No Photos Please: Dating & Hooking Up Via Grindr And Notions of Self-Worth

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Image description: Part of a reflection of a person in the mirror

Image description: Part of a reflection of a person in the mirror aka bathroom selfie. Image source: author

After years of resisting, in the middle of the month of August this year, I downloaded the Grindr app. For the longest time, I’d thought I could navigate, negotiate and nail the terrain of dating, hooking up and love in the queer community without the help of this tool. I’d come through an offline community. I’d been forced to but also fortunate enough to discover that all the things that I might loathe about myself could actually be digested, delivered and disseminated with wit. I’d been taught that drama distracts, that conversations are caves and that sex was about seeking pleasure not sticking to positions. One could say, I grew up at a time in the Indian subcontinent that didn’t let the myopic imaginations of the law restrict the deep-dive for desires.

I grew up at a time in the Indian subcontinent that didn’t let the myopic imaginations of the law restrict the deep-dive for desires.

Though, in August, I didn’t feel any of this power. I’d been single for long enough, for me to begin to feel like I was undesired, undesirable. Being foreign and femme, and presenting as such in public has always meant that “getting sex” for me has been about negotiating my safety and sexuality in all spaces. In a manner of speaking, all spaces were throbbing with sexual potential for me. Traditional cruising spots weren’t accessible to me because it drew averse attention by both transgressors, fellow queer folk and the police. Despite having learned local languages, I could never weaponise them enough to make others see beyond, or even through the look. In a way, I’ve been stared at so much over time that I’ve forgotten that looks in public spaces could be flirty too. [At least, I’ve got to constantly tell myself that li(n)e.]

 

Don't Rain on My Parade

This isn’t just a self-pitying piece – I’d like to think that I’m pushing past those feelings to learn something else about myself – and it can’t just be that because I’d be doing a disservice to the many, many times that I did score. [Even the need to understand these trysts of pleasure as a statistic was something that I’ve learned to do over time.] But the rules for navigating the real and the virtual are completely different because time works differently in these worlds. In a way, you’ve got more time and fewer options in the real one; and less time and more options in the worlds mediated by technology. One of the many advantages of the latter remains that it allows us to customise our experiences with ease. These are just some of the differences that I’ve come to know, and have been on the receiving end of.

First off, I couldn’t get myself to fill out the form that required physical, ethnicity and HIV status.

Quickly, I learned that while in the real world I’d managed to perform and project a put-together image, I’d even understood the rules to do so on Instagram; on Grindr, it was extremely difficult. The community standards were stricter. Or rather narrower, there wasn’t wiggle room. It required the dismantling of discovery for definition. First off, I couldn’t get myself to fill out the form that required physical, ethnicity and HIV status. For example, I’d always felt that I liked taller men but in truth I’ve only ever dated shorter men, height never seems to be the aspect that won me over. Though on Grindr, I found myself filtering my choice of men by height. And I didn’t want to give anyone a leg up with these details of myself, I didn’t want to be filtered out on any of these details either. [Am I insecure? Yes, most definitely.]

 

And the Category is...

On stalking the app for awhile via other queer friends, I’d already understood that one’s photograph on this dating app must walk the runaway between universal and unique. You couldn’t be too much of either, it had to be just right. And so, I couldn’t put up a photo. A quick scan of my Instagram handle and one would be surprised that I’ve got qualms about the way I look, I might not hit all the markers to find purchase on gay Instagram (not enough shirtless pictures) but I’m not doing so bad. (At least in my own estimation.) But on Grindr, I just couldn’t put up a photo, everything that I had deemed Instagram-worthy wouldn’t cut it here. If everyone else has become hyper-aware about their physical appearances in these times, then it has only been amplified in the queer community.

 

Since queer images are transmitted to us filtered through Western Aesthetics, and besides accessing it through popular culture, it finds itself informing the rhythms of our masturbation through portals of pornography. Grindr superimposes and passes on these same categories all over the world, the more countries it penetrates. While earlier in real life, a man might have hit on me because he assumed my African heritage has endowed me with certain gifts, it was up to me to indulge that mode of interaction or shut it down. On Grindr, I’m indulging every one of these men (if I fill the form or through a display picture) while still apparently attempting to appeal only to one of the promised many. And worse still, these men have to force-fit themselves into some contradictory category too.

Grindr superimposes and passes on these same categories all over the world, the more countries it penetrates.

In a manner of speaking, Grindr doesn’t allow for passing, essentially it seems to force the queer male to align presentation with a preferred position. And by rewarding those that abide by these rules with a higher score, it incentivises more of us to follow this trend. The punishment simply being that you’ll feel more and more undesired, more undesirable. And while one isn’t alone in this feeling, it has come to feel like there aren’t queer people outside of this interface. Since that feels like the status quo, how would one really know otherwise? The only place to find purchase and pleasure has been reduced to the online realm, which has come to mean that everyone is trying to look as close to their display picture as possible even in the offline.

 

All for you/If you really want it

Are these sour grapes? Have I lost that unique queer ability to adapt to new systems? Am I trapped in a romantic vision of the past? Was all the primping always worth the payoffs? While to end an argument I might give in, though, to keep it going I might say otherwise. I might say that in the past, the rejection might have hurt the same but one could go back to circles that absorbed this shock. I’d like to imagine that this community provided support, granted it wasn’t always saccharine but also stung. Though, in telling these stories of romance and rejection, we – the queers on the Indian subcontinent – were filling out bodies, beauty and bedrooms with our own words, our own categories.

 

Yes, there weren’t always meaningful but in their meanderings these narratives promised destinations, even if you never ever wanted to get them. A long time ago over bowls of mystery Maggi – open your fridge and mix everything – my friend in her rented apartment asked me, “When will you join the odyssey?” Silly me, giggled then, thinking that I wanted to get to some kind of station, completely missing the point that it’s the baggage we collect en route that makes us. How could I reduce all of me into one photo? Maybe like those ancient tribes afraid of being photographed, I am afraid that I might lose my soul too.

How could I reduce all of me into one photo?