An all-too-familiar sound rings out from my phone. “Someone just tapped you!” I swipe to open the notification. 57 people recently viewed my profile. A message comes in offering me “chems,” – a solicitation of drugs which I politely ignore. The grid that makes up Grindr’s interface – a mixture of shirtless torsos, faces, and blank squares – is stale, and I want to see new people. I hit the explore feature and put myself on the other side of Amsterdam. “New message received.” 4 kilometers away – might as well be across the world. “Location received.” 72 meters away – much better. Upon a short transaction of photos, I am on my bike and on my way. I text my friend and fellow Grindr user as a security measure, “Hey – I’m going to hookup with this guy. If I don’t text you in a few hours, call me.”
For some, this is a common procedure in this digitally-mediated world of love and sex. Grindr, the world’s largest gay-dating app (Fitzsimmons, 2019), presents a number of benefits to gay communities around the globe. For example, Grindr’s interface provides sexual health information and testing resources. Shield identifies Grindr as a “socio-sexual network” that facilitates erotic, platonic, and practical connections among gay men (2018, 151). Considering its size and ubiquity, it is vital that attention is paid to understanding the ways in which these apps can harm the populations they are supposed to serve. The threats that gay people face online are numerous – risk of unwanted outing, catfishing, and the proliferation of offline practices such as drug trades, misogyny, and racism (Conner, 2018). However, the ‘hunting’ of gay people via gay-dating apps remains a serious concern for many people around the world (Human Rights Watch, 2019). Specifically, this paper seeks to explore how state actors are enacting violence against gay people through gay-dating apps.
In recent years, the rise of geo-location based gay-dating apps has presented a unique opportunity for anyone to infiltrate a gay population. The dangers of random Grindr hookups are just that – the person on the other end of the screen is a complete mystery. Albury and Byron discuss Grindr as a “technology of risk” that forces users to negotiate between intimacy and visibility due to its discreet, anonymous nature (2016, 2). Both state and non-state actors have taken full advantage of this (Brandom, 2018; Human Rights Watch, 2019; Jaque & González, 2016; Francey, 2012). While journalists have identified this phenomenon in a number of countries around the world, I am choosing to focus my work on Egypt and Chechnya due to the amount of information available from both journalists and NGOs, as well as their unique geopolitical circumstances involving gay rights and internet surveillance. My results chapter features data from interviews with Chechen refugees, shifting the focus solely to Chechnya.
In Egypt, the use of digital technology to track gay people has been occurring since 2003, when an Israeli tourist was imprisoned for more than three weeks (GayMiddleEastNews.com, 2003). This practice has only intensified, with gay-dating apps being used to entrap users, placing them in situations that are physically harmful and putting them in risk of deportation (Brandom, 2018). In Chechnya, the government has been carrying out ‘gay purges’ over the last few years, with gay-dating apps and mobile phones being employed as a tactic for tracking down the discreet gay population and torturing them – causing many to flee the country (Human Rights Watch, 2019).
To fully understand this phenomenon, I draw on three perspectives to guide my research: queer theory, privacy, and infrastructure studies. At the foundation of these perspectives – and of this paper – is the relationship between the nation-state, digital technologies, citizenship, and the self. Queer theory provides a critical lens in which to examine the sexual politics and cultures, as well as a functional perspective on the relationship between queerness and the nation-state. Literature about privacy provides ways of thinking about security in the digital age, a topic that is central to this phenomenon and to the practice of queerness online, in general. Additionally, applying the framework of infrastructure studies allows for a deeper understanding of the invisible aspects of this phenomenon. Lastly, my framework rests upon the ever-evolving idea of state sovereignty in the age of the internet. While these perspectives provide a useful framework, my analysis will show the need for understanding this problem through a combination of these perspectives, in addition to affordance analysis and ethnographic work. By situating the phenomenon – state violence facilitated through gay-dating apps – within these broader perspectives and pairing this with interface and interview data, my analysis highlights the importance of the human experience.
Broadly, I argue that to exist as queer on a dating app is to be in a constant state of production. Not only are profiles on these sites a production of the self (Mowlabocus, 2010), but we engage in the co-production of language, culture, and resistance on these platforms (Jaspal, 2017). The wide range of actors – from the neoliberal-ideal gay male to the trans woman, from the drug dealer to the undercover cop – heightens the stakes of this production, and further reinstates the highly produced nature of Grindr. In other words, the various self-production happening on and facilitated by gay-dating apps is at the very core of this issue. In what follows, I will deconstruct gay-dating apps as sites of production, focusing on how this production facilitates state violence against the gay population in Chechnya.