In today’s app-happy world, finding love is as easy as the swipe of a finger. For a generation raised in front of LED screens, it’s only logical that technology now plays such a huge part in the adult love lives of millennials (and plenty of non-millennials as well). Conditioned to socialize online as young adults, these 18 to 34 year olds are now taking the same approach to finding partners.
In 2013, The New York Times decried the so-called “end of courtship” brought on by social media, blaming younger Americans for a distinct decrease in people “picking up the telephone and asking someone on a date,” an act that in the past “required courage, strategic planning, and a considerable investment of ego.” While dating apps may be changing the way potential lovers communicate, the Times’s piece overlooked a huge community that has in many ways benefited from the rise of digital dating—the LGBT community.
Unlike their straight counterparts, LGBT millennials don’t always have the same opportunities for the traditional courtship behaviors the Times is so intent on eulogizing. Indeed, for LGBT singles in conservative families or communities, online dating may be the only safe way to meet potential suitors.
While gay rights, especially same-sex marriage protections, have made tremendous progress in the past few years, political headway isn’t always the same as cultural tolerance. A 2014 poll commissioned by GLAAD found that roughly a third of straight respondents felt “uncomfortable” around same-sex couples displaying PDA. A similar study conducted in 2014 by researchers at Indiana University found that while two-thirds of straight respondents supported legal rights for lesbian and gay couples, only 55% approved of a gay couple kissing on the cheek. No wonder LGBT Americans have flocked to dating apps, from gay hook-up king Grindr to Scruff to Jack’d, or WingMa’am and HER for LGBT women.
It can be hard, especially for America’s more liberal demographic, to reconcile such statistics with their personal world views. And yet these numbers represent life for many LGBT not living in tolerant hot spots like New York City or San Francisco. In fact, same-sex couples are still subjected to verbal, and sometimes, even physical attacks. According to a 2014 report from the FBI, 20.8% of hate crimes were motivated by sexual orientation, second only to race.
As a man who dates men, these types of statistics are more than just numbers—they represent my reality. The first time I was kissed by a man in public, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. But I wasn’t able to enjoy the moment with the man I loved. Maybe it was because of my years of working as an advocate within the LGBT community, or maybe it was because I once returned to my car to find “faggot” written across it. Whatever the reason, I remember how worried I was in that moment, worried about what might happen if any onlookers weren’t accepting of our relationship.
These kinds of anxieties are amplified in countries where homosexuality is still illegal. Recently, creators of gay dating app Scruff created an alert for the 100 some countries where it’s dangerous to be openly LGBT. In these areas, LGBT visitors and longtime inhabitants end up using the app to find dates or sexual encounters. (And even this isn’t a completely safe option.)
But this virtual ghettoization also comes at a cost.
While some dating apps have developed something of a negative reputation for their emphasis on no strings attached sexual encounters, it’s not quite so black and white. Remember, these are individuals who may have no other means of finding partners. Forced online, even those in favor of long-term relationship may change their minds after more traditional routes become inaccessible or uncomfortable.
Then there’s the more universal complaint that online dating forces a shift towards commodification and objectification, even within already marginalized communities. As Patrick Strud noted in The Guardian: “We become products, flashing from the counter—‘Buy me, try me.’ We compete at the mercy of the marketplace. Amorality rules, vacuity wins, and winning is all.”
Everyone deserves the right to love freely—and publicly. Unfortunately, until queer love is normalized, some LGBT millennials may remain doomed to a kind of virtual closet, trapped within the protective but isolating bubble of the online love experience.