Queer Narratives Transcript
Hi everyone. Welcome, good afternoon. I'm January Parkos Arnall. I'm the curator of the public program at the MCA. We're very pleased today to be joined by Jack Halberstam and Zach Stafford, to consider the role that technology has played in establishing and maintaining the queer community, among many other things.
Today's talk is part of a series of programs that we're doing, inspired by the exhibition I Was Raised on the Internet, which is currently installed in the fourth-floor galleries. The exhibition documents a moment in time, beginning with 1998 and extending to the present, focusing on how the internet has changed the way we experience the world.
Some other upcoming events that may be of interest: on Friday, July 20th, artist Óscar González Díaz, who leads DiasporaX, a space to advance Latinx engagement and redefine the image of Latinx in Western art through online and off-line events that connect makers and other professionals in our community.
On Friday, August 3rd, Australian super animators, Soda Jerk, will present their newest work, Terror Nullius and join us for a conversation about their process.
And on Saturday, September 15th, I will invite you all to join us for Prime Time: #FutureSelf, a lively and immersive museum takeover event that will be filled with interactive artist projects and performances that offer attendees opportunities to dance, explore, and define for themselves the promise of tomorrow.
Before we begin, we love to interact with you over social media through our hashtag #mcachicago. We ask you now to silence your phones. And now to today's program. So before I introduce our speakers I just want to thank Jesse Rasmussen for her help, she’s just left us at the museum but she did a lot of the research that went into today's talk, and I just want to thank her for that.
Jack Halberstam is visiting professor of gender studies and English at Columbia University and recently won the Arcus/Places Prize from Places Journal for Innovative Public Scholarship on the relationship between gender, sexuality, and the built environment. Halberstam is the author of six books, including: Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, Female Masculinity, In a Queer Time and Place, The Queer Art of Failure, Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender and the End of Normal, and most recently Trans: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variance.
Zach Stafford is editor-in-chief and founder of INTO, a digital queer magazine launched in 2017. The platform has won a Shorty Award and received a GLAAD nomination for best digital journalism.
Stafford also serves as the chief content officer for Grindr, the world's largest queer app. Prior to joining Grindr, Stafford was an award-winning journalist at The Guardian, and editor-at-large for Out magazine, and he lived here in Chicago before we lost him to Los Angeles.
Stafford is also coeditor of Boys, an Anthology, and is executive producer and host of the recent documentary Boystown. So please join me in welcoming Jack and Zach to the stage. [Applause]
Did you miss him? Thank you both for being here today. It's so amazing to have you both on stage with us. I wanted to start—we were just talking about this, Jack, that your book Queer Time and Space came out a little over ten years ago and in the last decade our idea of space and time has changed for many reasons. So I thought maybe you could just kind of set the sort of idea of what queer time and space is and how it's changed over the last decade.
Yeah, exactly. You know, you mentioned 1998 in your intro as a— I guess sort of watershed moment of—I suppose, when we went online, or queerness went online or something. And yeah, my study really came out of the late 1990s and still presumed that people were not finding each other online. And one of the arguments that I made In a Queer Time and Place was that queerness wasn't just a sort of identity where you had an orientation to a certain kind of body that you desired, but that queerness adhered to the ways in which we use space and the way in which we inhabit time.
And my understanding of space at that time was very much about physical space, the geography of place, and it presumed this sort of rural/urban split that was so representative of the 1980s. If people know Gayle Rubin’s work, she wrote about what she called the great gay migration that happened in 1970s where rural-based gays and lesbians would leave their small towns and move towards San Francisco, towards New York, towards LA, towards these metropolitan centers where they had a sense that in a time of entrenched homophobia, they would find other people like them and there would be a place for them.
So that was the understanding, then, of queer space and queer temporality, queer temporality as in queer people schedule their lives differently, or at least used to. If the future for straight people was sort of already conditioned in relationship to marriage and reproduction and so on, queer people, I argued, had an opportunity rethink the life narrative outside of that framework.
Nowadays less so. People are—this is one of the consequences of gay marriage, and—enjoy people, enjoy [laughter]—you get to live on straight time, along with everybody else [laughter]—I think the reality of it has turned out to be way less romantic than it probably sounded to people who are on the other side of the picket fence some ten years ago.
But it's true that like, you know, the conversation that we're going to have today, understands space in remarkably, if not irrevocably different ways. And that's why I'm so excited to be here and to be in conversation with Zach, knowing that some of the ways in which queer space has changed are not even necessarily comprehensible to me as a person of a certain age, but are absolutely central to younger people, to the point that they can't necessarily think about what it would mean to be queer, separate from their online worlds. And I think that it makes so much sense to try to understand this shift that has occurred from gay "gayborhoods" in one era to online digital communities in the next. I think we're going to talk about what we've gained and what we've lost.
We'll also have the opportunity, I think, to represent a couple of different generations. And that's something I was thinking about with this sense of sort of a queer time in your book would be pushing against, or being, or pushing a theoretically normative hetero time.
And Zach, we've had a couple of conversations. Being a millennial I'm going to call you out as a millennial.
I'm a proud millennial, too, yeah. Yeah. Millennials are also like now in their thirties and forties so we like run things, actually, so. It’s not like I’m 18, I’m not—I don’t look 18 anymore, either.
I think that we’ve had a couple conversations about what the generational divide is there as well and how millennial time might be a thing.
Yeah, I'm so excited to be with Jack because Jack's book is, it’s the decade anniversary, correct? And a decade ago I entered university at DePaul, and I read this book, and that same year was when Grindr was announced. If you told me I'd be the editor-in-chief, or chief content officer, or whatever the hell I’m called, of Grindr I'd be like, "How is that even—what is this? No. Am I like editing face pics? I don't know." [Laughter]
So that's the biggest question I get asked. People ask me if I just look at nudes all day. Fun fact, we don’t save your naked photos, those are saved on your phone. Little caveat. But I was thinking about space and place. I'm from Tennessee, I'm a person of color, I grew up in a very, very, white place. I was very much always out of place, whether it was because of my race or my gender presentation, or all these other things. So I've always felt very "other."
So I entered university and I'm reading Jack's work, other queer theorists' work. And Grindr emerges. And Grindr is such, for users out there, people who have been on the app, or any app like it, in the beginning, when you download it, it's a meditation on yourself. You have to think about your body and what sells—how you can sell your body to people to meet up with someone.
And so I'm thinking about my body in a new place, and how that body moves through Chicago, and Chicago is incredibly diverse. And as a young, undergrad student, as I'm thinking about queer theory and they're asking us to like apply that to our day-to-day life I'm thinking about José Muñoz’s work on disidentification and all these ideas, I'm thinking about how I'm having to break my body apart into this app to be desirable. And then how I take that app back to Tennessee for the first time, where I lived in a place where I didn't know any queer people. And all of a sudden there's like all these queer people. And I was like, "Hey girls, where have you been? Like what is going on?"
