A government crackdown on dating apps is depriving LGBT Indonesians of a crucial resource
The prevalence of smartphones means dating apps such as Grindr and Wapa have had high usage among LGBT Indonesians. Recently, however, several dating apps, including Grindr, Blued and BoyAhoy, have been blocked. Blocking the apps means that when people try to use them, empty profiles are loaded and no photos or links can be accessed.
While the Police Criminal Investigation Agency (Bareskrim) asked the Ministry of Information to block these apps on the specific – but spurious – grounds that they were being used by paedophiles to pimp teenage boys out to men, it is important to recognise that such moves come on the back of the anti-LGBT crisis plaguing Indonesia since January 2016. Many fear that dating apps are promoting sexual ‘deviancy’ and a ‘gay lifestyle’.
Dating apps, however, are not just used by people wanting to hook up for casual sex. Online dating apps are also used to meet like-minded people, to form communities, and to disseminate information about sexual and reproductive health. Blocking the apps thus deprives LGBT Indonesians of important opportunities to overcome the many difficulties they face as stigmatised sexual minorities.
Many fear that dating apps are promoting sexual ‘deviancy’ and a ‘gay lifestyle’. (Dina Listiorini)
Choosing an app
Many people who use online dating apps in Indonesia choose their apps based on sexual preference. For instance, Wapa, Brenda and Line are the apps of choice for many lesbians while gay men often prefer Grindr, Scruff or Growlr. Transgender Indonesians use a lot of different dating apps, sometimes concurrently and sometimes consecutively. Favourites include Badoo, Grindr, Hornet, JackD, Skout, Wapa and WeChat. Until recently, Tinder was seen as an exclusively heterosexual dating app and rarely used by LGBT Indonesians. Towards the end of 2016, however, it was starting to become many LGBT people’s app of choice. One gay man in Bali explained that ‘we all just use Tinder now [because the other apps are banned] and there’s no way that the politicians are going to ban it’. Why not? ‘Because they all use it!’
It is common for people to have multiple apps downloaded on their phone. Emilio, a 22-year-old trans man who works as a barista in an international food hall, says he likes using Wapa because it’s simple and has a feature called ‘who’s tracking me’ that lets you know who is looking at your profile. Emilio also likes Wapa because it’s Jakarta specific. On the other hand, he also uses Badoo because its users have more mature personalities than the users of apps such as G-talk, WeChat or WeTalk. It’s too bad, he adds, that to use all the features of Badoo you have to pay Rp 14,000 (A$1.40) per week.
Tara, a 28-year-old lesbian, likes using the app Line because a lot of Chinese-Indonesians use it. Tara also uses the app Her because, even though straight and gay men use it, most of the users are lesbians and bisexual women. She likes using dating apps because it lets her test the waters to see if she likes someone before going on a date.
Like many gay men, clothing designer Liyanti likes Grindr best because it’s simple to use and lots of people are on it. Yet many gay men also reported downloading an app based on the specific type of sexual partner they are looking for. As Hendri Yulius, an Indonesia LGBT activist and frequent contributor to The Jakarta Post, noted in personal communication, ‘Growlr is for “chub-chasers” – it’s a site you use if you are looking for a chubby sexual partner – while Scruff is a site you use if you are looking for hairy guys or guys with stubble. Daddy Hunt is a site to use if you are looking for a daddy-type partner.’ One thus chooses the app according to what type of sexual or romantic partner is desired – and if someone is into both chubby and hairy guys both Growlr and Scruff might be installed. Choosing an appropriate app increases the chance of a hook-up or relationship. However, as with all things associated with sexuality, app choice and app use is fluid and not everyone on a particular app fulfills the criteria; moreover, people may use fake photos of themselves to construct an identity.
People often get introduced to dating apps through friends and acquaintances. Emilio was introduced to Badoo by a lesbian Filipino woman he met through the app Couchsurfing. The woman ended up staying at Emilio’s house and introduced him to Wapa. Emilio also likes using Skout but finds that it has too many advertisements.
