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LGBTQ+ rainbow flag with dates 2009-2019 connected by a heart-shaped arrowBBC Three / istock

Ten years of LGBT love: From tech to transphobia, what’s really changed?

After Pride 2019, we ask how much difference a decade has made to the queer dating scene

Harvey Day

Pride always brings up mixed emotions for me. Ten years ago, as a young teen still in the closet, I remember being desperate to hide my sexuality at any cost. I got good at swerving questions about who I fancied and even told my mates how uncomfortable I was with flamboyant, celebrity gays like Graham Norton and Alan Carr, in a naïve attempt to deflect attention from myself. “I don’t have a problem with gay people but why do they have to shove it down our throats?” I'd say, my words making me flinch inwardly.

So the thought of actually attending a Pride parade, let alone being open about my sexuality and getting a boyfriend was, well, terrifying. Since then, though, I’ve come out to friends and family, I’ve been in same-sex relationships and I’ve taken part in annual Pride events. Pride has become a global movement over the last 49 years, ever since the first parade in New York City to mark the one-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots. And events take place all across the UK, from London Pride - when more than one million people descended on the capital earlier this month - to Black Pride - an outing in Hackney celebrating LGBT people of African, Asian, Arab and Caribbean heritage. Over the summer, meanwhile, Pride-goers in Brighton will be able to dance to Kylie, while the Spice Girls' Mel C will take the stage in Bristol - and attendees of Belfast Pride will be bringing a particularly political message, as the only part of the United Kingdom that hasn't yet legalised same-sex marriage. 

But while plenty of people head to Pride events to celebrate, recent news events - including the shocking attacks on a lesbian couple on a London bus and on two gay men in Liverpool, the protests in Birmingham against LGBT education and the reports of rising hate crime against transgender people in England and Wales – show why Pride is still so important for the community as it tries to protect itself and shift public attitudes.

This gloomy cloud - along with the creeping feeling that the “merch-ification” of Pride is getting out of hand - isn’t where we hoped we’d be in 2019. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots - the ceremonial beginning of the LGBT rights movement - and the 10-year anniversary of Grindr, one of several dating apps which, many experts say, has sparked a revolution in the way the LGBT community connects.

So have things actually changed for LGBT people over the last 10 years? Is it easier now to be out and proud - and to fall in love - or has the supposed social change just been superficial?

LGBT dating - Dating appsBBC Three / istock

Love at first swipe

Technology has driven significant change in the LGBT community.

“Online dating and hook-up apps have been an absolute win for the LGBT community,” relationship expert Dr Darcy Sterling tells BBC Three. “We no longer have to rely on ‘gaydar’ to identify gay people in a straight world. We can experiment sexually before we come out, which means that more people are able to explore their sexuality, whereas before our only option was to go to a gay bar.”

Apps like Grindr - often used for hook-ups - and relative newcomer Chappy, aimed at gay men looking for longer-term relationships - have been around since I started dating and, in many ways, it’s hard to imagine life without them.

In 2019, there is a wide range of apps for the LGBT community, while Tinder has just launched an "orientation" feature which allows users to select up to three sexual orientation labels they identify with. Along with Instagram - the perfect place for posting thirst traps and flirting via DM - these platforms are often the easiest way to meet potential partners. 

Although recent statistics on the UK LGBT dating scene are limited, research suggests that same-sex couples in the US overwhelmingly meet online, even more so than their straight peers. One recent US study suggests that nearly two-thirds of LGBT couples meet online.

LGBT Dating - Contributor OliBBC Three
"Apps are a fantastic way to meet new and like-minded people" — Oli

“I’ve found that apps are a great way to meet new and like-minded people outside my own network of friends,” says 25-year-old Oli, a sexual technology researcher. “The small dating pool in queer circles tends to mean that everyone's hooked up with everyone's ex.”

But while dating apps have made it easier to meet people, now it seems the novelty might be wearing off. “We’re absolutely starting to see dating app fatigue,” says Dr Sterling. “People will always overindulge in things that feel good - particularly when we can’t see the negative consequences.”

Fox, a trans activist in their 20s, has friends who’ve found love on dating apps but thinks they’re not right for everyone. “I gave Tinder a go but it didn’t work for me,” Fox says. “In the end, I got bored of swiping left - I’d rather meet my next partner in real life.”

