Queer in Dixie

Gay technology in the South and how it’s changing the ways we live and date.

by Dylan Staley on May 19th, 2014

Image of a bridge at sunset in Baton Rouge.

CC-BY via Billy Metcalf Photography, filtered

I always wanted it to happen in a coffee shop.

Waiting at the end of the counter for my drink, I’d see him looking at the pastries, staring at the blueberry scone how you would look at a painting, convinced it held meaning beyond random splatters of color.

After deciding against the scone, he’d rise up to notice me staring at him. We’d both sheepishly look away. Desperate to find some reason to talk to him, I’d ask him where he got his jacket, tell him I’d been looking for one for the longest time — even though the truth is I love the cold, that I have absolutely no reason for a jacket that nice. He’d tell me the name of the store, which I would forget. I’d tell him it looks really good on him (though I’m sure he’d look fine without it), and he’d blush.

He’d ask me if I wanted to sit with him (spoiler: I would), and we’d spend the next two hours discussing a book we both love: All the King’s Men. When the baristas began to give us looks because it’s closing time, he’d ask for my phone number, which I’d write down on a napkin. He’d say that he would call me tomorrow, that we should get lunch. And the next day, he would call.

Except, I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. So instead of asking him about his jacket, I’d be too paralyzed with worry. What if he was straight? Would he be respectful and kindly tell me? Would he get offended that I thought he was gay? Would he call me a faggot in front of everyone while no one said a word in my defense?

Would he be waiting outside for me when I walked to my car?

So instead, I’d keep my mouth shut. I’d grab my coffee from the counter, sulk in a corner seat where no one could see the screen of my phone, scroll through a never-ending list of headless torsos on Grindr. Never see blueberry scone guy again.

Southern Reality

“The fear of rejection is common amongst heterosexual and LGBTQ people of course, but there is an additional layer of fear based around aggressive rejection which is an element that heterosexual people don’t really feel.” – Anonymous, from an interview with the author

Dating if you’re LGBTQ in an area like Louisiana is challenging.

There’s the issue of discoverability, not knowing if someone’s sexual orientation is compatible with yours. There’s the issue of aggressive rejection, the fear that when you make your sexual orientation known someone will react in a way that is scary, dangerous, maybe violent. Finally, there’s the issue of maintaining a public relationship in an area where, at every turn, you’re reminded that “your kind aren’t welcome,” or that your relationship is an “abomination”.

This problem isn’t unique to here. LGBTQ people face inequality in all corners of the globe. However, the Southern states stand out amongst their US peers in intolerance of the LGBTQ community.

On April 26, 2014, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) announced an unprecedented effort to “dramatically expand LGBT equality in the South[ern United States] through permanent campaigns in Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.” With a budget of $8.5 million over three years and a dedicated staff, Project One America is “the largest coordinated campaign for LGBT equality in the history of the South.”

According to Funders for LGBTQ Issues, an estimated 2.7 million LGBTQ adults live in the South, representing nearly a third of all LGBTQ adults in the U.S. Yet all 14 Southern states ban the recognition of same-sex marriages (though there is recent news on that front), and “not a single one has passed employment non-discrimination legislation.”

More LGBTQ adults live in the South than any other region of the United States. However, the South only receives between 3 and 4 percent of domestic funding for LGBTQ issues. In 2011-2012, about $9m was spent on LGBTQ issues in the South. For comparison, the Pebble smartwatch raised $10.2m during their 30-day Kickstarter campaign, and the popular anonymous sharing app Secret has raised over $10m, even though the application was only available for 45 days at the close of their Series A. The amount of funding in Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and West Virginia combined only amounted to $293,624, which could buy you about 440 sq. ft. in San Francisco.

The pervasive inequality in the South results in a large number of LGBTQ people who don’t feel comfortable being themselves in public or online. In a recent New York Times Opinion piece, it’s noted that “for every openly gay male high school student on Facebook in Mississippi, there are 5.5 in Rhode Island,” even though the population of Mississippi is three times larger.

