Dating is a big part of my life. It is how I meet new people, socialise, and learn about myself and others. The majority of my dates are passionate exchanges of life stories, knowledge and ideas. Talking to friends, I discovered that my dating and hookup adventures are different. It is not only because I date people of the same sex as mine.
Here might be an excellent place to mention that, as a gay man, I'm writing about the experiences of gay men and I don't feel comfortable expanding the discourse to other queer groups because I am not sure how they fit into this problematic online dating game.
In the UK, fewer people every year are having to keep their sexuality under wraps. However, there is a large percentage of those who still do. Gay men are afraid of showing their true selves because of shame, internalised homophobia, cultural background, and career obligations. Dating within the LGBTQ community comprises individuals who share similar life experiences which often include struggling to accept one' sexuality and coming out (though not everyone has reached that stage yet). This is something that cisgender heterosexual dates cannot relate to.
Dating and finding casual sex as a gay man [in London] usually starts out online. Grindr is the geo-social (you can see who is nearby) app that dominates the market and the entire concept of gay hookup culture (Mastroyiannis, 2018). The way Grindr works is simple but efficient: the app scans the area around you and detects other users who are in your proximities. Users can see your picture and information, including height, weight, what “you’re after”, and so forth. If two fancy each other they can decide to meet up.
However, while platforms like Grindr, SCRUFF, Hornet, Jack’d (and the rest) bridge the social disparity between those individuals who have come out of the closet and those who have not, “they do just as much harm to the community as they do good” (Kit, 2015).
No label is no community
Hooking up in the UK LGBTQ community has a complicated history. It is rooted in—surprise—the general homophobia and oppression queer folks experienced during the 20th century (Took, 2017). You'd think that advanced platforms like Grindr should be places where people feel comfortable showing their true selves. In the ideal world, a gay app would be a safe space for queer folks to escape the judgmental reality of heteronormative society and build a sense of community along the way (Gardner, 2016).
Grindr streamlines the process of meeting someone new by facilitating interactions based on everyday needs (What are people looking for?). To achieve that, the app operates on a system of labels that force users to define themselves, their bodies, and their sexuality in a few words.
Being able to sort out a potential date by their body mass and height excludes anyone whose body type society deems less acceptable. Inclusive, right?
Users can also select their tribe—categories often based on body type, but now they include masculinity or femininity (Took, 2017). Tribes derive from LGBT slang. During the first seven decades of the 20th century, the queer community in the UK used slang to communicate in public without revealing their sexual orientation to others. LGBT slang is always-changing and differs for each language and country.
While some labels are shaped like coffins, as former lesbian advocate Chirlane McCray once stated in an interview, others are necessary for LGBTQi+ folks to define themselves. Labels allow people to have their identity recognised, thus finding the support of a community. Grindr has already moved on to make their app more inclusive in that direction by letting users identify as genderqueer or to specify their preferred pronouns.
Gug and Looking are two interconnected works I created for the 2019's University of Greenwich Second Year Show. Titled square_one, this is an annual exhibition supported by the School of Design and organised by students in their second year of University. The works I presented respond to the subject of gay casual dating and hookups in London in 2019.
Finding someone worth spending time with in that sea of closeted individuals and body shamers that is Grindr is a constant reminder that there is still loads to do for our community. A visible sign of this issue is the number of people who don't show a picture of their face on their profile. Blank profiles and torso-only users have become the norm on Grindr. Not to mention those who prefer posting a picture of their cat or a screenshot from a Facebook post about Ruislip Lido: "The Only Beach In London You Can Get To By Tube" instead of their face.
By collecting as many examples of face-less profiles as I could, I created Looking. I needed a work that would be effective both conceptually and visually. I looped the screenshots I collected into a slideshow that is played back by a digital frame. The device is the only physical work installed at the exhibition.
Gug is more complex because of its interactivity and the amount of data it processes in the background. It is essentially a Grindr Username Generator (shortened to gug). No interface, no fuss. It only generates text and emojis. The work can be accessed either via a link or QR code printed on a label installed alongside the digital frame.
This is a good time to mention that Grindr usernames are as twisted as they are funny. You might find usernames like "Use me" which are invites to actions, or others like "Otter" who refer to tribes, "slim" to body types, "bttm" to preferred sex roles, and so forth.
Visit gug here > bit.ly/visitgug
Screenshots from gug in action
Gardner, L. (2016). Identity Crisis on Grindr. [online] WUSSY MAG. Available at: https://www.wussymag.com/all/2016/8/2/identity-crisis-on-grindr [Accessed 15 May 2019].
En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). Grindr. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/Grindr [Accessed 16 May 2019].
En.wikipedia.org. (n.d.). LGBT slang. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/LGBT_slang [Accessed 16 May 2019].
Kit, T. (2015). The 4 Ugly Truths About Why Grindr Does More Harm Than Good. [online] Vulcan Post. Available at: https://vulcanpost.com/391581/the-4-ugly-truths-about-why-grindr-does-more-harm-than-good/ [Accessed 14 May 2019].
Mastroyiannis, A. (2018). A very comprehensive guide to the best gay dating apps. [online] PinkNews. Available at: https://www.pinknews.co.uk/2018/03/05/best-gay-dating-apps-jackd-grindr-hornet-scruff/ [Accessed 14 May 2019].
Richards Fink, P. (2014). No Label Is No Community. [online] Huffingtonpost.com. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-richardsfink/no-label-is-no-community_b_4546336.html?ncid=engmodushpmg00000004 [Accessed 14 May 2019].
Took, J. (2017). Gay hookup app Grindr maintains harmful stereotypes. [online] The Johns Hopkins News-Letter. Available at: https://www.jhunewsletter.com/article/2017/12/ gay-hookup-app-grindr-maintains-harmful-stereotypes [Accessed 15 May 2019].
Villarosa, L. (2013). Chirlane McCray: From Gay Trailblazer to Politician's Wife. [online] Essence. Available at: https://www.essence.com/celebrity/politicians-wife-chirlane-mccray/ [Accessed 16 May 2019].