When a queer School of Engineering and Applied Science first-year moved to New York from the southern United States, he wanted to have “the gay experience.” The student, who has been granted anonymity because he is not out to his family yet, adopted an open-minded and inquisitive approach to his goal. On his arrival to campus, the Columbia Mentoring Initiative’s LGBTQ Family Tree paired him with a returning student mentor, who is also queer. And when the SEAS first-year asked about ways to meet guys, his mentor suggested that he download Grindr.
“I feel like almost every gay guy has, at least at one point in his college life, used Grindr,” he says. “Even if it was just for a small amount of time.”
Grindr is billed as a “gay social network” with over two million unique users. It precedes Tinder having facilitated connections within a one-mile radius since 2009. But, like Tinder, it shapes and exposes campus hookup culture.
“The thing is, all I wanted was the gay experience,” the SEAS student says. “But I didn’t really know what it entailed. And I feel like over the course of the first semester, it was just me trying to understand what it meant to be gay, or even just queer.”
For him and other LGBTQ students, queer dating apps are introductions to the queer community, even if the relationships remain platonic. The SEAS student has not hooked up with anybody through Grindr, but he often uses the app to facilitate something close to a method of anthropological study, learning about a gay community that was less visible in his Southern hometown.
“Basically, using the apps now, I recognize that I’m not going to hook up using these apps. So I just talk to people. People are like, ‘Hey, can you send me an ass pic or something?’ And I’ll be like, ‘So what's your story?’” he says. “The funny thing about it is that they’ll tell me. They’ll say they grew up like this, that they had their first experience at this many years old. And now they’re here, trying to be a hoe. I feel kind of bad because I don’t really take it seriously. But it helps me learn about other gay people, because I’ve never really been in an environment with so many.”
Antonio Serros, a Columbia College first-year who identifies as gay, has hooked up with one person through Grindr, but also uses the app as a means of exploration on campus.
“I’ve had Grindr for a really long time just because I wanted to see who was gay because, you know, I can’t make assumptions about people,” Serros says.
Barnard first-year Valerie Jaharis, who identifies as queer, also looked toward dating apps for introductions to the queer community. For Jaharis, this began in high school.
“I had been looking for apps forever,” Jaharis says. “As I was coming out, that was what I was trying to do. I was trying to meet more people.”
At that time, she found a local queer community through a Facebook page.
“I think a big thing for queer kid representation is being able to meet people. In high school, when I was finally able to come to terms with that, it was because I found a queer community where I was from, just an online Facebook page that was for queer kids from the North Shore [in Chicago]. And we met up, and we had parties and stuff. And that was good. You weren’t pressured into having sex to meet people, it was just meeting people.”
Jaharis now uses HER, a social platform for queer women that is billed as “the most popular app for lesbian and queer women.” HER was the subject of hopeful media coverage when it was first released in the United States as Dattch, and Jaharis contacted the HER team in high school to ask them to launch the app in Chicago, her hometown.
However, Jaharis is dissatisfied with the app. Like the SEAS first-year, most of her interactions have been dead ends, at least romantically. During our interview, she pulls out her phone and opens HER. She scrolls past a few profiles as she explains the app’s user interface.
“It seems cool, but I have been using it for a while and I have yet to have a full conversation with someone on here,” Jaharis says. “I’ve had it for three years, or however long it’s been open. … I’ve been underwhelmed by it. I’ve had longer conversations with girls on Tinder than I’ve had with girls on HER.”
Jennifer Guzman, a Barnard sophomore who identifies as queer, also notes a gap in activity between HER and Tinder.
“On Tinder I was [listed as] ‘interested in men and women,’ and I feel like men were much more active in actually wanting to meet up,” Guzman says. “Whereas, speaking from my personal experience, women on HER or just queer people on HER haven’t been.”
