Gay dating apps — currently at a consumable peak within the gay men’s community in Nairobi — are the riskiest form of meeting anyone. Victims are kidnapped, beaten and extorted. Some cases involve sexual assault, and sadly, rape.
The advent of gay dating apps such as Grindr, Hornet and Manjam was hailed as a success story — gay men could, within the comfort of their phones, seek partners, relationships, meet, and even engage in sexual activity with other gay men. Gone are the days when gay men would scout bars or street corners. It was a welcome change – so welcome, that Tinder, Badoo and others were developed to cater for straight people.
It was in early 2006 when the first cases of blackmail were reported in Nairobi. A victim would often meet someone on these apps, and then go to their house. Such scenarios escalated into people forcing themselves into the house, demanding money and assaulting the victim.
They victims were then forced to send money, or call people to send money. The blackmailers would withdraw the cash from an M-Pesa agent or do online bank transfers. I’m aware of two cases where the victim and his captors went to a bank and made an over-the-counter withdrawal.
This situation reached a crescendo between 2011 and 2015, when more victims came out to share their stories. Most had kept quiet out of fear or shame. The stories were harrowing — beatings, victims forced to strip and photographed, used condoms placed on them as the captors took photos, threats, and in some cases raped them, (sometimes gang rape).
Activists, growing concerned, were backed into a corner. How do you report a crime when it was done, essentially, when another crime was being done? How do you go to a police station to report that someone has been assaulted, or raped in the house of another man, whom he met online, ostensibly for sex? On the other hand, victims were afraid of making police statements as most were not known to be gay and did not want the cases to go forward out of fear of being outed as gay. We were in a fix.
Of course, creatively, we generated information, mapped out areas and showed the various ways to spot or confirm whom you met on the other end of the app. This worked, but not well enough. More gay men started to become cautious. Others demanded more information from people they met online. Others preferred to meet dates in public spaces. Good, but not enough.
The assault and extortion cases went down significantly. I know this because I singlehandedly led efforts to unmask and expose this scam that involved, in some cases, corrupt police officers who were used to intimidate the victims in case they did not pay up. So extraordinary were these efforts that Grindr now has an occasional pop-up window once you log in on how to be safe when using the app — something they piloted only in Kenya.
But still, one or two cases reached my desk — same modus operandi — online hook-up, meeting in strangers’ houses, and then other people entering to find you in the middle of sex, and then it happens. Most of the victims, even with the information available out there, fell into the trap that is blamed on the need for sexual intimacy and physical expression with another individual. As they say, the thirst is real.
Priests, lawyers, doctors, husbands, students, touts, tourists, and in one case, a prominent politician — have all fallen victim to extortion compounded by the fact that same-sex relations are punishable by law. It has been argued, from our assessments, that the blackmailers are driven by poverty or are just criminals out to make a quick buck. Partly true.
Various factors can be attributed to this — including criminalisation of homosexuality, the emergence of new, easy to instal technology that makes it easier to share information online, or meet people, among other things.
Gay men in Kenya live in a criminalised society. It is worse when innovative ways to circumvent our need for and pursuit of happiness, relationships, or just a lay, have become the very way that further puts us at risk.
Nairobi is not safe for gay men. It never has been. My advise to all gay men out there — it’s better to be less horny, and more cautious.
Gay rights activist