So it was like all this stuff hitting at the right moment of thinking like I was never alone, I just didn’t have connection to people, but now I have connection, and how do I create an even better connection? I just was like swirling, swirling, swirling. And then I started studying Grindr in school. If there are people here I went to college with, I was like the Grindr kid around campus. And my mom thought I was just trying to get a date. And so she supported me in it—and I'm trained as a geographer.
So I was thinking about cultural productions of space, how that overlays a geography. I was researching things on the South Side. I like go to the South Side of Chicago and see that queer people of color, men that look like me, weren't showing their faces—so they were blank. And that's because they were having to respond to a physical predicament of not being able to be out. And I would come to the DePaul’s Campus at Lincoln Park and people's faces were out, they were sending pictures, they were really excited about that space.
And as I'm traversing these places I'm thinking, you know, this digital space isn’t utopic, it kind of is dystopic. And it’s just reengaging and perpetuating these systems that are really dangerous and no one's been checking them. So that's kind of this moment of—you know, I always like to mention in talks like this that my first time ever meeting a person online—we’re talking about generations—I grew up with AOL chat. I’m sure a lot of you met your first queer person in a chat room. And I, you know, ASL, age-sex-location, and, yeah, yeah, I was always two years older. [Laughter]
So I remember this moment when I was fifteen in my small town and I finally met someone who lived in my town. And I was so excited about this queer connection that I was going to have. And I'm thinking, "This is the first boy I've ever connected with that's like me." And we still hadn’t exchanged photos ‘cause this was a time that not everyone had a camera. Now if someone says they don't have a photo don't believe them. And we were talking and I was like—and we did this thing, because of safety around, "I went to this middle school," "I went to that middle school," "Oh, I'm currently in high school," "Oh, I'm currently in eighth grade."
Finally when we got to the point in which we could say, "Here's my name. This is who I am. Look in your yearbook and discover who you are." This is like this moment that's now becoming really romanticized in like Love Simon, where you're supposed to have this like, "Oh, this is going to be my boyfriend. We're going to be great. We're going to deal with the homophobia of the South together."
We get there, and he reveals himself and was just a very, very handsome man who lived down the street from me. He was in ninth grade. He was a ballerina, which I should have known. And then I revealed myself. And the first thing he said was, I remember this so well, he was like, "Oh, this is not good." I was like, "What's not good?" And he's like, "We can't be together." And I said, "Why can't we be together?" And he goes, "Well, you're black. And, you know, where we're at it's already bad enough that we're both gay, but for you to also be black?" He's like, "We can't.” And he blocked me.
That informed—people who have followed my work for over a decade now––it has informed a lot of my work. The sexual racism idea. The idea that queer people must negotiate these levels of identity. We sometimes enact violence, I felt like that was very violent, I didn’t know why we had to disconnect. I was fifteen, fourteen. I was like, why was my race so dangerous to him that we had to reject one another?
So in thinking about Millennial generations of queerness and space and being online, due to who I am in the world, I was made aware very quickly that my body doesn't get to exist in a utopian space online, that it still has to deal with the repercussions and the systems that are kind of everywhere around us. And only certain types of bodies, and at the time, very white bodies, were allowed to be free online. So that's where a lot of my work and where our conversation will traverse today: the limitations of these spaces, who were they made for, who were they not made for.
And along those lines, the sort of sensibility of “cruising” that we've been thinking about. And to hear you describe the way that you encountered this person, and it was through these various labels first, and it was through various tidbits of information before you ever saw each other, or encountered each other physically, thinking about sort of that history of cruising in space, again, how do you feel that that sort of change to cruise physically—because certainly racism was a part of cruising always, you know, the attraction and choices are a part of how we interact with each other in real space, but they become so much more forefronted in digital space as we, as you put it the other day, cruise through images now. So could you talk a little bit?
Well yeah, that's interesting. I was just thinking about Zach's narrative and how it's really redolent of what Sharon Holland calls "the erotic life of racism." And I think what you're saying is really right, that these online digital worlds that promise so much utopic connection, whereas in the past that I was talking about, it was really difficult for people to find each other, even in the story that you've told it was about like, "Here I am in a small town. I don't think there's anyone else like me here. How can I find people," right?
And then what the search uncovers is in fact not at all a kind of utopic, ecstatic sense of connection and identification but is the undercurrent to all of this, which is, you know, what she calls the erotic life of racism, the fact that racism, even where it's not played out in an explicit narrative, might easily be played out along the lines of desire.
And we were talking, Zach, about how acceptable it is, on many of these apps like Tinder or like Grindr, to say that your particular desire just happens to be for other masculine, well-toned, white gay men, right, and you're not interested in people who are overweight, Asian, femmes, whatever the metric designations might be—those tend to be the three that come up a lot. And you have a kind of alibi for that, which is, well, that's just my desire. I’m not a racist, it's just who I am erotically.
And for me this represents sort of the very limit to what people dreamed about as the kind of queer utopian politics, going back to the 1970s. We come to a screeching halt now, where what we see is the "we" that we keep talking about is not at all a “we.” And this fantasized notion of an imagined community completely falls apart when you begin to examine this erotic life.
So if I compare, like, when did I meet a queer person, I mean it's a completely different kind of narrative which was, well, someone told me that there might be a gay bar in the small English town that I grew up in, and you'd go by it a couple of times but it didn't seem like it was a gay bar. And then eventually I worked up enough courage to go in and see three alcoholic women sitting at the bar, I’m like, "Wow. Okay." [Laughter] Not sure if this is what I had in mind . . . and you just think, maybe I should put this on hold for a bit.
The other thing—this is why gay and lesbian film festivals were so important for so long was that in the early days, gay/lesbian/trans people looked to film to find an archive of images of who you might be. And those images were often fetishistic, they were implied, it was around connotation. It wasn't an explicit narrative but it was a way of then creating these fantasy worlds that were very pleasurable and very aesthetically complex, and very different from what we have now in the visual realm of Tinder, which is just like, "Here's my face," or, "Here's this body part of mine. Do you like it? Yes or no?"
I mean to compare that to these lush cinematic worlds of the 1960s, ‘70s, and even ‘80s you begin to reckon with what we lost when we moved from a system of education, implying what might be queer, to this very explicit moment that we're in now.
What is the imagery—there is that imagery of queerness that we encounter through social media and through dating apps, but what is the imagery of queerness today, and is queerness queer?
Oh my God, I love—did you do queer theory? That's like the biggest predicament is like, nothing can be queer if it becomes queer. [Laughter] It’s this constantly moving thing. I like sit in my job in my office in this like really nice, corporate office called Grindr and I’m like, this is not queer. We have MacBooks. This is not queer. I think it’s always evolving; I always think about queerness as responding. It's kind of like this give and take, it’s always changing. And I’m always, as an othered person, I'm always thinking of queerness, like what's left unsaid.
When I think about cruising—cruising was so much—well, I love the idea of cruising, and why I love being a queer man is that cruising taught you how to see queerness in everyday life. How—I was at the barbershop earlier today and there was a gay man sitting at the desk and I could tell he was gay because he tapped his ring in a way that I was like, "Oh yes. We see each other." And there's a way in which we do this. He was like—but then he asked, he was like, “Are you Zach Stafford?” And that was a whole other thing. But I had a moment where I was like, "I'm getting cruised at the barbershop. This is so romantic. This is great." [Laughter] ‘Cause she’s very single.
