Belgium was the second in the world to legalize gay-marriage (in 2003!) and has an openly gay prime minister, so gay bashing wasn't my primary concern while vacationing in Brussels. I was busy worrying about where my next moules-frites and Trappist beer were coming from and fretting over exactly how much chocolate I was going to get away with loading into the suitcase.
Then I got a text message from a friend who is a local in Brussels. There had been two incidents of gay bashing from the previous night. And both took place in the area around the Grand Place, the heart of the Belgian capital's gay community.
In that moment, I realized that I was one small link in a big and rapid chain of text messages that flew around that day. This is community, I thought. And there needs to be a way for others to know this information.
A few months later, an app that does precisely that—called Bashing—made headlines in Belgium and in Europe. It is now at the center of a grassroots movement to track, report, and mobilize action against gay bashing throughout the continent. (Story continues on next page)
(Photo above: Self-portrait by Iannis Delatolas, who used his photography to fight back at bashing after being attacked in New York. Read that story here.)
The app shows the precise location of every incident, records whether it is verbal or physical, and creates a "Bashmap" showing problem areas on an embedded Google map. Surprisingly, in Brussels, the locals quickly learned that the aggressions always occurred on busy roads and squares in the city center!
Björn Pius, the creator of the app, never expected it to become so popular. Use quickly spread from Belgium to the Netherlands, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. One can even see two “red spots” in the small town of Forli, about 90 miles northwest of San Marino in Italy. (People in the U.S. will see that gay-bashing incidents here have been logged on the map as well. In fact, the app is available for download in the U.S. and could be used as a tool here if enough people started to use it.)
Pius says that the perpetrators are "mostly young, between the age of 15 and 30, rarely or never attend religious service and are driven by an animalistic instinct to display their masculinity and strength."
That common demographic makes arresting the perpetrators a challenge. But the app has been a cultural phenomenon and helped to bring government attention to the issue. Since its release, Belgian parliament, the police, and local authorities have begun to grapple with a pattern of violence that was previously considered one-off and hard to pin down.
The global gay rights movement is more accelerated than ever, and that makes this a wonderful time to be an out traveler. Sometimes, though, the increased visibility and media attention can have negative consequences. But if crowd-sourced grassroots movements can overturn regimes, surely gay-bashing is a problem we can solve together.
Nish Gera is an entrepreneur, writer, and consultant. He co-founded Lala Wines, a startup that aims to bring little-known boutique wines from the Pacific Northwest to wine lovers in the U.S. and Europe. He is currently working on a book about LGBT equality in India, where he grew up. He has lived in New York City since 2004. Follow Nish on Twitter @NishGera.