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Zero Feet Away: How Grindr Has Impacted the Gay Community

Written by Quinn Lazenby
Edited by Ashendri Wickremasinghe

Grindr is a geosocial dating app that allows queer men to connect with others nearby. Launching in 2009, Grindr now boasts more than 6 million profiles, with 2 million daily users hailing from 192-plus countries. The app allows users to evaluate potential matches based on the criteria of height, ethnicity, weight, “tribe,” preferred sexual position, HIV status and body type. The pervasiveness of Grindr has transformed the landscape of the gay community, and perhaps most importantly, how bodies are valued. In answering the question “What does Grindr do,” this essay will explore its role in changing the cartography of gay spaces, its influence on gay brands and how Grindr structures a physical hierarchy. Ultimately, Grindr has constructed a digitalized gay neighbourhood that privileges certain bodies while oppressing others.

I. Welcome to the Gaybourhood

Much ink has been spilled to bemoan how dating apps like Grindr have reduced romantic courtship to swiping. While this judgment may be valid, it overlooks the impact that has occurred beyond relationships, to one that has impacted entire communities. Using Sara Ahmed’s discussion in Recognizing Strangers, I will argue that Grindr itself is a neighbourhood. Ahmed describes how the boundaries of neighbourhoods are demarcated by recognizing who does not belong, in other words, who is a stranger. Ahmed writes, “the production of safe spaces that have value or ‘ideal characters’ involves the expulsion of unlike and undesirable ‘characters’” (Ahmed 30). In the neighbourhood of Grindr, most members are unknown to each other due to the anonymity of profiles, and yet there is a shared recognition of who does not belong. Ahmed writes “we recognize somebody as a stranger, rather than simply failing to recognize them”[1]. Ahmed argues that this common guard against outsiders can unify communities and foster a sense of protection. Gay neighbourhoods, or gaybourhoods as they are sometimes referred to, have developed, historically, out of homophobic ghettoization, and thus are particularly sensitive to intrusion. Queer theorist Gayle Rubin describes the “sexual migration”[2] as a pilgrimage of marginalized LGBTQ people to gay sanctuaries in San Francisco and New York. She describes how “homosexuality has acquired much of the institutional structure of an ethnic group,”[3] with queer businesses and media developing a sort of tribe. Grindr, like traditional gay villages, continues a history of being invaded by threatening strangers. Assaults in the past were characterized by physical violence: from the bathhouse raids in Toronto, to the interrogation of queers during McCarthyism, to police brutality at the Stone Wall Inn. Today, however, breaching the gaybourhood of Grindr occurs when straight people create an account, and effectively “out” Grindr members from their protected community.

During the Rio Olympics, the Daily Beast published a highly controversial article in which a heterosexual journalist lured gay athletes in the Olympic Village using Grindr. Amini Fonua, an openly gay swimmer representing Tonga, tweeted his outrage at the ‘gay-baiting’ invasion of Grindr: “Imagine the one space you can feel safe, the one space you’re able to be yourself, ruined by a straight person who thinks it’s all a joke”[4]. The backlash against the article, which resulted in an apology from the Daily Beast, demonstrates the sanctity of this gaybourhood, and how passionately its borders are maintained.  There exists a communal solidarity in keeping Grindr removed from external threats. Gay Olympians from countries where homosexuals are severely persecuted, who might not risk visiting a gay bar, are afforded sexual agency over Grindr because of the app’s privacy.  Therefore, its invasion stings even more.

Ahmed describes the power of preserving borders, “the recognition of dangerous strangers allows the enforcement of the boundaries of such communities: a definition of the purity of the ‘we’ against the monstrous ‘it’”[5]. Grindr’s icon is a mask, which is an erotic symbol of the app’s private nature. Invading this space, therefore, is effectively ripping the mask away from its users. The irony of this mask symbol is that Grindr members are able to express their most authentic self when their identity is concealed.

The charms of Grindr, namely its convenience, safety and selection, have depleted the popularity of traditional spaces for many queer men. One article from the Guardian examines why gay nightclubs are vacated explaining, “there is simply no need for exclusively gay venues anymore, in an age where many people simply seek connections online”[6].  The necessity for the queer community’s original territories has, to an extent, been replaced by the ubiquity of Grindr. This virtual and privatized gaybourhood facilitates individual connections primarily for sexual purposes, and has the potential to erode the gay community’s radical politics. Indeed, Grindr does not galvanize its members to protest for social justice as the Stonewall Inn once did.

