From left to right: Tao and Julian. Photos: courtesy of interviewees
Dating apps are weird for everyone. Of course they are: you have to distill your entire personality into a 500-word character box and three selfies. For non-binary people, though, dating apps – which are often designed around the gender binary – can be complicated, and sometimes even downright exhausting.
In recent years, some apps have attempted to make their platforms easier for non-binary people. Tinder started experimenting with allowing users to choose from nearly 40 gender options back in November 2016 (ranging from transfeminine to agender and pangender) before fully rolling the feature out internationally as of July 2020. Hinge and Bumble, too, have introduced multiple gender options over the past two years. Such updates haven't always been plain-sailing for those who aren't cis. In 2019, Pink News reported that trans users were repeatedly being banned from Tinder after updating their gender to “trans”. This appeared to be because potential matches were reporting them for no reason, and many trans users at the time claimed to receive zero response from Tinder when they attempted to rectify the issue.
Tinder’s response to Pink News was fairly non-committal. “We recognise the transgender community faces challenges on Tinder, including being unfairly reported by potential matches more often than our cisgender members,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “This is a multifaceted, complex issue and we are working to continuously improve their experience.” Often, there are further roadblocks for non-binary people using these apps. On Tinder, Hinge and Bumble, after selecting your gender, you are then asked whether you want to be included in searches for “men” or “women”, which effectively forces you to decide anyway. Tao, a non-binary person, says that being asked what gender they wanted to be shown alongside “pissed me off so much!” They downloaded Hinge because it had been recommended to them by their queer and genderqueer friends. “But then I saw this question. It’s such a weird way of asking, in essence, what genitals do you have.”When VICE reached out to Hinge, they said that this was an issue they were working on, stating: “We absolutely understand your concern about non-binary users being able to tailor their potential matches based on their gender,” they wrote. “At the moment, we are working on building a refreshed matching experience that will create a more inclusive, enjoyable and safe experience that will ultimately lead to meaningful relationships.”
Many non-binary people decide not to disclose their gender on apps at all, instead selecting “man” or “woman”. This can be for a variety of reasons. Izzy, who is also non-binary, says, “I don’t want that to be all that someone focuses on. I’ve come out to people, then they sometimes spend the entire night asking me every question under the sun about my identity. People see you as the educator, but I don’t have the energy for that. I just want to chill.”Julian, who is genderqueer, also chooses to not initially disclose their gender identity on most platforms. “I'm not scared as such, but I act reserved in case it puts people off,” they explain. “Luckily, I tend to match with people who seem sympathetic to trans and non-binary people anyway. If I see any social cause in their bio I’m like 'OK, you seem reasonably woke, that's reassuring, you’re probably not a dickhead.”Even on apps intended for the LGBTQ community, non-binary people can often feel like an afterthought. Grindr markets itself as the world's largest social networking app for “gay, bi, trans and queer people”. However, in practice, Grindr feels geared towards the gay male community. You can enter custom options for gender, but are unable to filter users in this way. Instead, you are able to select “tribes” – including “Otter”, “Bear”, and “Twink” (words typically used by gay men to describe body types and hairiness). The only “tribe” that describes gender identity is “trans”, without any specific reference to non-binary.
Some trans people find the “tribe” function useful, particularly for finding other trans users. But, as Julian points out, it’s a feature that has a lot of potential for abuse. “I think the way that people go on Grindr specifically to look for trans people [can be] predatory. I had someone ask me if I would cross-dress and let them fuck me. First of all: I don’t cross-dress. Second of all, I’m not going to let you fetishize me. They didn’t seem to respect me as a person, they just tried to objectify me.”I’ve personally had negative experiences on Grindr, too. I state in my bio that I identify as non-binary, but still receive a lot of messages starting with “Hey, man”. I understand that the app is mostly used by cis gay men and that in my pictures I am masc-presenting, but it only takes a moment to read a bio. Upon telling people that I prefer not to be referred to as a “man”, many people who at first seemed keen would either go quiet, block me, or in one particularly horrible case, threaten me with sexual assault.Such threats were disconcerting to receive on Grindr, as I could see that it had been sent from someone who was only 400 metres away. The app is fairly unique in that you aren’t required to match with someone before messaging them, and it's easy to see how far away people are from you. This makes it easier to find potential hook-ups, but it also drastically increases the potential for abuse. When two in five non-binary people have experienced a hate crime or incident in the space of a year, these threats can feel very real.
Many non-binary people have found alternatives to traditional dating apps altogether. Izzy hasn't been using apps at all: “The way I’ve connected with people is by joining online groups. I’ve joined a queer sewing group, I’ve joined a non-binary, well, it’s not really a therapy group but it kind of is,” they say. “I’d rather do stuff that’s structured instead of aimlessly talking to people on apps. I find it’s easier to talk to people because we have something in common.”Julian has had some success on a smaller LGBTQ platform called Taimi, where you can specify if you’re trans, intersex or non-binary, as well as whether you are looking for other trans, intersex or non-binary people. “It was marketed to trans users saying ‘Are you feeling let down by Tinder?’” they say. “I feel more confident on there because it feels like a community. It feels like people who use this app will not be transphobic or queerphobic.”One dating app, Lex, started out on Instagram as a modern take on “personals”, where queer people – lesbian and bi women especially – would anonymously submit ads in the back of mags for partners. The IG page proved so popular that they decided to create their own text-based dating app for “womxn, trans, genderqueer, intersex, two-spirit and non-binary ppl for meeting lovers and friends”. Arden, a non-binary person, has had really positive experiences with Lex. “Using dating apps specifically for queer people allowed me to just be myself,” they say. “Other apps always felt so binary and categorised, but on Lex, it’s more about being my authentic self.”It might be impossible to create a totally flawless dating app that caters to every single person and community of users. But as dating apps like Taimi and Lex show, it's not exactly difficult to make an app user-friendly, safe and welcoming for non-binary people. Not everyone's romantic lives are built entirely around two genders. So why should our dating apps be? VICE also reached out to Tinder, Grindr and Bumble. At the time of publishing, all have yet to respond.