Within academic circles, sexual racism and queer sexual racism have become a popular subfield within the study of sexuality. This study area is significant for gay men because many online dating apps are the primary way they find intimacy. Every gay man who has used Grindr, Scruff, or virtually any other gay dating app knows all too well the toxic environment that these apps create.

A recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard found that while just 39% of heterosexual couples reported using apps, 65% of same-sex couples met online (Rosenfeld et al., 2019). This gulf is likely to increase as gay bars across the country continue to close. Understanding sexual racism and other issues in interacting online are critical if we want to build upon civil rights gains won by LGBTQ+ activists and improve the lives of queer people everywhere. Indeed, as many scholars note, everyday racism and discriminatory experiences are often the most exhausting.

While academics often explore sexual racism by identifying the forms that it takes, less is known about how individuals justify engaging in sexualised forms of racism. In other words, how do white gay men justify using terms like “no blacks or Latinos” or even worse language in their profiles and interactions with men of colour?

I have been attempting to address this question by collecting data on my interactions with users on Grindr since 2015, interviewing users of the online dating app, and keeping up with Grindr’s appearances in the news. Some of this work has even been published in top scholarly journals.

Sexual Racism: Example profile from Douchebagsofgrindr.com
How white gay dating app users justify sexual racism
Sexual racism may look harmless enough but comes in many forms.

Launched on March 25, 2009, Grindr remains the leading gay dating app despite having multiple competitors. It has also served as a business model or blueprint for other dating apps, both gay and straight. Yet, it is also one of the most problematic in terms of policing its user base. Despite some corporate changes designed to promote a more inclusive environment, users still experience a high degree of racism and bigotry in the online world of Grindr.

In conducting my research, I found various justifications that some users employed to explain their racist behaviours. I am in no way excusing these actions. Instead, my purpose here is to expose this behaviour to advance conversations on race and bigotry in the gay male world.

The users I interviewed engaged in various stigmatising behaviours directed at people of colour in the main. When asked about their behaviours, they justified them by saying it was “just a preference.” They could rarely provide me with any explanation for their actions beyond “I just don’t.”

As one 24-year-old white gay male explained how he knew he didn’t like Latinos or Black men, “I just don’t. I mean, maybe one day I’ll try it, but right now, that’s what I like. Until then, I’ll just have to learn to live out here and be celibate. It sucks living out here. I’m so lonely.”

What is surprising about many of these interviewees is that they would rather go without any form of intimacy than put down their racist ideology. In doing so, individuals, such as this young man, overlook how beauty and race are socially constructed and blind themselves to the harm that such behaviours cause for those on the receiving end.

Some users I interviewed became very defensive when asked about their discriminatory behaviours. They often claimed that other Grindr users of a particular age group, race, or other characteristic were “harassing” them or “inundating them with messages.” It often felt as if these users were condemning me for bringing up their discriminatory behaviours and deflecting their actions as if they were defending themselves from sexual harassment.

One such user went a step further by pointing out how much more compassionate it was for him to state such preferences in his profile. He noted, “But my preference may offend others, I’m a compassionate person, so I took that part down… I derive no satisfaction from being mean to others, unlike those who have problems with my preference.” (Gay, White, Male, 22).

While this respondent seemed to have “come to his senses,” to me, he was merely trying to shield himself from being labelled a bigot. His comments came off as if those calling out his behaviour were the people who had the “real problem”.

Beyond various discriminatory behaviour by individual users, the apps themselves illustrate some of the unique problems digital technologies pose in enabling racist behaviour. For example, until recently, paid users of the Grindr app could filter out other users based on race. This practice has generated a range of controversies among app users and non-users alike.

However, in my research, excluding users by race was primarily used against persons of colour by white Grindr users. Other scholars and sociologists have written at length about how new digital technologies render marginalised communities invisible. One such scholar, Ruha Benjamin, dubs this “The New Jim Code” era in Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Her research details how automated technologies speed up and hide implicit biases that become baked into their business model.

One way in which I observed this happening on Grindr, for instance, was through the use of a race filter. Using filters, individuals can remove whole categories of users they deem “undesirable” and cast them from their view. But, as some have argued, the individuals’ ability to create racialised echo chambers reinforces existing stereotypes and discriminatory practices.

Grindr Twitter announcement of ‘race filter’ ban.

While we may have come a long way in taking steps towards equality, many unresolved issues have yet to be addressed by leaders in the LGBTQ+ community. For example, just this summer, we saw a queer woman of colour dragged down the stairs of a gay club in Washington DC and witnessed police brutality at New York’s gay pride march.

