One lakh rupees! That’s a rough estimate of the amount extorted from around half a dozen queer individuals (all of them gay or bisexual men) by blackmailers (all of them males) in Kolkata in 2019-20. This relates only to the incidents reported verbally or in writing to the Queer Friendly Lawyers Network – West Bengal (QFLN), a legal aid initiative for queer people facilitated by Varta Trust. In most of the cases, the first contact with the blackmailers took place through dating apps or other online dating forums.

Quote: This time around, the QFLN members felt that a series of small community meetings should be organized to delve deeper into the vulnerabilities of queer people to blackmail and to better drive home the need for safer dating. It was decided that at least one half of these meetings should focus on discussing the emotional or mental health aspects related to the desire for dating.The phenomenon of queer people being blackmailed isn’t new, and it’s not limited to Kolkata or only the major cities in India. But it seems to have multiplied manifold thanks to the anonymity allowed by the online dating forums. At the same time, the reading down of Section 377, Indian Penal Code by the Supreme Court in September 2018 seems to have done nothing to make queer people secure or reduce their vulnerability to blackmail. This is borne out by the fact that none of the blackmail victims mentioned above reported the matter to the police out of fear of harassment, or because they feared that the police investigation would ‘out them’ to their families, friends or colleagues.

Social stigma still outsmarts legal change and even availability of queer-friendly legal aid. While changing the way the police functions and advocating for greater family acceptance remain important, the thinking in the QFLN is that more needs to be done within the queer communities so as to reduce the vulnerability of queer individuals to blackmail.

Are we talking about safer dating tips? Yes, but also more than that!

On safer dating, the QFLN, Varta Trust and dating app Grindr have published and disseminated a blackmailer alert in the past (see link at the end of the article). It attracted wide attention and generated a lot of interest and questions. But how far can one alert go? Moreover, dating apps like Grindr also regularly carry safer dating suggestions and practical tips.

Inset: About the first community meeting on safer dating: It had five participants – three gay men, one transgender woman and the moderator (Pawan Dhall from QFLN / Varta Trust). One of the participants was a recent victim of blackmail. Another individual who had faced blackmail around his sexuality dropped out of the meeting at the last moment. Since the meeting was meant to be small and intimate, it was not announced on any public forum. All the participants were in touch with Varta Trust through its different activities, including the QFLN.This time around, the QFLN members felt that a series of small community meetings should be organized to delve deeper into the vulnerabilities of queer people to blackmail and to better drive home the need for safer dating. It was decided that at least one half of these meetings should focus on discussing the emotional or mental health aspects related to the desire for dating. If dating is all about desires – desire for fun, thrill, finding a new friend or partner, physical or sexual satisfaction, or even being part of the scene – then it’s actually all about the mind, and that’s where the conversation should begin. And this could have relevance for the first-timers, those new to dating, as well as the veterans!

As part of a project called the Varta Trust Legal Aid Support Group Project (supported by CREA, Delhi and SAATHII, Chennai), the first meeting was organized on March 4, 2020 in Kolkata. More meetings were planned but had to be cancelled because of the lockdown, though online dating and incidents of blackmail didn’t stop during the lockdown.

Now, as the lockdown eases up, the festive season comes up and people look to fulfill their pent up desires, there’s good reason to be careful. Not just about STIs, HIV and COVID-19, but also about one’s mind and money. A summary based on the transcript of the community meeting follows.

Why do we date?

Quote: Much before we talk about safer dating tips, the most basic question to address is why the desire to date. Let’s stop and think, probe our minds a bit. Not to worry about the wrong or right of it, but why do we want to go out on a date?Much before we talk about safer dating tips, the most basic question to address is why the desire to date. Let’s stop and think, probe our minds a bit. Not to worry about the wrong or right of it, but why do we want to go out on a date?

Is it peer pressure? Everyone’s dating so we must too? Fear of missing out?

Or is it a desire for thrill? Trying to find something to jazz up our otherwise humdrum everyday lives? Is it a fear of loneliness?

Do we see dating as a means to overcome depression?

Could it be a strong feeling that time’s running out and we haven’t found ‘the one’ yet?

Perhaps it’s a desire for distraction – a way to find something real amidst lives that are often full of lies and pretense in order to maintain the closet.

Or is it that we think or know of dates and hook-ups as the only way to ‘connect’ with others from the queer community?

It could also be a plain and simple desire to just get out there, have fun meeting new people, return home recharged, and just that much.

What is the state of our mind when we look for dates?

Perhaps this may have a clue as to what we expect from a date. Are we looking for a ‘quick fix’ for all our problems in another person and setting ourselves up for disillusionment or deception? Unfortunately, dates aren’t produced made to order, are they? Aren’t they humans as well with their own set of desires and expectations? And some of those humans just may not have honest intentions!

