Grindr Didn’t Invent Gay A**holes
Going off the grid doesn’t guarantee smoother rides with guys.
The arguments are old and tiresome, and I read or hear them almost every time I write or talk about my misadventures on Grindr.
“What do you expect from a hook-up app?”
“Why don’t you try meeting people in the real world?”
“Get a life.”
The clockwork arrival is practically guaranteed by guys around my age (forties) and older who think they always know better. Their unsolicited, sanctimonious wisdom: Back in the good old days before smartphones and social media took over everyone’s existence, gay life — and gays in general — were so much nicer.
Not only is the accompanying blanket implication that the Grindr generation lacks basic communication skills subtle ageism from folks who gripe when ageism is directed at them (“Age is nothing but a number” doesn’t apply strictly to those over 40), but it’s just so wrong. Some of the best offline conversations and interactions I’ve had in recent years have been with guys 25 and younger who found me online.
Grindr didn’t invent gay assholes. It just gave them a new platform. Going off the grid doesn’t guarantee smoother rides with guys. Racism, objectification, and shaming aren’t phenomena that belong strictly to the era of hook-up and dating apps. Just because men didn’t typically open conversations with “Top or bottom?” and “Looking for?” in 1998, or even in 2008, doesn’t mean a good man with manners and conversation skills was easy to find back then.
Just because men didn’t typically open conversations with “Top or bottom?” and “Looking for?” in 1998, or even in 2008, doesn’t mean a good man with manners and conversation skills was easy to find back then.
In my travel memoir Is It True What They Say About Black Men?: Tales of Love, Lust and Language Barriers on the Other Side of the World, Grindr and Gaydar play major supporting roles, but most of the leading men — the ones I loved, lost, and occasionally came to loathe — I met offline.
I was sexually harassed and harangued, objectified, shamed, and, on at least one occasion, called the N-word by men I met out in the real world. There, I was left without an LCD screen to separate me from handsy suitors like the one who grabbed my hand at DJ Station in Bangkok and put it on his exposed penis. Some left their paw prints and, in the end, longer-lasting emotional scars than online jerks who were all talk and XXX pics.
I’m old enough to remember when gays were shamed for going to bars and clubs to meet people. Now the shaming space is a different venue: gay dating and hook-up apps. Since I starting coming out 27 years ago, the biggest loser I’ve dated was someone I met not online, not under a strobelight, and not by the bar, but in the cafeteria at work. If I had gone to church, I probably would have found much worse there.
The million-dollar question is this: Why are men who spend their lives battling judgment often so judgmental themselves?
Three nights, three gay men
The last gay guy I met whom I didn’t first encounter on Grindr, I met three nights before I started writing this when I was sitting solo on a stool against the wall at a place called Thor’s Hammer Gay Bar in Bucharest, Romania. He appeared to be in his fifties, and his accent sounded like it was Scandinavian in origin.
He approached me and introduced himself as a photographer who was working on a project for the bar.
“Would you mind if I take some photographs of you?”
“No, sure. Why not?”
I then smiled for camera.
“Wait, wait. Why are you smiling? I don’t want you to smile. I want you to look natural.”
“Sorry, but I always smile in photos because I don’t like how I photograph when I’m not smiling.”
“But your smile is so fake. Look at this.” He shoved the camera in my face and showed me a strip of photos that I quite liked. “You look like you’re posing. It’s awful.
“Don’t you want people to see the real you?” he continued as if I’d shown up at Thor’s to audition to be in his photo project.
I was already regretting engaging him (it’s so much easier to end a difficult conversation online — you just stop responding), but I decided to humor him by explaining my preference for smiling poses with a story. I told him about my recent encounter with some Chinese tourists in Skopje, Macedonia, whom I caught taking photos of me when I wasn’t paying attention. After asking to see the photos they’d been taking, I suggested they take some in which I was smiling and not chewing.
“Oh, that’s so racist,” the Thor’s Hammer photographer interrupted.
“Those tourists were only taking photos of you because you’re black. That’s so racist.”
“Well, I think it was less that I am black than it was that I am different. I know white people who have had similar experiences in places like India. And also, as a black man, I’m less offended by a bunch of middle-aged Chinese tourists taking photos of me than by some of the less-friendly alternatives.”
“No, no, no. It’s racist,” he said in an incriminatory tone that made it sound like he was partly blaming me for not being properly incensed. “Would they have taken pictures if you were white, or Asian?”
“Probably not. But just because something happens to you because of your race doesn’t mean it happens to you because of racism. People stare at me all the time in this part of the world, but that doesn’t make them racist. I certainly don’t think the kids who gathered around me begging for photos in Sarajevo were being racist!”
From bad to awful
Curiosity isn’t a symptom of racism. Malice and condescension are — so, in a less obvious way, is the patronizing assumption that anything that happens to a black man happens to him because of racism. Where was the block option when I needed it?
My lifetime of firsthand experience with racism didn’t matter to him. He wasn’t budging from his initial diagnosis. Since I’m black, a silly tourist moment that happens to me must be a form of racial victimization. He continued whitesplaining racism to me (as so many white gays before him have tried to do online), because apparently, I had no clue.