It’s shocking to think that trans women of colour still have the highest murder rate across the United States in the twenty-first century. It may seem as if racist ideology on Grindr, and other gay dating apps, are inconsequential against these pervasive structural issues. However, while these ‘personal behaviours’ are allowed to persist, these larger social ills will continue.

If we cannot be kind to each other in our day-to-day interactions, how can we expect to curb the more significant social problems we face in our society? Moreover, by marginalising members of our community within shared social spaces, we make the hard-fought-for advances achieved by LGBTQ+ advocates appear pointless if they cannot be enjoyed by all of us.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Nicely researched article, but I do not agree with its premise that white people must be attracted sexually to black people; otherwise, they are racist!! What’s that about – Black men need white acceptance? Who cares if they don’t fancy us – as long as they treat black people with respect.

    Everyone is entitled to their sexual preference – whether because they want someone who looks like them or has cultural similarities- racism begins only when people write derogatory things about other races on their profiles. The writer ignores the fact that the majority of toxic racism and objectification on Grindr comes from people expressly looking to have ‘sex’ with black men – or their black objects of desire.

    PS: The deletion of the ability to filter by race has had a negative effect on black men looking to connect with other black men. This is their right – nothing to do with racism or a judgement against other men.

    • I think you misunderstand the premise of the article. Its a sociological study examining how some white people I interviewed justify their racist ideologies. I’m definitely not saying black men need white acceptance. My purpose is only to try to explain from the point of view of my participants. There is a more fuller version of this study that I’ve written about here: The Gay Gayze: Expressions of Inequality on Grindr: The Sociological Quarterly: Vol 60, No 3 (tandfonline.com)

      • I think the question being asked is, if you’re white and not sexually attracted to Black or Latino men, does that make you a racist? If you’re a Black man attracted only to other Black men, are you a racist?

        • Yes, I think any time we discount an entire category on the basis of race that it constitutes a form of racism. These are the same logic used to justify all kinds of things—from denying Black men access to education to the assumption that I often see in American sports that Black men have more athletic prowess. Are we going to find people we don’t mesh with, for sure, but we should discount an entire group out of hand. I’d highly recommend for anyone interested on this topic, looking at the work of E. Patrick Johnson or the recently published work of C. Winter Han titled Racial Erotics: Gay Men of Color, Sexual Racism, and the Politics of Desire. I think you can also extend this argument outward to talk about what informs our desire, where does it come from, and what role the social world plays in shaping these desires—the real point of the article.

  2. So Grindr removed the ability to filter search results by ethnicity. Why is this supposed to be a good thing for black men who use the app? The ability to filter search results by categories, including race, was about the only reason to pay for Grindr, in my opinion. 

    On an app dominated by white men, removing the ‘ethnicity filter’ is not an inclusive act. On the contrary, it is actively excluding those wanting to meet men of colour on that platform. It says, if you’re not interested in bedding those in the majority on this app, you’d better go elsewhere to find your match.

    Why should I have to wade through large numbers of white men to find the brothas I want to chat to and meet? Am I bothered when white men filter me out of their sight? No. I don’t care. The real racists I’ve found are those who profess an interest in black men but are quick to call you all kinds of racialised names when you show no interest in them.

    I don’t have a problem with intra-racial dating or interracial dating, for that matter. My problem is with disrespectful people who think the world revolves around them. Or those who want to call me racist for having no interest in their sexual advances because I want to date other black men.

    Being racist goes beyond mere racialised views or arguments about attraction and beauty. Being racist involves socially constructed ideas of power and otherness. Racism is the justification of differential treatment based on race or ethnicity and concepts of intellectual/biological superiority or not. It is possible to be discriminatory without being racist, especially if you are without a privileged base to derive structural power or influence over others.

    Interesting post, but it’s a bit lopsided in its understanding of sexual preferences, race, and racism.

    • So unfortunately when I conducted my study I didn’t have many men of color respond for interviews. I would have never known about how your use of the race filter had you know made me aware. Interesting. If I ever redo this study I may be in contact.

    • I agree with Jason L… it is almost as if Grindr said, because you have an issue with how some white men view/ fetishise black men … we will make this ‘useless’ and ‘tone deaf’ gesture and remove the ethnicity filter and completely inhibit black men from filtering for black men only. The removal of the filter does nothing to address the racism in people’s minds. If Grindr wants to make a gesture ban profiles that relegate black gay male identity to BBC…you are creating a culture that views this kind of sexual stereotyping as totally acceptable for one race only.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here