OUR NEED FOR CONNECTION
What used to be one dating app on our phone is now a set of apps where we have various profiles that, hopefully, suit our need for connection. We have an app for hooking up, one for dating, etc. We make such heavy usage of them that it makes sense to think of how they contribute to our mental health. Are these apps, and the labels we use on them, making the LGBT+ community closer or are they making us feel more separated and distant?
One would think that, in a world where sexuality and gender expression are still cause for bullying, isolation and, in certain parts of the world, death threats, an on-line app could create a virtual world where one is free to be and express themselves and can safely interact with other likeminded people. Let’s have a look at our experience when we open the app in the hope to understand what we get out of the time spent on dating apps.
OUR EXPERIENCE OF DATING APPS IN LGBT+ COMMUNITY
We all have a rational part of the brain, that understands logic, and another part that is emotional and not necessarily driven by logic. When we open our favourite dating apps we use our logical brain to create our profile, select pictures and decide what we reveal about ourselves. At the same time, our emotional brain is building up hopes, making judgements about ourselves and others, and remembering previous (good and bad) experiences. Perhaps we have deleted the app various times and we are recreating our profile, or we are creating a fresh profile on a new app.
All simple and logical so far, including that the profile creation process asks us to label ourselves. Perhaps the majority of us happily identifies with a specific part of the community, but the emotional message is quite powerful already: label yourself before you enter, or enter without a label. I have been looking at the current Grindr Tribes, and I am having mixed feelings about them. If we buy into the labelling game, we have more chances for a match, but I am not sure a label can really describe someone… logically I understand that it is an app and the label helps, but emotionally, coming from a world in which we are a minority because of sexual and gender expression, I already feel the usual sensation “I have to leave part of who I am hidden in order to belong here”.
We eventually decide that labelling is not a big deal, and, even if the right label is not there, we can choose the one that gives us more chances to hook up, because that is what Grindr is usually for… but encounters with labels have just started. We quickly get asked for more labels that describe our physicality, cultural and ethnical background, sexual preferences and gender expression – as if we had it all worked out and it was set in stone.
It is like going to a party, where, at the door, I pick a label to stick on my top, but, when I enter the party, I see people wearing other completely different labels and scanning me to check mine. What happened to my “tribe”? All these people seem to be interested in is whether my physical appearance, my gender expression and my sexual preferences are good for them. At times – see song by Kim Chi (RuPaul’s Drags Race, Season 8) – the triad “FAT FEM AND ASIAN” seems to be the prelude of certain rejection.
THREE WAYS WE USE LABELS
It is easy to get into the argument “I have the right to express my own preferences” VS “There are shades of racism here”, so I am not going to get into it. I maintain that, at this stage, there are three absolutely respectable stances, which I am going to discuss: finding labels very useful, finding them harmful, and not caring about label.
If you find labels extremely useful, luck is by your side. You happen to be in a powerful position because the app is designed to help people who seek a specific type of encounter and do not see rejection as personal, but purely as a result of label mismatch. This category represents the majority of users because it respects the rules of labelling and somehow de-personalises the encounter. it is not surprising that people would like to be in this group. The app is built for these users and it remains to see whether people genuinely find these labels useful or they adapt to the environment to become part of the majority to avoid feeling rejected. These people keep on using the app to find encounters but arguably expose themselves fully to have fulfilling relationships so they become expert users and keep on encountering a lot of people through the app. The app hooks you because you want to meet more and more people, but probably your favourite state is “bored”.
If you find labels harmful, you are one of many who picked a few labels and got the wrong end of the stick. Hoping that an LGBT+ dating app would be sensible to issues of rejection, you happen to have the unlucky label, and the feeling of rejection can be strong. Our emotional brain does not make much difference between real or virtual chat. If you give yourself, for example, the label FEM and you have grown up on this planet, then 98% of the chances are that your gender expression has not been accepted and respected consistently in your life. You would expect that the LGBT+ dating app does not perpetrate this, but the reality is different. If this is the case, the dating app is not likely to have a good effect on your life, yet you keep on using it in the hope to find a match in the app. Your mood while using the app would be anxious of receiving the next rejection.
If you do not care about labels, you are at the boundary of the party room. You are keeping distance from what is happening and you might be aware that labels can be useful to match, but can be offensive too, so you stay out of it and interact occasionally with people. Perhaps you fall into one of the above categories at times and use the labels just to get into the party, but you don’t really feel the thrill of the app and you might get quite annoyed at some people. You might come in and out of the app over time and your mood would be “is this really the best we can do?”.
AND THE WINNER IS…
We are free to use dating apps the way we want and to use dating app labels to help us figure out who we are and to communicate our identity to others so that we can understand each other. Having said that, being at the receiving end of unwanted dating app labels or being forced to use dating app labels to belong can be distressing and, at times, hurtful even if logically we understand it is only a virtual chat with someone we do not know.
If I take a step back and look at how much dating apps are growing, I understand that there is only one winner here: the dating app business. Whatever use of the dating app labels we do, the hope to find that special encounter makes us go back to the app every time there is nothing better to do in our life. We are prepared to suffer some frustration from the dating app made for the LGBT+ community because, at least, we can be seen and enter a party that is for us, and being invited is always better than being invisible.
If you are finding it difficult to navigate through the new world of dating apps, therapy is a good place to explore and potentially resolve these difficulties.