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
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.
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.