II. The Hierarchy of Grindr

Beyond expelling heterosexual intruders, Grindr as a gaybourhood functions as a hierarchy—where certain bodies and gender expressions are privileged and ranked over others. A notoriously chauvinistic and racist phrase that appears in some Grindr profiles is ‘No Fats, Fems or Asians.’ While some users defend this phrase as simply their preferences, others argue it represents the prejudice of the gay community. Grindr is structured to facilitate these narrow-minded ‘preferences’ by allowing users to only view gay men in their area with a selected age range, body type, race or other physical category. The impact of this infrastructure is that for some users the gay community becomes homogenized and virtually monochromatic. Users who may exclusively desire muscular white men over six feet have the power to effectively block diversity. In her article Branding the Post-Feminist Self, Sarah Banet-Weiser examines websites like ‘AmIHot’ where individuals rate someone’s physical attractiveness. Banet-Weiser describes how “these rating sites and the normalization of ‘hotness’ as an aspirational subject position also situate ‘hotness’ as an important factor in self-branding of white, middle-class girls, where the ‘hotter’ one is, the more one will be noticed”[7]. Grindr functions in a similar way for gay men. With the goal of enticing attractive blokes, users may internalize the gay male gaze to present a brand that will be alluring for others. If an Asian man believes that his ethnicity will damage his brand, and his chances of meeting other gays, he may choose to upload a picture of only his torso, thereby hiding his racial features. Other Grindr users, who might perform non-binary gender expressions, may choose to present a more masculine brand out of fear of alienating potential suitors. The result of this narrow “normalized hotness”[8] is that a hierarchy is structured, where masculine white able-bodied men are positioned at the pinnacle of sexual power.

The systemic blocking of ‘unattractive’ physical categories, combined with the internalized self-censure of individuals who fall into those categories, effectively neutralizes the colours of the rainbow flag. In this way, the promise of Grindr is hollow—for the enticement of connecting with a colourful variety of gay men is futile, if the medium of connection erases the diversity itself.

Using Banet-Weiser’s notion of an economy of visibility, some might argue that for minorities, uploading a selfie can be liberating against an oppressive racialized and heteronormative hierarchy. For individuals whose demographic is underrepresented in popular media, selfies can provide a platform to showcase their beauty under their own terms, connecting them to members of their minority. The notion that increased visibility is inherently emancipatory, however, overlooks the added pressures that exist once a minority is made visible. Young gay boys who download Grindr are likely unaware of all the categories that exist on the app. In creating their profile, they can select a ‘tribe’ to identify with ranging from Jocks, to Twinks, to Bears. While the user may have disliked the invisibility he felt before downloading Grindr, the app will not necessarily liberate him. Indeed, the “straightjacket of gender oppression”[9] may oppress him with new, rigid body standards and narrow cultural codes. In addition, he may be particularly anxious to conform to Grindr’s tribes because of the homophobic exclusion from regular communities, making him eager to ‘sell his brand’ and belong to Grindr’s gaybourhood. As Banet-Weiser describes, there is a labour in cultivating an “authentic brand”[10] to attract users—a laboured performance which may betray the true authenticity of the user. In effect, gay men whose bodies do not conform to what is deemed “hot” on Grindr, are pressured into adapting their brands to achieve it. The pressure to auction and mold oneself into preexisting categories limits the potential for creating new expressions, therefore, Grindr effectively cements the existing tribes in the gay community.

Some Grindr accounts have objected to Grindr’s culture of a physical hierarchy, and feature progressive descriptors like “Turn offs include: racism, ageism, internalized homophobia and narrow-mindedness.” Others write “What is masculinity anyway” and “looking for real guys.” These messages are presented as an anti-brand, combating superficial discrimination in favour of more “meaningful” connections. While these messages are intended to promote inclusivity and are in opposition to brands, they, nonetheless, present a brand of their own. Indeed, the brand is only legitimized because other users respond with positive feedback. Banet-Weiser argues that “self-branding, much like the branding of other products, only works if you enable other people to rank your product, which in this case is yourself”[11]. Therefore, the anti-hierarchy messages still rely on the validation of others who support this anti-brand brand.

III. Embodied Existence in a Digital Community

In her article, Where Do You Want To Go Today, Lisa Nakamura critiques a series of advertisements from the 1990s that present the Internet as a utopic realm beyond physical differences. In the ads, network technology eliminates the categories of race, gender, age and disability, paving the way to a post-corporeal society where “just minds” connect. As a cultural artifact of 2017, Grindr clearly shatters early theories that the Internet would be “post-ethnic” or “uncontaminated by physical difference”[12].  The app is designed to connect bodies with their desired bodies, emphasizing every physical detail on an individual’s profile.

