Can Grindr become more than "just a hookup app"?

The pandemic inarguably transformed the way the community uses the platform.

ByMoises Mendez

It could be argued that Grindr has done more harm to the queer community than good, but the platform’s unique interface allows it to be an indispensable tool for those looking to use dating apps more intentionally. Over the course of the pandemic especially, Grindr has become a portal for local queer communities, helping them find necessary resources, create a sense of solidarity, and empower queer voices.

But the journey here has been a complicated one. Grindr was first introduced to the queer community in 2009 by a gay tech entrepreneur named Joel Simkhai, whose original intentions were to connect queer people with similar interests; its geolocation grid format made it stand out from other dating apps. Simkhai recognized that, outside of the gay community especially, people would view Grindr as nothing more than a hookup app, but he had much higher hopes for it from the start.

“There’s always the possibility you will hit the jackpot and find someone who will move you, he said in a 2014 New York Times interview. “It has this potential for making a huge impact in your life.” He ultimately wanted to make a safer, more accessible space for queer people to find each other. What he may not have realized is that aside from finding each other, they’d also find drama and discrimination — but also security, career advancement, and maybe even housing.

Grindr’s nearly 13-year history comes with an infamous past — from various types of discrimination that still perpetuate with little-to-no moderation, personal information leaks, and a scary portal of underage users put in danger due to a lack of identity verification. The app’s “only-for-hookups” stigma has stuck around since its genesis and as a company, Grindr has been trying to shake it off ever since. It apparently didn’t help when Simkhai sold the app to a Chinese video gaming company called Kunlun Tech Co. in 2016.

An investigation by Buzzfeed News revealed that the new president of the company, Scott Chen, viewed Grindr as a hookup app and simply focused on increasing the number of daily users rather than trying to better it. One former employee told BFN that for Chen, “anything that detracted from encouraging hookups was seen as a distraction.”

In March of 2020, Grindr was sold once again, this time to San Vicente Acquisition — thus giving the app two more cis-het owners who had yet to make any media tidal waves as big as Chen and the Kunlun Tech Co. The company has since pivoted back toward what Chen tried to move away from — including the relaunch of their digital publication, “INTO,” and attempting to address social issues like removing the ethnicity filter in June 2020 during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Whether San Vincente took the app in the more “woke” direction is arguable. But one thing’s for sure: Users have since taken matters into their own hands, using the app in myriad ways during the last few years.

Perhaps most importantly, Grindr users tapped into the app’s unofficial housing market during the pandemic. Between January 1 and December 7, 2020, about 3.57 million New Yorkers left the city, according to anonymized cell phone location data analyzed by Unacast. The mass exodus left rooms empty and people desperate to fill them; renters and listers had to get creative.

Of course, creative doesn’t always mean good. “Gay men aren’t on their best behavior behind the veil of relative anonymity on this adult-oriented platform,” says M, 39, who chose not to be identified to maintain discretion at work. He was able to find a roommate to fill a room in his Queens apartment after posting in a Facebook group, after advertising on Grindr to no avail. He received uncomfortable messages from a profile with no basic information or pictures, “looking for a golden shower, fisting daddy.”

“That doesn’t really fit into my idea of the kind of subletter profile I’m looking for,” he says. While he knew that users usually put forth a different persona on Grindr, M says he wanted to make sure he explored every option at his disposal.

Lendale Johnson, a professional tennis player and model, tells Mic that he’s been using Grindr since it became popular within the queer community and also tapped into it when he was searching for housing. He found the process less problematic, with one condition: “It’s important to be very clear. You either want a room or you want a room and well... more,” Johnson says. “If you want a gay male roommate, it’s fool proof. The process depends on the lease options. For me it was straight forward. Deposit and move-in.”

Some people also use Grindr, unexpectedly enough, to further their careers. In July 2021, Brennan Vickery was able to publish the first quarterly issue of his print publication called Iffy, thanks to writers he found on Grindr. When asked why he used this as an avenue to find talent, he simply says, “Because it’s New York City, baby.” Vickery adds, “There’s access to so many interesting people who came here to pursue careers… I figured why not if I’m using all these different outlets to find talent.” This felt monumental because it wasn’t just about getting work out there, but about amplifying queer voices and perspectives.

Vickery’s publication was all about narrative, so blending that personal and professional with Grindr as a vehicle felt right. The first issue included “very gay” stories from people he found on Grindr, including a personal piece about someone’s “nuanced, bizarre” experience contracting neurosyphilis. Another writer he found on the app wrote a piece titled, “The Best Bad Green Spaces in New York and the Lost Imagination of NYC’s Park Planning.”

None of these folx were slouches, he tells me; they’d had bylines in respected outlets such as NYLON, The LA Times, Huffington Post, and Time Out magazine. Vickery says writers have thanked him for giving them the opportunity to express themselves in ways they wouldn’t normally be able to at a legacy publication.

While Grindr primarily operates as a gay dating app and social network, a vast queer community has always existed between the shirtless torsos and “Sup” messages. Queer tourists know where to turn for the best 3 a.m. bar recommendations, and those facing pandemic-induced loneliness can find some virtual solace among matches on the app. Grindr has evolved and morphed, and yet, is also still “just a hookup app,” for better or worse. And all of those identities might just have to exist together.