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Mathew Rodriguez Headshot

Is Discrimination on Grindr Killing Gay Sex?

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Grindr was created, according to its inventors, to make socializing easier. If you didn't know the man across the bar, you'd simply hop onto the app and find out just enough about him to start a conversation. However, as any movie about science or technology tells us, what is a simple genius invention often runs afoul of the maker's intent in the hands of mere mortals -- and especially horny mortals.

As a queer Latino gay man of size, logging on to Grindr is a casual masochistic reminder that, in the mainstream gay male community, my body is not welcome. Messages like "NO ASIANS," "NEG U B 2," and "MASC ONLY" invalidate gay men like me daily. How did a tool that was meant to facilitate conversation become the prime example of the gay community's -- like the rest of humanity's -- worst tendencies, like racism, sexism, misogyny, ageism, ableism, fat shaming, elitism, transphobia, homophobia and serophobia?

What does someone in the 1 percent of Grindr's sexual economy look like? He has white skin, he has a weight that begins with "1," he is cisgender, in his 20s, completely able-bodied, has a full head of hair, has either slightly defined or very defined abs, has a dusting of body hair, is masculine and is HIV-negative. These men are what you might call "sexual gatekeepers." Just as the 1 percent of America's economy has unlimited access to the services and privileges they need, Grindr's 1 percent has the privilege of determining who has access to them and when and where they will get serviced.

In literary studies or fiction writing, "round" characters are fully realized characters who jump off the page, while "flat" characters are 2-D, and stand out for the qualities they lack. In the world of Grindr, a landscape dominated by a 2-D square interface, everybody is a victim of personality "flattening," and, by extension, becomes more and more defined by that which society says they lack. While people used to look into the future and see technology as making fantasies come true -- flying cars! teleporters! -- the truth of technology in the 21st century is that it doesn't deal in fantasy. It heightens reality -- racism, misogyny, etc. -- in all its grotesqueness.

People often confuse "having a type" with taking the freedom to shoot other people down. When one person lists the communities he won't have sex with in his online profile, he fails to see the person on the other screen who has to read a digital invalidation, written in 1s and 0s. Cyberbullying thrives because it alleviates the executor of any guilt. They don't have to see the rejection, the shame, the trauma on someone else's face. Why, in a profile meant to discuss you, do you take the time to talk about the people who can't have access to your body? Many people would say the very definition of privilege is when you have the luxury of not having to think about something or have it affect you -- the luxury of having free and open access to sexual partners is no different.

Many people, gay men included, cling to false notions -- "I can't help it! It's just what I prefer!" -- when discussing their sexual preferences. However, preferences are always socially constructed. The list of characteristics of Grindr's 1 percent is also a fairly representative list of many of Hollywood's hottest celebrities, its most powerful men with the most cultural and social capital. These are characteristics we're told to desire. I don't know about you, but I hate being told how to think. Sex on Grindr is often sex between sheep. But, sex can be an act of resistance and meaningful exchange -- if you make it one.

As more apps that serve more "niche" audiences appear, and the death of sex and intimacy through categorization looms, is there still hope for an online sexual playground that can act as a place of fun and liberation? Many of my older queer activist friends often tell me about sex from an earlier era, sex that had potential, sex that was organic and intimate. If our generation prefers Chipotle to McDonalds, then why are we settling for a sexual terrain that boasts sex as fast food and men as value menu options?

The gay community is only starting to feel its way through the digital era's sexual landscape, but as we do, I encourage us to use more than just our thumbs. We must be more interested in touching each other than touching our screens. Gay men have a history of being social pariahs, but as some in our community gain "mainstream" acceptance, we can't repeat history and microaggress those who are deemed to be on a lower rung of society's ladder. We can have sex that's more about questions than answers, embraces exploring more than finishing and doesn't rely on litmus tests for genuine connections.