But there's a way in which you move through the world—I somehow work that into everything I do, I’m always like “I am a single person in America”—but there’s a way in which, I remember living in Tennessee or coming to Chicago, you learn how to read bodies as they walk past you. That goes back to the hankie codes, that goes back to seeing how a certain bar—like there's ways in which the neon lights above a certain bar denoted to you, "That's going to be queer: it's pink," or it says “boys,” so we look for these things. So queerness was always the things left unsaid that you then talk about. You think about the truck stops on the highway and how you see a hole—and a straight man might think that hole is just like the wood's rotted; the gay man sees an opportunity. [Laughter] So . . . facts.
So, not that I hang out at truck stops, no shame if you do. But there was a way in which you thought that was really intimate about it. And I think that's what we're losing at this moment, and what so much of the internet is stripping away, is this kind of coded world in which like we as queer people, that's what we got was like the fact that we live in this very heterosexual, heteronormative world where we have to wake up every day and perform a certain gendered identity, perform a certain self, and hide our true selves in the gay bars, queer bars, and dance parties, something about that felt really special.
But then the internet happens, and queerness became, especially now, and I run INTO and INTO is fantastic and I love it, but there are so many queer magazines out, and there's so much queer media out and there's so much more representation; it's still not enough. But what does it mean to be able to Google at any moment and see someone that looks like you? And how does that change how we think about these communities? And it happened like that [snaps fingers], it was like overnight it happened.
So I do find myself conflicted about it: is it even queer to be queer anymore? Do we need it to be queer anymore? What does this mean about us becoming—I mean your joke about marriage is very much about that, that we said, "We really want to get married.” We spent so long just funding marriage equality. And then it happened and there were all these promises of, you know, “We got trans women of color once we get this.” We just need the marriage, so the court’s gonna notice us, we're going to come back and get you. Then it happened and these gay men are like, "Who are you? What are you doing? I didn't make that promise. What's happening?" And they just kept moving on. And then we wonder like why trans women of color are getting murdered at even higher rates and there are no resources for them, we wonder why homelessness is exploding, and we wonder why HIV is on the rise for 16–24-year-olds. And it's because we thought that queerness was something that we could touch. I don't know. And it could be legislation, it could be these things.
But the thing about gay marriage was that that was not the horizon for the 1970s movements that were actually pretty radical with the Gay Liberation Front. In the 1970s it's not just our people were more radical than them, now it's that socialism was a thing in the '70s because you actually could still imagine a widespread critique of capitalism that meant something, whereas now we're completely dominated by capitalism.
And queerness becomes, through apps like Grindr, a massive marketing opportunity, and gay people are a new market, which is why you have the comeback of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and these kinds of shows that, even when you have the first iteration of that, it’s just about selling products to a population that was underconsuming, straight men, you know, so you had gay men teaching straight men how to be better consumers, and that became––
I mean that's the tea, that's the tea. [Laughter] And we also have to talk about how, does everyone know why Queer Eye is so loved? I mean, I know those guys––they’re fantastic. Because it says that gay men are just affective labor. They're there to like do your hair, shop for you, do these things. You can only––and that's where straight men can only feel comfortable––
Emote, emote for straight men.
Yes, emote––they can be your emotional neighbor, like cry for you. And that's where straight masculinity gets to have a moment of like, "Well I'm on vacation." Cause straight masculinity is hard. To perform that masculinity every day is violent and hard. So they let these gay men do it. And that's why I get very angry about that show, and I’ve told them that too to their face.
How'd that go?
Not good. [Laughter] The creator came to my office and all those guys came, and I love them and don’t love them at the same time. And I said, “First, Antoni doesn't know how to cook.” And if you're gonna be queer, learn to cook. That's like Gay 101. You’re gonna be a gay man, you learn how to cook. You do that. It’s like a thing. If you’re gonna do it, do it right. But he didn’t do it right. I’m gonna stop. Cause now I’m spilling too much tea.
Let's hope that's not tweeted. This might be a good time to show some of these images. I was saying, we're so locked into the reality that was created by these digital architectures that we all inhabit. I was wandering around today in Chicago and you wouldn't believe how little people actually communicate. They're in these little pods, you know, there's tourists everywhere, and everyone is glued to their own phone, to the point that you're saying this is something, you know, Grindr is now ten years old. So we've been living in this kind of system for well over a decade. It's hard to remember the queer world that Zach and I are referencing, these worlds within which people had to signal to each other precisely because explicit, direct communication was risky for queer people. It's not risky anymore. It really isn't. We actually need to put that out there that the ongoing narrative about how hard it is to be gay––not so much––it's hard to be a poor person in America today; it's hard to be a person of color. It isn't so hard to be middle-class gay or lesbian person. There are programs in high school, there is a national discourse, there is a public conversation, there are supportive parents, etc.
So cruising culture is proper to a world in which you cannot easily announce your desires without facing potential violence, social stigma, exclusion, marginalization, and so on. And so we just put together––
Yeah, I just wanted to bring proof that Grindr is not very white anymore. Sorry, that was bad. So I was brought in and I’m currently redoing a lot of campaigns, this is just proof that we’re changing the image of what Grindr looks like. People are still shirtless. There’s limits to this right now. But anyway, there was a quick slide that I forgot was in there. We’ll get into that for the next part.
Okay, so I've been doing some work recently, thinking about the 1970s and these abandoned structures that often gay men and queer women entered into and created these spaces in which to cruise and have community. The piers––the Hudson piers in the 1970s have become this kind of touchstone, the way in which people talk about pre-AIDS, pre-HIV, pre-online worlds. And you can see in that image how completely dilapidated the piers were. They were the remnant of an earlier shipping industry that had collapsed. And so this is really post-industrial, the beginning of post-industrial New York City, and part of the West Side Highway had collapsed and it left completely abandoned, and outside of the city ordinances and regulations, this whole realm that then became populated by drug addicts, homeless people, gay men, homeless women. And they made some kind of community there.
Not only was it a place where people cruised, but there are three exhibits right now of the work of David Wojnarowicz in New York City, which is amazing to me. David Wojnarowicz was an absolutely incredible artist and many of his works were painted onto walls in the piers, but then subsequently were knocked down, so that we only have photographic records left. True for Keith Haring as well, some of Keith Haring's work was on these walls. They were temporary, they were ephemeral, they were like fleeting artworks within a fleeting scene where people wandered through space, came and went.
Alvin Baltrop was an African American artist who made it his mission to document the piers and he went to the piers with a camera and took these photographs that are really astonishing now to look back at. And James Reid has compiled a collection of his photographs.
These are some of the images that you see. And these are really unabashed photographs, he obviously had the consent of a lot of the men there because these are quite close-up photographs. So it wasn't surreptitious, he wasn't a voyeur, he wasn't a tourist in the space, he was understood as somebody who moved through the space in ways that other people were there to do.
But he also documented the work of this guy who I've become super interested in who loved this abandoned architecture of the piers and decided that just because a place was abandoned, just because it was populated by poor people, it didn't mean it shouldn't be architecturally interesting.
