Grindr 101: The History of Grindr & Queer Digital Dating

24.10.2021
Stacey Garratt

With over 27 million users, Grindr is the world’s largest gay dating app. But as time goes on and Grindr embarks into its second decade, there have been some huge changes for the app that could give clues to its possible future. 

But first, how’d we get here? 

Gather round the fire, child, and let’s go back to the days of dial-up.

While the first dating website for the masses, Kiss.com, launched in 1994, the origins of gay dating actually go further back. If we go in the wayback machine all the way to the early 1980s in France, (the French, always fashionable!) Minitel, the French closed videotex network prototype, was championed by lesbian activists who used the network to organize their communities, especially among lesbians in rural France. 

As Minitel’s reach spread, gay men developed a system of “pseudos,” a coded language to talk freely in early chatrooms. Anyway!

From there, LGBTQA+ populations hung out in the periphery of straight-focused online dating sites until 1999 with the launch of Gaydar. Just a smidge too late to really cash in on the dot com boom, Gaydar was moderately successful until its 2013 closing. 

The new dawn of 3rd party apps

Cut to 2009, Steve Jobs had announced that the second-generation iPhone would accommodate third-party apps. Grindr was the first gay dating app and the first dating app to use Apple’s geolocation technology. Meaning that now, not only could you know who’s on the market in your city, but you could know who’s looking at the other end of the bar. 

Every bar is a gay bar with this brand new Grindr in your pocket!

This was catnip to relatively early iPhone adopters, but the big ol’ boost came when British actor Stephen Fry dropped his Grindr knowledge on Top Gear: “It’s basically a gay cruising application. Get this, when you load it, all kinds of faces and pictures appear… and it tells you how close they are — it says 20 yards away.” Man, 2009 was a simpler time! 

The Fry effect was ten thousand downloads in a day and 40k new signups by the end of the week. Grindr was officially popping off. 

Since the beginning, Grindr has always positioned itself as a “mobile social network.” It’s not promising wedding bells and meeting your forever match… but it’s also not NOT promising that either. 

It simply existed in laissez-faire agnosticism: there for the hookups, the socializing, the romance, or the bored insomniac middle of the night chats with the stranger you never plan to meet. In this, it didn’t fight toward its obsolescence, but it also didn’t really have any parameters for a fail rate either. 

It was also malleable— you could look for a hookup on Saturday, a more traditional romantic date Sunday, and a spicy chat by Monday without having to re-download the app or make significant changes to your profile. 

The Grindr years

By 2017, Craigslist personals were gone, kissing goodbye the m4m, casual encounters, and misc romance categories of our youth. Craigslist had been the place to troll for strange in the interest of love or, well, some strange, since 1995. This marked the end of an era and drove plenty of late adopters to Grindr.

Grindr took stock of its near-decade in the business to make a few changes. They broadened their categories for gender expression to be more inclusive, opening options to “trans man,” “woman,” “cis man,” “non-binary,” “non-conforming,” and “queer,” and started prioritizing sexual health. 

According to Landen Zumwault, Grindr’s director of corporate communications, this came from a year of intense Research & Development with users and experts. 

“What stood out the most from these discussions is just how often we heard about the intense anxieties users had about bringing up sexual health when they were chatting on the app,” he said, “Professionals and users alike asked us for more ways to exchange information about things like HIV status, viral load, and PrEP use. For some, this might be the only way they connect with potential partners on the subject, and for others, it could spark a longer conversation.”

Grindr ultimately went a step further and added an optional field for HIV status disclosure and the user’s last test date. 

If you'd like to learn more about PrEP in Canada & its latest advancements (like Descovy), take a look at our Health Hub.

The darkest chapter

But these improvements to Grindr’s standing as a powerful force in the gay community were called into question when Grindr sold a majority stake to the Chinese gaming company, the Kunlun Group

The sale had actually occurred in 2016, but it wasn’t until nearly two years later that the hand of Grindr’s interim CEO, Yahui Zhou, started to be felt as he moved engineering operations to Beijing. 

Security shittiness, especially surrounding how user’s HIV statuses were handled, were so gnarly that Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States slapped Grindr out of the hands of the Kunlun Group, forcing it to sell to the San Vincente Acquisition in West Hollywood, California, home of Grindr headquarters. 

The rebirth-ish

Grindr tried to pivot back to the initiatives it had set out to be a positive tool in the gay community. In 2019, it granted over $100,000 to Middle Eastern and North African LGBTQA+ groups. 

“As our company grows, we understand that our users are not only looking for one thing on Grindr. That is why we have added in more features over time, including the ability to explore other areas, get reminders for HIV testing, and get news and content,” Zumwalt said of Grindr’s commitment going forward. 

While users are thankful for the redirect, some lament the impact that Grindr’s had on the gay community as a whole. Some mourn the loss of the cultural cohesiveness that brought the LGBTQA+ community together through necessity in prior generations. 

“While it’s good that, in much of the world, queers no longer have to risk arrest to find sex, we’ve lost a certain cultural literacy in the process. We’ve also surrendered a degree of autonomy by exchanging codes devised collectively to avoid detection for a platform of communication that obliges us to submit to corporate surveillance,” as New York critic Evan Moffit wrote in Frieze Magazine. 

Others blame Grindr for perpetuating femme phobia and keeping the gay community behind the times in body positivity. 

For now, Grindr’s still going strong as the world’s largest gay dating app, now with a new focus on safety in the age of Covid. Will it survive into a new chapter ahead? Only time will tell.

Interested in reading more about Grindr? Check out our pieces on the pros & cons of Grindr and 11 tips for staying safe on Grindr.

Written by:
Stacey Garratt

Stacey Garratt is a Los Angeles based writer with a passion for sexuality, comedy, relationships, and intersectional reproductive justice. Her work has won the silver Cleo Entertainment Award, the gold Obie Award, and placed in the Filmmatic Comedy Awards and Webby Awards. As a bisexual, ENM woman, she’s thrilled to be contributing to Freddie Magazine.

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