Guzman says that HER can be more reciprocal and more intimate than Tinder, because conversations between two people require each party to like a photo of the other person. But Guzman and Jaharis agree that HER’s interface is somewhat cumbersome, because it requires more steps than Tinder does.
“It’s a little awkward,” Guzman says. “It’s not as fast as Tinder, and it doesn’t have that obsessive, quick nature that Tinder has.”
Although Guzman has had worthwhile conversations on the app, she has never met up with someone she has met on HER. Neither has Jaharis. HER has visibly fewer active users than Grindr or Tinder, and Jaharis complains that HER is an endless rotation of the same faces. She points to gender politics as a possible cause for this dearth of activity.
“It’s that women aren’t supposed to hook up as much as men do. Not that that’s true, but that’s the definite idea of it,” she explains. “Girls are allowed to experiment, but they aren’t really supposed to put labels on it. If a girl is experimenting in college, she’s just having fun and there’s not a label. But because of that lack of label, it makes it harder to go on to an app that says it’s designated for lesbians and bisexuals, because if you don’t have a label, you don’t feel like you fit there.”
Jaharis notes that Grindr, populated by male users, is more sexually explicit. While HER did not provide her with an immersive introduction to queer female culture, she worries that Grindr pushes young users too far.
“I think that gay male culture is really sexified,” Jaharis says. “It’s so dependent on that. I’ve had gay guy friends as long as I can remember, and I was always really worried because as my guy friends were exploring their sexuality, they were doing it by taking really big risks. They were meeting up with guys way older than them and meeting with guys that they didn’t know. It’s not that I have a problem with them having sex, it’s that that was the only way they could explore their sexuality.”
The SEAS first-year also takes issue with the “sexified” Grindr culture. For him, it’s not a viable platform for queer men looking for relationships instead of just isolated sexual encounters.
“I guess for people like me, who value more emotional relationships, it’s a very negative place,” he says. “Once you’re there, it’s just like, people trying to be a hoe. It’s really overwhelming. I feel like the whole gay experience is really hard for gay guys who aren’t looking to just hook up.”
However, he admits that Grindr augments an existing aspect of gay male culture, and Serros agrees.
“I feel like [gay hookup culture] is already there, but Grindr does play a big part in perpetuating it,” the SEAS first-year says. “It’s like, the mode of transport for hoeness.”
“I definitely think historically, hookup culture has always been there, especially in the homosexual community,” Serros says. “I think if anything, it just facilitates it. You literally can see how far away the person is.”
The SEAS first-year says that Grindr’s sexual nature affects the ways in which students use the app on campus.
“People don’t want to be caught using Grindr, because Grindr is the dirty gay underground,” he explains. “They know if you’re spotted using Grindr, you’re trying to be a hoe. It’s not always true, but I do see classmates using Grindr. So I’ll just say hi, but I guess there’s this unspoken rule that you’re not supposed to talk to other classmates on Grindr. Or at least, whenever I do that, they just delete their Grindr apps because I guess they’re embarrassed. And I’m just like, I’m doing the Lord’s work, because Grindr is not a good place anyway.”
Even so, the students noted that, in an ideal world, Grindr and HER would provide safe communities for young queer people and facilitate several types of relationships. Jaharis notes that HER has a thoughtful option for making friends, although it doesn’t work very well.
When I asked Jaharis if she thought HER would be a more helpful space if more people used it, she said she did. “I think that design-wise, there are definitely ways to make it easier. Maybe putting two sections of the app, one dedicated to relationships and hookups, and another part dedicated to just looking for friends.”
Jaharis thinks that in that platonic role, the app would fill a concerning vacuum in the queer community. Even though she still isn’t sure if the casual way HER is often used right now is really a good thing.
“Because I think that’s a huge thing that the queer community needs, of just being able to connect with more people and finding safe spaces and that kind of thing. … I think if more people use it, it would be good. I mean, then there’s the concept of hookup culture, and is that a good or a bad thing. And I don’t really know my answer on that.”