So we went into the piers and he cut these incredible shapes into the side of the piers. And Alvin Baltrop, who was there at the time, took photographs of them. And so you get this incredible artwork of the piers, about the piers as well as made by people who are cruising there. These are more photographs by Baltrop.
There's also––you know, I have a couple of films. One is––remember Al Pacino in Cruising? This is a film, by the way, that people protested when it came out––even though it did actually capture something of the cruising scenes of the 1970s and our friend James Franco remade some of the sexually explicit––no thanks, right? [Laughter]
No one asked for that, ever.
No one asked for that, right, [crosstalk]. It was good as is. It was a wonderful film. No one needs James Franco. It was protested by GLAAD at the time. At the time it was openly and loudly protested. This is actually a fucking amazing film––let me just say that.
Have people seen this film, raise your hand, yes? Right, good. More people––Al Pacino plays a hustler. It's amazing. Representation matters.
But because this film was protested we remember it, and it's still around. Here’s another film that came out the same year, was not protested, did not stick around, and nobody talks about it. This was a film about two women, two girls, who run away from home to the piers, to the Chelsea piers, and it was made by the producer who did Saturday Night Fever. They create a punk band called the––how many people have seen Times Square? Thank you. One person. That's what I'm talking about. This is an absolutely unbelievable film about this queer friendship, they make a punk band, they become the Sleaze Sisters who live in the piers. They cruise, they hustle, they dance in strip bars. No one protested this film, interestingly enough.
And here's my final slide––I'll show you a clip because you don't know this film and you should, and it is about the way in which female friendship can be imagined, and female sexual relationship can be imagined in this space that we have so much mapped on to gay male desire.
[Video playing 00:31:40 to 00:33:10]
So it's this beautiful representation of face-to-face, in real life, the meeting of bodies in an abandoned space where queerness becomes this exchange of blood, of pledging a kind of allegiance to each other, and then that beautiful scene where the camera moves up and you can hear the piers echoing with the sound of girls calling out each other's names.
To me that's a completely other kind of architecture that we want to hold onto even as we move into this new world of digital online connection.
What I think is so important about––you bring up the piers and so many other spaces. In Chicago, the rocks, the Belmont rocks from a long time ago, but these spaces weren't just for cruising, they were multifaceted. They were a place to seek housing. They were a place to go when––you have to think about this as a time when queer people were facing, I mean we still face lots of homelessness, but kids were coming out and moving to a big city to find community and you'd to go the piers. You'd go to a cruising space. And that's where you were connected to resources, to housing, to jobs. People were doing street-based work to survive.
The piers were also a place where people of color were living alongside every other race and ethnicity. That's where voguing kind of found a place and still has a place there. If you watch Pose they show that history, if you watch Paris is Burning, that was at the piers. So these places were so much everyone's life. They were your whole life. And they were for folks who didn't have access to the bars or other queer spaces.
But if you didn't have the economic power to go to a bar, a secret bar, and know the code, and pay the fee, to get in, get a membership card; this is a time where people had to have membership cards to get into places. We had this space. And that's where you went to see that you deserve to be alive, to be around. There's a family. That's where people imagine a future. So they're really important. And that's where I––you know, even in my role, I’m very controversial. I'm very anxious around this digital space.
Digital space is the end-all, be-all. I work a lot with YouTube, and YouTubers, and YouTube has allowed for queer people, especially trans folk, to find their identity at a really fast pace. We're seeing trans folk and gender nonconforming folk come out at really young ages because they have media that they see themselves in, they get the language immediately. It's incredible. But we currently don't have the institutions to support these young people.
And we're seeing homelessness and rejection of families still going up right now, even as Queer Eye is redecorating a house in Georgia. And it's like because we're not doing these things together. We're not creating the physical spaces for people to find themselves. They finally should go there and seek the real support you need to because you can't be queer online all day; you have to go off-line eventually.
That's maybe a good opportunity to think about the centering of the sort of white male gays or the white male experience in the technology sort of sector of cruising, where it is today. And Grindr, of course, now is worldwide. It exists in many places where there's still, as Jack was pointing out, a thriving cruising scene, a really rich, creative cruising scene. How do you see the sort of promise of Grindr entering into those spaces, but also what––is it detrimental to those scenes?
Those are great questions. I mean we're having lots of hard conversations at Grindr these days. A lot of them began before I arrived around a year ago around Chechnya. Grindr does have a more well-known team that became more known because of Chechnya. If you’ve never heard of Chechnya before, the gay purge that was happening there, or gay men were being entrapped on Grindr and other apps. Grindr was the most popular. And they were being tricked into showing up places and then being beaten; some people did die.
We have to realize every day at Grindr that we're a global company and not everywhere is West Hollywood. And that was a lot of my onboarding, was saying it's not just America now. We have to think about Ghana. We have to think about Jamaica. We have to think about it even more than West Hollywood.
So in the Chechnya situation we have a security team and this group within a group called Grindr for Equality that works on the ground, activists for us to create systems to create a discrete app icon that now is launching globally but is mostly in places we call "bad neighborhoods.” And we create a line around a geographical area, and when a profile enters that place the GPS is scrambled and bounces all around the country, so you can’t track this person. It doesn't say that they’re 50 feet away. We create a discretion tool so when someone takes your phone––what happens a lot in countries where there's a lot of rampant state-sanctioned homophobia is that your app doesn't say Grindr, it says something else. So it becomes a coded language.
And we see that the app is being used in these countries, not so much for hooking up but for organizing. In Jamaica some of the first Pride festivals were organized through Grindr. Ghana, similarly, on the ground activists were using it to talk to each other. So we've launched things like group chat in certain countries so people can organize.
But we have to, as we're exporting this technology––I'm always concerned about––Grindr hit at the right moment. GPS––so Grindr is the first GPS of its type. It launched in 2009. The year before the iPhone happened. The iPhone allowed for us to use GPS in ways that we never imagined. If you remember, GPS was used for the military. This is military grade technology. But I––you know, Steve Jobs was like, "Hey, we can turn this on, launch an app store and do all these things," and capitalism joined in and it was like we have what we have.
And so it's kind of––it worked for what it needed to be at the time. Joel, the founder, who's no longer with us at the company, he’s left. He created, ‘cause he was tired of Craigslist. On Craigslist you post missed connection ads, which is a pretty popular medium to find people globally, and that dates back decades and decades. But they don't work. You know, not everyone reads missed connection ads every day.
So he was at a coffee shop and he's like, "I don't know if this person's queer next to me––" or gay––he would say “gay” and not “queer.” He was like, "I don't know if they're gay or not. I wish I had an app that showed me." Like a gaydar, which is very passive. So Grindr comes out of that history. That situation in context is that it’s West Hollywood. Works great, safe, we have all that.
