When ‘Transartist,’ a transgender man from Los Angeles, uses gay dating apps to meet other guys, it is not always a positive experience. “Yeah, I have been harassed a few times,” he says. “Guys contacting me to say things like I don’t ‘belong’ on this site.”
Like many trans users, Transartist often gets used as a source of information more than anything else. “I’ve gotten really sick of fielding basic ‘trans 101’ questions that could be answered by spending 30 seconds on Google. I just block ignorant guys now.”
‘Transartist’ is just one of the many trans men using Grindr, Scruff, Mister or other gay dating apps. While most users will know the treacherous and dirty-picture-filled waters these apps provide, those who identify as transgender are lucky to find anybody to treat them as more than an exotic specimen or a self-help book.
Gabe, another trans man, has experienced many generations of gay apps, whether it be early ones like Adam4Adam, the monolithic Grindr, or Scruff. He identifies as transgender on Scruff but not always on Grindr.
He has not experienced opened antagonism on the apps, but has found himself used as a fount of information, whether it be other trans users seeking advice, or any number of other--to use his phrase-- ‘boner killers’.
“There was one guy who I talked to recently who had cancer, or something, who lost the ability to produce testosterone,” Gabe says. “So he was contacting all of these trans guys and asking what’s your dosage, what’s your height and weight, because technically we’re in the same situation.”
If 2014 was hailed optimistically as “the transgender tipping point” by Time magazine, heralded by the success of Orange Is The New Black actress Laverne Cox, there remains engrained social ignorance—most tragically crystallized in the apparent suicide of Ohio teenager Leelah Alcorn.
The digital dating sphere can prove tricky, and bruising, for the trans user. One Grindr user, ‘Leapolitan,’ a trans woman who has been using queer apps and websites since before her transition, sent me an archive of conversations with men who talked to her in ways that varied from condescending to downright ludicrous, including one man whose opening gambit was to call her an unsexy witch. Leapolitan responded by saying, “hopefully youll [sic] bite into a poison apple.”
In July 2013, gay app Scruff’s newest update included a function that had been a longtime staple for websites like GayRomeo or Gay.com: the ability to define yourself as any number of ‘communities,’ and also state which ones you sought in a partner.
Grindr introduced the feature themselves in October the same year and called it ‘tribes.’ Among the options for ‘jock’, ‘poz’, ‘leather’ or ‘twink’ are options to identifiy ‘trans’/’transgender’ on Grindr and Scruff respectively.
But these functions have, for some, fetishized trans users as well as help build a group of openly trans users. Some gay apps, like the newer Mister, have not subscribed to the community/tribe model.
On the tumblr ‘Trans Men of Grindr’ users post screenshots of conversations on gay apps to show some of the insensitive, unsupportive and downright hostile comments other users send to them spontaneously.
It’s not a purely LGBT problem: trans users on Tinder have also spoken out about their problems--both signs that a larger education of what it is to be trans is needed to prevent users becoming Wikipedia pages rather than fully sexual and individual beings.
Allegations of transphobia are not new in the world of gay online dating. In 2011 LGBT media outlet Queerty took the app to task for allegedly deleting accounts that made reference to being trans. Grindr denied the claims, but users still found that references to being trans on their profile were blocked in their profile descriptions.
CEO Joel Simkhai said: “Under no circumstances do we delete/ban/censor transgendered users. We have thousands of users who identify themselves as transgendered and they are welcome members of the Grindr community. I am disappointed that you would post an article like this based on what looks like an anecdotal and inaccurate report from one user.”
Carl Sandler, who founded Mister in 2012, previously founded Daddyhunt.com and worked at Gay.com. As a man who has dated using apps himself, he crafted a manifesto, and a code of conduct that he hopes creates a respectful environment.
“I think for trans men who are dating every time they hook up they have another coming out,” Sandler said. He recounted to me one user’s feedback of a date with a trans user who had not made his situation clear on his profile. “Everything was good but every time [he] tried to touch his crotch he tried to move away,” recounted Sandler, “and finally this person admitted they didn’t have a penis down there. He [the trans user] felt bad and filled with a certain amount of shame.”
Sandler’s intention with Mister, he says, is to generate a community. “Mister aspires to be something closer to a lifestyle brand that incorporates both dating and sex and interests and hopefully different communities,” he said. “Not everybody needs to want to hook up with someone who’s trans. But understanding the difficulty of that situation and having compassion for it is part of our obligation as human beings and participants in this subculture and community.”
