"This is embarrassing," Elizabeth*, 26, told Mic over the phone, her voice shaking. She was talking about how she discovered her boyfriend was cheating on her after she found a dick pic on his phone.
To hear Elizabeth tell it, her boyfriend had never expressed interest in men before, so she couldn't believe he might be interested in having sex with them. "I knew something was up," she said. She needed answers but wasn't sure where to begin, so she pulled out her smartphone and downloaded Grindr for reconnaissance.
At first, Elizabeth pretended to be a man on her profile, asking around to see if any of the men in her area were sleeping with her boyfriend. "None admitted to it," Elizabeth told Mic. But even though she didn't find out whether her boyfriend was cheating on her on Grindr, something surprising happened after she ultimately broke up with him: "I actually started making connections."
Over time, Elizabeth started regularly hanging out with a few of the men she met on Grindr. "Once I told them I wasn't a guy, a lot of them blocked me. But after I explained [my situation] to the few who would listen, they were all really accepting of me," she told Mic.
While it might seem strange for a heterosexual woman to use one of the largest gay dating apps out there, Elizabeth is not alone. She is one of a number of people who have turned to the app for something other than sex: platonic friendship.
Grindr touts itself as "the world's leading social app exclusively for gay, bi and curious men." The geosocial app finds other gay men in your area, then allows you to "connect" with them based on height, weight and of which "tribe" (bears, twinks, jocks, etc.) you're a member.
Elizabeth originally signed up as a jock, then switched to twink when she discovered it was easier to make friends with people who self-identified that way. She told Mic that when she was a jock, there were more expectations for her to exude typical masculine traits. But when she labeled herself as a "twink," she found the conversations she was having with her matches were more open and accepting. Her profile picture was blank, and her bio read: "looking to connect with genuine guys."
Now, Elizabeth estimates that she's made at least two friends on the app. "We will grab drinks once every few weeks and go dancing and text, but beyond that we don't hang out every day," she told Mic. "I think they were very clear that they're open to friendships but they aren't looking for a woman to become a huge part of their life through the app."
Straight men like Andrew*, 24, have also turned to Grindr to make friends. While you'd think many of them would be in the closet (and indeed, an estimated 18% of gay men on the app are), that's not the case: Andrew is totally straight.
"I grew up doing theater in high school, so I've just always been comfortable around gay guys," Andrew told Mic.
After graduating college Andrew moved to Seattle to work in finance. He found it difficult to make new friends in the sprawling city.
"Every time I went to a gay bar to meet people, I was getting push-back from guys who thought I was taking up space," he told Mic. "So I downloaded Grindr not for sex, but to meet cool gay guys in a totally relaxed way."
While some guys have been pushy about hooking up with Andrew, he says that most of the men he talks to are accepting of his orientation. "I think even gay guys are tired of strict labels," he told Mic. "They're not going to be pissed at me for trying to connect when there are 20 other guys that are willing to hook up right around them."
Andrew also said that being on Grindr has given him keen insight into the internalized homophobia within the queer community. "I've noticed a crazy amount of dudes on there being like 'no fats, no fems,' I'm not super up to date on the lingo, but you can tell that guys are picky," he told Mic.
Tom*, 32, is another self-identified heterosexual man who uses Grindr to make platonic connections — although originally, he downloaded the app as part of a sexual experiment of sorts.
"Growing up, I was called gay a lot by people in my grade. I didn't have the deepest voice and fucking hated sports. I guess the taunts bothered me more and more the older I got," he told Mic. "When you're 29 you reach the point where you're just like 'Well, am I gay?'"
So Tom downloaded Grindr and flirted with men he met on the app. Once, he let a guy he met give him oral sex. "From the moment I was naked, I just knew it wasn't for me," he said. Yet afterwards, Tom and his partner kept in touch, later becoming close friends.
To this day, Tom said he will sometimes jump on Grindr to make new friends. But he admitted that it's difficult for most gay men on the app to believe that he's only there to find drinking buddies.
"Most guys are pretty aggressive," Tom told Mic. "When they find out I'm only there for friendship they either don't believe me, or call me fat and ugly when I am firm about not wanting to hook up."
Ultimately, however, both men praised the Grindr community for allowing them to exist in a space that's typically thought of as reserved for gay men. "It is pretty cool that guys don't instantly block me when I tell them I'm only looking for friends," Tom said. "For me it's become a way to just chat with other guys whether we meet or not."
Andrew also said he occasionally uses the app to talk about sports, music and films with other gay men, even if they don't necessarily meet up. "Sometimes you just want to talk to a gay dude about a really good movie you just saw. Stuff my other friends wouldn't be interested in," he said.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some gay men are furious that people like Elizabeth, Andrew and Tom are crashing their party. While Grindr might be a venue where gay men can actively discriminate against and fat-shame each other, as Andrew observed while on the app, many would still prefer the gates to be locked from outsiders and feel exposed knowing that heterosexual men and women are in the community. And as Andrew's comments about wanting to meet "cool gay guys" to talk about movies and sports demonstrates, there's definitely a strong element of tokenization at play.
Michael*, a 20-year-old gay man, said he was annoyed by straight people using the popular dating app. "I get furious sometimes. Can we not have this one thing? I go onto Grindr to connect with other gay men, not some random girls looking for a gay best friend," he told Mic.
"It pisses me off. I'm trying to get my dick sucked, not go shopping with you. And I find it so hard to believe straight men actually use the app for friends. I'm sure they're trying to get their dick sucked too. This is our safe space. Fuck off to Tinder."
"I go onto Grindr to connect with other gay men, not some random girls looking for a gay best friend."
In a world that is oversaturated with dating apps, from Bumble to Tinder to Scruff, it can be overwhelming to find someone you can form a genuine connection with, whether that be sexual or platonic. Yet even though there are many potential issues with straight people being on Grindr, there are signs that they are forging genuine connections on the app. For Elizabeth, going on Grindr helped her heal a broken heart, while both Andrew and Tom said that being on the app helped them gain insight into unique issues faced by the queer community.
If nothing else, the fact that heterosexual people are gravitating toward Grindr demonstrates that the hookup app — indeed, hookup apps in general — has become a much more powerful tool than just an app that tells you where the nearest blowjob is. And while the queer community may be irritated by the fact that straight people are on Grindr, the fact that people like Elizabeth, Andrew and Tom are on there regardless means that the old rules for hookup apps may be on their way out.
*First names have been changed to allow sources to speak freely on private matters.