Lagos, Nigeria, very different story. So we're working on the ground with counsels and we have teams at work on that. I mean INTO is global. We deliver news to every country that is connected with Grindr. It does have its own website. I have over 200 writers globally who are paid better than anywhere else, a real a respectful amount of money unlike other websites, to write their stories and tell stories. We have reporters globally. And I'm thinking constantly about how I'm working with––like I have this situation recently where in Tbilisi, Georgia, this reporter was reporting on the only queer dance party in the town. And it was underground, no one knew about it. And they believed––they wanted to tell the story for the first time, you know, as a journalist, as a person who believes stories, I want people to have a space to tell their story but in a safe way.
When we reported the story there was a lot of identifiable information that anyone could piece together about how to find this queer dance party. The subjects of the story were like, "We want to come out. We want to do this finally." But I had to consider the hundreds of queer people that didn't know the story was being written. And we had to take out identifiable information.
And these are the things that I work with the securities teams on like through this journalism to think about the scale, the place where queerness is existing digitally, and then where it is existing physically, and what are the repercussions of speaking out or telling their story, tell their story in ways that have never been done before cause there are dangers in that. So it's this kind of––it's tough, it's complicated. That's where I lose the most sleep at night, is thinking about this queerness globally.
So it's a double-edged blade because on the one hand people can find each other; on the other hand they can be found.
So there's just a couple of things that I would say in response to what Zach has given us, this really interesting kind of global framing. One, notice how Western notions of gayness are actually being circulated by this technology and this app, so that it's not as if gay people, or people who are oriented differently in terms of their gender or their sexual preferences––it's not as if those people don't exist until Americans arrive and find them, okay? They're already there within many, many different kinds of sexual economies.
So one of the things that we're exporting, however, is Pride––you know what Pride is here: it's a marketing tool. It is a consumption marketing mechanism, and it is a corporate event. So what we're doing, almost unwittingly, is we're measuring––we're saying––oh, and then this place, that had never had Pride before, suddenly has Pride. But we're kind of saying that this place, that didn't have gay capitalism before, now has gay capitalism.
Second, in relationship to your question, January, about the white gay male presence on Grindr, we're not particularly tolerant of men-only spaces anymore, right? If Trump was like, "My golf club is just for men," we'd be like, "Oh my God, here we go again. Now we have this other explicit articulation of the patriarchy."
But that's what Grindr is in many ways. It is a men-only space. It is by, for, and about men. Trans communities, trans activists have been deeply critical of women-only spaces that were trans-exclusionary. I'd like to hear more about the men-only spaces online that are also trans-exclusionary. And even when people are trying to open up to let's say trans women, are they trying to open up to trans men as well? Instead of endlessly going on about TERFs, trans-exclusionary and radical feminists, we should be looking to Grindr and these other cruising apps for the kind of gender-exclusionary practices that are perpetrated there.
And then finally, the last thing I want to say is, and I know Zach knows this and I’m so excited about all the work that he's doing. If we've learned anything from these online apps it is something that queer theorists were saying back in the '80s, which is sex is not liberation, like just having sex, bully for you, you know, great. Straight people have sex too, and lots of it and have regularly paid for it. You know this idea that oh here we are, we're queer and we're doing it, this is actually sex, as the queer theorist Paul Preciado argues, it’s a fantastic vector for capitalism, precisely because when you are hopped up and excited and into something, addicted to something, that's when you start buying.
And what we're doing with these apps a lot of times is installing in people a certain relationship to the world that is deeply embedded in cycles of excitation, frustration, disappointment, desire, and back into the same cycle again. So we're becoming, through these apps, rather than becoming liberated because we're having like seven sexual contacts a day, we're actually just part of the walking dead of capitalism, wandering from one hookup to the next and not thinking about the various outrageous things that are happening politically in our own backyards. So I really want to like put to bed any idea that because we're having sex we're already somehow doing anything radical. We’re not. [Applause]
Zach do you have any thoughts on that? I mean, you’re taking that structure of Grindr and building…
I'm not leaving. I have had this conversation a lot. [Laughter] Everything you’ve said is accurate and to the point. Yes, yes.
So when I arrived at Grindr I brought all those same ideas cause they were factual, and I was like, "Wow, this space is very gay man oriented.” The staff only thought we were dealing with West Hollywood. So very specific. And I was none of those things. And I thought, well let's just activate these people globally and recenter them and center the conversation.
So because we––I existed on this app for a long time. I was not the one getting a lot of messages, my friends were not getting a lot of messages, but I saw potentiality there to activate storytelling, reclaim the space, take it back, all these things.
So structurally when I came to Grindr we changed things like the fact that they thought no trans people were on it. I was like, “No there are a lot of trans people on this app.” So we created a space and changed the structure to where you could be more gender expansive. There’s a pronoun area, there's 32 options for different gender identities. We're doing things around race that we can’t talk about right now but they’re coming out.
So I'm trying to come in and fix this thing because part of me was like, just throw it out with the bathwater, like is it just broken? But Grindr and other apps like it are growing so, so quickly, I can't even tell you how quickly in Brazil and India these things are moving because you created this system of importing or exporting, this way of thinking about queerness, and it's taking off.
And I saw this memo where it was like this queerness, or this gayness, is dangerous. I don't need this to enter India and people think like desire is only abs, not eating carbs, and whiteness. So I was like we can stop that before it hits. So that's what I do every day, and that's where INTO comes from.
INTO is more representative of the LGBTQ community than any other queer outlet that I’ve worked with. We work every day to empower folks to tell their stories through video, photo, essays, and it exists on a platform that looks nothing like Grindr, so it feels safer. I work with other apps like Her and Other to have these really intentional conversations around like how we have these apps exported globally, and how do we be more responsible? How do we actually make this a safer place to communicate, to talk to each other?
And it's not easy, it's not––we don't always make the right decisions but I––INTO is of course about that project. Queerness is going to become part of this become part of this capitalistic machine, be global, be exported, you’re gonna sell advertising. How do we make it better, or make it a space that feels better, that works for us as people of color, as people that aren't cis-men? So it's a test. We're going to see.
At the end of the day you're right, I make money off advertisements. We have subscriptions. There's money being exchanged. We're a media company. We're now the largest gay media company in the world. That is like very much––I think of Audre Lorde every day, “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House,” and I'm like in the kitchen, cooking, and just very like… I mean it's tough, it's tough, but I mean I can tell you stories of being at The Guardian or Out magazine or anywhere, this is like the same thing. Whenever you work for an institution that’s being fueled by the exchange of money, and you're a queer person trying to have a social justice framework, there are limits to that framework and you live in the contradiction. So my life is just a big old contradiction all day. But in the process we’ve been able to create beautiful art, we’ve done really amazing stories. Currently like when I think about INTO, we’re doing a story this week where we're showing that.
In California––you all may not have heard about this, You all know ICE, yes? Their biggest contractor is Geo Group. Guess what, a lot of LGBT candidates around the country have been taking money from Geo Group and been taking money over the years when no one was noticing that brown bodies were being put into detention centers and trans bodies were being thrown into these detention centers when they across the Mexico border, and no one said anything. But because it's cool now to say something because of Donald Trump, then we can rally behind it. We as a queer outlet have the time to pull the receipts and talk about it because The Guardian's take on it was like, look at all the politicians around the country, taking money from Geo Group! We're like, "No, look at the queer people." So we as a community have to be held responsible. If you want to be public, you want to be celebrated you also have to be held accountable.
