‘Zero Feet Away’ but as lonely as ever: Grindr’s impact on queer spaces and community

Grindr, the geosocial dating and hook-up app, has fundamentally changed the way that queer people interact, but can the app be used to fill the void it itself has contributed to?

By Noah Powers, Social Connectedness Fellow 2019


Image © User: FULBERT / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

In the wake of the Stonewall Inn Riots’ 50th anniversary this Pride Month, physical queer spaces (spaces dedicated to the queer community, such as gay bars or clubs, LGBTQ+ community centres, and bathhouses or cruising grounds) which helped kick-start the LGBTQ+ rights movement, face increasing pressure to shut down. As threats from gentrification, the rising acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, and social media/dating apps like Grindr become even more prominent, many queer spaces are left with no other option than to shutter their doors [1].

The most recent victim? Fly, one of Toronto’s most famous queer nightclubs, is set to close at the end of this month after 20 years, a historic venue that is considered an institution to many in Toronto’s Church and Wellesley Gay Village. While this is certainly sad news, Fly’s situation is not unique, as urban areas around the world are losing their queer spaces one after another.

But who’s to blame for this decline? Academic articles, the media and many in the queer community report that queer social media and dating apps like Grindr or Scruff are primarily responsible for the decline of queer spaces. Some even argue that hookup apps are destroying queer culture all together. While the pressures queer spaces face from gentrification and the rising acceptance of LGBTQ+ people certainly exist, is Grindr really to blame for the changes occurring to queer spaces? And if so, how can Grindr work to fill this gap that it itself has had a hand in creating?

Grindr, the geosocial, queer male-centric [2] dating and hook-up app with four million daily users in almost 200 countries [3], presents the user’s display picture as one tile on a grid of 100 nearby profiles. Users have the option of editing their profile to include a display name, a short bio, their physical characteristics, body type, “position” (meaning sexual position), ethnicity, relationship status, their “tribes” (labels based on sub-groups in the queer community), and what they’re looking for on the app. While the app presents itself as a meat market of people looking for quick hookups, many individuals use the app for reasons ranging from just chatting and networking to seeking long-term relationships.

Grindr has been the target of many articles stating that since the app’s release in 2009, it has led to the closure of queer spaces around the world. However, the changes that queer spaces are undergoing cannot be attributed to this one simple factor.

For starters, queer spaces are subject to the urban developmental pressures that all inner city, previously industrial and lower income, working class neighbourhoods face. As inner cities again become desirable places to live, affluent and mobile city dwellers move into these areas and begin the process of gentrification. Rents rise, and poorer people and businesses that cannot afford to keep up are pushed out to areas on the periphery of the city.

Secondly, rising acceptance of LGBTQ+ people, especially in urban areas in socially progressive countries, has allowed LGBTQ+ people to settle anywhere in the city. Amin Ghaziani, a sociologist from the University of British Columbia whose research focuses on sexuality and urban areas, has called this new dispersed pattern of LGBTQ+ residence “cultural archipelagos” [4]. Instead of clustering together for security and community purposes, LGBTQ+ people now find themselves more integrated within mainstream sexualities. From this, many LGBTQ+ people are comfortable in any area of the city, exclusive of the physical presence of a queer community.

While these two factors are significant in the effects they have had on queer spaces and the queer community, Grindr and other dating apps get most of the flak for causing the decline of queer spaces. While Grindr certainly has its issues, it is unfound to relate the decline of queer spaces solely to an app.

Don’t get me wrong, Grindr has fundamentally changed the queer community. It is now the main way that queer men meet, and over 70% of same-sex relationships start online [5]. Over Grindr’s 10 years, the app has had its fair share of controversy; the most prominent being that the app fosters a culture where toxic masculinity, internalized homophobia, racism, and femme-shaming runs rampant. Combined with the sex-oriented nature of the app and its users, it makes it hard for anyone to see the app as a potential way to build community and fight social isolation. While previous campaigns by Grindr, such as Kindr Grindr, have tried to push for a more inclusive atmosphere on the app, they’ve fallen short as the toxic culture on Grindr prevails.

Despite Grindr’s huge reach, it is failing the queer community by not implementing any type of concrete inclusive community-building initiatives. Yet the implementation of this type of initiative doesn’t have to be complicated. For example, Grindr could add a section to the app that resembles MeetUp, a website that is used to create interest groups that has a large LGBTQ+ user base. This platform uses virtual space to form real-world connections and communities. Implementing a similar interest-based virtual community on Grindr could reach a larger queer audience, promote face-to-face interactions in physical spaces, and hence combat the social isolation in the queer community that Grindr has had a hand in fostering [6].

If physical queer spaces are set to disappear all together (a sad but realistic possibility), it is the responsibility of those who have a stake in their decline to create viable alternatives. Grindr and queer-focused websites and apps need to answer this call, adapt, and take the initiative to provide a viable alternative. Queer spaces are so essential to our collective history of radical politics, our heritage, and fundamentally, to our community’s existence.

[1] Norman, James. “Can Gay Dating Apps Replace Gay Bars? Opinions Vary,” VICE. Last modified February 7, 2017. https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/jpddjk/can-gay-dating-apps-replace-gay-bars-opinions-vary.

[2] While the app mainly caters to queer men, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and trans folk also use Grindr.

[3] Fox, Chris. “10 years of Grindr: A rocky relationship,” BBC News. Last modified March 25, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-47668951.

[4] Scott, James. “There goes the Gayborhood,” The New York Times. Last Modified June 21 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/21/us/gay-pride-lgbtq-gayborhood.html.

[5] Shadel, Jon. “Grindr was the first big dating app for gay men. Now it’s falling out of favour.,” The Washington Post. Last Modified December 6, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/2018/12/06/grindr-was-first-big-dating-app-gay-men-now-its-falling-out-favor/?utm_term=.bc6aaa7b4d3e.

[6] Miksche, Mike. “Grindr, Tinder, Scruff: A Recipe for Loneliness,” The Advocate. Last Modified May 5, 2016. https://www.advocate.com/current-issue/2016/5/05/grindr-tinder-scruff-recipe-loneliness.