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Grindr and what old-fashioned queer activists can learn from it

A week ago, I thought Grindr was tedious. In my mind, it belonged with partying gay first years at college, who’d much rather get smashed on vodka than smash the system. I felt above it – but a few days’ use just changed my mind.

I went to visit family at the end of May, whose bunting-strewn coastal town embodies bourgeois straightness: at a jubilee do I was assured I’d have wife, kids and mortgage ten years from now, and on my relatives’ shelf was a Christian book calling ‘homosexuality and transvestism’ abominable. School uniforms were gender-coordinated, with five year-old girls paraded in blue gingham smocks. I felt like a closeted extra in The Stepford Wives. When out of sheer boredom I activated Grindr, it turned out I wasn’t alone. Amongst the shirtless pictures and awkward chat, I found a 21 year-old student not yet out, a newly decloseted 16-year-old and a father of two who’d married straight to please his parents. I was glad they’d found someone to talk to, and as an old style campaigner for a million different things, I wished other communities had resources like that. Imagine if all the atheists in pews had a version of Grindr, or all survivors of abuse; imagine if police with guilty consciences could communicate, or jobbing financiers with ethical concerns about the City. Imagine anti-choice extremists picketed your clinic, and your feminist-locating app summoned counter-protestors.

There’s more to Grindr than superficial sex talk – like Craigslist before it, and phone box ads before that, it’s become a way for isolated queer guys to find each other. And however hedonistic its use might be, I’m glad gay sex is foregrounded in a well-known app. In my first term at university, our annual queer-themed night was discontinued on the grounds of being ‘salubrious’ (the previous year’s rodeo penis was too much, apparently) to be replaced with a ‘festival’, where wearing ‘fig leaves, nipple tassels, G-strings or anything you wouldn’t be happy to have your mother send you off in’ was forbidden. A finalist I knew worried it would ‘sanitise queer culture’, and I see now what she meant. In Soho I’ve seen juice bars replace sex shops. I watch my friends read Attitude, complaining about the small ads. It’s suggested queer people will be better regarded if we hide the naughty things we like to do, talking only about ‘love’, as if sexual experience were incidental to being gay and should be kept quiet. This stops us challenging ideas of straight sex as the norm, and it strips us of agency. I turn on TV and see Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada, then mincing X-Factor contestants: gay men who are makeover experts but would never change the world. On Grindr, I’m a do-er – someone whose sexual identity involves choice and action, and has consequences.

I’ve concerns, of course, especially with its lack of inclusivity. That the app isn’t inclusive of queer women or non-binary genders is troubling; it reflects a still-androcentric LGBT culture, which sees gay men with iPhones as its figureheads. Why no catering for other genders or sexual groups? I won’t even talk about the ‘str8-acting’, ‘no fats or femmes’ contingent.

It’s depressing, too, that 43 years after Stonewall we’re still as marginalised as Grindr shows. Yes, my relatives’ sleepy town has a smattering of gay bars and a pride parade, but I only found that out through Google. To arrive as an outsider is to see no queer presence at all. It shouldn’t take an iPhone app for us to notice each other; by now we should have rainbow flags on every street. If we want to queer the world, we have to do better.

But at least Grindr lets us measure how erased we are, and puts closeted guys in touch with one another. Future activists might well find use for it, too. I’m not saying it’s for everyone, but there’s much more to this app than meets the eye.

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