And so much of what INTO and I are doing at Grindr is a moment of accountability. How do we take a decade of hookup money and put it back to the community? And re-think the structure and fix it. Make it different.
Remember that Audre Lorde quote: "It isn't about fixing, it's about dismantling."
Dismantling, yeah, that's what I was about to get to. But I'm not fully doing that. So it's kind of this thing around like academia and real life and the question of, “Can I pay for my house?” All these things, so it's tough. I just want people to know that I’m thinking about it a lot.
I want to make sure that you all have an opportunity to share your thoughts and questions, so I think we'll open it up for questions or thoughts from the audience. We didn't get to the topic of health, which was something that we all really wanted to explore. But there's so many things that we could have really continued to explore. So hopefully you all will help us hit some of those things we might not have gotten.
I'd just ask you to wait until the microphones get to you to speak.
Audience: Hi, so this is a question for Dr. Halberstam. Thank you. It's an honor and I’m gonna ask you a challenging question because I'm sure we agree on a lot and we want the same things. I'm sorry if I get emotional because it's very personal to me. But last––speaking of health, last year I heard you on "Democracy Now," and you said something to the effect of, "Well, what we need to get rid of is this idea that being trans is a condition that requires medical intervention." And the way I might have said that would have been to say, "What we need to get rid of is the idea that these straight, cis, misogynist, pervert, gatekeepers get to tell us what we do with our bodies. And that men get to control my body because for me it very much was something that required medical intervention. And for me to be sexually and physical whole.
You know, and that's not the case for everyone, but that doesn't mean that you should reify the idea that it's frivolous or cosmetic or that it's something that people do for social conformity and not for themselves.
I also want to know why you use the term "transgenderism" sometimes, like it's conservative, like it's joining a political party or something like that. And I want to know how you can say that there’s all of this representation now and the representation you're talking about is Jared Leto and Jeffrey Tambor, male predators, with all the stereotypes that exist out there, male predators cast as trans male when trans women are not allowed to play trans women. They're not allowed to play cis women either, which means they don't get to play anyone.
It just means we get erased from public view except for that fetishized cis-man or cis-woman's picture of us. And it just all adds up, to me, to a picture where you seem to talk like, "Oh, you kids today are so lucky. You don't remember what it was like. But I'm here to tell you it's so much better now." I'm here to tell you that it's still really hard. And I say that as someone that comes from a white middle-class background in rural Virginia and has a relatively normative appearance. But to reduce it to, "Oh well this is all just about normativity and if we end normativity then we end transphobia and homophobia." That's just not true.
And I have to struggle every day. I'm facing homelessness probably in a couple of weeks for the third time in my life, despite having finished a master's degree, having gotten paralegal certification, and I've had to fight every day for every inch of it. And this just sounds really esoteric and out of touch and masculinist to me.
What's your name?
Jen? Well I'd love to talk to you afterwards, Jen; I really appreciate your comments, and I’m sorry for your struggle. And I totally agree with you that––please believe me, I'm not trying to say, "Oh, everything is easy now." It isn't. But it is different. It is different. Things are different. And that means that it's easier for some people and harder for others. It's never––there's never going to be a sort of, you know, a magic bullet shift and now suddenly things are easy.
But it is really, really different the context as somebody who's in their 50s and as somebody who's always been genderqueer, I can see these shifts, I have experienced these shifts, and it is important, over time, to notice how things change, and to try to get some purchase on the meaning of that change, that in no way amounts to me as an easy moral narrative in which things were once hard and now they have been resolved. Things were once medicalized and now they must not be.
But the truth is that the medicalization of trans has been in the past a problem. Because, you know, to have to go to a doctor, and convince that doctor that you deserve hormones was not a walk in the park either. So on the one hand you want to kind of pull the medicalization out of the whole question of what it means to be trans; on the other hand we're still reliant on medical technologies. So it isn't one thing or the other.
As you said, Jen, at the beginning, I think we probably agree on a lot of things, and we're not going to get tripped up on the use of terms like "transgenderism" because vocabularies do different things for different kinds of arguments. Transgenderism doesn't imply that you sign up for it, it implies that there's an entire sort of class of identifications that might fall under certain headings.
That said, this is a longer conversation, and if you stick around I'd love to talk to you.
Okay. I also just feel obliged to say, though, that the threats and violence and very real harm that is done by TERFs, the stalking and the harassment and the hacking and the doxing, that's a different thing from men not being able to get laid on Grindr. I think that needs to be said too.
Thank you, and I appreciate it.
Thank you for sharing your story.
Hi there. First of all, thank you all so much for the conversation. I feel like throughout this conversation we've been talking a lot about the differences, or the shift that has been kind of marked throughout this conversation. That happens in the late 1990s as technology sort of revamps our ideas of space and what we can do in them.
At the same time, I kind of want to mark the importance of realizing the way in which normativity and capitalism have often intruded in our identities as queer individuals. The takeover from [crosstalk] society to kick out all of the communists, the desire to create a conservative queer politics in the 1950s and '60s. Individuals during the AIDS crisis, we had Larry Kramer writing the article, "AIDS: You Deserved It." Like we have all of these kind of individual moments.
So I kind of want to open up the question: What have we carried with us into this shift, for better or for worse? What politics or practices have we noticed that we continue to maintain that seems sort of solidified in a complicated, contradictory thing that we call queerness?
I love that question. I mean for me I think a lot about respectability––you brought up GLAAD, protesting, cruising, but now GLAAD is very queer-facing and doing queer things. The body politics of all those spaces continue on. This need that we need to be consumable as queer people, like for us to be free is something that I see constantly, and I think about Grindr a lot in that, that we have to have an app that is like Tinder and that is like these things. And we have everything that you have, and look how cool they are, and that they're safe––not safe––they're safe for you to look at, that you can show your mom, that they can be in Love, Simon. So I see those things continue to play on.
And I think a lot about with Larry's essay, "You Deserve AIDS," there's always been these moments in queer history with the activists, kind of they're doing something I find radical, then shifting to normativity to secure their spot in history, to keep themselves kind of alive as having social capital, as keeping moving. So that's something I'm always thinking about: the commodification of parts of the queer identity and how we're taking it––we take something and now that's cool and now that's normal, and then we move on and it goes on like a cycle like that forever and ever.
Yeah, I like that question a lot, too. And you know, when you talk about taking over the [crosstalk] society, one of the points here is remember when commie and queer were kind of equated with each other, which now how would that even make sense to say commie queer? It’d be like what? Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, right, consumerism's best friend. So it doesn't make sense any longer, and therefore you can see there was a paradigm shift that has occurred that we need to make sense of.
I really like what you said about what can we carry with us. That's a really nice way of sort of thinking productively rather than just like, you know, endlessly critiquing. One of the texts I was thinking about when I was preparing for this was Samuel Delany's beautiful autobiography: The Motion Of Light In Water. And he talks about one of the first times that he went cruising in New York City––I think it was in the '60s, and he enters into a space where a heaving collective of gay men are engaged in sex.
