Three teenagers between the ages of 16 and 17 were arrested on suspicion of murder.
David P. had gone to the park after making an appointment with a man he met through the gay dating app Grindr. When he arrived, according to the CNN affiliates VTM, RTBF and RTL Belgium, he was ambushed and brutally attacked.
The Belgian police and the local prosecutor have yet to confirm or deny whether the murder was motivated by homophobia. However, the case shows that finding an online romantic connection for LGBTQ + people can put you at serious risk.
Many feel vulnerable and there are fears that homophobic attackers could take advantage of the fact that queer dating apps are one of the few ways LGBTQ + people can use to meet others.
Since bans were imposed globally when the pandemic broke out early last year, apps like Grindr, Scruff and Her have taken on a bigger role in the LGBTQ + community than traditionally secure LGBTQ + public spaces like gay bars, clubs and pubs have been forced to to close their doors.
Grindr said it was “deeply saddened” by the murder of David P. “This is a tragic and troubling reminder of the hatred and violence that too many people in the LGBTQ + community face despite the many advances around the world We stand ready to assist local authorities in investigating this matter, “the company said in a statement to CNN.
Christian, 25, lives in Cardiff, Wales and has been using online queer platforms since the pandemic began. Like many, he mourns places that have always offered connection and security to LGBTQ + people.
“Dating apps have barely filled the void left by the lack of queer spaces during the pandemic,” he said.
When it comes to the safety of LGBTQ + people who are online dating, Christian, who has asked CNN not to use his last name to protect his privacy, says that he is fortunate enough to live in a city, in which weirdness is widely accepted and in which he did not do so I did not experience too much hostility – but says that he was also in uncomfortable scenarios.
“I’ve been in a few situations where I’ve met someone who doesn’t look like their picture and didn’t feel empowered to leave that situation,” said Christian. “I think we need to be more open about these experiences so that we can better develop dialogue and security protocols when we meet people online.”
With dating apps, one of the few available ways for LGBTQ + people to meet potential sexual and romantic partners during the pandemic, it is becoming increasingly apparent how few safeguards are in place to protect users.
Dating apps have been called upon for years to provide more protection.
An undesirable environment
Many LGBTQ + Europeans feel increasingly isolated – and not just because of the lockdown. The pandemic hit just as some European countries were withdrawing fundamental freedoms for LGBTQ + people.
In a 2020 study, LGBTQ + rights group ILGA-Europe found that countries in the Rainbow Index are moving backwards for the second year in a row, which gives a picture of what the political landscape is for LGBTQ + people in Europe looks like now.
If the disappearance of safe and public LGBTQ + spaces wasn’t enough to make individuals uncomfortable, this surge in overt hostility towards the community has only increased the fear of relying on dating apps – which so often includes speaking to complete strangers – to seek intimacy.
“Dating apps have a moral obligation to help keep their users safe, especially LGBTQ + people who are currently facing such high levels of isolation,” he said. “They make their living from LGBTQ + people, so they have an ethical responsibility to ensure their protection.”
Van Roozendaal believes that dating apps can protect and support LGBTQ + users by being transparent about the existence of violence they have been involved in.
“They should use their platforms to stimulate honest conversation about specific events and users’ opinions on those events,” he said. “This is what the community is for. This is how we can find protection – by sharing the truth about experiences and resources for safety.”
Rémy Bonny is a political scientist and LGBTQ + activist based in Brussels. He believes that while these apps are important in keeping the community safe, the issue of LGBTQ + safety goes deeper than just finding more effective measures in these areas.
Bonny says he doesn’t trust the Belgian police to take homophobia seriously.
“The only reason I would go to the police here to report a homophobic incident would be to record the statistics,” Bonny said. “It’s not because I expect them to actually do something about it.”
The Brussels police did not respond to a request for comment.
While Belgium mourns David P. and queer communities seek alternative ways to socialize in these unprecedented times, the responsibility for the safety of LGBTQ + people rests with a range of institutions – from dating platforms to politicians and Police.
Bonny believes politicians “have a responsibility to protect LGBTQ + people when their rights are violated”. As they work to uphold fundamental freedoms and contain the rise in homophobic rhetoric, LGBTQ + people are likely to feel more secure navigating online dating spaces, he argues.
While these platforms and institutions must work to provide adequate protection for the LGBTQ + community, Christian believes that people in queer dating can find security outside of apps, even if the Covid crisis continues to rage.
“There are several ways we can create spaces to find romantic and sexual partners that go beyond app dating by diversifying queer environments online – for example, creating activism groups,” he says.
“As a result, our rooms are not only geared towards love and sex, but also towards solidarity and community.”
CNN’s Mick Krever contributed to this report.