Tinder has brought about the dawn of the "Dating Apocalypse," declared the headline on a Vanity Fair article last September. The piece, which used interviews with members of the ever-maligned millennial generation to conclude that—surprise!—it's easier than ever to hook up in the smartphone age, was just one of an endless stream of thinkpieces declaring dating apps the harbinger of the end of human romance.
For many cisgender people, it truly is easier to date, hook up, and otherwise couple than ever. But for those who are trans or gender nonconforming, dating online is much tricker.
Navigating popular dating apps while trans can often feel like diving into shark-infested waters. Last year, reports emerged that transgender Tinder users were being "reported" to the service as gender-nonconforming and banned. In June, nearly a year later, Tinder CEO Sean Rad announced the app will unveil a better experience for gender nonconforming users within the next few months, albeit with scant details as to exactly what they have in store.
On Grindr, one of the world's most widely used gay dating apps, trans users report near-daily harassment; Trans Men on Grindr, a Tumblr that chronicles the bald-faced discrimination trans users face there (and on other gay dating apps like Scruff), makes brutally clear that even on supposedly progressive queer dating platforms, trans users are subject to bigotry and intolerance.
"We take the experience and the safety of all our users seriously, both in and out of app," a Grindr spokesperson wrote in an email to VICE. "While we can't make people behave better overnight, we in no way support any form of discrimination." They went on to elaborate that Grindr bans profiles containing hateful content, as stated in the app's terms of service, and vets user reports of such activity daily.
A market void exists in online dating for safe, supportive, gender-inclusive platforms. And while one might think that cash-flush Silicon Valley would be working doubly hard to reach trans users, new options that have emerged to fulfill the need—including the currently available Teadate, the just-launched GENDR, and Thurst, set to launch this September—are either unproven, yet to launch, or lackluster at best.
"I don't believe the majority of our society has seen trans lives as human up until recently," user experience designer and founder of MyTransHealth Robyn Kanner told VICE. Kanner is an advocate for gender inclusivity and diversity in tech, having herself experienced easily avoidable discrimination via some popular startups. "In a way, it's no wonder why the tech community is just now starting to scratch the surface on what the trans community actually needs."
Among established players, OkCupid has emerged as one of the most queer- and trans-affirming platforms in the industry. In November 2014, the site released what should have been a game-changing number of gender and sexuality options—20 new gender identifiers and ten new orientation options.
"When we launched our expanded gender and orientation options, 20 percent of the OkCupid team identified as LGBTQ+," OkCupid CEO Elie Seidman told VICE. "Inclusivity is a genuine part of our team's DNA and something we're always thinking about. [The expansion] created user experience problems to solve within our site and apps, but these challenges were worth it, because we understood and believed in the need; for many other apps and sites, this complexity could be a deterrent."
Seidman notes that initially, many within OkCupid's user base expressed confusion as to the meaning of these new options—but rather than define those terms themselves, they turned to those who knew them best to create a crowd-sourced dictionary they call Identity.
Among the smattering of apps that try to address the gender-inclusivity market gap, most come up short or are too new to successfully judge. Teadate, founded by trans-attracted entrepreneur Michael Osofsky and transgender model Pêche Di in summer 2015, aims to provide an affirming environment for trans folks and those interested in dating them to meet. However, in this reporter's experience, the site is buggy and often stalls.
Two new apps—GENDR, which launched on July 12, and Thurst, which will launch in beta this September—are setting out to redefine how queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming folks interact and connect with like-minded (and like-experienced) individuals.
On GENDR, the brainchild of event producer Barry Brandon and experiential marketing consultant Christine Courtney, dating and sex take a backseat to loftier goals: Establishing a safe community for transgender people where sharing one's story is part and parcel of the user experience.
"There are dating apps for both the straight and gay community, but my intention wasn't to date or hook up—it was to just start conversation," Brandon told VICE. "It felt as if there was a need for a safe space where people can present their authentic selves without the pressure of romantic or sexual interaction."
With 300 users so far, user profiles on the app focus beyond the physical, emphasizing instead common interests like music, gaming, activism, and more. The app's creators say GENDR's subscription-based membership model, at $5 per month or $30 per year, will support live events and subscriber workshops while deterring trolls.
GENDR already features posts on a range of topics, from coming out to traveling while queer to advertisements for events hosted by the app creators. Users of almost every gender or sexual identity imaginable are represented. In the app's infancy, the small user base has shown a high amount of engagement with the platform—but people of color may find the app lacking, as most users are white.
That's where Thurst comes in. Developed by self-taught genderqueer coder Morgen Bromell, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, the platform grew from their own experience navigating online dating. Bromell is still looking for funding to provide a fiscal cushion ahead of the launch of what "could be the first truly inclusive dating app," as the Daily Dot wrote last February.
"I really hated existing apps like Tinder, OKCupid, and others," Bromell told VICE. "It's so much easier for cis men, especially cis white men, to date on those platforms. For people of color and any other gender or orientation, it's difficult."
Bromell thinks that the entire app creation process needs to evolve in response, which inspired him to launch Thurst.
"These apps are based on white male sexual desire. There's something that needs to change in the building process—the consideration of how we interact and connect with people," they said.
Designed with simplicity at its core, Thurst's beta will focus on interactions most are accustomed to: matching, messaging, reporting, and blocking. Bromell hopes to expand the user experience in future iterations. In fact, their only worry is finding funding, which has been grueling to come by.
While both GENDR and Thurst can't promise perfect experiences and long-lasting love, it at least matters that trans- and gender-nonconforming folks and queer people of color are finding their voices and the tools to make a reality of the lives they desire.