This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
Last week, news broke that Grindr, the company behind the queer hookup app of the same name, had abruptly laid off the editorial staff of Into, a digital magazine it launched only 17 months ago in August 2017. The official reason the company gave for the layoffs was “shifting our focus to video content,” though that has been disputed by former employees who claim that the video team was dismissed as well. Whatever the reason for its demise, by all appearances, Into as we knew it is over.
Queer readers roundly met the news with dismay. Into, despite whatever flaws it had, often centered nonwhite queer people and went beyond the pablum typically associated with mainstream queer media, like puff pieces about cisgender gay men and their abs. Skeptics of the move wondered if a November piece criticizing Grindr’s own president, Scott Chen, for comments on marriage equality that some interpreted as homophobic might have precipitated the outlet’s closing. (For his part, Chen denies this: “I am an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and have been since I was young,” he wrote in a response to the initial piece. “I support gay marriage and I am proud that I can work for Grindr.”)
While the official cause of Into’s demise is up for debate, the public reaction from queer people—from expressions of love and gratitude to suspicion and betrayal—raises another important question. How deep is the relationship between the queer community and Grindr, a multimillion-dollar corporate tech brand? Into’s loss is devastating both for the dedicated staff who were let go and for the (already quite limited) queer media landscape in general. But the response to its departure presents an opportunity for us to interrogate the limitations of queer media, its relationship to corporations, and our own lack of imagination when it comes to what community-focused media can look like.
Before I begin, a disclosure: I have written extensively for Into and other queer media sites like it in the past. I started my advice column, ¡Hola Papi!, there shortly after the digital magazine launched in August 2017, and it remained there until moving to Condé Nast’s LGBTQ site, Them, in July 2018, where it continues to run. My goal here isn’t to trash queer media or anyone employed under its roof, but to explore whether our current model—wherein queer outlets with any scale can only exist in tandem with huge corporations—is sustainable and if its goals are contradictory.
Queer media, like other media that cater to marginalized communities, often bill themselves as “by us and for us.” They ask us to consider their pages as community spaces and to invest ourselves accordingly. This is second nature for queer people who are used to seeking out safe havens in a cisgender, heterosexual world, and cherishing them fiercely. But it’s a premise that, however good the intentions, most queer media outlets can’t actually live up to.
It’s not that people who work within queer media are duplicitous or acting as corporate shills. In my experience, quite the contrary. Most queer media professionals are there because they care deeply about telling important stories about their community, stories they often see as being underrepresented in our digital media landscape. It’s the system itself that’s the problem, a system that puts queer media professionals in the position of constantly having to justify queer coverage as a worthwhile endeavor to investors and companies with eyes on the bottom line and predominantly cisgender, heterosexual leaderships. This, it should come as no surprise, is often a losing battle.
It’s also a battle that usually puts queer social justice goals and corporate values in tension. Into—which was run by a managing editor of color and frequently focused on the most marginalized within the LGBTQ community—was never in ideological lockstep with a hookup app that allows you to filter people out by ethnicity. But that’s probably why having Into under its auspices seemed like a good business move in the first place: to have a community face that could put in the legwork of being “woke” to burnish Grindr’s brand while the corporation itself (mostly) continued business as usual. Perhaps from the company’s perspective, that work was done.
The seeming capriciousness of that decision gets to the troubling heart of the matter: Companies like Grindr can decide they are finished with queer journalism on a whim, but they have become so enmeshed in the queer experience (as publishers, social platforms, and otherwise) that queer people can’t so easily excise them from our own lives.
To be sure, Grindr isn’t a necessary item in the “queer” starter pack, and while trans folks are starting to use it more, it remains a hostile environment for nonbinary people and entirely exclusive of queer cisgender women. But Into seemed to be an extension of Grindr’s project over the past few years of transforming itself into being not just a hookup app but a central community hub. In March, Grindr started offering HIV-testing reminders. Grindr for Equality, or G4E, represents the activist wing of the app, saying its mission is to “help LGBTQ people around the globe.”
These initiatives are in and of themselves good things, but taken together, they show an ultimately self-interested corporation positioning itself as a nexus of queer life. Be it your sex life, your activism, or your physical health, Grindr belongs there. Grindr can be a part of that, and Grindr can assist you—at least until Grindr suddenly pivots away to another strategic focus.
I’m aware this is something of a Catch-22: If companies like Grindr didn’t take stances on these issues, they’d be accused of profiting off queer people while doing nothing for their rights or larger well-being. But that sentiment too speaks to how corporations are so deeply entrenched into the lives of the communities (especially marginalized communities) that they serve. We want the Grindrs of the world to act in our best interests. We want them to speak and think like us. Into was, in essence, exactly that face, that voice. And we listened. And then it was silenced.
One way out of this toxic relationship, at least in the realm of queer media, is to look for alternatives to the corporate funding model. Efniks, for example, is a queer outlet that is funded by donations and volunteers. Launched in 2016, its creation was concurrent with the trending hashtag #GayMediaSoWhite, where nonwhite writers and readers aired their frustrations with the homogenous and exclusionary culture of queer media. Its founder, Chief Esparza, says his funding model allows him to be directly accountable to his community.
“The route we have taken is the harder one in the short term,” he said. “But we chose it because we get to center our own community and answer to them. We get to shape conversation rather than react or respond to the news and events that are driven by the corporate, the white, and the [cisgender and heterosexual].”
Such a model might sound difficult to sustain, but it’s worth noting that Efniks launched before Into and is still producing content and pays its contributors. Media professionals like myself ought to consider such an enterprise as worthy of personal investment if we truly want alternatives to our present options. Even if it comes at the risk of lower traffic and less pay, such outlets truly embody the “by us and for us” mentality that larger outlets only use as branding.
For now, mainstream queer media faces a conundrum with no easy solutions. Its very existence is precarious, contingent on the charity of larger companies that often see it as mere “community outreach” or, worse, as a sexy vanity project that may one day no longer be worth the expense. This leaves queer media with the impossible task of representing disenfranchised people they cannot meaningfully enfranchise into the mechanism that funds their operations. A resolution would require a fundamental restructuring of how media writ large operates and who operates it, a gutting of the offices of authority under capitalism.
Meanwhile, though, we will make do with what we have, take the jobs we need to stay afloat, and use the resources provided to us. But just because a corporation offers us those things doesn’t make it a community space. Sometimes, “community outreach” is just another exercise in branding.