Earlier this year, the well-known gay social messaging/hook up app Grindr announced their anti-racism, HIV, fatphobia and anti-ignorance campaign named #Kindr. This has come after many Grindr users have lamented having very negative experiences while using the app from other users. These experiences are all linked to immutable identifying characteristics that form the identities of various users.
On their website, they have a wide variety of videos by Grindr users who talk through various issues such as racism, femmephobia, HIV and general hostility within the gay community. The users comment on how having to battle through these issues affects them emotionally as well as how it makes them view the wider gay community. Users in particular expressed how during their self-acceptance (also known as ‘coming-out’) journeys, these negative experiences created feelings of self-discomfort and unhappiness. They have also changed their community guidelines to reflect their rejection of exclusionary language in user biographies.
As someone who has used the app before, I was happy to see this step taken by the app-management. However, it doesn’t go far enough and disappointingly, avoids the real cause of why these users are having such negative experiences. In the videos, the users did ask why another person would want to make them feel ugly, small and undesired, yet this was not revisited by Grindr.
The why in this context is crucial. We’re talking about systems which enable and give power to those who adhere to their norms and strict codes of existence. This is not someone deciding to be a jerk, or randomly cruel and to describe what’s happening in the community as such is at best naive, and at worst willfully ignorant. People are moulded into these ways of behaving because they feel they are at one point of a hierarchy and the victim is at the bottom, which necessitates their mockery and in order for the aggressor to maintain their position within the hierarchy, the victim must be subjugated. This way of thinking is learned from wider society and is not initiated by the individual themselves, even if the action of ignoring swathes of people they have never met is.
The people of colour are subjected to horrific, marginalising treatment on account of their ethnic and racial background due to white supremacy. White Grindr users are not randomly saying “no Blacks, Asians and femmes” for example, but are feeding into a system which permits white people to centre themselves as the standard of human beauty, with everything else outside of whiteness ranked in varying levels of attractiveness. We are going to continue to see this problem again and again until white people reckon with white supremacy and how they individually and collectively perpetuate and sustain it. Ignorance of the problem or thinking that one is exempt from this self-reflection and self-action further gives the system power and keeps it alive.
Plenty of LGBT people of colour experience fetishisation when interacting with white people in dating/sexualised contexts. This happened to K, who I spoke to while undertaking research for this article. K identifies as Black, trans and non-binary. They commented on how when hooking-up, they would be told excitedly they were the first Black person the white partner had kissed, as if K was supposed to jump for joy. K also recounted an experience with a white ex-girlfriend, who, while watching a baby-naming programme, was annoyed by a person exclaiming about having ‘beautiful mixed babies’ to which his ex replied “I wouldn’t have kids with you anyway because they wouldn’t come out with blue eyes and straight hair.” This is an example of whiteness reacting with racialised violence especially when challenged or rejected.
This violence, however, happens unprovoked. I recall an example of receiving a message from someone I had never interacted with before on the app. The account had no face or identifying features attached to it other than that the person was white. They sent me two pictures – the first was of a tree, with the second being more chilling. It was of a piece of chicken hanging from a tree with a Black man jumping up at it smilingly with a hooded Ku Klux Klan member watching. I simply replied to the person that they were weird and blocked them. I could have reported it, but this is what we are living with, a system with emboldens white people to send messages like this to feel superior. If someone is sending messages like this to people they have never met like this, then they definitely harbour white supremacist thoughts offline, which they no doubt hide in the course of daily life.
The media has a large influence too and also needs to be critiqued. With 72% of gay Black men saying that they feel underrepresented in LGBT campaigns, the industry needs to do more. There isn’t a month that goes by that the media doesn’t reinforce white supremacist, Eurocentric, fatphobic beauty standards. It will be very hard to find a person of colour on gay magazines, let alone a Black person, but you will be guaranteed to find a shirtless, muscly white man with a six pack *yawn!* on the cover. This sends a message to users that if you want to be the object of attention and a cover star, you have to fit this image. This fantasy, which really is a delusion, is reinforced in pornography. These men often project a particular hyper masculine image, fanned by the flames of femmephobia.
Most big adult entertainment stars tend to fit a particular physique and then this is reinforced in the community in terms of desire, like a vicious circle. If you are consuming all this media from a young age while self-accepting, then it goes without saying you will have a very warped view of human beauty and what human bodies should look and sound like. Many gay men utter the toxic phrase “straight-acting”, which is an oxymoron in terms. There is no particular way to act heterosexual, in the same way there is no particular way to act gay, yet this femmephobic phrase persists. It also begs the question, who is the interaction between these two men in-app for – the participants or a femmephobic world? You have a man who is sexually/emotionally attracted to other men, but wants his partners to project a delusion of presumed heterosexuality. It would be a joke if it weren’t so common and harmful.
There is also harm in how we speak about our vetting of each other for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). We continue to create hierarchies of desirables and undesirables with words like “clean” to mean STI, in particular, HIV-free. The opposite of clean is dirty, so are we saying that people with STIs are dirty? It’s dangerous language to use. In the age of easily accessible protection and PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis, used immediately after an encounter with someone with a transmittable viral load of HIV) and the rising use of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), we need to drop this outdated language. It unnecessarily marginalises people in our community who are living with conditions. They deserve to have a home and our language further breeds ignorance in the community. We can replace it with using all forms of protection and regular sexual health testing rather than opting for a distrustful, judgmental and inaccurate “screening” process.
We have to accept that members of the community come in different shapes, skin tones, vocal tones and pitches! Each and every one of us is beautiful in our own way and we should seek to find that beauty in each other, rather than rejecting people because they don’t fit a rigid and toxic set of characteristics which we refuse to deviate from. We owe it to each other to self-reflect and see how we can continue doing the work to undo negative and toxic mindsets borne out of systems of oppression. It’s the only way to make the community a place for all of us. It’s only once we do that and commit to doing better by each other that a #Kindr world will be possible. Until then, team Grindr are swinging in the dark, hoping they hit some bigotry along the way.