edited to add: a trans femme person took the time out to critique the fact that i have written this piece from my position; that of a white transmasculine person. i am not somebody who was directly impacted by tinder’s old policies, and the stakes for someone like myself are much lower. for trans femme people who use the app, for those who use it for purposes other than just dating, the change will be materially helpful. i still hold on to the hope that they might actually do something to help the trans community, but i can recognize that some people feel that this change was enough.
When I moved to Brooklyn from Boston in 2012, I was still healing from chest surgery. The move symbolized a fresh start for me in a body that finally felt in alignment with my gender identity. For the first time in my life, I had control over when, how, and if I told people I was transgender. I punctuated this shift by changing my OkCupid profile from bisexual female to bisexual male.
I have never identified as either male or bisexual, but at the time those categorizations felt like the line of best fit. When OkCupid expanded it’s gender and sexuality options in November 2014, I felt like I could finally be seen by other users as my true self. Navigating the interface with my non-binary, trans identity and my queer sexuality boldly displayed made it easier for people who are interested in folks like me to seek me out and vice versa.
But, the tradeoff has been a sense of feeling, at times, too visible. Messages trickle in asking inappropriate questions about my body, questioning my sexuality, condescending to my “bravery,” using the wrong pronouns and words to describe my body. Worse, this intimate information is now just a few clicks away for anyone within a small radius of me. Could the man who called me f****t outside the grocery store find me? Or the neighbors who spewed hateful transphobic vitriol at me when they glimpsed my naked body through the window?
Being visible as a trans person often feels like a catch-22.
Nearly two years later (and woefully behind the curve), popular dating app Tinder announced last week that it too would expand its gender options to include 37 identities. Tinder’s rigid, binary gender and sexuality options have made the app tricky to navigate for myself and other trans and gender non-conforming people.
And, Tinder has been a platform where being visible as trans has meant facing harassment and discrimination. Trans users have long reported being blocked from the app after other users flagged them simply for being trans. Tinder CEO Sean Rad cites learning about this discrimination (only six months ago) as the impetus for the change, and has assured trans users that moderators will operate under new guidelines to prevent trans people from being unfairly blocked.
While Tinder’s new gender options feel like a step in the right direction, something about the announcement is keeping me from installing the app.
Maybe it’s the implementation? While Tinder has at least nominally surrendered the gender binary for a more expansive spectrum, the app still requires users to select whether they wish to appear in searches for “men” or “women.” It seems the folks at Tinder just can’t fathom an app without a rigid binary algorithm to structure it or where some folks might want to choose both or neither.
And, the change in the app won’t magically change everyone’s understanding of gender. People who have never been exposed to terms like “genderqueer,” “non-binary,” and even “cisgender” will likely now feel even more emboldened to demand emotional labor from those of us who identify with or are knowledgeable about these terms. Had Tinder coupled this shift with an educational campaign, I might be more inclined to trust their “good” intentions. Such education, in a long term way, might even prevent the transphobia that has kept trans people from safely using the app.
Or, maybe it’s the timing? Tinder’s announcement strategically aligned with Trans Week of Awareness, an event that expanded out from the nearly two decades old annual Trans Day of Remembrance, a day when we mourn the loss of transgender people who have been killed during the year.
Often violence against transgender people comes as a result of hyper-visibility, of the backlash that results from being read, seen, or outed as transgender. Trans women, particularly trans women of color, bear the brunt of this hyper-visibility, which often occurs in the context of flirtation and intimate or sexual situations.
Take, for example, the 2013 murder of a black trans woman, Islan Nettles in New York City. Nettles was beaten to death by a man who flirted with her when he saw her walk by, but became enraged when he realized she was not cisgender. The societal misgendering of trans women combined with the denigration of men who are attracted to them too often results in brutal, even fatal violence. Attendees of 2013’s Trans Day of Remembrance events worldwide read Islan Nettles’ name.
Tinder doesn’t seem to understand this dark side of visibility that has frequently made trans people vulnerable to violence, especially in the context of flirtation, sex, and dating. To piggyback off of an event that demonstrates the dangerous effects of trans visibility feels disingenuous; it’s a major oversight at best.
And, visibility for trans people has become even more of a concern under the impending Trump regime. Right now, many of us are rushing to change our legal documents to erase any accessible record of our trans histories. We are stockpiling hormones and seeking out necessary medical care before the inevitable end of the Affordable Care Act, both for our comfort and for the safety that being read as our correct gender affords.
How out we can safely be in real life and online is a conversation I am now having regularly with many of my friends. Even before the election, many reports cited an increase in anti-transgender violence and transphobic legislation (like North Carolina’s HB2) that coincided with the rise in visibility for transgender people in popular media.
With this transphobic backlash even further emboldened by the Trump regime, it’s hard to know if being publicly out might just be the thing that gets us beaten or worse. Again, trans women, particularly women of color are long accustomed to having these conversations, much more than myself as a white transmasculine person. But, while the impact on us will undoubtedly be uneven, this sense of fear and uncertainty is ubiquitous among the trans community.
Or, maybe it’s the fact this seems like yet another hollow gesture from a company with tremendous social and financial capital? Sure, trans and gender non-conforming people may feel less alienated by the app, and for a moment cis people might even think about their relationships to their own and others’ identities.
But, how is Tinder actually supporting the trans community, especially those most vulnerable to violence? Are we once again just a cog in the corporate feel-good advertising machine?
When a company uses a marginalized group for their advertising and when their “allies” praise such empty rhetoric as the important work, we call it “performative allyship,” wherein one publicly displays support for members of a given community without actually helping them survive and thrive. While trans folks will negotiate our safety as we navigate the swiping frenzy that is Tinder, supposed cisgender supporters will feel as though they’ve earned precious ally points for backing the newly trans-friendly app.
All of this is not to say that Tinder shouldn’t have made this overdue change; it’s going to be affirming for a lot of people and hopefully will mitigate the issues trans people have thus far faced on the app. (As for trolls and ignorant people asking insensitive questions, that remains to be seen.)
What feels important is that Tinder actually shows up for the trans community, especially those made most vulnerable by their visibility. This could look like funneling a chunk of its profits into grassroots trans organizations. It could like doing ongoing education and outreach with its transgender and cisgender users alike. It could look like genuine transparency and strict policies around how they deal with with transphobic users.
Right now and even when this pseudo-progressive PR campaign is over, it’s important that Tinder puts its money and efforts where its mouth is. Until they prove they’re invested in a sustained commitment to trans justice, this trans person will keep on swiping left.