“Any face pics?” I ask the pictureless profile purporting to be a six foot, masculine top weighing 78kg. He’s slim, looking for “masc only” and has just propositioned me.
“Can’t send, I’m discreet,” comes the reply. He does, however, send a picture of his penis that I haven’t asked for. So goes another demoralising Grindr exchange.
It may be the gayest app on the market, but there seems to be a conspicuous absence: pride.
Grindr is the most popular dating app for (predominantly) gay men. It has 3.8 million active daily users worldwide and is the UK’s most downloaded LGBT+ app. To the uninitiated, it might be mistaken for a gays-only cousin of Tinder. But if you have had the misfortune of venturing onto the app — or know someone who has — you will know it is a very different beast, not least in its particular focus on hook-ups.
Unlike the match-to-message requirement of other dating apps, anyone can message anyone else found in a grid organised by physical proximity down to the very metre. Absent too is the identifiable personal information. While categorisation from body type to HIV status is standard, names and faces are an optional bonus.
One of my first experiences on the app as a fresher at university saw me travelling to meet a headless, nameless torso. Such a risk seems untenable now (I hadn’t even told anyone where I was going!) but I didn’t know any better.
Upon arrival we quickly got down to business, but I was perplexed by his reluctance to kiss me. Afterwards, he admitted that kissing another man made him feel “uncomfortable” (ironic considering the things he did seem to feel comfortable doing with men). I rationalised that he must be closeted, but this was not all. He also had a wife.
The anonymity permitted by the app caters to men like this: those who are closeted, who want gay sex in secret. In spite of their urges they are uncomfortable with homosexuality, so set their pseudonyms to “straight acting” and request “no fem please”. They feel like they are doing something wrong, and it’s making the rest of us feel like we might be too.
This is overt heteronormativity and anti-effeminacy — to me, it’s homophobia. But no one bats an eye.
For years, in my experience, virtual mask-wearing has enabled and encouraged derogatory language, unsolicited genital pictures, and explicit, unwarranted sexual requests. Senders are unaccountable while unfortunate recipients eventually learn to expect and tolerate these messages, attempting to disconnect from their more degrading or triggering aspects.
Grindr’s dominance of gay dating since its launch in 2009 means that young, queer men are coming of age with this as their blueprint for love, sex and dating. To me, it could not be worse. Their introduction to the gay community — albeit a virtual one — should inspire pride and acceptance. As it stands, in my experience, the underbelly of self-stigmatisation means encountering homophobic slurs is more likely. Pandering to closeted men allows shame and bigotry to fester.
Further, the acceptance of anonymity is conducive to dangerous situations. People using false identities (catfishes) are so prolific that there are whole forums dedicated to helping Grindr users avoid scary meetings with men who aren’t what they claim.
As I can attest from my own early experiences, younger users are particularly vulnerable to fake profiles and taking unnecessary risks, having not yet undergone the trial-and-error learning of strategies to avoid them. However, even for more established users, a barely functional “This is his address, in case I’m kidnapped!” text to a close friend often has to suffice.
The app should require verified names, faces and identification. There is nothing shameful about being gay, or about gay sex. The only people who would be excluded by this change are those who still believe there is — and frankly, good riddance. Come back when you’ve accepted that using Grindr and being “straight acting” are fundamentally incompatible.
Meanwhile, the rest of us must try to start considering each other as people, rather than categories. We can build the mutual respect that’s been missing and be kinder to one another. Hook-ups and dating should be fun, and we deserve to be safe and respected whilst utilising the best tool we have available.
The popularity of Grindr isn’t going anywhere and its developers have a responsibility to the community they serve. Will they continue to allow a culture of anonymity and, in my opinion, sexual shame, or will our foremost gay dating app finally start promoting pride and acceptance?
The Independent has contacted Grindr for comment.
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