And for him he says the erotics of that space wasn't just that there were people having sex, it was the collectivity. The collectivity, per se, became the erotic spectacle. Well, Grindr is a one-to-one app. It puts you, one person, in touch with one person. And I wonder if we couldn't pull forward some of those earlier eroticized investments in collectivity to go back to this earlier moment where there was a we that had in mind something that wasn't simply acceptance and recognition but was transformation, and in some lexicons, revolution. That seems the thing that we want to pull forward.
Hi, my name is Levon Williams and I live here in Chicago. You talked about a few topics that really hit home for a lot of people of color. We often face racism, not only in our own community but going to Boystown, and seeing the faces and the stares. Online it's a bit of a different story. We always get the, "Oh, no blacks, no Asians," but we never talk about what's on the other side of that, and that is this fetishistic side of big black cock, or blacks only, specifically just talking about those stereotypes and being sexually obsessed with those.
What's Grindr doing to educate white gay men on that type of behavior?
I love your question. Thank you. God. I was in a meeting the other day talking about that, and I was talking about the things I want to do about race issues like no fats, no femmes––that maybe won’t be around anymore soon. And someone said, "Well, what about––so wouldn't you just tell everyone to like love black men, love Asian men, and you have sex with them." I was like, "No, that's just as problematic. Like not everyone has this like body that's there for you to consume, or not consumer, or throw away. And I think something that Grindr has done, and all the apps have done is that it’s turned your body into a product that's commodified, that’s swipe-able, that also is not human, and that you don't think about the emotional part behind the person.
So, you know, we've not done enough yet to deal with those things at all. I'm thinking a lot with my colleagues around the INTO side of it. It's weird––if anyone reads INTO, INTO is like vastly different than Grindr. It's kind of like the stepsister that just came in and was like very different. And because looking at INTO with the Grindr stuff, like why aren't you thinking about Judith Butler right now and all of these other things?
So we've launched certain video campaigns to talk about desire. How do you say no to someone without making it about their race? How do you talk about wanting to be dominated and not make it about the stereotypical black man coming over and doing x, y, and z to you?
And I think what we're seeing online is that we've seen a destruction of language and talking and connecting to people. Even if you think about a Grindr message it's like, "Hey, sup? Looking? Yes." Like it's broken down. But like, "Sup?" means, "Hi, you're attractive. I like your abdomen. I would like you on my bed." And then it’s like, "I think you're also attractive, but I'd like to see a few more pictures."
So we've done these things with coded language. So when we say things like “no blacks,” there’s a study by––oh, what's her name?––Judith Ward, I think she’s at USFF. She studied Craigslist and she was like, "Why is it that there's so much racism on these connection apps?" Or even the personal ads, where everyone is saying like, "No blacks."
And she interviewed a bunch of people and she found that the underlying thread of it was racism, obviously, but it was that how white masculinity is constructed is that it can be quite fragile at times like most masculinities, and introduction of a potential sexual partner that is not your body, that may be bigger––have a bigger penis––be a better sexual partner, or maybe reject you. It's too high of a risk for you to engage with that person ‘cause of your own shit.
And she found through this research that like racism is this whole idea that your whiteness may not stand up against blackness. And there were these really complicated ways in which these apps have really kind of like sanitized, maybe it was too oversimplified, and how we deal with really complicated ways in which bodies are kind of existing in a racist, white supremacist society.
So instead of saying like, you know, "I've been conditioned due to living in the South, like my uncle's a KKK member," instead of all that back story about what conditioned you to continue racism as a project, you just say, "No blacks," and block black people. And I think Grindr does have to step in and do something about it. I’m pushing everyone to do something about it because, you know, Grindr, is just a magnifying glass on the world as it is, and if we want to have this like worldwide domination of the space then we need to also adhere to certain… We need to put a flag in the ground and make a stand and protect certain people. And we can be the change that I want to see in the world.
I see these "no blacks, no femmes," signs, especially the “no black” signs being a black person, reminding me of my grandmother and growing up where we're from, the signs at the water fountains, and like how is this okay but that's not? And the imagery for me, I don't want to wake up in 20 years and be like, "I went to Grindr and did this thing, and they kept putting those signs up on those apps that said, "No blacks." And like now we're connecting them to these to these really long histories and ways in which race and posters and all this stuff existed. So yeah, we still have not done enough on that but trying to figure that out.
I think we probably have time for about two more questions.
First, I really want to thank you––and I forget who's who…
And what's your name? Jack?
Jack, first of all, for the trip down memory lane of cruising, that was just––haven't thought about that, just in my space. And so it was––that was really nice. And for Zach, over at Grindr, I'm a medical provider for pediatric adolescents, patients. My population is immigrants and refugees, folks of color, and I'm, over the years––I didn't know about Grindr until four years ago, when––I'm old––one of my patients, a 15-year-old, was on it. And so I'm wondering what Grindr's doing to address those issues of kids, and kids are going to get on it anyway, and how to bring education to them.
And then the last thing is I recommend, with this dichotomy you've got going in your life of doing the good work but commercialism and consumerism takes over: yoga. There's a Sanskrit saying––
Do you talk to my therapist?
No, but there's a great Sanskrit phrase called "______," it literally means, "I honor you in your completeness, in your lightness, your darkness, your good, your bad." So I just wanted to share that.
That was nice. I'm going to actually look into that. That's good. But children on Grindr, yes [laughter] that double punch, like I’m gonna ask you this thing that’s very illegal and then I’m gonna give you yoga. So yes, a study came out the other day at Northwestern that showed that 25 percent of adolescent boys that were in the study had been on Grindr or an app like it between the ages of 15 and 19. That is against our rules at Grindr; we do not allow people under 18, but people can step in and create accounts. That happens all the time.
When I told you that story earlier of those chat rooms, of me being 14––those were also 18 and over, and I was on there. I didn't do anything risky because he didn't want to meet up with me because of what? Racism. Yeah, so I'm not saying we need more racism, but what I’m saying is we over the past few months, due to that research study, are now––kind of understanding that this is a bigger problem, and we need to figure it out. The fact that young people are logging on quicker and quicker and quicker to these things and we don't have a system in place to really adequately check them.
We legally have done nothing wrong, which is not like my lawyer saying say “this, this and this” but because of our terms of agreement people bypassing things that say “do not sign up,” just like watching porn. These similar situations. I’m also not a legal expert in this so someone can come clock me afterwards. But we have to at least acknowledge it.
So we do, on the Grindr side, we haven't done anything big yet, a big kind of campaign around it. We do constantly send out messaging to young people, especially in other countries when they're 18 and 19 around safety in those areas. It's such an interesting problem. What I see at Grindr is that we do a lot of emerging markets like on the continent of Africa, ‘cause we have a team in Egypt. But we just think Americans are going to be great, let's just have access to everything. So we should do more.
It’s a problem because it’s in our imagination as an explicitly sexual space but it seems like what we've been talking about throughout this conversation is that there is a cultural need at all ages, and especially at those very young and tender ages.