Looking back at the times we’ve dated someone and ended up being blackmailed around our gender or sexuality – was it something in our approach that made us vulnerable to exploitation? It’s perfectly alright to be vulnerable but perhaps we could be smarter about when and where to reveal the vulnerability, or to whom we reveal it. The person across may seem just right, but how about taking one’s time to ascertain that?

Today, online dating offers many more opportunities, at least numerically speaking. If we want, we can have the advantage of being anonymous and revealing different aspects of our lives in our own time, when we are surer about the other person’s credibility. But if we’re in a rush to share it all, then we could be in for trouble.

Quote: What emerged from the meeting was that we should think of dating from a secure position and not under any kind of pressure that makes us anxious and vulnerable. Dating can at best be a partial solution to whatever problem we imagine it can solve. At the same time, it shouldn’t become a problem itself!Finding dates online often leads people to putting themselves in extremely vulnerable situations and that too to strangers. Blackmailers, the smooth talkers they are, are on the lookout for such a slip, and they’ll take the advantage of online anonymity to learn all about the other person even as they share little about themselves or their real intentions.

The next time we see ourselves developing a soft corner for someone, trusting them or wanting to trust them, how about a reality check? However unpleasant this may sound, if the purpose of dating is to find happiness, then how about checking out if we’re on the right track?

The question is why do we so often think little about making this check?

Our mental well-being, self-care and self-respect have to be of paramount importance. Won’t the checks and balances happen only if we’re self assured, aren’t in a rush, and believe strongly that being alone may be tough but won’t be the end of the world?

Just as we care for our bodies if we have a health concern and stop ourselves from eating or drinking something, let’s also care about our minds and try to prevent ourselves from being exploited. To use an analogy related to adventure and thrill, don’t we make preps to protect ourselves from injury before we set out on a mountain trek?

Of course, some things can still go wrong but we can reduce the chances. The online dating forums and the legal machinery also have a responsibility towards our security, but let’s also play our own role in protecting ourselves.

Quote: If you’re new to the dating scene or to a particular forum, consider not posting a direct picture of your face. Try using a representative image that describes or connects to your personality in another way.What emerged from the meeting was that we should think of dating from a secure position and not under any kind of pressure that makes us anxious and vulnerable. The idea is that dating can at best be a partial solution to whatever problem we imagine it can solve. At the same time, it shouldn’t become a problem itself! It’d be far more enjoyable if we were alert and reassured about ourselves. Alternately, a date with a counsellor, best friend or confidante might be a better idea before an outing with that person who’s been setting our heart aflutter. Let’s talk about it, think it out, and then step out in style!

Visit also Kindr Grindr, which talks about diversity, inclusion, respect and safety as part of a safer dating scene.

Since we talked about being alert, here are some practical tips for safer dating that were also discussed in the meeting – no claims that all of them will work for everyone:

Think carefully about what you post about yourself on online dating forums: If you’re new to the dating scene or to a particular forum, consider not posting a direct picture of your face. Try using a representative image that describes or connects to your personality in another way.

In addition, though, the meeting threw up the need to put out proper information about oneself on the dating forums. Not your full name, address and other identity markers that the whole world needn’t know, but at least what you’re looking for, what kind of people you want to meet, what your expectations are and so on. This information can change over time. But if you’re clear and honest about your expectations, then, in turn, you can expect the same from someone else. In a way, this is about contributing to creating a safer dating scene. Do your bit but then also be scrupulous – don’t go out to see someone who sounds fishy!

Quote: While it’s perfectly fine to date and even hook up, you don’t have to take the online option as the only one. If you attend queer events, you’ll automatically meet people and get to know them.Consider only meeting friends of friends – at least in the beginning: While it’s perfectly fine to date and even hook up, you don’t have to take the online option as the only one. If you attend queer events, you’ll automatically meet people and get to know them. If you happen to like someone there, and want to go out with them, feel a connection, then it can be taken further. That could be a much safer option. You can get to know them in public and in a neutral space. And they’re part of the community and are also in the public sphere. Some of your friends, some other people around may know this person too. This means you can get warnings about the wrong sort, and also have some way of asking someone about them, what kind of a person they are, whether they’re trustworthy. Chances are that someone will know who they are and where they live, so they can possibly be trusted.

Get to know someone better before a meet and then a little more before having sex: The idea is not to agree to meet someone immediately upon encountering them on an online dating forum. Get to know them a little bit, get a feel for what kind of a person they are – perhaps make a few Skype or video calls before agreeing to a meet-up. Meeting someone after a single 10-minute chat on a dating app is pretty close to walking on the edge. And then jumping into bed with them after a single meeting or having cybersex after just a brief chat can be even more risky. Keep in mind that the other person could make an audio or video recording of the cybersex encounter or even store your nude screenshots or other pictures and use them to blackmail you. This could also happen in person – blackmailers may make clandestine mobile videos of the sexual encounter.

Quote: If your potential date consistently refuses video calls, or insists on seeing you in a video call while keeping their face hidden, it’s best to be alert. Be cautious, especially with people you connect with online, because everything they tell you can be fake . . .

