An anonymous article about keeping safe and happy as a gay man on the move this Spring Break.

Before anyone says anything – the heteros have a lot of previous on this one. I feel like I see a new article every other week by some slick-haired, muscled vlogger who has successfully “done” Europe without ever paying for a hotel via a succession of obliging women on dating apps. One particularly predictable Daily Mail headline appears to have run with this story purely to show pictures of some of these “charming girls” in their bikinis. Ho hum.

With that in mind, it’s hardly a secret that gay men have been using this kind of app for longer than any other. As any clued-up gay will enthusiastically tell you after a couple of Cosmopolitans, Grindr has been around a lot longer than Tinder. Yet many people still are not quite sure what it is or how it is used. Despite all the breakthroughs of recent years, mainstream society remains slightly disgusted by gay sex, and these apps duly remain more taboo than their heterosexual equivalents.

Of course, Grindr is not the only gay geosocial app available in 2019. And it is also true that Tinder and other apps made primary for straight, cisgendered people do also cater to all genders and sexualities. Nevertheless, Grindr is still one of the most used dating apps in the world with millions of daily users – and yet one of the least talked about. Even with other gay friends, there is something fugitive or distasteful about checking Grindr or talking about hook-ups or dates locked down by using it.

The reasons for this deserve a whole article of their own: I believe that the inherent shame of being gay is still, sadly, unavoidable. Even the most confident queer man would recognise that unique jolt of embarrassment that comes after propositioning someone and being told, with varying levels of disgust, patience and kindness: “Actually, I’m straight”. It is ingrained, on some level, for us to be ashamed of who we are.

And for all those who are curious – Grindr is not necessarily just about sex. I know monogamous and non-monogamous couples who have met and stayed together through the app; I know people who have used it purely to get to know people when moving to a new place or for travel tips. I would say a healthy mixture of the above is probably normal. (Cue gay men writing in to tell me that I’m wrong.)

With all that in mind – how is Grindr best used when travelling? I’ve used Grindr on-and-off for several years now, in a number of different countries. However, it wasn’t until I became single last summer that I have used it in any earnest, nor when alone in a new city..

Case study

I’ve used Grindr in various European cities, but I want to focus on one weekend last summer when, for reasons too complex to go into, I found myself staying alone in a certain Scandinavian capital for three days. Lathered in sweat (it was over 30 degrees the whole time I was there), having barely one change of clothes with me and knowing absolutely no-one in the city, I checked into a hostel and determined that this would be my big chance to prove that I was a cool young independent urban gay who could – and would – have a succession of meaningless flings with no consequences.

I had moderate levels of success. With very little effort, I managed to meet three different men on my three nights there. They proved a diverse bunch, all worthy of more special attention, thought I’m only going to focus on one here. One, a recently-arrived refugee from Syria showed me pictures of Damascus and cried, cheering up only once he instigated some foreplay. Another gentleman, eager to play tour-guide, hired bikes for us and showed me the city, before showing off his fancy apartment with a balcony where he prepared dinner, drinks and – ultimately – breakfast for me. Normally I wouldn’t advocate going to a stranger’s house or (like a gay Alice in Wonderland) accepting food and drink, but both these experiences had been coloured by the extraordinary events of my first night. In comparison, any date thereafter became tame and safe.

On that first night, in an ensemble comprising cut-off denim shorts and a oversized colourful shirt which would have invited pickpockets in a city with higher crime rates, I trotted down to a gay bar to meet a skinny twentysomething who claimed to be a model. It occurred to me then that if I was murdered tonight, no-one would know where to look for me. I fired off a couple of messages to friends in far-flung locations who would not be able to do very much if something did happen to me, and entered the bar with all the authority of someone who definitely was not getting murdered. The guy, with Scandinavian punctuality, was well-spoken and attractive and my fears melted away as we engaged in an evening of chit-chat, dancing and eventually, now in the small hours, what a friend of mine sweetly calls “sucking face”.

It was only as we were leaving the club and heading – I assumed – back to his apartment that the innocuous hook-up took a turn for the weird. “One of my clients lives round the corner,” he commented, pointing .to an impressive looking stone building. I blinked, wondering if perhaps I had missed the part of the conversation where he had told me he was an Avon representative. (Did they even have Avon representatives in Scandinavia? Probably not.) It transpired, after I gently prodded for more information, that the would-be model was in fact a prolific male sex worker, listing major politicians and media personalities among his clients.

This is, as many know, an unfortunate side-effect of Grindr – many people use the app to make some profit for themselves. Although my new friend assured me he didn’t want me to pay for anything (“It’s my day off”), in any logical version of this story this was probably the time for me to take my leave.

But the journalist inside me kicked in. Having never met a sex worker before, I had so many questions about his life and job. I discovered, as could be predicted in a modern Scandinavian democracy, that he was not only a part of a trade union but also was having troubles with the red tape of his tax forms. He talked me through the practicalities of his regular, vigorous, STI check-ups and some of the more unusual locations where his services had been required. I was, despite myself, fascinated.

He invited me back to his flat, warning me – the next big revelation – that he lived with his mother so we would have to stay “downstairs”. Downstairs turned out to be a cement basement under an apartment block, where the skeletons of a few old bikes and, most worryingly of all, an old dentist’s equipment, lay in a corner gathering dust. A few spiders poked their heads out. The door shut behind us. I considered the reality of whether I would really want to have sex in this setting and, a little more urgently, whether I would ever get out of there alive.

The shortest version of the story is – I got out of there alive. He remained charming to the end and, although I have no way of corroborating whether any of what he said was true, it remains one of the most honest first encounters I have had with anyone in my life. With a dead phone, however, I spent a lengthy hour and a half trying to find my way back to my hostel in a strange city at 6am, eventually being directed by a kindly refuse collector. God bless the Scandinavians.

Lessons learned

Using Grindr (or similar apps) should be fun, safe and enjoyable for any individual travelling alone. I’ve learned that it can also be a lonely and nerve-racking experience. As wonderful as any opportunity to meet new people can be, anything that puts you out of your comfort zone or could cause you harm should be avoided. I made some rash and stupid decisions that could have had far worse consequences.

If you are uncomfortable doing something, do not do it. If someone you are with does not seem to have particularly woke views about consent, make your excuses and leave. Always tell someone where you are going and update with a quick message if you are going to someone’s house. Try to keep your phone charged. Grindr, like any dating app, should be used carefully and intelligently.

But it should also – and this is crucial – be used to have fun.

If you would like to write for our On The Road section, contact Catherine Mester at travel@thetribeonline.com.