50 shades of white? How the rainbow lost its stripes

Text Ophelia Chatterjee

Illustration Rosa van Triest

Earlier this week it emerged Grindr president Scott Chen had stated in an ill-conceived Facebook post that, in his view, “Marriage is between a man and a woman.” Obviously baffling elements of this story aside, the basic ingredients were strangely familiar; previous Grindr CEO Joel Simkhai waded into equally controversial waters when, in a 2016 interview with Broadly, he asked whether, “To say, ‘I’m only into black guys’ – is that a bad thing? I think we should allow you to say that, because that’s your preference.” A think-piece debate predictably ensued, culminating in Grindr’s launch of Kindr, an initiative designed to counter long-running allegations that the app is a safe space for sexual racism and other forms of toxic masculinity. Sorry, Joel: overruled.

Despite the overhaul of Grindr’s community user guidelines, many queer men feel the issues underlying the expression of these ‘preferences’ have not been put to bed. For many gay men of colour, using dating apps means confronting a litany of racial sexual preferences (think ‘no fats, no femmes, no Asians’ or ‘rice queen’), stated in order to either dissuade conversation or to fetishize. Such experiences are far from isolated incidences. Shockingly, research by FS magazine reports that 80% of black men, 79% of Asian men and 75% of south Asian men have experienced racism from within the gay community.

Thanks to initiatives like Kindr the more headline-grabbing profile taglines may be a thing of the past, but some users are uneasy about why such guidelines were needed to tackle them in the first place. Monty, a 24 year old gay man living in London, spoke to me about what it’s like using Grindr as a brown man: “I know this is incredibly narcissistic, but I am a beautiful man. I feel like I have to tell myself that every day because I don’t get a lot of attention on Grindr, and that does knock your confidence.”

“One of my best mates is white and Italian, and even though we’re the same age, same height, same build, and have similar facial features, he just gets so much action and messages on Grindr… Everyone wants to believe this comes from their own personal tastes, but obviously your tastes are derived from societal ideas of what beauty is. Whereas you can get fifty different kinds of white guys who are your heartthrobs, when you’re Indian you have to be Aladdin. If you don’t fit that, then you don’t exist. I’ve also had the most vulgar messages clearly related to my race sent to me, people saying things like ‘your mum would be so disgusted by what I’m going to do to you’.”

Whereas you can get fifty different kinds of white guys who are your heart-throbs, when you’re Indian you have to be Aladdin. If you don’t fit that, then you just don’t exist.

A lot of the media fascination with this specific expression of sexual racism centres on the instinctively appealing idea that, as Monty acknowledges, “you expect gay people to say that they need to be better than their ‘counterparts’ because they have experienced prejudice themselves.” But this assumption has come under particular strain in the recent years, with the increasing success of so-called pink-washing of far-right movements.

The co-opting of LGBT rights in service of anti-immigrant agendas has a long pedigree, most memorably epitomised in the Netherlands by Pim Fortuyn. Today a third of gay married couples in France reportedly support Marine Le Pen’s far-right Front National, and Milo Yiannopolous has built a huge following on a specific brand of right-wing populist commentary.

Monty suggests that cisgender white gay men in particular are susceptible to these rhetorics: “Just because you are gay and you have sat at odds with the basic direction of society, you are still a white gay man, and so therefore you are still white and male. You might believe that singing along to Lady Gaga gives you the entitlement to think you understand what people think and experience, but you don’t. You really don’t. Gay people have a really bad habit of throwing everyone else under the bus whenever liberation benefits themselves. When I lived in Birmingham, I used to hear a lot that ‘help starts at home’… So the gay community can sometimes say, ‘No, we’re not going to help you, now that we’re somewhat accepted in being gay. Even UKIP (UK Independence Party, red.) had a spokesperson who was gay, and even Donald Trump says things like ‘I support the gays’.”

However, true to the feverishly polarised mood of the moment, Monty argues that there is simultaneously a growing acceptance, at least in some spaces, of a broader range of identities and ways of expressing gender and sexuality: “Travis Alabanza has a really big platform now, and Alok Vaid-Menon, who is a queer poet, too. They are both very openly gender-queer people who have a lot of influence in terms of the queer narrative. There’s also a big push towards acceptance of the fact that trans men are men, so in general terms there’s more of a drive for inclusion of trans men sexually. Having said that, I do live in east London where every third man in my Tesco (a British supermarket, red.) is gay, so maybe there are enough queer people around me to see the benefits of rejection of traditional heteronormative beauty standards.” So while apps such as Grindr might currently reflect racialized dominant societal and heteronormative standards of sexual desirability, these standards are by no means immutable, and are susceptible to critique and rejection.

Monty feels that these apparent contradictions and debates playing out within and between gay communities may come down to more universal phenomena relating to the way we as humans react to marginalisation: “When you’ve been told your entire life that you are different all you want to do is conform, which is something that applies to so many minorities. I think it’s the reason why gay brown kids can secretly hate themselves and where they’ve come from and choose to reject their parents’ ideals. And I think it’s the same reason why gay men go to the gym and try and get super muscly. Because the truth is that when you feel like you are left out, you try and conform. I think society causes damage to you and because there is no rule book, because there is no solid sense of who your role models are, you just fill these gaps with the things that you’re told are meant to be important.”

In recent years, expression of some gay identities has become increasingly absorbed into and accepted by the mainstream, often due to hard-won victories such as the campaign for equal marriage. Paradoxically, this has made some sections of the queer community a newly attractive target market for far-right groups, despite the fact that these groups were historically at odds with anyone whose private life existed outside of cisgender heteronormative nuclear family norms. This has shone a spotlight on problematic ideals that find crude expression on digital dating platforms thanks to the relative anonymity of the medium. While user guidelines might treat the most visible symptoms, the roots of sexual racism run far deeper and are inextricably linked to mainstream heteronormative beauty standards. While many people are understandably frustrated that the onus is, yet again, placed on marginalised communities themselves to respond to these concerns, some queer people are insisting that these uncomfortable conversations must be had. Maybe with time the rainbow will be appreciated for all its colours, not just those the mainstream finds acceptably picturesque.

Leave a Reply