More than 70 countries have laws that make same-sex relations a punishable offence. In India, for example, 75 percent of LGBT people surveyed fear for their lives because of their sexual orientation. A lot of people “don’t even want to accept that we exist,” a gay man tells correspondent Dan Savage in the new episode of Explorer, on National Geographic.
That oppression has helped give rise to a whole universe of online options that help LGBT people connect. The dating app Grindr is one of those options, and the company has a division called Grindr for Equality that aims to “mobilise, inform, and empower” its users. Director Jack Harrison-Quintana talks about his group’s work and why social media can be a lifeline for people living in countries where being gay is essentially illegal.
How is social media changing the LGBT experience globally, both for the better and potentially worse?
Unlike other groups who may be minorities within society, LGBT people don’t necessarily have LGBT parents, right? I’m Mexican-American, and my mum is Mexican-American, so growing up I could see from her what that means, learn about our culture, our history. That’s just not true for LGBT people, which leads to some of the extreme isolation that you see in the worst cases.
Social media overall is a way for us to connect to the community and to learn about this group that any individual LGBT person is a part of. Grindr has users in 197 countries. A lot of people are using it in places where there may be no gay bars, there may be no gay youth groups. So it’s a really important way for people to be able to even just see that other LGBT people in their culture exist, and to be able to engage with those folks. It has a huge impact on people’s sense of themselves.
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The flip side of that is that some people are living in very homophobic countries, and none of the positives of the social media impact can ever entirely take that away.
Are some people being targeted for using Grindr or other apps like it? How can you address that?
Yeah, we do see that in certain places. We do our best to give people the information that they need to make really good choices about their safety, especially in countries where there’s the most danger. Our safety recommendations are translated into 10 languages. They include things like maybe not putting a picture of your face as your profile picture, [or] maybe you don’t meet someone unless you can identify a mutual friend who’s within the community.
A lot of the work that I do is based on the power of our in-app message system. Through that system, I can send messages in any language to users based on their location anywhere in the world. In the places where things are toughest, we put out messages from organisations that are [focused] on keeping LGBT people safe or making sure that they have access to health and legal services if anything does happen to them.
So we’ll work with them to also send out messages that are even more tailored like if we find out that there could be increased police raids in a certain town, we get tips on that and send it out to everyone in that area.
Can you talk more about what Grindr is doing in India and the groups it works with?
One good example is the Gay Housing Assistance Resource, which is a really cool use of social media that started on Facebook. They are about matching LGBT people who moved out from their families with other LGBT roommates. The norm in India is actually that a lot of people live with their families until they get married. But if that’s not the trajectory you’re on because you’re LGBT, it can be really challenging to convince your family to let you go out and live on your own or live with roommates.
So GHAR sprang up as a space where people can match with other people to live with. We worked really closely with them on making sure that Grindr users know about and have access to that service. Another organisation we’ve worked with is called Harmless Hugs. It’s been expanding [in India], and they basically do informal gatherings for group therapy and support. It also started as an online group and has become an in-person thing.
Do you find there are places that are more dangerous for LGBT people than the average person might realise?
Let me flip that around for you. Sometimes people ask me what is the best place in the world to be LGBT, which is a little bit of a complicated question because there are a lot of different factors. But if you look purely at the laws themselves, the country that I would personally rate the best in the world is Argentina. I think that surprises people because I think they expect me to say Norway or Sweden or Germany.
There is a perception that Thailand is kind of like this queer paradise. People have a sense that there is this longstanding culture around trans femininity. The reality is that, much like everywhere in the world, there’s still a lot of transphobia there and there’s still a lot of homophobia. Even though there are reasonably good laws for protecting trans women, they’re still often pushed into very limited career opportunities, and they still may face extreme family rejection. I think it’s hard to overestimate homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia all across the world.
What progress or signs of hope have you seen in your work?
This decade has brought more progress than I ever even could imagine, especially when I think about trans issues. Ten years ago when I started in this work, I would never have thought that trans issues would be as visible as they are in so many parts of the world.
On the other hand, there are parts of the world where definitely we are seeing things go backwards. A number of countries have added explicit laws criminalising lesbian sex. We’ve had arrests of LGBT people in Morocco and Tunisia in the last two years, and that had not happened for at least a decade before that.
There’s so much more work to be done. But absolutely there’s progress. We’ve seen [legal gay] marriage pass in the U.S. and in many other countries. There are definitely many signs of hope, like those laws and like the increased attention that we are bringing through social media and otherwise to the discrimination and violence we face. Even National Geographic itself—the gender issue I would never have dreamed of 10 years ago.
Conversation has been edited for length and clarity.