Ross Hammond hadnt received a message in weeks.
A 30-year-old gay man who lives in New York, he keeps a folder filled with various dating apps on his phoneincluding Grindr, Scruff, and Tinder. Since moving to Hells Kitchen two months ago, he says he can count on one hand the number of messages hes gotten from men in the popular Manhattan gayborhood.
Hammond, a bearded aspiring musician with an endearing nervous energy, decides to engage in a little experiment over coffee in a Harlem caf: He changes his profile picture to a male friends photo. The friend is cute and clean-cut, but most importantly, hes white. Hammond gets 50 messages in less than a half hour.
Hammond isnt surprised. Hes pretty used to this. His current profile, in which users are asked to describe themselves, attests to the frustration he experiences as a gay man of color navigating the world of online dating. It doesnt matter what I write in my profile, Hammond says. Youre not going to read it because youre automatically going to make assumptions about me based on my race.
Recently, someone sent Hammond a message that has stuck with him. You fucking chinks are the reason why theres so much racism in the gay community, it read.
Hammonds experience is a sadly common one in online dating spaces. Christian Rudder, the founder of OkCupid, told NPR back in 2014 that theres a bias across platforms against black and Asian users. Every kind of way you can measure their success on a sitehow people rate them, how often they reply to their messages, how many messages they getthats all reduced, he claimed at the time. A year after Rudders comments, researchers in Australia polled 2,000 gay and bisexual men, finding that 70 percent felt that excluding a sexual partner based on their ethnicity wasnt racist. These respondents believed that having disclaimers on your profile like No Blacks, No Asians was just stating a preference.
The topic of sexual racism has become a contentious one in the gay community in recent years, as many queer and bisexual men rely on their phones in the way they once did their local bar. And if these spaces are operating as the new gay club, that leaves certain types of people in these online communities out in the cold, waiting for their chance to finally be let in.
As gay men of color explain, its can be difficult to find your place in a community where youre too often shut out by people who believe that exclusion is harmlessand even natural.
The perils of the profile pic
To hear Cesar Bojorquez and Evan Adams stories side by side, its startling that they have so much in common. Although users frequently use hookup apps to meet guys searching for some after-work delight, both of them first logged on looking for friends.
Newly out of the closet, Bojorquez and Adams knew that signing up for apps like Jackd and Growlr was how you meet people, especially when you arent old enough to go to the bar. When they didnt receive any replies from other users, neither of them felt that this was unusual. Adams, who is black, thought it was normal to be signed in for weeks at a time and not get a message.
It took a toll on my self-esteem, Adams says. I wondered, Why not me?
I thought that was the culture, Bojorquez adds. But when I talked to my white friends about it, it was if they lived in a completely different world. Their profiles are flooded with hundreds of different messages and filled with conversations with all different kinds of people. My friends of color, though, had the same experience as me: You rarely get a message and rarely does someone respond to yours.
Bojorquez, who says that he gets very few messages on dating platforms, claims that it took a little while to understand why people werent responding to him. A 28-year-old makeup artist, Bojorquez is not only Latino but effeminate. A self-described casual punk, he performs drag in Salt Lake City, the heart of Mormon country. His profile photo on Facebook is a picture of him in a red wig thats like The Little Mermaids Ariel meets seapunkcomplete with a metal bridge piercing right between his eyes. He knows that his brand of fabulousness isnt what a lot of guys are looking for, but Bojorquez had to learn that lesson the hard way.
At first, Bojorquez didnt have a photo of himself on his profile. He found he got more responses when he left his photo blank. One day Bojorquez was chatting up a cute guy who also liked Star Trek, and they talked about what theyd been watching on Netflix. They were really hitting it offthat is, until the man asked for a face pic. Bojorquez sent over a picture of himself hanging out with friends at a partya white infinity scarf pulled over his neck to protect from the winter cold and hair up in a topknot. His conversation partner was no longer interested.
The fact that I was Latino just changed his mind completely, says Bojorquez. He adds that hes even been called a wetback and an illegal immigrant by guys online.
Sometimes I wonder if Im doing this right, claims Adams, a 24-year-old art director who lives in Los Angeles. I see my friends who are always with new people or going on dates. It makes me feel left out and isolated knowing that its not as easy for me to navigate the gay scene. Ive struggled with not feeling attractive enough because there are such strict beauty standards in the gay community around whats considered attractive. You have to fit into that box.
