When MC created an account in three gay apps using the handle “I am Effeminate”, he claimed to have received “unwanted – many of them unsolicited – personal attacks through PMs (personal messages),” he said. Supposedly, “random guys would message me even if I didn’t message them first, just to attack my very being.”
He had been told – among others – “Tsupi (colloquial for ‘Get out of here)!”, “This is no place for you; this is just for us bi men!”, You’re malnourished; only muscular men should be here!”, “Go to hell, fag!”, and so on.
Just as it is in mainstream (hetero) population, this shaming of the “other” – i.e. those who do not fit the stereotypical concepts of how community members are supposed to look like/act like – even from within the LGBT community itself is actually already prevalent. But, as MC’s experience may highlight, it can be argued that gay and bi apps are helping “normalize” or are even popularize this.
NO pa-ghirl (effeminate) allowed. No fatsos. No oldies. ONLY those from premier schools in Metro Manila need send message. Fuck off trans. Asians NOT allowed. Only interested in White men; everyone else, leave.
These are but some of the very real statements included in profiles of gay app users, often taken as mere reflections of “preferences” instead of blatant (internal) discrimination.
MC – who is still in his early 20s – admitted “na nasaktan din ako, siyempre (of course I was also hurt/offended),” he said. “Wala naman akong ginawa para kutyain (It’s not like I did something to merit the attacks).”
He admitted feeling “nanliit (belittled)” and crestfallen, as if “wala ka talagang silbi (you’re really useless).”
MC would – most times – shrug the “attacks” off; but then “nangyayari pa rin (they’d happen again).” And so he said he is regularly reminded “na iba ako (of my ‘otherness’).”
MC’s case is – unfortunately – not uncommon.
SAD STATE TO BE IN
This treatment of “otherness” in gay apps was already scientifically considered. For instance, in 2016, a study published in the Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity suggested that antifat bias (with weight among the identifiers of “otherness”) is a “challenge for many members of the gay community, even those who are not technically overweight”.
For “Fat Chance! Experiences and Expectations of Antifat Bias in the Gay Male Community”, Olivia Foster-Gimbel and Renee Engeln conducted two studies exploring antifat bias among gay men.
The first study explored experiences of antifat bias among gay men and the body image correlates of these experience. Involving 215 participants (gay men aged from 18 to 78), who completed measures of antifat bias, body image disturbance, and open-ended questions about their experience with antifat bias, this study found that over one third of gay men reported directly experiencing antifat bias. The surprising part? Many of them were not even overweight using common body mass index (BMI) guidelines.
According to this study, the most common type of antifat bias reported was rejection by potential romantic partners on the basis of weight (e.g. No fatsos). The antifat bias experienced and witnessed was associated with several types of body image disturbance.
A follow-up was done to the first study. This time, a comparison was made between gay and heterosexual college men’s expectations of antifat bias from a potential romantic partner. Participants rated how likely certain outcomes would be if they saw an overweight man hit on an attractive target (a man for gay participants or a woman for heterosexual participants). Not surprisingly, gay men reported greater likelihood that the overweight man would be blatantly ignored, treated rudely, or mocked behind his back if he approached an attractive potential romantic partner.
To top it all off, the gay male surveyed also reportedly expect other gay men to show these antifat biases when looking for a romantic partner.
But to begin with, why the hate?
In Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (2014), Dr. Jason Whitesel interviewed members of Girth & Mirth, an international organization supposed to celebrate “big men and their admirers”. Interestingly, Whitesel found that many members had internalized a great deal of the bias that they experienced from outside their community.
The sadder part of the internalized hatred is the dissociation, noted Whitesel, with some big men confessing that “they want to dissociate themselves from other people who are fat, as if fatness were contagious.”
One’s weight is, of course, but one of the identifiers of “otherness”. Others include ethnicity, religious affiliation, and – as in MC’s case – effeminacy.
