Before smartphones, arriving in a new city as a gay guy meant engaging in detective work to find other queers. Depending on the era, that might have meant using weighty gay travel guides like Spartacus, scouring the web, or simply using one's "gaydar" to find places to meet other gay and queer men and women.
All that's changed thanks to gay dating apps. In most parts of the world today, one can fire up an app like Grindr, see a grid of other nearby gay, queer and trans people, and start a conversation with one (or dozens) of them. Where it leads (sex, networking, a new friendship) is up to the participants. And as gay spaces continue to close around the world, dating apps may soon be all that's left to replace them. Grindr alone boasts over 2 million daily users today in 196 countries. Its Chinese rival, Blued, is drawing similar daily numbers, and claims to have over 27 million registered users in total.
But it remains to be seen whether these apps will be able to replace the myriad functions gay bars serve in the LGBTQ community. By their very nature, apps strip people of the depth of first impressions. When you "meet" someone on an app, they're reduced to a narrow band of information—a few photos, their "stats" (age, height, weight, ethnicity, relationship status, sexual preferences, etc.), and the awkward sorts of conversations that can result when chatting with strangers with little more than that to begin with.
It's no surprise that gay dudes often complain that apps are too sexually-focused—which makes sense. While some definitely use apps just to find friendship and establish ties to the queer community, when platforms reduce users to pictures and physical characteristics, it's natural that people will treat those platforms like a meat market. And while gay bars have been said to feel like meat markets themselves (the comparison is sometimes uncanny), gathering queers in a physical space fosters unexpected encounters, where people can't be filtered out by their stats. Plus, gay bars provide a place for the queer community to raise awareness of issues that might affect it, or to hold fundraisers and events for its causes and organizations.
For some, the decline of the gay bar isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it provides new opportunities for connection in more diverse settings. "I'm rather glad that gay bars are closing down," said Darren Jay, a 36-year-old self-described "post-gay global nomad" currently living between South Africa and Berlin. "For me, it's a sign that sexuality is becoming less of a defining quality about a person. It's a sign of acceptance. I'm drawn to mixed venues, where revelers have access to a safe space and the prospects of an evening out hold more surprise."
Jay says that gay dating apps have been central to his sexual life since he first came out of the closet. "I've been using dating apps since I was 18, so that's half my life," he said. "Many gay people see the gay scene as a safe space to be themselves, whereas I've increasingly viewed it as a sort of ghetto. I took to online dating as a way of learning a little more about people before I would meet them. I came to learn that expectations were counterproductive, and began to accept these apps for what they were—a meeting space where anything is possible." In response, he refuses to assign spaces any specific purpose—apps and bars are places of equal opportunity to him, where friends or more are free to develop.
But for some gay men, apps haven't proven to the best place to build meaningful social networks or make friends. Mark Asbury, a 55-year-old American PhD student who moved to Australia on a student visa without any queer friends in 2015, says he's found it easier to kindle friendships on sites like Meetup, which can connect users with local LGBTQ groups.
"I've never made a friend through dating apps," he said. But he has established a group of gay friends through groups dedicated to queer meditation, gaming and non-sexual, all-gender nudist nights. "I more or less signed up for all the Melbourne LGBTQ groups, and then check the calendar and go when I'm interested."
Others find gay bars irrelevant, if anything, in our digital age. "Who goes to gay bars anymore?" asks Jim Buckell, a 58-year-old Australian writer who met his current partner on a gay dating app a few months ago. "If you want to meet a gay man in 2017, you hook up online."
Buckell said that for men who grew up in the pre-internet age and are used to the subcultures of traditional gay bars, it takes some adjusting to orient oneself to dating app culture. "Generally, men are there for sex, either right then or in the very near future. But there's some room to wriggle around if you want to make friends—you just have to know how to create it," he said.
Some worry that when gay bars are lost, opportunities for spontaneous interaction between subsets of the LGBTQ community are lost with them.
"Tribe culture has always existed—you know, bears, twinks, beefcakes," said Josh Tsang, a 29-year-old bi-identifying Chinese/Thai personal trainer who lives between Melbourne and London. "I think apps help streamline what you want, but they do close up people's minds about interacting within those groups. It's more of a concern for me that the only gays portrayed in media are white, athletic-looking role models, and that that idea of beauty and attraction might be compounded further when people are using these apps," he said, referring to app filters. Critics have pointed out the problematic nature of such options.
Tsang said he uses apps to make friends, date and find sex all the same. But at the same time, he elaborated that he's experienced his share of racism through both apps and gay bars—and that at least the former can help filter out those racists. An app user once "claimed that because of my ethnicity, I should have been happy that someone was paying attention to me," he said. On the other hand, "I'm bi, and never feel 100 percent complete comfortable in a gay bar, because I'm usually being cruised by 'rice queens' at the urinals, or find that people have no interest in me based on my ethnic background. Apps do help equalize ethnic barriers, as both parties in certain apps can filter out what they like and dislike."
For Dani Weber, a 25-year-old genderfluid drag performer and activist who spent the past 18 months working as a LGBTQ tour guide in San Francisco, gay dating apps are "awesome new places of social connection."
"Being queer means that it's not always safe to just walk up to a random person and start talking to them—you leave yourself open to homophobia and other judgements," she said. "Apps help me to say exactly what I'm about, and let people self-select whether they want to know more. I love them!"
"I'm not super involved in the mono-sexual gay dating scene, but I know there is heaps of racism and femme-phobia," she said. "People won't give others a chance to even say hello, based on their race or gender expression. That certainly worries me. I do think technology is just an extension of our current communities however, so I wouldn't blame apps for an increase in prejudice or isolation—it may simply just make the issues more explicit and visible."
What becomes apparent from talking to a variety of queer people is that the increasing popularity of apps is a double edged sword. While they open up the opportunity to live more sexually liberated and interconnected gay lives, they also carry the threat of turning users into "sofa participants" in the LGBTQ community, just waiting for the next cock shot. The decline of the gay bar is just one of a host of striking cultural changes the global LGBTQ community has undergone in recent years; whether apps can replace them (or whether anyone wants them replaced in the first place) remains to be seen, but for now, they're the best alternative we've got.
James Norman is a Melbourne-based journalist.