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He was lured to his death in a secluded park. In a pandemic, dating can be deadly for LGBTQ+ people

David P. was a 42-year-old gay man living in Beveren, Belgium. He worked as a crane operator, was loved by his family and friends and, a few weeks ago, he was found dead in an abandoned park.

Three youths aged between 16 and 17 have been arrested on suspicion of his murder.

David P., had gone to the park after arranging a date with a man he met on the gay dating app Grindr. But when he arrived, he was ambushed and brutally attacked, according to CNN affiliates VTM, RTBF and RTL Belgium.

Belgian police and the local public prosecutors’ office have yet to confirm or deny if the killing was motivated by homophobia, but the case highlights the fact that for LGBTQ+ people, searching for a romantic connection online right now can put you in serious danger.

David P.’s case is not an isolated incident. A US teen was recently charged with a hate crime after violently attacking a man he’d met on Grindr. In Ireland, a teenager was put on probation after he admitted assaulting and attempting to rob a man he’d been chatting to on Grindr under false pretences.

And homophobic hate crimes are on the rise. According to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA’s) Annual Review of LGBTQ+ rights in Europe, hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people in the Netherlands were reported by Dutch media almost every week in 2020. In France, SOS Homophobie’s annual report found that the number of hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people had increased for a fourth consecutive year in 2020.

Many are feeling vulnerable, and there are fears that homophobic assailants may be taking advantage of the fact that queer dating apps are one of the only opportunities LGBTQ+ individuals can use to meet others right now.

Since lockdowns were imposed around the world when the pandemic took hold early last year, apps such as Grindr, Scruff and Her have have taken on a greater role in the LGBTQ+ community, as traditionally safe public LGBTQ+ spaces, such as gay bars, clubs and pubs, were forced to shut their doors.

ILGA points out in its State-Sponsored Homophobia report that LGBTQ+ people have found themselves adrift during the pandemic: “Lockdowns meant the abrupt and complete interruption of activities, gatherings became impossible, events and Prides got suspended, and safe spaces dramatically shrunk overnight with extremely little to no notice.”

Grindr said it was “deeply saddened” by the murder of David P. “This is a tragic and disturbing reminder of the hatred and violence faced by all-too-many people in the LGBTQ+ community, despite the many advances across the world. We stand ready to assist local authorities with their investigation of this matter,” the company said in a statement to CNN.

But while the app has said it is committed to supporting the safety and security of its community, all it currently offers users is a holistic security guide.

Christian, 25, lives in Cardiff, Wales, and has been using online queer platforms since the pandemic began. Like many, he is mourning the loss of places that have always provided connection and security for LGBTQ+ people.

“Dating apps have barely filled the hole that the absence of queer spaces during the pandemic has left,” he said.

When it comes to the question of safety for LGBTQ+ individuals engaging in online dating, Christian, who asked CNN not to use his last name to protect his privacy, says he’s lucky to live in a city where queerness is largely accepted, and where he hasn’t experienced too much hostility — but says he’s been in uncomfortable scenarios, too.

“I’ve been in some situations where I’ve found myself meeting with someone who doesn’t look like their picture, and not felt empowered to leave that situation,” Christian said. “I feel we need more open conversations about these experiences, so we can better develop a dialogue and safety protocols for when we do meet with people online.”

With dating apps one of few available avenues for LGBTQ+ people to meet potential sexual and romantic partners during the pandemic, it has become increasingly clear just how few safeguards are in place to protect users.

Some platforms are beginning to put more measures in place to build a safer environment. Tinder recently announced it would introduce background checks to vet matches and provide greater safety for users by revealing any previous records of harassment, violence or abuse. Grindr has yet to say if it will do the same.

Dating apps have been facing calls to provide more safeguards for years.

The 2018 murder of backpacker Grace Millane — who was killed by a man she’d met on Tinder — and the spate of killings carried out between 2014 and 2015 by Stephen Port, often referred to as the “Grindr killer”, led to pleas for apps to bring in greater safety measures.

An unwelcoming environment

Many LGBTQ+ Europeans are feeling increasingly isolated — and not just because of lockdown. The pandemic hit just as some European countries were rolling back fundamental freedoms for LGBTQ+ people.

Some districts in Poland have established so-called “LGBT-free zones,” Hungary has passed numerous anti-LGBTQ+ laws and Latvia has redefined the “family unit” as one that should consist of a marriage between a man and a woman.

In a 2020 study, the LGBTQ+ rights group ILGA-Europe found that — for the second year in a row — countries were moving backwards on the Rainbow Index, which pulls together a picture of what the policy landscape for LGBTQ+ people in Europe looks like right now.

If the disappearance of safe and public LGBTQ+ spaces wasn’t enough to leave individuals feeling uneasy, this rise in open hostility towards the community has only added to the anxiety of having to depend on dating apps — which so often involve speaking to total strangers — in order to seek out intimacy.

Bjorn van Roozendaal, from ILGA-Europe, stresses that the combination of loneliness that lockdown brings and the current lack of access to familiar queer spaces is leading LGBTQ+ people to use dating apps far more frequently than before. Some, van Roozendaal says, are at risk of becoming dependent on these apps — and keeping them safe must be a priority.

“Dating apps have a moral obligation to help make sure their users are safe, especially LGBTQ+ individuals who are currently facing such high levels of isolation,” he said. “They make their money from LGBTQ+ people, so they have an ethical responsibility to help ensure their protection.”

Van Roozendaal believes dating apps can protect and support LGBTQ+ users by being transparent about insistences of violence that have involved them.

“They should be using their platforms to encourage honest conversation about certain events and how users feel about those,” he said “This is what community is for. This is how we can find protection — by sharing the truth about experiences and sharing resources for safety.”

Rémy Bonny is a political scientist and LGBTQ+ activist working in Brussels. He feels that, while it’s important these apps strive to help protect the community, the issue of LGBTQ+ people’s safety runs deeper than simply seeking more effective measures from these spaces.

Bonny says he doesn’t trust Belgian police to take homophobia seriously.

“The only reason I would go to the police here to report a homophobic incident would be to have the statistic recorded,” Bonny said. “It’s not because I expect them to actually do anything about it.”

Brussels police did not respond to a request for comment.

As Belgium grieves for David P., and queer communities strive to find alternative ways to connect in these unprecedented times, advocates say the onus for keeping LGBTQ+ people safe lies with a range of institutions — from dating platforms to politicians and the police.

Bonny believes politicians have a “responsibility to protect LGBTQ+ people as their rights are infringed upon.” If they work to uphold fundamental freedoms and tamp down rising homophobic rhetoric, then LGBTQ+ people are likely to feel safer as they navigate online dating spaces, he argues.

In the meantime, while these platforms and institutions must work to provide the LGBTQ+ community with more sufficient protection, Christian thinks people can find safety in queer dating outside of apps, even as the Covid crisis rages on.

“There are different ways we can create spaces for finding romantic and sexual partners right now beyond dating apps through diversifying queer environments online — such as establishing activism groups,” he says.

“Through this, our spaces are not just geared towards love and sex, but to solidarity and community, too.”

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