(Note: This post first appeared on Queer Metropolis)
Conferences are lonely. Two years ago, Cameron Macdonald and I flew out to the Eastern Sociology Society meeting in Philadelphia to sit on a panel with Myra Marx Ferree to discuss to the sociological implications of the Wisconsin Uprising, give an on-the-ground ethnographic perspective of the events, and solicit donations for the ongoing occupation efforts. Besides Myra and Cameron, I knew almost no one else there. However, a gay man with an iPhone is always connected to the gay community. As soon as the conference events for the day were over, I launched Grindr, changed my profile text, and began looking for friends.
People often talk about Grindr as a sexual field. Indeed, it is one. Tristan Bridges, here at Social (In)Queery, recently asked us to consider a sociology of Grindr. If Grindr is a sexual field, how is it different from the sexual fields of competing applications? How do the hookup rules and interaction look differently from other venues?
However, one area that I seldom see discussed when looking at Grindr is the many ways that gay men use it non-sexually. Grindr is undoubtedly a venue for people to hookup and find sexual partners. Competing applications treat it as a place only for “one-off relationships,” as Thomas McAfee, member of competing application Distinc.tt said on a comment to Bridges’s piece. “We are currently working on a redesign to focus more on community building/place discovery as we feel that being gay is about a lot more than just sex,” McAfee said.
However, many gay men use these sexual fields not only for sexual activity, but also to find community. They are also places where gay men go in order to talk with other gay men, form friendships and pen pals, and find events to attend. Distinc.tt then is coming in to fill an explicit service that gay men have already been finding through their sexualized communities. I argue that as gay bars and neighborhoods are increasingly assimilated and sexually diversified, places like Grindr that are more explicitly sexual are taking on some of the community functions that were previously fulfilled by happy hours out at the bars. Similar to the desexualizing of gay bars, applications like Distinc.tt try to tease out the nonsexual community from these sexual communities.
At ESS, I went to a local cocktail lounge nearby. This was the beginning of the craft cocktail phase, with prohibition-era drinks and secrecy to add to the allure. From the bar at the Franklin Mortgage and Investment, named for the business that served as a front for Philadelphia mobsters to distill moonshine, I talked with several locals about the best place for a young gay man to go in Philly. After about 30 minutes, I decided to meet Luis and a few of his friends for dinner. It would be a trial run for one of the many ways that I would meet participants in my future project in Boystown.
I shouldn’t overly cleanse the record though. I received my fair share of headless torsos and unsolicited pictures of strangers’ penises. However, I was in a monogamous relationship with my now ex-boyfriend Andrew at the time and turned them down politely. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, it probably also helped my quick turnaround that I was a young able-bodied white guy that suddenly appeared in the area. One can hardly write about gay hookup sexual fields without discussing the sexual racism that infuses all of them in different ways.
However, I want to focus on the sense of community that Grindr enabled that night. I was a lonely guy in a new city, friendless and bored. My iPhone connected me to a local world full of people to talk to and possible new friends. Luis, his friends and I hung out until 2 in the morning, swinging between a few local bars and the tastefully decorated home of one of his friends that lived in their little gayborhood. Grindr enabled me to find a fun group of people, connecting us initially through only our shared gay identity and the happenstance of being on Grindr at the same place and same time.
Without Grindr, perhaps I would have showed up to one of the gay bars alone. Here in Chicago, that certainly worked plenty of times for meeting new people when I first moved to Boystown. Of the groups that I’ve followed regularly, I met 3 of 4 just by showing up alone at a bar and making friends with those sitting nearby.
However, Grindr enables an “augmented reality,” an overlay of the physical world with additional information and meaning derived from digital applications. With it, I can hook into the sea of gay men that are around me at any time. Out at a gay bar, it is the norm to see men alone at the bar chatting on their phone, sometimes with men only feet away. At my apartment in Boystown, a few are listed only 0 feet away, almost certainly living somewhere in my building or the next. But in rural Iowa? The nearest gay person on Grindr might be 20 miles away, but still available to chat.
A participant, Frank, wakes up every morning, shuts off his alarm, and logs onto Grindr to wish a good morning to the fleet of men he’s met around the country on his travels. To him, the community of Grindr is even more important than the hookups available. No matter where he is, there are other gay men to talk to. Standing in line at the bank or on the train, there are men a thousand miles away and men only feet away. No need for gaydar. He knows these ones are gay.
Beyond the sociology of Grindr as a sexual field, Grindr and other online applications are transforming the way that gay men form and interact with gay communities. Grindr, like so many sexual fields and institutions, interacts with the other communities, fields, and structures that pervade 21st century gay life. Let’s not take a “digital dualist” perspective on Grindr, splitting it from the trends that are influencing gay communities today. The nonsexual communities that form within the sexual fields of online applications are similar to the offline nonsexual communities that formed in the sexual fields of gay bars. The splitting of these nonsexual functions off into applications like Distinc.tt follows the wider trend of desexualizing and assimilating gay male spaces. As Bridges notes, these feed changes feed into sexual stratification by race and class. Grindr’s sexual field has unique aspects, but sits within the constellation of fields that gay men navigate to find friends and sexual partners.
Jason Orne is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on assimilation and sexual racism in gay male and queer communities. Currently, he is conducting an ethnography of Chicago’s Boystown gayborhood. He blogs about his ethnography, sexualities, and race at Queer Metropolis.