Making Grindr Kinder

In a “no fats, no femmes” culture, could encouraging kindness on hookup apps be radical?

The Grindr grid.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo from Grindr.

This piece is part of the Radical issue, a special package from Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

My early misgivings about Grindr, the famed gay hookup app, first hardened into antipathy back in 2014, when the app underwent a major design overhaul and the app’s founder and CEO, an Israeli-American named Joel Simkhai, sat down for an interview with the New York Times.

The design overhaul, among a variety of other interface tweaks, dramatically altered the layout of a user’s main profile screen. Whereas a profile had previously offered space for a pithy comment to contextualize a photograph, almost all text was suddenly banished. Other users now had to manually swipe up for further information: age, height, sense of humor, and signs of intelligence (in 250 characters). This change put the emphasis wholly on aesthetics; you could now only speak if granted permission, with a flick of the finger. The app, already more a sexual video game than facilitator of meaningful social connections, had undergone a self-transformation into the digital equivalent of a swimsuit competition.

Simkhai was sitting in his 15,911-square-foot compound when Guy Trebay interviewed him for the New York Times. (Styles section, of course; the house was a white cube, the panorama of Los Angeles was “commanding.”) This interview did not exactly assuage my concerns about the redesign. Reflecting on the upgrade, Simkhai acknowledged that Grindr is “very, very visual,” and that he was “not really a big believer in words.” Then he lobbed what sounded like a hand grenade: “Grindr made me get fit and go to the gym more, get better abs. … People criticize it for being superficial, but I didn’t invent that in human nature. What Grindr does is makes you raise your game.”

What Grindr does, Simkhai was saying, is put the onus on an individual to be acceptably attractive. If other users did not accept you—if they were rude, shaming, offensive, or even discriminatory on the basis of something like race—then perhaps you had just not raised your game high enough to compete in the lineup of this competition.

Jump-cut to last year: Kunlun Group Limited, a Chinese gaming company, acquired full ownership of Grindr. In January of this year, Simkhai stepped down as CEO. And in September, something notable happened in the form of a company attitude adjustment.

Called “Kindr,” the initiative—essentially an update to the app’s Community Guidelines—debuted alongside the tagline, “It’s time to play nice.” Grindr would no longer tolerate toxic behavior, the Kindr press release announced, including “sexual racism, transphobia, fat-shaming, and other forms of discrimination.” Making comments such as “No rice,” “You’re too cute to be trans,” and “People like you are the reason Ebola exists,” might now land users with a permanent ban. To help explain exactly what this meant and why it was an important change, Grindr also released a multipart video series (which is excellent) showing the kinds of people who have experienced online discrimination and having them spell things out, like a Greek chorus. For example: “If you’re saying something online that you wouldn’t say in person, you’re kind of just being a coward about it.”

One of the most conspicuous (and contoured) faces in these videos is the Vixen, most recently seen on Season 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. When I reached her at home in Chicago to ask why she got involved in the campaign, she told me, “Grindr is where I met my boyfriend, so I definitely had a personal interest.” For years, Vixen has struggled over how to navigate conversations on the app. How, as a hardworking drag queen taking part in a gay sexual culture that can sometimes abhor femininity, do you say to a stranger: “Come over, but the house is covered in glitter?” The threat of an aggressive response has been ever-present.

But what Grindr now does, the Kindr initiative is saying, is put the onus on the queer community to treat individuals with respect. You, the individual, can be yourself, whoever that may be, abs or no abs. It is everybody else who needs to raise their game.

The significance of this turnaround should not be underestimated. “When Kindr first came out, I cried,” said Sinakhone Keodara, the founder of an Asian television streaming service who, this past July, threatened to mount a class-action lawsuit against Grindr for racial discrimination. “Discrimination hurts,” Keodara told me. “Kindness is healing.” The campaign felt to him like the company was finally saying: “We’re listening.”

But it is only a beginning. Keodara believes that the Kindr initiative risks amounting to little more than “damage control” and “a PR stunt” unless further changes soon follow. As it stands, the new Community Guidelines include a “zero-tolerance policy for discrimination, harassment, and abusive behavior.” But discrimination, harassment, and abusive behavior must be referred to a moderation team before any action is taken, meaning somebody still has to endure it in the first place. This is a far cry from the kind of system currently employed by a company like Ubisoft, where an automated scan detects toxic language in one of its popular multiplayer games and then, as soon as an abuser has finished typing, immediately bans them for increasing lengths of time the more often they do it. Keodara wants Grindr to implement a similar strategy. He also wants the company to remove its controversial “ethnicity” filter, whereby users can cleanse the app of entire categories of people. A recent study out of Cornell found that dating apps that allow users to filter by race only reinforce pernicious racial divisions.

When I watched the Kindr videos on YouTube, I noticed a recurring argument in the comment sections underneath: namely, that all this talk of inclusivity is “trying to stop people from having a preference,” and that preference is somehow different from racism and discrimination. Such an argument, it seems to me, willfully ignores two important points.

First, “preference” is not innate; beyond the basics of sex—gay, straight, bi—preference is conditioned by a society that is itself racist, fat-shaming, and discriminatory in all kinds of ways, including against people who are HIV-positive, with specific standards of beauty one cannot help but internalize. So-called preference, in other words, is at least partially learned, and it is worth reflecting on whether that education might have been a bad one.

Second, preference, regardless of its source, is no excuse for blithely treading on the feelings of others in the pursuit of getting off. There are ways to indicate a lack of interest while still being respectful: “thanks, but no thanks,” for example, or simply saying nothing at all.

Grindr has been around for nearly 10 years, so a whole generation has now been affected by it. The rise of platforms like Grindr has been akin to the discovery of a new world—a kind of digital Wild West, where base impulses have been given free rein. But perhaps that era is coming to an end, and “Kindr Grindr” is an early sign of a shift toward civility in the queer community. As the Vixen told me, “Kindness is not new, but we’re introducing a new normal, where we’re not OK with prejudices.” Given how toxic some online conduct has become, there is nothing more radical—and welcome, for many users—than plain common decency.

Read all of Outward’s special issue on Radicalism. And queer your ears with a special radical-themed episode of the Outward podcast.