As millions of people globally respond to socializing restrictions due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, some have turned to dating apps to find potential partners. In countries where it is dangerous to publicly identify as LGBTQ, many individuals feel these mobile apps are the only safe opportunity to date. However, while these apps have facilitated social interactions and dating during quarantine, they have also been used by anti-LGBTQ individuals as a tool to identify, locate, and persecute LGBTQ users, putting them at increased risk.
During pandemic lockdown, the risk to LGBTQ dating app users’ security is likely greater due to the decrease in physical privacy and mobility under quarantine. Pandemic mandates ordering nonessential business activity to cease in some countries caused gay bars and other LGBTQ establishments to temporarily close, and ordinances forced many LGBTQ individuals in intolerant countries to live in quarantine with their conservative families, where they risk being removed from their homes and harassed for being LGBTQ. For many individuals living in some socially and legally intolerant countries, their ability to interact with the local and broader LGBTQ community has become limited to virtual interactions on social media and dating apps. Prior to the lockdown, LGBTQ individuals may have felt that dating apps were the only safe opportunity to date in countries where it is dangerous to publicly identify as LGBTQ. Conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown have decreased that sense of security for many LGBTQ individuals.
Lockdown Measures Complicate LGBTQ Environment in Morocco
In Morocco, where homosexuality is illegal, strict lockdown ordinances during the COVID-19 pandemic have likely made it more challenging for many LGBTQ individuals to keep their sexual orientation or gender identity secret to avoid persecution. Despite trends toward secularization in sexual culture over the past few decades, same-sex relations remain punishable by up to three years in prison and up to MAD 1,200 (USD 125) in fines under Article 489 of Morocco’s Penal Code. Following the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in March, Moroccan authorities took an aggressive approach with pandemic restrictions to keep the country’s COVID-19 infection rate low. Authorities threatened steep fines of up to MAD 1,300 (USD 135) and up to three months in prison for violation of Morocco’s state of emergency decree, which prohibits residents from leaving their homes without local authorities’ permission. While the strict lockdown laws have been effective (Morocco has one of the lowest death rates worldwide according to the World Bank), human rights activists criticized Moroccan authorities over the harsh measures for reportedly constraining citizens’ economic and civil liberties.
LGBTQ individuals who are strictly confined at home with intolerant families due to COVID-19 restrictions risk being outed and ostracized by their families and community. There are multiple recent reports of families evicting LGBTQ family members or workplaces firing LGBTQ employees once their sexual orientation or gender identity is discovered. Such persecution and discrimination against LGBTQ individuals is common throughout Morocco, including from law enforcement officials. A recent study by the Collective Against Criminalization and Discrimination Against Sexual and Religious Minorities found that at least 70 percent of the LGBTQ community surveyed had been subject to some form of violence due to their sexuality. 29 percent of participants had faced arrest or imprisonment due to their sexuality, and only 14 percent filed a complaint with law enforcement following an attack, pointing to a legal system that does not protect or offer support to LGBTQ victims. All of the survey participants criticized Morocco’s current social environment, which they indicated generally marginalizes and rejects them. To reduce the risk of persecution in their communities, many LGBTQ individuals in Morocco choose to hide their LGBTQ identity, even from family members.
Moroccan Transgender Social Media Influencer Prompts Outings of LGBTQ Individuals
The COVID-19 lockdown has likely amplified the effects of a social media outing campaign led by Noafal Moussa in April. The Moroccan transgender Instagram influencer prompted outings of gay men when she used an Instagram Live feed to encourage her followers to use GPS-enabled dating apps like Grindr and PlanetRomeo to find out if men they know are gay. Moussa encouraged women to download the apps and create fake profiles posing as men, to identify the gay men. Moussa later explained that her intention was to humanize homosexuality and call out hypocrisy by showing how common homosexuality is in Morocco. Despite her intentions, the influencer’s comments caused a wave of homophobic outings and attacks in Morocco, which threatened the security, livelihood, and mental health of LGBTQ individuals in the country.
It has become easier for location-based dating app users to locate other users during lockdown measures, as people are confined to their homes. "These apps will show you the people who are near to you. One hundred meters, two hundred meters, even just one meter, just next to you in the living room," Moussa said in her video. "Since everyone is together at home, it could show you your husband in your bedroom, it could show you your son who might be in the bathroom. "Moussa’s video presented quarantine as the opportune time for her followers to use these location-based apps to discover and disclose the sexual orientation or gender identity of those close to them.