This is why, according to Evan Tan, country marketing manager for the Philippines of Blued, it is relevant to introduce different (body) representations. And here, apps (and those running them) need to join the conversation.
“People are more than just stereotypes and labels. It’s easy and convenient to think of people as templates, but there’s a larger story behind every person than the labels we give each other,” Tan said. This is why – at least for Blued as a social networking app – “we want to allow those conversations to happen.”
Tan recognizes that platforms like Blued “can and will be used by people in different ways.” However, “we believe that showing the diversity in the gay community will help dispel implicit (and maybe explicit) biases.”
How does a platform like Blued do this?
“To encourage authenticity in Blued, we ask people to actually verify their profiles,” Tan said.
Here, authentication is seen as antidote to fakeness (e.g. making fake profiles with fake pics placed just to conform to stereotyped notions of beauty), since authenticity could mean capturing the diversity seen in the real world.
“We think it’s time for gay men to be truly out and proud of who they are, and to not hide behind headless torsos or fake photos,” Tan said, adding that in his observation, “I’ve seen more faces in Blued than in any other app out there; and more people are authenticating their profiles as well.”
Blued also makes sure it “we feature diverse people on the site – e.g. in advertising,” Tan said.
And to promote diversity not just in body representations but even in expressions of ideas, “here in the Philippines, we’ve reached out to different organizations, such as UP Babaylan (the LGBT organization of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City), to create community pages on Blued. We hope that these will help create a community of diverse opinions and foster healthy conversations on what we find attractive and acceptable, and why.”
Reaching out to communities is necessary, said Tan, because for him, dealing with issues of representation in the LGBT (in this case in particular, gay and bi men) needs everyone’s help. Tan particularly believes that placing the blame – so to speak – on just one element is shortsighted. “We think that this issue can’t be solved by just one app or feature, in such a short time,” he said. “Changing mindsets and beliefs needs the help of the whole community. We’re (just) happy to help advance the discussion in the ways we can.”
WANTED: COMMUNITY EFFORT
While it’s easy to pinpoint these gay apps as the culprit of promoting the idealized gay male beauty, Blued’s Tan believes that the problem is bigger than just the apps, which may just be magnifying the issue.
“The challenge, of course, is always that you need to slowly loosen the hold of unhealthy cultural baggage that people cling on to,” Tan said. “This is a long process that can’t be solved by just one person (I personally don’t believe in savior narratives — it’s cute to say that one person or group magically saves everyone, but it’s never the case most of the time). Instead, you need the involvement of different groups of different people from different backgrounds to create long-lasting change. How do we do that? How do we spearhead the conversation without judgment?”
At least some apps are taking initiatives to introduce diversity. Grindr has “tribes” to identify the “types” of people – e.g. twink, daddy, bear, jock, and so on. PlanetRomeo has a category for “body type”. And perhaps to limit what could turn out to be hateful and hurtful engagements, Jack’d and Hornet allow their users to filter their searches, with categories including age, height, weight and ethnicity.
Blued, by the way, ups the ante by allowing people of the same persuasions to “gather” – that is, “Blued actually allows you to add friends, join groups, and even broadcast your hobbies and interests to other people. We encourage people to keep it wholesome, because ultimately, they can always go to other apps if they’re just solely looking for sex. We want Blued to be more than just that. We want it to be a safe space where people can be who they are, without fear of judgment or discrimination,” Tan said.
One Blued group, for instance, is BEAR CLUB, which was organized by one Titus_31 this June “so that those like us (bears) can congregate safely,” he said to Outrage Magazine.
In a few months, the group (also known as GC, or “group chat”) already garnered a hundred members, and – added Mhakkie23, one of the administrators of this group – “I’d say that 90% of our members are extra friendly.”
For both Titus_31 and Mhakkie23, this affability is worth highlighting because of the “seeming continuing limited spaces for diversity in our midst.” And so, as “as a rule of the GC, we are anti-discrimination of (the big bodied) and we always remind the members of this. It helps us gather like-minded people; and in this way, nakakatulong siya (it helps a lot),” Titus_31 said.
