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LGBTQ

Can Hookup Apps Inspire a Gay Political Renaissance?

Gay dating apps like Hornet and SCRUFF have become more outright political than ever before. But will their efforts affect real-world change?

by Jon Shadel
14 March 2017, 3:27am

A Grindr user. Photo via Flickr user Amanda Hinault

Among their users, gay dating apps often conjure a few stereotypes—superficial conversations, torrents of unsolicited nudes, and an endless cascade of profiles displaying nothing but toned male torsos. Over the last decade, they've earned a reputation as hookup apps, an easy way for queer men to seek "casual encounters" with other guys nearby. But what if these social platforms could also facilitate political action?

It might sound like a far-fetched proposition. But earlier this month, the gay social network Hornet announced it would support protests against the Trump administration by pushing location-targeted notifications to phones of interested users. The first is planned this June, for Los Angeles's #ResistMarch, with pushes to follow at events in New York, Washington, DC, and other cities across the US.

That effort exemplifies a broader trend among gay apps, which are increasingly assuming more combative political personas, from Grindr's long-running Grindr for Equality campaign to geo-targeted ads for Gays Against Guns that ran on SCRUFF, another gay dating app, in the wake of the 2016 Orlando massacre.

These companies suggest that their efforts offer a glimpse into what the future of queer politics could look like. "Being very targeted and trying to drive focused, concrete action—I think you're going to see a lot more of that from SCRUFF and throughout our industry," said Eric Silverberg, SCRUFF's CEO and founder. "I think we offer a unique tool that activists didn't have ten or 20 years ago."

But while they might inspire positive headlines, questions abound as to whether gay dating apps can affect meaningful change: Will such actions amount to mere "slacktivism," or might these apps aspire to serve a role as key to the activist's toolkit as Twitter and Facebook did during the Arab Spring?

Corporate leaders at major gay social apps maintain that they've engaged in advocacy efforts since their early days. Hornet, for example, launched a series of tools in 2012 to enable users to support Obama's reelection campaign. And three years ago, SCRUFF launched its BenevolAds platform, which reserves 10 percent of its ad inventory for nonprofits at no cost. Founders of both companies say such efforts address the needs and expectations of their users.

"Our community is very much politically conscious," said Silverberg. "They expect a certain social, cultural, and political awareness from SCRUFF, which gives us the mandate to do the kind of initiatives and research you've seen from us in the last few years."

Sean Howell, co-founder and president of Hornet, took a similar stance: "While it seems awful what's happened in politics recently, I think we've needed a gay political renaissance—to decide what's next, what issues are important," he said. "My job as someone who runs a technology company that serves gay people is to see what kind of solutions we can create to support the work of activists."

So far, organizers of LA's #ResistMarch have responded positively to the role Hornet, Scruff, and other apps may play in driving awareness of key issues and attendance of protests.

"With more public meeting spaces being under attack from homophobic legislation, people, or groups, the need to connect online is being reborn," said John Erickson, who serves on the committee for #ResistMarch. "We need these types of apps to not only find each other, but to remind us that it is vital to get out into the streets and fight for our rights as a community."

In a way, that sounds like a logical progression in an era where queer spaces continue to shutter at least partly due to the penetration of gay dating apps themselves. Gay and bisexual men were early adopters of mobile apps, and millions of Grindr users spend on average 165 minutes a week on the app—reportedly the highest engagement of any dating app, queer or straight. If gay apps fill a gap in the LGBTQ community, it seems natural that virtual queer spaces could also assume a political tenor similar to gay bars, which served as organizing spaces for activists in the heyday of queer liberation.

Rather than seeing vocal advocacy from gay social apps as an isolated trend, it makes sense to view it as another chapter of LGBTQ history in which commercial enterprises appear to walk in lockstep with grassroots activists and civil rights organizations.

Queer historian Marc Stein, the author of Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement, sees gay dating apps as only a recent iteration of LGBTQ social networks throughout history. He places them on a timeline ranging from pen pal groups and beefcake magazines in the 50s and 60s to the proliferation of LGBTQ periodicals in the 70s and 80s to today's mobile technology, and said each has a long history of encouraging (and discouraging, in certain ways) LGBTQ political action.

He suggests it's important to ask what kinds of resistance these apps may promote moving forward. "We need to be aware of the ways that these spaces and technologies could—and still do—support and sustain white supremacy, male sexism, and supposedly apolitical pleasure-seeking," said Stein. "I'm thinking here of personal ads for 'no fats, no fems,' language that expresses a preference for those who are 'straight-acting,' and unwanted forms of sexual objectification that reflect and encourage anti-black racism, anti-Asian Orientalism and more," he continued, referencing the rampant proliferation of racism and other forms of privilege on gay dating apps.

While Stein is right to remind us that racism remains widespread within the gay community, it's a social ill perpetuated by gay men themselves, rather than those who create gay dating apps (though the ability for users to filter by race and other physical characteristics remains). One can only assume that efforts by gay dating apps to politically engage and educate users will help to challenge their views and prejudices.

It's hard to say how effective political efforts by Hornet, SCRUFF, and other gay dating apps will be—that's an empirical question for which there is too little data to answer. But as they seek to move the needle, a key challenge seems how willingly they'll address the rights of minorities within their own virtual communities.

For their part, the organizers of #ResistMarch have underscored the importance of intersectionality in their mission statement, which makes mention of immigration, religion, race, and disabilities in addition to LGBTQ rights. That kind of inclusivity seems in line with the brand of progressive activism emerging in the era of Trump.

Hornet's president also reinforces the importance of marginalized groups standing together, but when it comes to the question of Hornet's responsibility as a platform, he emphasizes the role the larger LGBTQ community needs to play.

"The gay movement has had points in its history where we have accomplished key victories by working together, and I think now is a test," said Howell. "But I think it's a test of us as a community more than of Hornet as a platform to create change. I hope we facilitate it and amplify what's organically there."

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