Following the release of Moussa’s video, conditions worsened for many LGBTQ individuals concealing their LGBTQ identity in Morocco. After Moussa aired her video, several individuals created homophobic Facebook groups to circulate photos of gay men discovered on the dating apps, captioning the photos with insults and threats against the men based on their perceived sexual orientation. Upon learning of Moussa’s video, LGBTQ activists quickly encouraged LGBTQ dating app users to close their accounts to protect themselves, but several men whose photos had already been posted to the Facebook groups were blackmailed and harassed by creators of the Facebook groups and evicted from their homes by their conservative families. Members of the LGBTQ community in Morocco reported that friends disappeared after being outed or, in some cases, committed suicide. One man reached out to The Moroccan LGBT Community Facebook group writing: “I'm in great trouble. Everyone knows now that I'm homosexual, and my neighbor sexually harassed me, so I decided to flee. I have nowhere to go—especially during lockdown."
In addition to the pandemic lockdown, the outing campaign also coincided with the holy month of Ramadan which likely augmented the negative impact on the LGBTQ community. LGBTQ organizations in Morocco reported that the number of men reporting abuse and asking for help increased after Moussa posted her video and people began circulating photos. The LGBTQ groups partly attributed this uptick to Ramadan. Samir el Mouti of the Moroccan LBGT Community Facebook group explained the magnitude of being outed in a deeply religious and conservative society during quarantine and a religiously strict month: “It's a double-edged sword. You might be in lockdown with homophobic family, and with Ramadan, people are very concerned about morality, and things might get heated."
Conditions for LGBTQ Community following Wave of Outings
While outings and homophobic attacks on LGBTQ individuals will highly likely continue in Morocco, further attacks directly related to Moussa’s video have likely been mitigated by measures taken by Facebook and the dating apps involved. Facebook removed the groups circulating the photos and suspended Moussa's Instagram and Facebook accounts in April. PlanetRomeo sent a security message to its 41,000 Morocco-based users after it was alerted about the incident. The dating app company also blocked all profiles that were created since Moussa addressed her followers in April.
The real problem with such homophobic campaigns, regardless of how they were instigated, is that Morocco's anti-LGBT law encourages them, if not incubates them…Homophobia is a dangerous reality, but it thrives when the government criminalizes same-sex conduct and fails to shield their rights to privacy and equal treatment.
-Ahmen Benchemsi, Human Rights Watch
Although visibility and activism among the LGBTQ community has increased since the outings and attacks in April, this is unlikely to have a significant positive impact on conditions for LGBTQ individuals in Morocco. Following Moussa’s message on social media, activists within the LGBTQ community coordinated their efforts to support those who were negatively affected by Moussa’s video. Activists say the support was crucial because LGBTQ persons in Morocco who are victims of abuse and harassment receive little to no support from the government or local police. According to LGBTQ activists, Moroccan law enforcement does not efficiently protect LGBTQ individuals. LGBTQ individuals decidedly avoid local law enforcement for fear they will be arrested for homosexuality or be harassed by law enforcement officers. Human Rights Watch (HRW) spokesperson Ahmed Benchemsi wrote, “The real problem with such homophobic campaigns, regardless of how they were instigated, is that Morocco's anti-LGBT law encourages them, if not incubates them…Homophobia is a dangerous reality, but it thrives when the government criminalizes same-sex conduct and fails to shield their rights to privacy and equal treatment.”
Morocco Unlikely to Decriminalize Same-sex Relations; Proposed Social Media Law to Limit LGBTQ Individuals’ Free Speech
Despite an increase in activism and a push for LGBTQ rights following the outing campaign in April, Morocco remains unlikely to decriminalize same-sex relations in the long term. In 2019, Moroccan government officials rejected the UN Human Rights Committee’s recommendation to repeal the ban on same-sex relations and to implement legislation to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation. Since the online outing campaign in April 2020, HRW has again called on the Moroccan government to repeal anti-LGBTQ laws that fuel discrimination and attacks. The organization also asked the Moroccan government to enforce the right to privacy, because while homosexuality remains a crime in Morocco, so is violating a person’s privacy by publicly sharing their private information and photos. The Moroccan government rejected activists’ recent calls to enforce the right to privacy and repeal anti-LGBTQ laws and is now attempting to pass a new social media law that would essentially legalize censorship.
Morocco’s proposed social media law would limit the LGBTQ community and activists’ ability to use social media as a tool to report abuses and receive international support. The passing of the law would further limit safe spaces for the LGBTQ community and free speech for Moroccans altogether. Moroccan officials claim that the goal of the law is to prevent harmful behavior such as the spreading of fake news, which has been concerning since the outbreak of COVID-19. Officials approved the initial legislation in March, likely attempting to take advantage of the pandemic to push the new legislation through. The public initiated a petition against the legislation after details of the bill were leaked at the end of April. The Minister of Justice Mohamed Ben Abdelkader has since postponed the law.
For tips on managing user privacy in dating apps, visit Dating Apps Pose Risks to LGBTQ Individuals.
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