The biases well reveal in private
For gay men who were the first generation to grow up with a home computer, applications like Grindr and Scruff are an outgrowth of an earlier technology: the chatroom. Services like AOL, as well queer-specific platforms like Gay.com and XY, were like stepping into a cocktail party that was already happening. By joining in the conversation the room was having, users could identify guys they might like to get to know a little better and pair off.
However, todays gay digital spaces eliminate the communal in favor of a more personal form of conversation. Platforms like Grindr and Scruff are commonly known as geosocial networking apps. By scrolling through a grid of available men in your area, guys who use the app can select profiles that interest them and message them directly. In order to match users with others who share their interestssexual or otherwisethese applications pinpoint your location to show you other users who are nearby.
Grindr, which launched in 2009, was the first peer-to-peer app for gay men to achieve mainstream popularity. Scruff, Growlr, and Jackd were founded the year after. Grindr users are a catch-all of different types, while Scruff and Growlr tend to a demographic of guys with beards, what one might reductively call bears, cubs, and otters. Jackd users are primarily people of color, a phenomenon that was originally an accident. Statistics provided exclusively by the company show that 55 percent of their customers are black or Asian. These users have flocked to Jackd from other apps where they feel less included.
Sexual racism is not inherent or exclusive to online spaces, but what makes the kind of discrimination that men experience on peer-to-peer apps unique is that unlike chat rooms, users have a reasonable expectation that what they share is private. That means that users are more likely to express exclusionary preferences around race than they would in public. Although statements like No Chocolate, No Rice and Whites Only are prevalent in online dating spaces, its less common to experience that kind of overt racism when youre picking up a guy at a gay bar. Aaron Reese, a 29-year-old New Yorker, cant log on a dating app without people telling him that theyre not into black guys, but hes only had that said to him in real life once.
Dr. Jason Orne, an assistant professor of sociology at Drexel University, believes theres a reason for the gap between what gay men of color experience online and the treatment they encounter in physical space. Its called social desirability bias.
If I know that people are observing me or that my answers are being read, Im going to try to act in a way that makes me look like a better person, claims Dr. Orne, who is also the author of the 2016 book Boystown: Sex and Community in Chicago. If I were to walk out on the street in front of other people and yell these kinds of things, that would not be socially acceptable. But when Im alone and not in the presence of other people, the social control created by observation would break down.
Brandon Robinson, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, adds that disinhibition effect plays a factor. Because theres a physical barrier between users and the people they interact withrepresented by the screen of your iPhone or Android deviceit invites a lack of empathy for those with whom one is engaging.
If I dont know who you are and I dont have to physically see your reaction to what Im saying, I dont feel as bad as I would in offline spaces, he says.
The Trump effect
Jesus Smith, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas A&M, claims that in his research, hes found a dramatic decrease in the number of profiles listing statements like No Blacks, No Asians in recent years. Although they are still common, there are fewer of them.
Smith, who came to this conclusion following a random selection of 630 profiles on Adam4Adam, says that the reason for this isnt that gay and bisexual men have become more enlightened. Its that websites like Sexual Racism Sux and Douchebags of Grindr have been calling out discriminatory behavior on hookup apps, which penetrates the veil of privacy.
If you perceive that a lot of people are watching you online or are viewing your profile, you might adjust how you express your preferences, Smith says.
Although Smith has found that many users have switched to a coded language in recent years that expresses racialized preferences through subtext (e.g., Im into rugby-type guys or My dream man looks like a Kennedy), these incidents are no less prevalent. Kyle Turner, a 23-year-old film critic in Brooklyn, says men frequently assume that hes submissive or a bottom just because hes Chinese. One time a guy repeatedly told Turner how much he loved anime and K-Pop, and other men that message him pointedly ask where hes from.
Ill say Im from Connecticut, Turner says. Thats the answer youre going to get.
Although Turner claims that the majority of the negative experiences he has amount to microaggressionsor seemingly harmless statements that belie reductive assumptions based on raceEliel Cruz argues that the comments he receives have only gotten worse in recent years. Cruz, a 26-year-old writer and activist, first logged onto hookup apps when he was a student at a Seventh-day Adventist college in Michigan. He says people rarely talked to him, and when he would reach out to say hello, hoping to make a new friend, users would say things like, Im just not interested in Mexicans. Cruz is Puerto Rican.
But since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the president in October 2015, Cruz says that hes been frequently referred to as a beaner and a spic, especially when hes traveling in the South for work. The worst comment, though, that hes ever gotten was when another user told Cruz that he wanted to fuck me before Donald Trump deported me.