If your potential date consistently refuses video calls, or insists on seeing you in a video call while keeping their face hidden, it’s best to be alert. Be cautious, especially with people you connect with online, because everything they tell you can be fake, and the dangers of blindly trusting them can range from losing your wallet or bank balance to physical and sexual assault, blackmail, and much more.

After the first few meetings (in public places), if you think things are likely to move forward well, perhaps into the relationship zone, consider introducing them to some of your friends. Similarly, try to visit them where they hang out and meet their friends. It’s better to enter a relationship only after being able to date this way. Whatever the rom-coms insist on, your heart’s too precious for it to ‘fall in love’ right away. “I like you!” is a great way to start and keep your options open for other possibilities.

Quote: Whatever the rom-coms insist on, your heart’s too precious for it to ‘fall in love’ right away. “I like you!” is a great way to start and keep your options open for other possibilities.Always watch your information outflow: “I’m not out to my parents”; “I don’t have very many friends”; “I’m picking up my salary today in cash before meeting you”; “I work for ABC company, in the DEF department, on the fourth floor of the XYZ building” – these are things you might share quite casually or even out of a sense of growing trust in someone you’ve just met a few times, or perhaps just once! Think about the damage such information could do if the other person’s out to take advantage of you, and especially if you’re already in a vulnerable situation at home, in your neighbourhood, or at the workplace.

On the crucial choice of where to meet: When selecting a location to meet your date, the first and foremost point to keep in mind, of course, is your safety. If you’re going to meet someone you don’t know very well, be sure to meet them in a public place, like a coffee shop, a restaurant, or a busy park. Pick a place that feels safe and comfortable to you. Agreeing to go to their home straight off is a bad idea. Calling them over to your place can be equally risky.

Quote: When selecting a location to meet your date, the first and foremost point to keep in mind is your safety. If you’re going to meet someone you don’t know very well, be sure to meet them in a public place, like a coffee shop, a restaurant, or a busy park. Agreeing to go to their home straight off is a bad idea. Calling them over to your place can be equally risky.In many of the cases reported to the QFLN, the blackmailer convinced the victim to go over to his (the blackmailer’s) place. But as soon as any sexual activity would begin, four or five or more men known to the blackmailer would barge into the room, ‘catch’ the victim in a state of undress, threaten him with public shaming or outing him at home or workplace, and extract money out of the victim then and there or force him to part with his debit or credit card and the pin. The card would be returned after money had been withdrawn from an ATM. In some cases, the victim would be forced to withdraw the money personally. In all the cases, the blackmailer and his friends would erase all records of interaction between the blackmailer and the victim from the latter’s mobile phone. The blackmailer’s profile would also ‘disappear’ from the online dating forum where the first contact was made.

On the other hand, if you’re out and visible, you could ask your date to come home, but ideally never for the first meeting. When they do come home, at least make sure there are no valuables lying around for them to just pocket and leave.

Don’t take a lot with you: This follows from the previous pointer. Don’t go off to meet a new date in an unknown place with a wallet loaded with cash and debit or credit cards and expensive jewelry or accessories. Carry as little as possible. Ideally leave the cards at home, carry enough cash to pay for the commute and coffee, and just one important identity document. Mobile phones are almost indispensable today, but perhaps you can keep a spare one (that doesn’t have all your life’s details loaded on it) for such occasions.

Quote: Blackmailers take advantage of social stigma and your fear of it. They’re pretty good at figuring out if you’re likely to complain to the police or other authorities. But there’s something you can do to chip away at this vicious cycle of blackmail and silence. If something bad does happen, don’t panic and don’t suffer in silence.Let someone close know where you are: Another precaution to consider – when you go to meet a new or newish date, the first few times at least, you could let one or two close ones know where you are, a friend or confidante – just in case. Your support system!

Talk about it, if something bad does happen: Blackmailers take advantage of social stigma and your fear of it. They’re pretty good at figuring out if you’re likely to complain to the police or other authorities. But there’s something you can do to chip away at this vicious cycle of blackmail and silence. If something bad does happen, don’t panic and don’t suffer in silence. Whether you lodge a police complaint or not, whenever and wherever you can, talk about your experience to family members who are supportive, trusted friends and colleagues, and especially queer community members. Unburden yourself – you’re not at fault!

Spread the word about who the blackmailers were, describe them as much as you can, warn others who may be victimized. Do this both offline and online. Never fail to notify the online dating forum concerned about the culprit(s). Every little bit counts.

Translation and transcription of the community meeting proceedings were done by Jia Mata, a frequent contributor to Varta webzine – Editor.

Readers interested in participating in online or offline community meetings on safer dating issues can get in touch with the QFLN at vartablog@gmail.com – Editor.

About the main illustration: The inset in the main illustration is borrowed from an earlier alert on safer dating developed by the QFLN. Read Blackmailer . . . Alert! published in the January 2017 issue of Varta – Editor.