Contrib FoxBBC Three
"In the end, I got bored of swiping left" — Fox

Death of the gay bar

Another important shift has been the demise of gay bars and LGBT spaces. In just over a decade, from 2006 to 2017, the number of bars, clubs and pubs for LGBT people in London dropped from 125 to 53, a net loss of 58% of venues - compared to a drop of 44% in UK nightclubs in a similar period and a 25% drop in British pubs from 2001 to 2016. 

Some have pointed the finger at apps, with people increasingly arranging meet-ups online, rather than looking for a partner while out and about. I’ve certainly spent plenty of late nights dancing (badly) at some of London’s gayest venues but the truth is, there are more people to connect with online than IRL.

Gentrification and rising rents have also been blamed for the shuttering of gay spaces, from The Black Cap in Camden - fondly remembered as the "Palladium of Drag" - to Soho’s lesbian Candy Bar. And now, there are concerns for the future of Birmingham’s Gay Village.

There also appears to be a growing interest in daytime, booze-free meet-ups.

“LGBT people have often been through a difficult journey. Forging connections around shared interests rather than just relying on apps can help with self-acceptance,” says Matthew Todd, author of Pride: The Story of the LGBTQ Equality Movement. “I co-run a gay and bisexual men’s discussion group. We provide a space for people to interact away from apps and bars, sometimes for the first time.”

LGBT dating - Chem sexBBC Three / iStock

The rise of chemsex

Roughly 20 years ago, the world slowly started learning about a new trend in gay sex: chemsex. The phenomenon, which sees men who have sex with men taking drugs to enhance their sexual performance and pleasure, really took off with the advent of gay dating apps, according to drug charity Addaction.

In fact, a 2014 survey of more than 1,000 gay men in three south London boroughs, found one in five respondents had engaged in chemsex in the past five years, and one in 10 had done so in the past four weeks. And earlier this year, a Global Drug Survey report of 22,000 people worldwide, found people in the UK were more likely to combine drugs with sex than those in the US, Canada, Australia or Europe - and that gay men were 1.6 times as likely as heterosexual men to have used drugs to specifically enhance sexual pleasure in the past year.

And while some have wondered whether there’s been an element of moral panic in reporting on chemsex, it’s hard to deny that a problem persists. Log in to Grindr and if you know what you're looking for, you'll find profiles sprinkled with this drug-based, in-app language, such as the capital letter T (meth’s street name Tina). 

Grindr has taken steps to address the buying, selling and promoting of drugs on its platform and encourages users to report suspicious activities. “While we are constantly improving upon this process, it is important to remember that Grindr is an open platform,” a spokesperson told NBC News last August.

“Most gay and bisexual men don’t take drugs but it’s impossible to deny that there’s a serious drug problem in our community,” says Matthew.

Pressure to be perfect

Like almost everyone who’s ever used a dating app, I’ve certainly felt pressure to lose weight, to be more muscular and to find my most flattering thirst trap angles. There’s nothing like scrolling through profile after profile of ripped, perfectly toned bodies to send you racing to the gym in a sweaty, self-conscious panic.

For LGBT people, the pressure to conform to body image standards can be particularly intense, with one survey of 5,000 readers of a gay magazine suggesting that 84% of respondents felt under intense pressure to have a good body. And we know that eating disorders disproportionately affect some segments of the community. 

Contrib MatthewBBC Three
"In the past, we didn't have so many images to judge ourselves or others by" — Matthew

“Hook-up apps have certainly made the problem of objectification worse,” says Matthew. “In the past, we didn’t have so many images to judge ourselves or others by. Now it can feel like there’s a never-ending search for the perfect body.”

Confronting racism

Racism within the LGBT community is another issue that is starting to be talked about more openly. Recent research by the charity Stonewall highlighted the scale of the problem, with half of the BAME LGBT people surveyed saying they’ve faced discrimination or poor treatment from the wider community. The situation is even worse for black LGBT people, with 61% saying they’d experienced discrimination from others.

In particular, some Grindr users have been accused of racist behaviour on the platform and last year the company launched a campaign, Kindr, encouraging its users to be nicer to each other.