When I challenged him by pointing out that I didn’t need a refresher course on racism because I live with it every day, he announced that he lives with it too — courtesy of his Brazilian housemate. The implication: Because of his personal connection to non-white, he knows being on the receiving end of racism as intimately as I do.
As he talked, he made his points with increasingly aggressive body contact, and my responses became louder and angrier as I recoiled from his jabs. He went back in on my “fake” smile, and when I suggested he photograph fruit if he doesn’t want his subjects to have an opinion, he gave up.
“You’re very handsome. I hope you have a good evening.” His words echoed those of guys online who go from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when facing rejection, only he was switching in reverse.
“I apologize if I offended you,” he said in his most condescending see-I-am-better-than-you tone, and moved on.
Back to the grid
The next afternoon, I received a Grindr message from a 48-year-old tourist from Canada who had seen me the previous night as I was leaving Thor’s, minutes after my exchange with the photographer.
We were going to come up and say hi to you but then you left shortly after we arrived, he wrote.
My friend and I are going tonight. If you want some company and conversation come tonight.
I stopped by the bar later on as I was walking home after having a drink with three lovely ladies I’d met. “America!” he shouted when he spotted me.
“Canada” and I chatted for about 30 minutes. We shared travel stories and tips, and he offered his opinion about why so few gay men in Eastern European cities like Bucharest go out to the one or two local gay bars (if they even exist). It’s not because Grindr has replaced face-to-face communication, he said, but because they’re in the closet and afraid of people seeing them in gay establishments.
It was an interesting point of view that I’d explored in the past (like here), and one that shows just how clueless and provincial so many of those people who turn up their noses at the apps as an unnecessary gay evil are. It’s also why most of the gay stories I’ve told over my past eight months in Eastern Europe began online, which anyone who’s ever bothered to leave their U.S. comfort zone probably already understands.
I was so happy to be talking to an intelligent, agreeable, and well-traveled gay man that I stayed about a half hour longer than I intended to. When I said “It was nice chatting with you,” at the end, I really meant it.
Although he first laid eyes on me off Grindr, we probably never would have met if it hadn’t been for the grid. Not once did he ask about my preferred sexual position, my endowment, or what I was looking for.
Although he first laid eyes on me off Grindr, we probably never would have met if it hadn’t been for the grid. Not once did he ask about my preferred sexual position, my endowment, or what I was looking for. Our entire interaction was as non-sexual as the one I’d previously been having with the ladies over wine.
Another night, another score
Earlier that day, I’d received a Grindr message from a guy in his early twenties who also didn’t ask any of those clichéd Grindr questions. He introduced himself as Dan, and once we had a rapport going, he requested a shift in online venue from Grindr to Facebook, because, he said, “I hate this app.”
Sensing a kindred spirit who also regarded it as a necessary evil in an ultra-homophobic culture where you don’t just meet other gay men in the produce section, I agreed. Once we connected via Facebook Messenger, he said he was a photographer, and he was looking to take some photos with a black guy.
Would you be interested? he wrote. If not, he assured me, we could just hang out.
Recalling my encounter with the photographer the previous evening, I was initially hesitant. But after I told Dan about that experience, he promised he’d let me smile as much as I wanted to, so I was in. The night after I met “Canada,” I went to Dan’s studio for our photo shoot.
As Grindr connections/dates go, it was the second successful one in as many nights. Dan took beautiful photos and never once made me or my smile feel uncomfortable. When he showed me a photo of a shirtless white male model wearing an aluminum collar with water dripping from his face and asked if I’d like to do something similar, I was so at ease with him that I was fully onboard.
Feeling emboldened and adventurous because of how great the shirtless aluminum and water shots looked, I suggested we take some of me in the bathtub like the ones he’d shown me earlier. While we were waiting for the water to rise, we were so excited by how great the shoot was going that we embraced. We hugged for several minutes before we started kissing.
By the time I was lying in the bathtub submerged in water (and wearing his black swimsuit to cover my private parts), I probably would have done anything for Dan the photographer and anything with Dan the man.
But I didn’t, and he didn’t press. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a guy I met on or offline in the seven months I’ve been traveling through the Balkans, and he never said or asked anything that made me feel icky or like a piece of meat.
In my first 12 of 14 days in Bucharest, I’d had significant interactions with three gay men — one whom I’d met offline, and two on. The former reminded me that although gay men usually didn’t open with “Top or bottom?” in the days before online hook-ups became a thing, they frequently went on to be just as annoying and/or offensive as the online guys who immediately drop clichés as well as their trousers for those introductory XXX pics.
The latter two reminded me that there are good guys everywhere, even on the online grids. Sometimes they’re hiding in plain sight among the racist, sex-obsessed, shaming and shameful jerks who fool so many into thinking they’re living their best gay life because it’s grid-free.
You may have to go out into the real world to actually meet the good guys, but to find them, sometimes they really are right at the tips of your fingers.