One Future Collective is an organization that works towards building compassionate youth social leadership through the use of art, education, community intervention and policy advocacy – across verticals of gender justice, mental health, legal reform and development policy.

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Pride and Privilege | Online Dating: Challenges for the LGBTI Community

Pride and Privilege is a column on intersectionality and queerness. The column focuses on addressing queer issues and themes with an intersectional lens, as this is what activism and outreach should aim for with all of its work. It also looks at issues that are often invisible and unspoken in our community, such as biphobia, dalit feminisms, and ableism, in order to address the issue of privilege that comes with our pride.

Technology and media, particularly digital media have shaped how we organize and communicate with each other. It is one of the most important platforms for connecting and communicating with the world because we can access information easily at our fingertips. Technology has become so intrinsic to our lives that we can hardly live without it. But this is not limited to communications alone. From renting, buying or selling a house to paying your electricity bills and transferring money, from booking your Ola/Uber to ordering food online, from getting daily news updates to watching television or your favorite Netflix series, technology has revolutionized the ‘platform economy’. You need something, there’s a genre full of apps for it. It is quite clear then that technology governs our day-to-day choices and influences our decision-making abilities, so much that it has also played a huge role in our love lives – through online dating!

Today, online dating has become a popular phenomenon. According to a 2018 study by globalwebindex, 41% of people have used online dating apps with more than 70% of them being under 30. In India, there has also been a 40% increase in online dating usage based on multiple factors. It is indeed natural for a community, who has been exposed to the digital age first-hand, to explore technologies not just as consumables, but also assigning certain social, cultural, and aesthetic values that empower them making it an important functional aspect of life. But technological revolution isn’t entirely the reason for this shift. To a certain degree, moral policing, stigma, censorship, and violence associated with expressing intimacy and affection in public has also caused this. Thus, online dating forms an integral and viable option for young adults, especially in the wake of matrimonial websites. And while it has helped heterosexuals quite extensively, online dating has also played a vital role in the lives of queer people in India.

Online Dating in Queer Circles?

Before online dating and dating apps, queer people, especially gay men, looked to ‘cruising’ – public acts of looking/searching a partner for sex. Even today, cruising and cruising spots (public places like public toilets, dark-lit streets, parks, and nightclubs, where cruising would happen) are codewords used frequently by gay men in order “to know” and engage with other gay people and identify those who are homophobic especially in communities where being queer carries the weight of suffering and societal stigma. However, digital applications have made it easier and efficient to communicate with potential partners on the internet without having to publicly out oneself and face stigma and discrimination from an already conditioned heteropatriarchal society.

With the shrinking of cruising spots (at least for the privileged middle-class urban queer folk), for the LGBTI community in India in particular, online dating has helped persons from non-normative sexualities and gender identities to look out for, approach, and meet new people, and has given a platform to search for and express love, intimacy, and same-sex desire within the networks they create. This is because, in many (heteronormative) communities, queer people are not recognized as legal and equal citizens, rather are criminalized for it. Even in countries that have legalized same-sex relationships, queer people are publicly outed and are targets of rampant bullying and harassment and in worse cases, victims of abuse, rape, and death.

With over 8000+ dating apps, the ones that are specifically built for LGBTI people give them space, the option, and the freedom to choose. But right from Grindr (an exclusive gay dating/hookup app) to applications like Scruff, PlanetRomeo, Blued and Tinder – most of the online dating applications are centred around giving space for gay men and are not necessarily built to encourage people of diverse sexual and gender identities to engage and explore online dating. This has led to little or no representation from groups within queer circles primarily lesbians, bisexuals, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people. Dating applications like OKCupid, Bumble, and Coffee Meets Bagel provide these opportunities, but these are yet to gain widespread popularity.

Key Highlights of Queer Dating:

  1. Accessibility: For many young urban queer folks, online dating has been made so much more accessible. Most of the dating applications are free and very affordable with a fee for additional benefits. A variety of dating sites provides a different set of options for queer people to explore. Based on your details and dating preferences, finding someone you are interested in becomes very easy.
  2. Space and Visibility: Since queer people frequently use dating applications, it has also increased a sense of visibility amongst the LGBTI community. For queer people who feel like they don’t fit or belong in the public realm, or for those who are shy to initiate conversations in public, or for those who want to interact with many people at the same time – online dating has made interaction possible.
  3. Online dating can be a first-level conversation starter to get to know the person before meeting offline. Users would want to know basic information ranging from background to current status, their hobbies, and even their goals. Interestingly, given the current political climate, many young adults are interested in knowing political preferences before choosing to hang out to date.
  4. Online dating post-same-sex legalization: Online dating can be a game-changer and encourage queer people to explore and experiment the dating scene, especially in the case of India where same-sex relationships were decriminalized.

Challenges/Risks Associated with Online Dating:

While dating applications have certainly helped the LGBTI community, it is the very nature and precarity of online dating that exposes queer people to extremely risky situations online and offline.

  1. Awfully male Centric: As discussed previously, one of the challenges with online dating is with most apps being built around gay experiences, gay fantasies, and gay-desires often ignoring the desires of lesbians, transgender people, and gender non-conforming, non-binary people in online mediums. As this is clear with many dating apps, people of other diverse sexual orientations and gender identities look to online groups and other options for interacting with people.
  2. Online Discrimination: Dating apps, especially gay dating apps tend to be very discriminatory by perpetuating notions of masculinity and femininity. Many queer people are discriminated based on ‘sexual preference’ often receiving comments like, “I’m sorry, I’m not interested in girlish guys or pansies”. Dating applications can be breeders of hate, racism, and body shaming especially towards transgender persons, and queer people who are feminine in their gender expression. Users themselves put disclaimers like: “NP: NR: NI – No pic? No reply! Not Interested!” and hashtags like #Masc4Masc and #NoToGirlish. This results in rampant bi-phobia, transphobia and intersex-phobia. Furthermore, caste, class, and status are most important factors for online daters –  much of which also perpetuate these hierarchies of caste and class with users proclaiming/bragging about their caste and class privileges. For instance: “Jaat looking for Jaat only” and “Only into classy people”
  3. Encountering dangerous persons/Catfishing: Queer people are at a huge risk of interacting with people who may not be the same. While some dating applications validate personal information (like email addresses), it cannot validate sexual orientation and preference. As a result, dating applications are filled with ghost/anonymous profiles which can be extremely risky. Queer people are often exposed to threats, blackmailing, violence and abuse upon meeting/encountering such dangerous persons.
  4. HIV/AIDS: Queer people are also at the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections – STIs and HIV/AIDS. With the stigma around persons living with HIV (PLHIV) and lack of information towards safer and healthier sexual practices, chances of transmission are high within the community. Furthermore, with the increasing exploration towards experimenting with Chemsex – usage of drugs to facilitate sexual activity, high-risk behaviours can often lead to the transmission of HIV/AIDS.

In our search for love, companionship, and/or a relationship, digital applications are clearly taking over the world and will continue to be the most important tool for socialising for a long time to come with more and more of us relying on such applications. For the LGBTI community in particular, online dating apps have been fundamentally changing the way we make friends, meet others, hang out, and celebrate nightlife.  They make way for possibilities to connect, communicate, and express even when societies are deeply heteronormative and homophobic. However, by the several ambiguities in terms of its design, target audiences, and the innate nature of online dating — concerns regarding privacy, security, and sexual health, dating apps have yet to address and provide solutions to risky environments created via digital spaces.

Vivek Dsouza is the Advocacy Officer at One Future Collective.

One Future Collective