Yusuf, 29, knows too well how pervasive racism can be in the LGBT dating scene.

“Being South Asian, I’ve had my fair share of incidents on dating apps, mainly racist slurs from white gay men whose messages I hadn’t answered.

“Other times I’d get the opposite reaction - white guys would message me solely because they had a fetish for brown guys. I met up with one guy and within the first five minutes he told me that he was a self-confessed 'curry muncher'. The date didn’t last very long after that.”

Contrib YusufBBC Three
"White guys would message me solely because they had a fetish for brown guys" — Yusuf

So what, if anything, can be done?

“Racism in the queer community didn't come about because of apps - it's always been there,” says Yusuf. “ I think it's unfair to pass the blame on to dating apps and expect them to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, we should be asking white gay men why they think it's still ok to call a queer person of colour a racial slur? Until we know that, I don't think much is going to change.”

Dating while trans

The situation for trans people is very different than 10 years ago, too. But despite increased visibility and media representation, prejudice and hostility are still rife.

These tensions translate to the dating sphere with trans people reportedly finding themselves either facing abuse or fetishisation. Transgender model and activist Kenny, 25, says that this forms the backdrop to his dating life. “It can be hard to find people who are genuinely interested in me, rather than just me being trans,” he says. “I’ve also had men who are struggling with their sexuality tell me they’re ‘willing to date me because I’m somewhere in the middle', because I present to the world as male. It’s so offensive.”

There are also reports of trans users suddenly finding themselves blocked on online platforms. Kenny says he knows a lot of trans people this has happened to and that they suspect that transphobic users are behind it. “When I started using apps, I put that I was trans prominently in my bio because I thought it would be easier than my account getting blocked or deactivated every other day,” he says.

Contrib KennyBBC Three / Instagram
"It can be hard to find people who are genuinely interested in me" — Kenny

Hannah, who works as a computer programmer, says she was permanently banned from a dating app in July 2018 “due to a violation of community guidelines” and although she isn’t completely sure it was because she is transgender, she thinks it might have played a role - especially after chatting with friends who have been through a similar experience.

“I am a regular person seeking to meet other people, for regular relationships, and the fact that I am not straight or cisgender should have nothing to do with that,” Hannah wrote in her complaint to the app, seen by BBC Three.

In response to similar claims made in an article for Vice about trans people banned from Tinder, a spokesperson said: “We stand behind our pledge to make sure no one is ever removed from Tinder simply because of their gender. Tinder has made a firm commitment to inclusivity, and in November 2016, we rolled out our More Genders update in an effort to further demonstrate to our users that everyone is welcome on the app."

LGBT dating - MarriageBBC Three / iStock

#Weddinggoals

LGBT Brits - apart from those in Northern Ireland - also have another path to navigate when they hit someone up for a date these days: the prospect that it could end with you both walking down the aisle. The legalisation of same-sex marriage in England, Wales and Scotland in 2014 - along with roughly 20 other countries between 2009 and 2019 - has seen tens of thousands of same-sex couples getting hitched.

So does this focus on #weddinggoals represent a break with the priorities of the past for the LGBT community and an embrace of tradition?

Dr Sterling, who married her wife in the US in 2009, recognises that same-sex marriage could be viewed as injecting an element of conservatism into queer culture.

“I know some activists don’t love the direction that gay marriage resulted in,” she says. “They envisioned the gay movement as a sexual liberation that would change the way we define family and love. They see marriage as a social construct that’s opposed to its protest spirit.”

But for Dr Sterling the decision was simple. “I didn’t marry my wife out of a wish to adhere to heterosexual norms or make a public commitment to monogamy. I married her because I love her,” she says.

Finding love isn’t easy for anyone but the pressures LGBT people face can make it even more of a minefield. Personally, I’ve been shouted at for holding hands and kissing in public - a horrible thing to go through but nothing compared to the abuse and violence others face on a regular basis. That - coupled with the years of painful repression that comes from spending your formative years hiding your true self - means it can be tough to form and navigate relationships.

From tech to same-sex marriage, things are obviously very different compared with 10 years ago but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always easier. LGBT relationships will, no doubt, continue to be messy and complicated but let’s hope that in another 10 years we’ll at least be able to live and love as ourselves - fully and without fear.