Virtual mediums, especially social media platforms, have, over the past decade or so, dramatically transformed the ways in which we interact as social beings. As a social scientist, I find these changes fascinating in light of how sociologists have traditionally understood interactions and how our understanding of these things should change with technological advances. In particular, I have been curious to see how these changes are impacting the lived experiences of sexual and gender minorities. Navigating stigma when pursuing romantic relationships has always been risky for LGBTQ+ individuals in a heterosexist society. For sexual and gender minorities, making an advance towards the wrong individual has historically entailed the risk of social ridicule and even violence. While public opinion has shifted dramatically over the past 20 years towards greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, these threats still remain to some degree. Because of these dangers, online dating has long been a popular option for sexual and gender minorities when seeking romantic partners. Now that smartphones are nearly ubiquitous, the ability to use dating apps has considerably expanded the pool of potential partners and made it much easier to find individuals that are nearby in spatial proximity. This can especially beneficial to individuals that are younger and unable to go to safe spaces such as gay bars and also to those that may be fearful for one reason or another of being seen in public and outed.
The goal of my research was to investigate how the availability and use of smartphone dating apps has impacted the romantic lives of gay and bisexual men. I did this by sitting down for interviews with fifteen gay and bisexual men and listening to their stories. They shared stories that were, at times, wildly different from one another and, at other times, demonstrated remarkable continuity. Unsurprisingly, almost all of them mentioned using the app Grindr, arguably the most popular dating app in the queer community and several indicated that they used multiple apps that catered to various niche groups.
One thing I learned from talking to these men was that, even in a time where support for LGBTQ+ rights is at an all-time high, homophobia was still a major contributing factor for using queer-specific dating apps, just not for the reasons you might think. None of the men I talked to expressed outright concern that they might become the victim of social ridicule or a hate crime for attempting to date outside of these safer confines. However, several discussed the fact that dating apps such as Grindr opened up a much larger pool of potential partners to them because now they are able to talk to individuals that are not publicly out with their sexuality. Often times, according to the individuals I spoke with, men that were closeted didn’t display a profile picture of their face and were hesitant to show one. For the most part, the men I talked to were understanding of this situation, with one explaining that some of the closeted individuals they spoke with were afraid of being fired by their Christian employers. Clearly though, the driving force here that makes Grindr and apps like it such an appealing option for everyone involved is homophobia – without which things like faceless profiles wouldn’t be needed and gay-specific safe venues would be an option, not a necessity.
On the flip side, the same interface design that allows for individuals to withhold their identity also lends itself to deceptive self-presentations that made it difficult at times for the men I spoke with to effectively communicate with other users. How can you really know for sure that the person you are talking to is the who they say they are? This was the dilemma expressed by several users. And while not a new phenomenon to internet dating, the experiences of these men suggest that the ubiquity of smartphones and dating apps has exacerbated the problem. The main concern was not just that they might meet up with someone that looks different than their picture, but that they would possibly be in danger. Intentions are difficult ascertain in virtual interactions such as dating apps where one lacks the ability to assess things like body language and tone of voice which can give clues to an individual’s sincerity. These concerns were usually mitigated by practices such as choosing public places to meet and requiring a video chat before meeting up and didn’t seem to be a major factor in deciding whether or not to use the apps.
Lastly, one of the more surprising findings was the extent to which some participants used the apps for positive self-development and exploration of their sexual and gender identities. A colorful and bubbly queer trans man that I spoke with attributed his outgoing nature to time spent on dating apps and the ability they provided for him to explore all manners of self-presentation. In his words, “I wouldn’t be nearly as charming as I am now if it wasn’t for dating apps.” Another participant in his late 20s spoke of mentoring younger queer men struggling with issues of identity and coming out. Clearly, for many men, these apps provide a space unlike previous safe spaces such as queer-specific bars insomuch as they give users the option of experimenting with their self-presentation from the comfort of their home while still interacting with individuals synchronously if so desired.
While there is much to be said about the dangers of using dating apps and internet dating sites in general, it should also be acknowledged that they can also be the site of positive self-development and community support for sexual and gender minorities. Sociology is still learning and attempting to keep up with how technological trends are shaping the nature of our social interactions. The transformative potential of these apps for marginalized groups should remain a focus of intellectual inquiry moving forward – specifically, how we might can maximize this potential and ways that we can minimize the dangers.
Arthur, Tim, and Emily Cabaniss. 2021. “Queer Men and Smartphone Dating Applications: Navigating Partner Markets and Managing Stigma.” Journal for Social Thought 5(1).
Source for featured image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/person-using-a-smartphone-5082579/