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Gay Dating App Grindr Wants to Turn Users On to Politics

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, September 6 2012

The people behind Grindr, the location-based mobile dating app for gay men, announced today that they will be inserting political advocacy into a mobile platform more often associated with one-night stands.

According to the announcement, Grindr will push location-based, in-app messages asking users to take action as part of an initiative called Grindr for Equality.

Grindr boasts 1.5 million users around the country and is making this announcement as a wide variety of issues affecting LGBT Americans will be on the ballot nationwide. For example, legislation or constitutional amendments in four states would affect same-sex marriage. So maybe politics isn't out of a dating app's league after all.

“We must elect not only a president but representatives and senators who are supportive of our community and our equality,” said Joel Simkhai, founder and CEO of Grindr, according to a blog post on the company's website. “Local elections have national impact, so we want to use Grindr as a tool for mobilizing and connecting gay men around the country to help make a combined national impact.”

Grindr actually gave this idea a soft launch at SXSW last year, said Scott Zumwalt, an online consultant who managed the It Gets Better Project, an advocacy initiative in support of LGBT youth.

Ken Priore, a member of Grindr's management team, said Thursday that the company had also been active around Proposition 8 in California, which eliminated the right of same-sex couples to marry, and around marriage equality in New York. Grindr for Equality will ask users of the application to get informed about local and national issues.

"It is a community unto itself," Priore said of Grindr. "It's about romantic connections, [but] it's also about the larger gay community. And if there's one thing the gay community has been, it's often been political."

One might wonder how it is that users who open an app looking for love will decide instead to take political action. But in-platform advocacy on Grindr will stand a good chance of reaching new potential activists, Zumwalt said.

"One of the major issues in LGBT advocacy is that we oftentimes preach to the choir," Zumwalt told me by phone Thursday. "It's the same number of activists who have the same friends on Facebook, the same followers on Twitter. I'm a firm believer that we need to expand our reach both within our own audience and especially in a straight audience."

And while Grindr might have a reputation as a tool for gay men looking to hook up — US News & World Report calls it a "gay sex app" in a blog post headline today — it has other uses. In areas where cultural prejudice makes it difficult to be out, for example, or where distance makes it hard to build community, psychotherapist Melissa Ritter wrote in June, being able to go on Grindr and see that there are in fact other gay men in the area can be reassuring. And not everyone who uses the app for dating is using it for one-night stands, its users attest.

So maybe, thinking of Grindr less as a place where no strings are attached and more as a place that ties people together by location and by shared aspects of their identities, political advocacy there isn't such a crazy idea.

"There are four states in this election that are taking on the freedom to marry," Zumwalt said. "People in those states need to focus on those initiatives. If people have friends and family that live in those states they should ask them to support equality in those states. Not everything is limited to the freedom to marry."

For instance, employment discrimination, adoption rights and health benefits could all be campaign issues, Zumwalt said. In its announcement, Grindr specifically mentioned Minnesota, where a constitutional amendment precluding same-sex marriage will be on the ballot in November that LGBT rights advocates suspect they'll be able to defeat.

This is the latest example of a platform company taking a political stand and asking its users to come along for the ride. It was validated as a political tactic earlier this year when a wide cross-section of Internet companies, from Wikipedia to Tumblr, interrupted users' experience on their sites to ask them to call Congress and protest the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Grindr is taking the same broad concept and promising to apply it at the state and local level, using its knowledge of users' locations to push them the most relevant information. Priore said that unlike advocacy around SOPA, where companies asked users to take a specific side, Grindr will focus on encouraging people to be informed.

"We take the position that an informed community is going to make the right decision," he said.

This post has been updated to include comments from Ken Priore, who was reached Thursday afternoon.