To British reality TV personality Ollie Locke, coming out must've seemed less like exiting a closet and more like walking through a glass corridor.
Like many men grappling with their sexuality, the 29-year-old initially struggled to settle on a single label like "bi" or "gay." But unlike most, Locke did it all in the public eye: After coming out as bisexual in 2011 while starring in Made in Chelsea, a British reality TV series, Locke eventually split with then girlfriend Catherine Louise Radford in 2016 and came out as gay.
Over the years, Locke would turn to gay social and dating apps like Grindr to meet other queer guys. But those experiences made him think the queer community needed a new kind of app, telling me that the status quo seemed "outdated and disheartening."
"While there were guys looking for real connections [on gay dating apps], you also had to deal with the huge majority of guys that were there for a hookup," Locke said. "It became obvious this wasn't reflective of our community."
Locke isn't alone in his assessment. For some users of gay dating apps, a daily ritual can verge on addiction. And it only takes a quick scroll through these apps themselves to encounter guys who express dismay with them; statements like "deleting soon," "no hookups," and "no unsolicited nudes" are common in user profiles. That dissatisfaction is reflected in Grindr's 2.5-star rating on the Apple App store, where many comments echo the lament of one blunt one-star reviewer: "There are a lot of guys who use it for hooking up." Reddit, too, is rife with threads by gay men complaining about gay dating apps in general, and the culture pervasive within them—flakey conversations, rude users, rampant racism, and attitudes that reinforce negative self-esteem. Then there's rampant spambots and frequent glitches to contend with, which can sometimes make users' lives a living hell. By no means is this all exclusive to Grindr, but Grindr pioneered geolocation-based gay dating apps in the first place; as the first and one of the largest, it has had an outsized role in perpetuating the culture behind the apps.
That discontent inspired Locke to co-found Chappy, a dating app made available earlier this year to men in London, New York City, and Los Angeles. With a Tinder-esque swipe-left-or-right interface, it has garnered investment from dating app Bumble; what's different is that Chappy lets users toggle between categories called "Mr. Right" and "Mr. Right Now," allowing users to more easily weed out guys whose preferences don't align with your own, whether one is looking for dating or sex (or something in between).
"The gay space has developed and evolved enormously," said Locke. "Gay dating apps have huge potential to shape gay culture; there's space in the market for brands such as Chappy to change some archaic perceptions of our community."
Chappy isn't the only app trying to distance itself from the stigma of so-called hookup culture. More established gay social platforms like Hornet and SCRUFF have recently charted a similar course, with a plethora of new features that spokespeople for both apps said are meant to introduce new ways to interact beyond hooking up. On Hornet, new features include a Facebook-style activity feed, designed to shift the app away from a purely location-based cascade of profiles and more toward a traditional social network; SCRUFF has launched a Tinder-style swiping interface for relationship-minded folks and a gay events and traveling platform.
These days, even Grindr seems like it doesn't want to be Grindr anymore, having recently repositioned itself as a "gay lifestyle brand." "Grindr has always been a way for our users to connect to the world around them," Peter Sloterdyk told me as he summarized a list of new features he says builds on its core functionality: INTO, a new content feed with former Out.com editor Zach Stafford at the helm; a kinky "Gaymoji" keyboard; and ongoing initiatives from Grindr for Equality, the company's social good initiative. "We look at our role in our users' lives as the center of an ever-growing ecosystem," he said.
What's not immediately clear is what's behind the evolution toward more dating-, event- and platonic-focused networking. Is it a fundamental shift in gay dating, or lipstick on a pig?
A certain line of thought runs through many of those complaints about gay dating apps: The apps themselves have made hooking up so easy that they've created a dating scene all but defined by casual sex—one that's possibly losing its luster.
But that view doesn't jive with the historical facts of LGBTQ relationships. From public cruising to "secret languages" like Polari, gay people have long used a variety of means to identify fellow queers, both out of sheer necessity and as a means of facilitating sex. In his book Classified, Harry Cocks, history professor at the University of Nottingham, implies that gay apps represent a modern development of the personal ad, a form of mating that's at least a century old.
It's likely the hookup-focused culture that helped gay apps flourish has long existed, and simply made more visible with the emergence of smartphones. That's what social demographer Michael Rosenfeld suggests. "I believe that hookup culture exists independently of technology," said Rosenfeld, who studies mating, dating, and the internet at Stanford University. "For people who want hookups, apps facilitate hookups. For people who want commitment, apps are a way to facilitate meeting enough people until they find their partner."
Rather than a fading hookup culture, a cocktail of other factors might be to blame. Newer features might be a way to distract from PR nightmares on dating apps, spurred on by those privacy, racism, and technical concerns mentioned earlier. It's also possible that platforms themselves are skirting their "hookup app" reputation as an attempt to court investors. Last year, after Grindr's rebranding, a Chinese gaming company owned by a straight billionaire acquired a majority stake in the company; last month, the same company announced plans to purchase the company outright. Hornet has also raised $8 million from Chinese venture capitalists.
Apps may also be responding to a distant threat: competition from mainstream dating platforms like Tinder that could make gay-specific apps go the way of gay bars. It only makes sense then that apps would diversify their services, whether that means helping men meet partners for sex or single travelers connect with other queer men in the cities they visit.
"The reality of 21st century dating is that you're likely to swing between looking for something serious to something more spontaneous depending on your mood," said Locke. "For us, the future is shaped by offering choice, providing a safer and welcoming platform to connect with others."
So things that may appear as techy gimmicks—such as a switch to toggle between "Mr. Right" and "Mr. Right Now"—might also signify a more nuanced dating culture to come, one that recognizes how romance, sex, and friendship have historically blurred in the gay community.