‘Hi,’ the blue chat icon comes alive.
‘Ok for sex?’
Thus goes the exchange on Grindr, a location-based internet app. The two men are 1.4 km apart as the app’s window on a phone informs Hillol Datta, who has just found himself a table at My Bar in central Delhi’s Paharganj area. Near the restrooms, but with a full view of the crowd. It is Saturday and the place is packed.
There is nothing to suggest that this is a gay bar. Metallica in the air. And the clinks of beer glasses every time a goal is scored in a soccer match that is playing on a large screen. But veterans of the scene know. It is a happy hunting ground. There is cheap alcohol and a good mix of men, some of whom are out looking for other men, fiddling with handsets, perhaps trying to lure dates.
Like Hillol. “See how direct it is,” he says, referring to the app that has galvanised gay dating across the globe. Hillol is in a purple T-shirt on black slacks and has eyes lined with kohl. His gay friends call him ‘Muscle Mary’. A personal fitness trainer, he has a body he has worked on for years, sculpting his muscles. There are tattoos all along the length of his arm. Roses in red ink. At 33, he says he loves his life. He is feminine gay, he says, and a happy convert to Grindr.
Hillol is almost an addict. Grindring, he says, is best done at home. That is when he can do it properly, sift profiles and get chatting. But for an instant hook-up, he prefers a bar. It allows him to cruise online and set up a meeting in real time, almost.
‘Ok for sex?’ was too direct for his liking. He has other things on his mind right now. Drinks, conversation, dancing—and then sex, maybe.
He moves quickly on to the next thumbnail: a green glow. Someone else is online.
‘Load More Guys’ the screen tempts.
“Why not?” he shrugs.
He taps his touchscreen, and while Grindr loads more options, rather like an online shopping site, complete with offer details and terms, Hillol speaks of the old days when a palm caressed by a finger while shaking hands was the usual way to signal and respond to gay interest.
The arrival of the internet was a help. But earlier websites, like the decade-old PlanetRomeo, did not offer immediacy of contact. Users of Grindr, in contrast, are in constant touch and there is always someone out there looking for some action. As Hillol says, it is a no-nonsense app. It gets straight—if you’ll pardon the word—to the point. It gets gays together in a jiffy. Its separation gap feature, for example, displays distances down to a fraction of a metre. It is GPS technology at the service of sex.
Described in the Western media as ‘a revolutionary dating tool’, ‘the scariest gay bar on earth’ and much else besides, this app for gay and bi-curious men first appeared in 2009. Since then, it has gained over a million users in more than 180 countries by making it easy for people of alternate sexuality to find dates, a challenge even in societies where they habitually wear visible markers, coded or otherwise.
Joel Simkhai, the Los Angeles-based man who designed Grindr, was born in Tel Aviv. He was a teenager when he came out, and that experience led him to the idea, as he said in an interview with The Guardian. Like any other lonely gay man, he would always wonder who else was in the same space.
At first, it was an iPhone and Android app, but is now accessible even to users of BlackBerry and other devices. In India, gay men started using it in 2010, but it has picked up only in the past year or so. Once India has more smartphones, guesses Hillol, the app will become popular here. It would be especially useful in towns that have no gay bars and few partner options.
The app offers a vast variety of choices. ‘Top’ or ‘bottom’ is a basic option (as basic indicators of an active or passive sex preference), plus there are ‘hairy’, ‘filmi’ and other tags. It is entirely up to users to describe themselves in whichever way they like. It is also common to use pseudonyms that are dreamt up to excite a special kind of sexual interest. To add to the intrigue, the app’s icon looks like a mask, a little like the kind that Bane wears in the Dark Knight series.
The name Grindr, according to its website, embodies the idea of ‘grinding’ human beings together in the same way that a coffee grinder does beans.
But this analogy may be a mask in itself. A gay man who recently downloaded the app calls it a lazy attempt to sound intellectual about what is clearly sexual: a grind. This is what users are looking for, and they are not shy about it.
“The gay world is a little different. We believe in giving space, and are looking to have a good time,” says the man who dismisses the coffee analogy. He is looking for a serious relationship, but while it takes time to find such a partner—erudite, masculine and creative, as he hopes—he is not averse to playing the field. And Grindr lets him. His phone battery is low, so he needs to move fast. Some who show up are friends, and he skips those profiles. He wants novelty. That’s most fun.
On the top left corner of the handset, the app shows the presence of a user closest to him: it tells him how may metres away he is, and offers a few details (of the other’s choice of course).
‘Do you have a G-string?’ asks the closest man.
“Fantasyland,” smirks the coffee-analogy rejector, and moves on to ‘Load More Guys’. It is swift. No hard feelings, no misgivings and no judging of the other’s sexual fetish.
Of course, it is not perfect. And men do make mistakes in their hurry to seal the deal, as it were. Another man who does not want to be named found a date via Grindr, but both parties discovered they were ‘bottom’. “We had a drink, kissed and said ‘bye’,” he says. “What’s there to do? Such incidents happen.” Not everyone likes to indicate upfront whether they are active or passive.
