in touch with LGBTQ+ friendly lawyers, but they don’t always follow through with them or it has been to drawn out to sustain,” he adds.
“In the old days, people literally had to be caught with their pants down in one of the many cruising spots in the city. Now with these dating apps and sites, the blackmailers and goondas have access to their victims from the comfort of the home to rob them,” Srini says. Though being at the receiving end is never about the material loss in these cases. “They are using the shame that society made me feel about my sexuality against me, and if I’m able to overcome it, it isn’t easy. The shame feels too deep-seated, too embedded to fight at first,” TK tells us.
In the final part of this two-part series, we speak to LGBTQ+ friendly lawyers, a leader of a LGBT Employee Resource Group and more to understand the avenues of redress available to victims of these crimes.