So why are all the queer people in my feeds mad about this Daily Beast Grindr story?
Whew. OK, here’s the drama: On Thursday morning, Daily Beast reporter Nico “straight-with-a-wife-and-child” Hines published a dispatch from the Rio Olympic Games, the purpose of which, according to editor John Avlon, was “to see how dating and hook-up apps were being used in Rio by athletes.” Never mind that the obvious answer to this query is … to date and hook up. Our intrepid reporter put in the legwork—or thumb work, anyway—to bring us the real story by using apps like Tinder and Grindr, posing as someone interested in “connecting” long enough to lure sexy athletes into making contact, after which point—surprise!—he’d reveal his totally unsexy profession. He then collected these digital encounters into a saucy, mostly man-for-man-focused story wherein we learn that, indeed, Rio competitors are interested in dating or hooking up via apps. (The original headline was “I Got Three Grindr Dates in an Hour in the Olympic Village.”)
That sounds lame. But queens are, like, pissssed. Am I missing something?
Yeah, it’s super lame. But unfortunately, Hines’ piece was also incredibly dangerous. You see, Avlon had to explain the “concept” in an appended editor’s note, because many readers—especially LGBTQ ones—took the article to be a gross, unethical exercise in entrapment, in which gay and/or same-sex-desiring athletes—many closeted—were unknowingly corralled into a queer zoo exhibit and, in some cases, thereby outed and exposed to the threat of violence. While Hines did not include names, the original version of the article (since edited in a tone-deaf show of concern) included height-and-weight measurements, events, and countries of origin: more than enough info to discern the identities of athletes whose physical stats are widely publicized. Indeed, my colleague Mark Joseph Stern was able to surmise the names of five of Hines’ targets with a few minutes on Google.
Oh! Have I seen any of them on TV?
Maybe, but we’re not going to share our guesses here because, again, violence. And also, before you ask, being a so-called “public figure” for two weeks out of every four years does not mean the details of your sex life are a matter of public concern. That there are many condoms in Rio de Janeiro is a (light) story. The particulars of who is using them are not.
If you say so! But about this “violence” you mention—they don’t have security in Rio?
Sure, but the threat doesn’t end after the games. One of the victims was identified in the original article as being from Kazakhstan, which is considered by LGBTQ advocacy groups to be hostile territory. If he’s outed there, he could be punished, whether in terms of work prospects, social exile, or by physical attack. The point is outing like this, even unintentionally, is a very dangerous game because you cannot know how the revelation will impact the person involved.
That makes sense, but then again, don’t we want people to be out? Maybe Hines was doing them a favor?
In an ideal world, everyone would be able to be open about their sexual desires, gender expression, and the rest of it. Alas, we do not live in that world. Unless you are actively doing LGBTQ people harm or are a true celebrity living in “open secret” land, you have the right to determine when (even if) coming out is safe for you. If some of these athletes were closeted, they likely have good reasons for it. And one more thing: Just because a dude is looking for sex on Grindr doesn’t necessarily make him “gay.” More and more evidence is emerging that human sexuality is more complex than the homo/bi/hetero bins we know and love. Some of these guys might have just been looking to get off without harboring any secret identity. We just don’t know! Which is why, in the end, “outing” someone else is almost never a good idea—and it’s certainly a highly questionable activity for straight journalists to be toying with.
Right, you said something about this being “unethical” before. Did Hines break some kind of code?
Depends on whose code you mean. Over at Mic, Mathew Rodriguez makes a pretty convincing case that Hines violated journalistic standards around “minimizing harm” to sources and using “surreptitious methods” only when necessary to uncover “information vital to the public.” J-school professors will debate the harm question; that this article was deeply unnecessary and thus unworthy of subterfuge seems clearer cut. But so far, the Daily Beast editor, despite his “sorry you were offended” note, is essentially standing behind the piece, so clearly experienced journos differ.*
That’s not very satisfying …
Well, neither was Hines’ cavalier approach to working in a gay space, but here we are. Part of the problem is that norms around reporting on digital platforms aren’t as firm as we might like, and platforms that are organized around sex and sexuality are particularly sensitive. Apps like Grindr and Scruff can be powerful reporting tools: I know gay journalists who have gotten local scoops they otherwise wouldn’t have by using those networks. But in those cases, they identified themselves extremely clearly in the profile section of the interface with something like “I’m a journalist! Msg me if you want to talk about X event,” so that other users know what they’re getting into. By Hines’ own account, he only revealed his job when asked by a user. This, by any common-sense measure, is dishonest, and if I were his editor, there’d be a discussion right about now regarding what his profile looked like and exactly how these interactions took place.
But, like, is he really in the wrong if he told them what he was up to at some point? After all, these athletes are putting themselves on a platform that anyone can join: Isn’t it just like having a conversation in the street or something?
Wrong is in the eye of the beholder, to some extent, but the thing to consider here is that certain social spaces offer their participants certain expectations. Regardless of what its PR team might claim, Grindr in particular is largely a space where men go to find sex of a relatively immediate and more-or-less anonymous sort. (Individual experiences may vary, but this is undeniably the ethos of the place.) Moreover, they pursue hookups with a bluntness that, to generalize, straight people might find surprising. It would not be uncommon there to receive an initial greeting from a stranger in the form of a series of images of his penis, ass, torso, or other body parts, followed by a straightforward query as to interest and ability to travel/host. Pleasantries, much less a date, are not necessarily required. You may or may not find this behavior to your taste, but it is the coin of the realm, and Hines’ interlocutors were not wrong to think he—having not indicated in his profile otherwise—was similarly invested in the currency, rather than there to gawk.
Wait, but surely there are posers and frauds in there all the time! Isn’t this just a risk you take by logging on?
Absolutely. But Hines, as a professional journalist, must be held to a higher standard than the “average Joe.” And part of that standard is treating the communities he drops into, whether physical or digital, with sensitivity and respect. He should not be adding to the risk of exposure and judgment that queer men already must endure while trying to find moments of connection, however shallow those moments might look to an outsider.
Yeah, it sounds like if anyone was going to do this story at all, it probably shouldn’t have been a straight guy like Hines. But does that mean that straight people can never write about gay things without messing up?
My goodness, no! Straight journalists can absolutely cover LGBTQ issues and write about our social worlds well—and indeed, many have for decades. But the risk of error, and thus the standard of care the writer must apply, is unavoidably higher. While Hines might not have intended his piece to be queer-focused at the outset (he tried Tinder and Bumble!), his success at catfishing Grindr users made it so. And with that shift comes an array of questions far more substantial than “how sex happens at the Olympics.”
What does it mean for a straight interloper to be writing about a queer sexual space—a thing that is still relatively precious and rare? How might the consequences of this reporting impact queer subjects differently than straight ones? What are the norms and etiquette, the “social contract” of this space, and what are the risks of breaking it? Why are behaviors in this space even interesting to outsiders in the first place—is it genuine curiosity or a kind of salacious voyeurism? And lastly, am I, perhaps, kind of an asshole for attempting to do this story in the first place?
It’s clear from the article that Hines hadn’t pondered any of these questions before filing his copy—though I expect he’s taking stock over his Twitter feed and a caipirinha right about now. However, if there’s anything good to take away from this debacle, it’s a reminder that writing—and reading—about other people’s sex lives comes with responsibility. It’s unfortunate that, in this instance, a journalist fell far short of the gold.
*Update, Aug. 12, 2016: Later on Thursday night, the Daily Beast removed the article entirely from their site. The URL now redirects to a formal apology.