Yeah, I mean Tinder tried a young person's dating app and it flopped rather quickly because everyone decided that, "Whoo—no, no, no.” I'm not even going to get into why. But yeah, this is because no one realized when we created the internet and these apps began to take off that we'd have to be dealing with very real scenarios of a 15-year-old on the app. And sure, me at 15 yes, would have the app. But as a company there's some very real laws in the US and globally that don't allow us to create an app like that.
So TBD but––yeah, that's a bad answer, a really bad answer.
That’s something to think about, though, because these technology companies are taking the place of those real-life experiences that one could have. Cruising the piers in New York was not 18 and over, you know?
It was the space where you went to––
And INTO, the digital magazine I created, is mostly young Gen Z and Millennials who were creating content daily for really, really young people. The average age of an INTO reader is like 23, 24, they’re poor, they’re college educated, we overrepresent black and Latino, we’re global.
So on the INTO side through a media company I'm really able to reach out and touch on stories like this and advocate this. I think apps and websites like Facebook even––remember, we’re currently in this moment of dealing with what happens when a platform elects Donald Trump and we don't have answers to those things. So I think that's something that I very much, as a pediatric and adolescent doctor, want to keep pushing back on apps like this. I don't like that you have to push back on Grindr but I think we should keep pushing back. We have to think about these very big, ethical questions around young people online. I want to––
I think what we have to––I mean I think what January, maybe what you're pushing at is that young people on these apps reveals that our idea of the age arc within which one becomes sexual is just completely wrong. The age of consent rules maybe require rethinking. And the reason we're skeptical or feel a little squeamish about that isn't because of young people, it's because of the predatory group who are, you know, in an earlier iteration we call that patriarchy. It's the––there are predatory men and that's what we're all thinking. We're not thinking oh yeah that 40-something-year-old woman is gonna be swooping in. I mean we're thinking, all of us, probably, about the same set of guys around whom the whole world is fucking created, you know. When we're worried about gender neutral bathrooms, it's like you're not really worried in the women's room about a trans woman coming in and attacking you, you worry that if the women's bathroom becomes an all-genders bathroom that a man will come in and attack you, a cis-gendered man. Similarly, with dating apps for women––the problem with dating apps for women? Predatory men on those dating apps who are masquerading as lesbians in order to get in on the action.
So all of this, for me, sidelines what is the actual problem, going back to Audre Lorde again: the master's house has to come down in order for some of these practices that we want to be more open about. Fifteen-year-old guys may well want to be on Grindr. Should we keep them off Grindr or should we be making it safe for young people to have sex if that's what they want to do? That seems to me to be the way to go. [Applause]
Christy, do you want to do more question?
Yes, I want to discuss something that you already introduced when you started the Q&A: health. It's been in and out of these conversations a little bit, a big question to end with obviously but I am curious for both of your thoughts. How in this queer space that we've been discussing––do you think health issues and sort of the aftermath or still the ongoing HIV and AIDS crisis actually relate to representation of that normalization practice, but also should sort of continue to highlight the capitalization of pharmaceutical interests on that as well. And just do you have any thoughts on that?
That’s such a good point, so well put, that we're––again, this is another area where we feel like something amazing has happened, that gay men can take a pill every day, that will prophylactically protect them from HIV, and then I guess there are apps where you can upload your status and you can have information about your status.
But what we're occluding here is precisely the role of the drug companies in selling to a population a massive pharmaceutical investment, that you're going to take a pill every day, and it will only protect you from HIV. It doesn't do anything, I presume, against the many other sexual diseases that could be passed around. But at the same time people are then moving away from condom use. So I believe that this part of the magic bullet ideology that we're oriented towards through these apps and through this constant reporting that people are engaging in, while at the same time we have a health system that works for fewer and fewer people.
So on the one hand it's like, "Hey, we got you covered, guys, if you don't want HIV." On the other hand, women of color of a certain demographic with a vulnerability to breast cancer, sorry, check out whether we have any health coverage for you. Probably not. Our health investments are all wrong in terms of a large population, not just a consuming population that wants to ensure their safety before they hook up.
I agree with you. But I think the other side we're getting to is like this kind of radical future that a lot of doctors and health care professionals see is that these apps could maybe stop epidemics. I think it's possible––no, we have to do the whole thing. It's not on like a notification system only. It's not only for America. You have to think about how you revamp an entire medical system that actually cares that these people don't die, people have access equally to treatment, to prevention, to everything. But I do, I worry about this kind of idea that like PrEP, HIV reminders on platforms, all of this kind of bio data collection will actually save all of us because it's only going to save a few people. PrEP uptake is only for mostly people of a certain class or a certain race. We're having a really hard time getting it to people who look like me, other black folks, other brown folks, and that's part of a larger system that shows the health care system was never built for them.
So it's––I mean it's––yeah.
It's part of this targeted health care, it's like health care is for you, for your genetic structure, for your needs, for your lifestyle, as opposed to for the population.
Back to the earlier comment, you know, about thinking back in terms of collectivity. What would be a good health care for everyone, not a good health care for you because you want to have a lot of sex this week. That's a completely different kind of question.
And unfortunately it's a very poor fallout from what was remarkable activism around HIV/AIDS where one of the slogans was: "Drugs into bodies." Well now that's what we're left with: drugs into bodies, as opposed to thinking about the health needs of a complex population. This is what we call in academia “the biopolitical,” it’s how we're governed and ruled by things that don't seem to be political but are constantly making cuts in terms of who gets something and who doesn't.
What's Grindr's policy of releasing HIV positive information to a third party?
So, I can answer that. So, Grindr was in the news recently for allegedly releasing HIV data to the public. We were using a third-party system, which are systems that are used to modify the app. We had launched an HIV reminder program, we were one of the first apps to do this. It's a system where people could opt into getting HIV reminders to get tested. Currently Grindr and other apps allow for you to identify as positive, if you’d like.
News came out that allegedly the systems we were using could be easily hacked. They weren't hacked, and the system that was in place was not, in my opinion, what was needed to be used, and then we did take that down and switch the whole program. So currently none of that data is being shared and it was never released. It was never sold to advertisers but it was part of a system to build an HIV reminder system, which was the first––which is part of this question of should we allow an app to step in for public health officials to begin notifying you when you should be tested? And that was the intention behind it through our public health colleagues and this thing that we worked with a lot of officials around the world on, but the construction of it wasn't foolproof at all. And then that happened. But no data was actually released at all. So that's the policy on that, and I can answer more if you’d like to talk about it.
I feel like we could probably go on all day, and I just want to thank you all for bringing all of your incredible insights and thoughts. And thank you to Jack and Zach.
[End of Audio]
Break down the role that technology has played in establishing and maintaining queer community with Zach Stafford, former CCO of Grindr and editor-in-chief of INTO, and Jack Halberstam, author and queer studies scholar.
January Parkos Arnall, curator of Public Programs, moderates a frank conversation between Halberstam and Stafford that considers the history and current state of cruising, the social justice intentions and ramifications of queer-targeted technology, and the role that technology can play in collecting and disseminating queer narratives in a media landscape that has traditionally devalued these stories.