Back during the Sochi Olympics, Russia banned a gay dating app called Hunters, something of a Russian response to Grindr. The controversial move was part of the country’s infamous crackdown on “gay propaganda” due to a law that forbids anyone advocating for nontraditional relationships, purportedly for the safety of children. After all, this app gives you the distance (down to the meter) of where young men might find other young men for a romantic rendezvous.
But what’s happened since last year’s scandal? I was curious what it was like to use the app in densely populated Moscow, the country’s biggest city boasting some 12 million people. During a recent trip to Russia, I decided to find out.
Hunters is free to download in Google Play and the iTunes App Store. I installed the app, created an account, and saw to my great surprise that there were absolutely no users or activity of any kind on the Hunters network.
Then I remembered to take my phone out of airplane mode, and the social network burst to life. Gay men were looking for other gay men all over Russia’s (now-properly geolocated) capital city.
Hunters’ title screen greets you with the image of a man in a snazzy suit with the head of a multi-point buck. “Lots of fresh meat,” reads the tagline. “Get ready to hunt.”
In keeping with the hunting theme, the in-app currency (buyable with real-world currency, of course) is called “bullets.” Bullets unlock various premium features inside of Hunters. You can buy 5,000 for $100, but you’d probably prefer to start smaller, maybe $8 for 100.
Ads placed in the Darkroom might be geolocated, granting you knowledge of their distance from you down to the meter.
I created an account and filled it out with placeholder personal details, as I was merely a non-participatory tourist in this world. You are free to search for other members who match the characteristics you’re filtering for, whether it’s distance, height, weight, and so on. They appear in search results and you can chat them up as you’d expect. A members section called the Darkroom functions as something of a makeshift Craigslist within the app itself, allowing users to post whatever they like as it relates to a number of categories, whether it’s to make plans in the “Hot Dates” category, to discuss kinky stuff in the “Fetishes” category, or even find roommates and gym buddies. Some of these ads may be geolocated, again telling you exactly how far away the authors are in meters.
A feature like this could be dangerous in the wrong hands in Russia. The country’s attitude toward homosexuality is thoroughly outdated. Though Russia legalized homosexuality in 1993, its present attitude is to legislate these citizens to far corners of society. They are not permitted to talk about or advocate homosexuality in any way. To do so is deemed propagandistic and illegal.
Russian vigilante groups have used gay dating sites and apps lure genuine users out in public, trapping them in verbal and physical attacks; some have even been killing. The government considers these crimes legally just if the victims have expressed that they are gay. “If the assailants are even questioned, they can in turn claim that the victim had identified himself as homosexual or had come on to them, which constitutes a legitimate legal defense,” notes Lewis May in Global Voices.
Human Rights Watch has identified that Russian authorities are simply not protecting these marginalized citizens. “The law effectively legalized discrimination against LGBT people and cast them as second-class citizens,” reads its 2014 report on Russian anti-LGBT violence. “Instead of publicly denouncing anti-LGBT violence and rhetoric, Russia’s leadership has remained silent. In some cases public officials have engaged in explicit anti-LGBT hate speech.”
One user made a post about the app itself: “Why are there so many drug ads? [It makes me mad.]”
Thankfully the Internet makes it possible for Russia’s gay citizens to piece together some sense of contact and community. Google Translate helped me grasp the gist of most posts within the Hunters app. Here’s one from a 36-year-old university student seeking “a strong, masculine guy for communication and sex,” preferably living north of Moscow in one of its suburbs. It ends with a request to write with photos.
But it’s not all sex and hookups. One user made a post about the app itself: “Why are there so many drug ads? [It makes me mad.]”
Here’s what a completed user profile looks like. From here you can begin a chat and potentially make plans to meet up.
By and large the app functions exactly as you’d expect other mobile dating apps to function. You can communicate and share pictures with others, although this might be one of fewer apps that let you to tag your romantic interests with different statuses within the app. This includes options like “very hot,” “want to meet,” “just friends,” “done,” or the intriguing “one more time.”
Because it’s based in a country that’s hardly hospitable to homosexuality, Hunters has unfortunately had its difficulties with security. Despite the app’s “Learn More” page extolling its prideful virtues of privacy and confidentiality, Hunters found itself victim of an attack that saw some 72,000 member profiles deleted by unknown hackers, with the Hunters team only able to restore a portion of them.
“The security was so rudimentary that anyone with basic computer skills would be able to get access to basic user information within a couple of minutes,” BuzzFeed’s J. Lester Feder wrote at the time. “Messages, photos, and location information were being transmitted to Russian servers unencrypted.”
But this was a year ago. In the time since, user trust appears to have been regained to the point that there is no shortage of eligible young men looking for something intimate in Moscow with other eligible young men.
A version of this story was originally published by the Daily Dot on Jan. 28, 2015.
Illustration by Tiffany Pai