The advertisements, which Nakamura critiques, present bodily differences as an obstacle that spoils connections. However, the goal of liberating connections by eliminating physical barriers relies on the assumption of mind-body dualism. IBM or Microsoft might defend the narrative in their advertisements by claiming that diversity will flourish between minds on the Internet, but not between bodies. However, many phenomenological queer theorists posit that their bodies are intrinsic to their experiences, and that they think and process the world through their bodies. For some queer people, their sexual identity and worldview are inextricably intertwined and cannot be neatly divided into the binary of mind or body. Similarly, connections on Grindr demonstrate the meshing of physical and mental desires. Cultural codes may shape the way a Grindr user expresses their innate lust, even if they adamantly believe their attraction is purely biological. Grindr proves that the Internet, contrary to the ‘utopic’ visions of Microsoft in the 1990s, is a place of bodies, rather than disembodiment. From mushrooming the scope of gay connections, to constructing virtual platforms for racism—the body is very much online.

Combining Nakamura’s discussion of an embodied Internet, with Ahmed’s analysis of neighbourhoods, we can argue that Grindr functions as both a neighbourhood and a body. In Ahmed’s discussion, she compares the strength of a neighbourhood with an unwounded and strong body: “the analogy between the ideal neighbourhood and a healthy body serves to define the ideal neighbourhood as fully integrated, homogenous, and sealed: it is a body that is fully contained by skin. This implies that a good or healthy neighbourhood does not leak outside itself, and hence does not let outsiders in”[13]. The metaphor of a gaybourhood as a body rationalizes the homogenizing forces that seek to whitewash physical differences. From a social-Darwinian view, the metaphor also explains why disabled gay men are disregarded—because Grindr prizes the physicality of its users. Be that as it may, every user deserves the right to choose which ‘categories’ of bodies they find attractive, and with whom to have sex. Nevertheless, if ethnic minorities or those who disclose their positive HIV status are systematically blocked, segments of the gaybourhood are stigmatized, silenced and invisibilized. This digitalized quarantine serves to eradicate “unattractive” populations from Grindr’s body, thus creating a monolithic network of a white masculine body type.

In Ahmed’s discussion of the stranger danger discourse, she describes how the “vulnerable citizen who is gendered as feminine”[14] is prey to the male stranger who is “lurking in the shadows”[15]. In the gaybourhood of Grindr, all members, to some extent, exist in the shadows, and yet, unlike in Ahmed’s heterosexual context, the most vulnerable bodies are not feminine or masculine, but rather those who fail to fulfill either category. Trans people, especially trans women of colour, disproportionately face violence in their daily lives. Part of this violence stems from them being labelled strangers by some, even within the gaybourhood of Grindr. While the makers of Grindr strategically design trans-inclusive options, and project solidarity with the trans community, a trans-exclusive culture persists on the app. Ahmed describes how the discourse of stranger danger “becomes a mechanism of justification of acts of violence against those who are already recognized as strangers.”[16]. Unlike the invading heterosexual journalist from the Daily Beast, trans users epitomize being a stranger in one’s own community. The culture of bluntly discussing genitalia on Grindr further marginalizes trans people whose intimate physicality might contradict their gender identity. Ahmed describes how “cultural difference exacerbates feelings of danger. Encounters with culturally alien people are defined by anxiety and uncertainty, which inhibits social interactions and reinforces social boundaries”[17].

As the framework for a 21st century digital gaybourhood, Grindr holds tremendous influence. From constructing a hierarchy of bodies, to limiting potentials for new tribes, Grindr shapes everyday queer culture. With the modernized convenience and privacy of cruising for other gay men, who may be less than 50 meters away, the appeal of traditional gay neighbourhoods has changed. As Grindr becomes compulsory for queer men, its power in either including or marginalizing a diversity of bodies grows. Ultimately, the charms and curses of Grindr have had, and will continue to have a complex influence on how the gay community interacts and exists in the world.

Notes
[1] Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London: Routledge, 2000), 21.
[2] Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Canadian Perspectives in Sexualities Studies: Identities, Experiences, and the Contexts of Change (London: Oxford University Press, 1984), 49.
[3] Ibid., 48.
[4] Natalia Barr, “Gay Olympian Amini Fonua Reacts to Story on Rio’s Grindr Users In a Twitter Smackdown,” Out Magazine, August 12, 2016, accessed November 23, 2016, http://www.out.com/sports/2016/8/12/gay-olympian-amini-fonua-reacts-story-rios-grindr-users-twitter-smackdown
[5] Ahmed, Strange Encounters, 37.
[6] James Norman, “Goodbye to All the Gay Bars. Are Dating Apps Killing Queer Culture?” The Guardian, July 15, 2015, accessed November 23, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/15/goodbye-to-all-the-gay-bars-are-dating-apps-killing-queer-culture
[7] Sarah Banet-Weiser, Authentic TM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York: New York UP, 2012), 86.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Laurie Penny. Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 84.
[10] Banet-Weiser, Authentic TM, 86.
[11] Ibid., 87.
[12] Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2002), 88.
[13] Ahmed, Strange Encounters, 25.
[14] Ibid., 34.
[15] Ibid., 30.
[16] Ibid., 37.
[17] Ibid.

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