Yuanita, a waria in hir early thirties who volunteers at a local NGO providing shelter for people with HIV/AIDS, was also introduced to dating apps by a friend. In fact it was the frequent use of Grindr by Yuanita’s gay friend that led Yuanita to assume Grindr would be the app for hir. However, after Yuanita’s friend informed hir that Grindr is really only suited to gay men, Yuanita started using other apps such as Badoo, G-talk, WeChat, Skout and Weblock.
The fact that dating apps are largely segregated by sexual preference was seen as a positive by people we talked to because it enabled users to quickly find suitable friends and partners. LGBT sex workers also use the apps to increase access to potential clients.
Why use dating apps?
Not everyone uses a dating app to hook up with someone for casual sex. In fact many people use dating apps to connect with like-minded people for friendship. The ability to safely link into an LGBT community online became increasingly important in the wake of the 2016 ‘LGBT crisis.’
Dimas, a 21-year-old gay man studying at a private university says there are many advantages of using apps such as Grindr. One of the main benefits is privacy. Because society often thinks being LGBT is taboo there is limited space in the off-line world for LGBT people to connect. The virtual world provides an opportunity for LGBT Indonesians to safely connect with each other. Ayunda, a 20-year-old lesbian, explained that an important reason for using dating apps is to find new friends and meet like-minded people from different places. Emilio uses dating apps to feel more connected to the LGBT world. And, as Hendri Yulius notes, these benefits are especially valuable for LGBT Indonesians who are not out or who cannot afford to visit other spaces where they might find kindred spirits.
There are many advantages to using dating apps, including privacy. (Screenshot via Grindr)
Friendship is not guaranteed, though, as a lot of people post fake photos and make up false profiles. And Liyanti says that, in his experience, even though many people post things on their profile like ‘I am not looking for sex. I just want friendship’, this is more often than not just a lie. They are looking for sex. Sometimes people post that they have a serious partner to try and fool people into connecting with them because sex is then considered off the table. But in Liyanti’s experience people write this just to trick you. They are looking for sex too. Liyanti also says that people write on their profile that they just want friendship and that they don’t want anyone asking if they are T (top, penetrative sexual partner) or B (bottom, penetrated sexual partner). But as soon as Liyanti responds to someone who writes this, they ask him if he is a top or a bottom. Such encounters can ironically lead to a sense of frustration with the LGBT world. ‘The binan (gay) world is just bullshit,’ Liyanti says.
Not just social
Indonesians use dating apps for more than just seeking friendship and sex. Before the ban, Liyanti used Grindr to promote his business. He has many fashionista friends and they find it easy to buy his designs through apps. Liyanti and others wishing to promote their products add a message on their profile or status encouraging viewers to contact them via other apps such as WhatsApp or Facebook if they are interested in their product. Users may also be able to click on the person’s photo to access profile and product links.
A further use of dating apps is the promotion of safer sex. Ale, a 29-year-old gay man who works at a sexual and reproductive health NGO, has used Grindr to promote safer sex programs and encourage men who have sex with men to get regular HIV/AIDS check-ups. There are a number of ways people promote HIV and sexual health awareness through dating apps. App users can put a notice on their status telling people to private message them if they are interested in knowing more about HIV, for example. Users can also ‘poke’ each other with messages reminding them to get a HIV test. Some dating apps also allow people to introduce third parties to each other and these connections can be used to spread information about sexual health.
The potential for dating apps to be used to connect LGBT individuals across Indonesia and to disseminate sexual health material is of key importance at the present time as Indonesia is undergoing unprecedented levels of LGBT harassment and persecution. It would be a tragedy indeed if the government and religious bodies continue to censor online dating apps.
Dina Listiorini (email@example.com) is a lecturer at Universitas Atma Jaya, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Sharyn Graham Davies (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor at AUT University in New Zealand.
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