Yet if members of the LGBTQ community in the South are not visible in public or online, how can we ever hope for everyone else to be comfortable with us? In 2009, Gallup found that individuals who say they personally know someone who is gay or lesbian were more likely to support measures of LGBTQ equality, specifically same-sex marriage, than people who say they don’t. In 2013, Pew corroborated those findings.

Queer Dating and Technology

One way the LGBTQ community has been combating the terrible dating environment in the South is through online dating, particularly mobile dating. At the top of every app store, you’ll find these apps. There are traditional “online dating” sites like OkCupid that use algorithmic analysis to predict your compatibility with others. Then, there are apps like Tinder that use a mutual affection model, only letting you send messages to people who’ve indicated that they like you also. Though not unique to the LGBTQ community, apps and services are exploring how technology can make dating a more pleasant experience.

“You can just swipe between people as if flipping through a catalog.” – Anonymous, from an interview with the author

In 2009, the Grindr legacy began. Since then, it has risen to be the fifth top grossing iPhone social app according to AppShopper, and the forty-second top grossing iPhone app of any category. Aimed exclusively at gay men, Grindr has become an integral part of the gay dating scene. However, it’s not without its issues. Senthorun Raj wrote an article for The Guardian discussing “How Grindr has transformed users’ experience of intimacy”, saying that “Grindr makes us work through a smorgasbord of feelings, often within incredibly short spaces of time”.

Map of the world indicating Grindr users around the globe, with heavy concentrations of users in the United States and Europe.

Image courtesy of Grindr

For many people, Grindr is seen as a solution to the issue of discoverability in the gay community. Yet in the South, the majority of the men you encounter are “discrete” or “on the DL,” and may have no intention of developing lasting relationships with the guys they meet.

This pattern is facilitated by the user interface of Grindr, which provides a designation for “Discreet;” and under the “Looking for” portion of your profile, an option for “Right Now.” Furthermore, unlike most other dating apps and websites, Grindr only allows one photo, further encouraging you to peruse profiles “as if flipping through a catalog,” as one of my friends described it. In some ways, the tool itself does nothing to assuage what an interviewee described as the “culture of underground courtship” in the South, and even perpetuates it.

In a spectacular piece titled “The McDonaldization of Gay Culture and Dating”, the author compares apps like Grindr to the experience of ordering fries at McDonalds, stating that “[t]hese services provide the user with an efficient, calculable, predictable and controlled environment in which to find someone for sex.” Whereas going to a bar can be a several-hour-long affair, and often result in leaving alone, these apps allow one to achieve “the stated goal while using the least amount of energy and resources.”

“The McDonaldization of the gay dating paradigm through the Internet has also contributed to the perpetuation of our rigid caste system of attractiveness and sex appeal; it provides the platform that not only makes it acceptable, but encourages it. We have all heard or seen it – lines in personal ads online that state things like, ‘No fats, fems, blacks, Asians,’ and so on. While very often in social settings we are forced to confront our long-held intuitions, that opportunity often does not exist in online mediums. If we can just filter through those we perceive we may not like by merely pressing a button, we are inevitably isolating ourselves.” – J. Clarence Flanders, The McDonaldization of Gay Culture and Dating

However, the potential dangers of Grindr aren’t limited to the psychological. There have been multiple reports of Grindr being used to facilitate violent crime. In early May 2014, a 25-year-old man was murdered after traveling to meet someone whom he met on Grindr. Also in early May, a Delaware Deputy Attorney General was arrested for the alleged rape of a 16-year-old whom investigators believed he met on Grindr. In April, a Canadian tourist reported he was sexually assaulted, beaten, and robbed after meeting another man on Grindr. In December 2013, a gay porn star was arrested for the alleged statutory rape of a 14-year-old whom he met on Jack’d, another popular gay dating app. In November 2013, three young men strangled a 71-year-old man after meeting him on Grindr. In 2010, a 54-year-old man was charged with the sexual assault of a 15-year-old boy he is alleged to have met on Grindr. These are just a small selection of the violent crimes that have occurred in connection with the use of apps like Grindr and websites like Adam4Adam and Craigslist.