When I first came out, I thought that the gay community would be welcoming and open to a new queer baby like me, Cruz says, but Ive since realized that it wouldnt be as accepting of me as I hoped.
Thestruggle for inclusivity
As researchers explain, these apps dont create racism. They merely provide a conduit to express the biases users might normally keep to themselves. But how do apps address the discriminatory attitudes expressed on their apps?
Each platform takes a slightly different approach.
Jack Harrison-Quintana, the director of Grindr for Equality, encourages users to report racist or abusive comments directed at them through the Report function on the app, which is located at the upper right-hand corner on the offending profile. Alon Rivel, director of Global Marketing for Online Buddies, the parent company that oversees Jackd, says that the platform employs a 24-hour customer service team to monitor complaints. Any of the apps users can call in and talk to a member of the Jackd support staff at any time.
But Harrison-Quintana claims that education is more powerful and effective than censorship. Thats why Grindr, which takes a relatively hands-off approach to moderation, hopes to build a culture of inclusion through geo-targeting its users. Grindr for Equality, an initiative launched in 2012 to promote justice and safety around the globe, works with groups like the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) to inform queer men of color about issues that affect themincluding getting tested for STIs. Although African-Americans make up around 12 percent of the population, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that this population comprises 45 percent of new HIV diagnoses. This information is essential.
But Sean Howell, the executive director of Hornet, says that his app has chosen to somewhat limit freedom of speech in order to build mutual respect. Howell launched the platform, which is most popular in Asia, in 2012 to give gay men around the globe a place where you feel like youre part of a community.
Nothing negative, especially around race, is allowed, Howell says. Were not Reddit.
If gay and bisexual men of color often feel excluded in digital spaces, Hornets unique approach to making marginalized communities feel welcome was to build affinity groups on the app. These groups allow people of colorwhether black, Asian, or Latinoto build a positive community around race that they might lack elsewhere in their lives. For users in India, the app has 17 different trans-specific categories, and the developers have even considered adding groups like social justice activists, communists, and radical fairy queers.
Rivel claims that Jackd has sought to reach out to communities of color through its marketing campaigns, which represent a diversity of ethnicities and types of bodies. He says it was important for the company not to just feature the standard skinny, pretty white boy but a variety of identities. According to Rivel, the companys ads feature people with a lot of tattoos, Asian guys, alternative folks, and people who look different.
There are a lot of faces to who Jackd is, Rivel says. Its not just one standard of beauty.
Apps can do better
If Hornet, Grindr, and Jackd have taken steps toward creating digital spaces where users can feel safe and comfortable, Robinson feels that theres more that gay dating apps can do to combat sexual racism on their platforms. He points to the fact that most services allow users to select what theyre looking for in terms of race and exclude anyone who doesn’t fit that definition. When users search for guys in their area, they have the ability to automatically eliminate anyone outside of their preferred bubble of ethnicity.
Gay men use these filtering systems to cleanse certain bodies from their spaces, Robinson claims. Putting this filtering system in there normalizes peoples racial desiresbut then it also furthers those desires. If I put on Adam4Adam that I only want to see white people, but then every time I log on Adam4Adam all I see is white people, thats just going to further my desire for white people. When its so normal on these sites, people dont feel bad doing it.
By eliminating these filtering systems, Robinson believes that people can learn to expand what theyre looking for and begin to find other types of people attractive. Although users who say that their racially exclusive desires are just a preference may believe that those desires are innate and hardwired into them, theyre not. These so-called preferences, as Robinson explains, are actually determined and informed by the culture to which one is exposed, whether thats a gay community that centers white masculinity or a media that privileges certain kinds of beauty. Science has actually shown our tastes are malleable and fluid.
If youre not filtering out bodies of color, you might eventually find some people you find attractive, says Robinson, who refers to this concept as the contact hypothesis. If you are around people of color, you might be more willing to be friends with them or date them.
Combating cultural notions about who is viewed as desirable is crucial because those myths are extremely damaging for all of those who are left out of a very narrow definition of beauty. Cruz says that for a long time, he would straighten the curls out of his hair and wouldnt refer to himself as Latino on dating profiles in order to pass as white. Bojorquez says that he has learned to be cautious when interacting with other gay men because hes afraid of being ignored because of skin color. Hammond adds that he has given up on being viewed as sexy by other men.
Im not acknowledged as a human, Hammond says. If no one is going to like me because of institutional and structural racism, Im going to have to figure out some other way for people to value me.
All of us log onto the internet hoping to be liked or seen. But if nobody’s looking, it just makes you feel more invisible.