“It was surprisingly easy to grow the group,” Mhakkie23 added, “since marami palang katulad namin (there are many of us) out there.”
There are also apps that actually find ways to sanction those who are disrespectful of diversity. For instance, WooPlus – which is for “bigger women, big guys, and curve lovers” – allows users to flag harassing behavior by reviewing, rating and commenting on the profiles of people they’re messaging with. Those who get enough poor reviews and ratings will be automatically — and permanently — banned from the site.
EVOLVING (VIRTUAL) WORLD
Not all app-related experiences of people stereotypically branded as “others” are bad, of course.
Based in Davao City, Deaf gay man Prime opened an account in Blued three months ago. Mainly, he said to Outrage Magazine in Filipino Sign Language (FSL), “I wanted to reach out to other (MSM) in the Philippines.”
Yes, 37-year-old Prime said he gets to occasional brush-offs (e.g. “Not my type”), though in his estimation, “these are not (necessarily) because I’m Deaf but because of preference.” He has yet to be told upfront he isn’t liked because he is differently-abled. In fact, for a Deaf gay man like Prime, using the app make conversing easier “compared with chatting with someone in person because they usually don’t know FSL. In Blued, I just tell them to ‘Use English please’, and we are already able to communicate/understand each other.”
Prime recognizes that “apps haven’t perfected yet their approaches to be more inclusive of people like me, but I’m still hopeful it could help link me with other MSM. Who knows, I could even find love from here,” Prime laughed.
In another gay app, Outrage Magazine interviewed a person living with HIV. “I was devastated when I found out my HIV positive status in 2010,” he said. Following then, he opened accounts in various gay apps to find other PLHIVs. And surprisingly, he said, “guys were interested to get to know me…”
He admitted that “there are a handful of guys who can be so judgmental even in apps,” but having this persona in apps can be helpful particularly for PLHIVs not only because it links them with others “in the same boat as oneself” but also because “it’s easier to come out as PLHIV in these platforms because you are not really seen.” And so this way, “it can even be therapeutic.”
And still in Blued is Mandaluyong City-based 30-year-old chub_cub, who opened a profile in October 2016 to “at first monitor what my ex-BF was doing there,” he laughed. But “after our break up, the app became handy as a means to talk to a lot of people.”
chub_cub – who occasionally goes live in Blued (one of the app’s key features) to prove that he is not a poser – eventually gained over 700 followers. And he credits this to authenticity. “I may not be a hunk, but at least people enjoy how I stay true to myself,” chub_cub said.
And so for chub_cub, “apps can promote diversity in the MSM community. There are apps with certain groups that you can search and become part of it. Blued, too, has a group chat platform where you can talk with people of your same interests,” he said.
For chub_cub, “whether in apps or in real life, stereotyping has always been an issue. I don’t think it’s any app’s fault; instead, it is the (wider) culture that wrongly influences discrimination within the MSM community that is to be blamed,” he said. “A lot needs to be done to deal with this. And for me, showing up to showcase diversity is a good first step.”
For Blued’s Tan, apps should be treated as such: a tool that can – perhaps – help promote diversity, instead of pigeonholing. “Let it personally help us ask why we find something attractive, and then strike a balance between appreciating ourselves while not becoming hateful,” Tan said.
App user MC still has accounts in numerous apps, and he still goes by the name of “I am Effeminate”. “I’m not giving up hope,” he said, “that I may meet someone who will accept me for me while here. So far, may mababait naman (there are some nice guys).” And because “I have seen how nice some people are in apps, I know they can’t be all that bad. I suppose we just continue reaching out to show to the world that, yes, magkaiba-iba ang tao (people are different) and there’s beauty in this diversity.” – WITH INTERVIEWS BY MICHAEL DAVID dela Cruz TAN