However, Grindr has been a force for good in the community. Thanks to their massive, highly engaged user base of over 2.5 million monthly active users, Grindr has frequently used their power over users’ screens to encourage people to attend events such as a celebration and vigil hosted in honor of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”.

When I interviewed individuals for this article, many mentioned how Grindr is a great way for them to meet other people in their community, even if only for friendship:

“Grindr and Tinder have helped tremendously in helping me meet new people and make some actual friendships, and sometimes something serious will come of it. I’ll say it’s really helped me with my coming out and coming to terms.” – Dylan T., from an interview with the author

Visibility and Safety Offline

Yet providing online channels for the LGBTQ community isn’t enough to transform the South. In response to the recent passage of Mississippi’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, “which gives businesses the right to deny service to LGBT people or anyone else who contradicts an owner’s religious beliefs,” several business owners in Mississippi have launched a campaign to tell Mississippi residents “If You’re Buying, We’re Selling”. By displaying a blue circular sticker with the words ‘We Don’t Discriminate’ and ‘If You’re Buying, We’re Selling,’ separated by a rainbow banner, businesses can show that LGBTQ people are welcome, using much the same techniques as businesses that display the logos of the credit cards they accept.

Image of a tabletop sign with credit card logos on it.

CC-BY PT Money, filtered.

These stickers, though lo-tech, serve as a model for how businesses can help create safer spaces for members of the LGBTQ community.

Imagine if it went further, and a business committed to a code of conduct such as the Citizen Code of Conduct. By promising safe spaces, and the swift removal of those who seek to harm others, businesses can promote spaces in which all members of the community, “regardless of gender, sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and religion (or lack thereof),” can feel comfortable being themselves in public.

Then, we could extend mapping of those spaces to online communities like Yelp, in the same way they’ve recently begun to identify businesses that accept Bitcoin. Imagine being able to lookup every business within a 100-mile radius that has pledged to hold themselves and their patrons to a code of conduct. This will help assuage the fear of aggressive rejection, but can also help with discoverability by creating spaces in which it’s not offensive to assume that someone’s sexual orientation is compatible with yours. By being more of ourselves with the people around us, we can increase awareness for LGBTQ issues, which will hopefully result in more people supporting LGBTQ initiatives, and in turn create a higher quality of life for everyone.

“A couple of days before, the restaurant called to double-check our reservation. They asked if we were celebrating anything special, and I casually mentioned that it was to celebrate my anniversary. When we arrived, the first thing the hosts greeted us with was ‘Happy Anniversary’. Our waiters were so, so kind and gave us their best wishes. For dessert, they even wrote ‘Happy Anniversary!’ on our plate. To any heterosexual couple, that would have just been another night. To my girlfriend and me, we were in such shock and gratitude. Here was this restaurant going out of their way to make our night special and they didn’t care if we were two girls. I walked out of the restaurant saying, ‘We’re real people. They actually treated us like we are real people.’” – Anonymous, from an interview with the author

Bridging Online and Offline Tools

Technology is changing every facet of our lives. It’s changing how we buy groceries, how we talk with family, how we find those with similar interests, and even how we find those we want to spend the rest of our lives with. For those of us who live in places that aren’t conducive to our identities and sexualities, technology is an important piece of the puzzle we’re trying to solve. It can play a larger role in our efforts to create a more equal society, as long as we use it effectively.

It’s no secret that the South isn’t the safest place for members of the LGBTQ community. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to create better spaces online, where we can surround ourselves with people like us. Though not every online space is safe, they can provide rare places where you are free to be yourself. That’s not something we have to be content with, though. We have the ability to extend these online spaces into our lives, be it through conferences adopting codes of conduct or actually creating and promoting “safe zones”. Of course, simply putting a code of conduct on your website or putting a sticker on a door won’t make a space any safer. Safety only comes when people are held accountable for their actions.

I hope that one day, we’ll have figured it all out. That we will know and understand the role that the internet plays in our lives.

And I hope that, one day, I’ll feel safe enough to ask a cute guy who is looking at a scone where he got his jacket.

The author would like to express his gratitude towards the many people who spoke with him and shared their stories.