He has had several other mis-dates in his short span as an online dater. He is picky, he admits. And Grindr is now an obsession he is trying to shake off. “It is so distracting,” he says, “I am always checking out who there is.” It is about sex and more sex. Even orgy offers. There are a few discussions as well, but mostly on traps and other fetishes.
One fine Friday, as a research measure, I download the app on my own iPhone and sign up with the name ‘Chunky’. I have no photo to market myself in this competitive cyberworld, but I do get a few ‘hi’s.
A man who goes by the Grindr name Mephistopheles, as in the character in Christopher Marlowe’s play Doctor Faustus who tempts the scholar to trade his soul for carnal pleasure, shows up.
‘Dr Faustus here,’ I type, cheekily.
‘Selling your soul, are we?’ he replies.
He suggests a goblet of wine to go with a round of soul trading. I back off.
The response of another user, to whom I reveal I am a journalist and a woman as well, is one of indifference.
‘Like, really?’ he says, adding. ‘Write something different. This one’s been written about.’
True. The American media has covered it in detail. But in India, it’s new.
Another man tells me he isn’t interested in blind dates. I ask him why he is on Grindr. He asks me if I know what a blind date means.
I say ‘blindfold’ and log off.
Another man pings me: ‘In India for a while,’ he says, ‘No Money Boys please...’
Hillol has no intention to quit Grindr. He is in a relationship of sorts, but says it is fun to meet other gay men on weekends for some fun. At My Bar, he has his own internal ‘gaydar’ working as well. A sixth sense, that is, a ‘radar’ that allows someone to spot a fellow gay. Some say it is mythical, but he says his works well for him.
“I can sense,” he says.
With that, he excuses himself, goes to the toilet, and returns to say there are a few men in there of some interest. He taps his phone inbetween speaking to me, and finds someone who suggests a meeting. Someone 169 metres away. Hillol says he is generally wary of meeting those that don’t post profile photos, or those who use suggestive stuff like a bare torso or baseball tucked between the legs. ‘Eager profiles’ raise his suspicion.
It is safer and more convenient to size up a prospect at a public place like a bar. “You can meet immediately, and then decide where you want to take it,” he says. “The gay scene on my side of town is generally dead.”
Delhi’s gay scene has largely been underground all these years. It was only in July 2009 that the Delhi High Court repealed Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code and decriminalised homosexuality. Before that, says a gay friend, secret parties held at farmhouses had to serve as hunting grounds. But these were small networks, and there was always the risk of a police raid.
Social attitudes have not kept pace with the change in law. Hillol recounts the episode of an attack a pool party suffered in 2009 soon after the court ruling. Angry men had barged into the venue, Urban Pind, and stabbed a few men. He still has his scars. He was stabbed on his feet. Another man’s forehead was knifed. “We have been through those days too,” says Hillol. Given all this, Grindr has been a relief. Except that the app’s server is not efficient enough. This is a common complaint. In My Bar, it often takes rather long to ‘Load More Guys’. But Hillol keeps trying. On a Saturday night, he cannot quit so early.
Anyone can download Grindr, and unlike Facebook, one need not have a friend request accepted to gain access to any profile. The app asks if a new user if above 17 years of age, but has no way to verify this. In effect, the app is a free-for-all field. Which means there is a dark side to it too.
“One has to be very careful meeting people. I suggest one should have some conversation before inviting someone home or elsewhere,” advises Hillol. “A gay friend of mine was murdered last year. He used to meet men who he didn’t know for dates. Be very, very careful.”
The coffee-analogy rejector’s initiation happened a long time ago, as a college graduate who would travel by bus. That’s how he met his first crush—on a bus. They moved their hands towards each other on an overhead rod, clasped fingers, and exchanged glances: it was mutual consent. He started going to parties and was soon part of a local gay network. Now he is exhausted with the chase. Sex, he found in abundance. A lasting relationship, he didn’t.
Could Grindr help? Of the many dates he has stumbled upon, there is one person he thinks could assume a role of significance in his life. But in this space, it is sex first and the rest later.
While some users try to play down the sexual facilitation aspect of this app, that is what accounts for its success in a world where gay men—estimated to be one in every 20—have it so difficult. The app’s inventor Simkhai has made statements saying that Grindr is intended to serve as a precursor to sex and not sex itself. But that is just a play on words.
The coffee-analogy rejector is still at it, if only to fight boredom. There is this loneliness to kill, time to fill, he says. He is still hopeful of finding a partner.
The ardour of some is cooling off. “There used to be those adventures in the city on a night out. Now, you can do it on the phone,” says another gay friend. “Convenient, but not so much fun. There was a little rush in approaching a man in a party or in a park, and hoping he is gay. Just like me. Technology simplifies everything too much.”
He first came across the app in 2011. He was party-hopping in a cab with a few gay partygoers in Delhi, and a friend’s friend downloaded it for him on his phone. He was surprised to see what options he had even in the wee hours of the morning. He got himself a date the very next evening. “I had three men interested,” he recalls.
The app is here to stay. And of course, other apps with similar features have come along. There is Bang with Friends for example, and also Blendr, among others, though these are for everybody at large. After all, gay men do not have a monopoly on loneliness, as Simkhai has pointed out. I cannot agree more.