Grindr may have received a lot of flack in the past in regards to its support of trans users, but to Simkhai, Grindr is not about cultivating a community forum. For him, trans users should use Grindr because of the sheer volume of members: over 5 million. “That’s a lot of different guys,” said Simkhai.
Grindr currently has twelve ‘tribes,’ and for some people this just is not enough. Researching this article I ended up talking to androgynous and ‘genderqueer’ users who had placed themselves under the label of ‘transgender’ as it was the nearest they could find to what they wanted to call themselves—like Nick Fuentes, a 23 year old, proudly genderqueer freelance casting director who has recently moved to New York from Austin.
Fuentes does not identify with binary notions of gender and has found other people have responded badly to his way of thinking and being on apps.
On Grindr, Fuentes said, there is a “hyper-masculine white worship of men. So I guess for somebody who doesn’t fit any of these descriptions it’s a bit challenging.” He has previously received messages out of the blue from men saying “What the fuck is wrong with you? Who fucks you?” (to quote Fuentes), but he takes it in his stride.
On Scruff, however, Fuentes feels valued. He loves the fact that, like on Grindr, users can identify as transgender. “That’s amazing. I’m not necessarily transgender but I fit under the umbrella of the queer non-binary. There was a lot of positive feedback from people interested in non-gender binary people. I call it ‘the menu’ when I open up these apps, ‘Oh, what’s on the menu today?’ And these ‘tribes’… they streamline this process, when you have a specific taste you can go to that.”
Fuentes, like every Grindr or Scruff user (including myself), has dozens of stories of mortification, grotesquery and hilarity: he gathers the worst offenders up on a twitter hashtag: #grindrchronicles. “I deal with a lot with the male gaze. I get a lot of men who are tranny chasers or just obsessed with what’s happening with your genitalia. But at the same time I have amazing interactions with other trans men and women.” For Fuentes, a neutral space like the internet is always going to have the best and worst of any community, even the queer one.
Grindr’s ‘tribes’ function has been wonderful for users like Fuentes, but now they want more groups included. “Why wouldn’t you want more? I feel like it’s treading dangerous territory when we say we need less,” said Fuentes with a laugh. ‘Leapolitan’ said there was one way that apps could improve her experience: “Come up with a term for men who date/love transwomen.”
Grindr’s Simkhai says, “We started with 12 (tribes). We may expand it. We certainly don’t want to make it an infinite amount of options.” He believes that Grindr is meant to be a safe space, but not necessarily a community: “I’m a big believer in having the community regulate itself.” (However, there is a code of conduct for Grindr’s users.)
Johnny Skandros, founder of Scruff, said Scruff’s ‘communities’ function was one they were asked to create by users, “particularly trans members who wanted to meet trans people.”
Scruff believes that sex is not the primary concern of users. In fact, in a recent study of their users internationally, it was the lowest priority for most. “Whether it’s India or Brazil, they’re looking for friends first, then relationships then NSA (no-strings-attached) hook-ups,” said Skandros, “we were a little surprised.”
Of those men using Scruff who identified as being interested in trans users, one, “Keith,” was very open about their interest in trans users being a fetish. To him they are “a unique person, having both masculine features with (most of the time female genitalia.)”
Another user, a 26-year-old who asked to remain anonymous, felt that the apps were predominantly gay/bi and should focus on the majority. “There are more dedicated sites for transgenders and admirers,” he said.
Others said they did not actively desire trans partners specifically, but rather they are open to the possibility and wanted to show an acceptance of trans users. 36-year-old Londoner Arturo SG said, “I’ve notice [sic] that few guys mark trans, so I guess I’m just pushing for the standardization of tribes.”
As for Gabe, newly settled in London, he has found people more receptive to him than in the US, but he’s still found some ignorance—people who block him as soon as he tries to explain his situation, for example. “One Muslim guy who really wanted a boyfriend but felt like he was culturally obligated to have kids of his own,” he recounted over Facebook, “so thought I might be the best of both options (um, no thanks).”
In the UK Gabe has also found a higher number of people thinking he is a transvestite rather than transgender, which he never encountered in the US. But he, like many people using dating apps whatever their sexual identity, remains stoutly positive.