Somewhere in the depths of September, I decided to dive into the world of online dating for the first time. I relegate my actions to being single and searching for someone to yearn for during the bleak months of lockdown, but my dreams were quickly crushed. As a non-binary person, it is still impossible to exist outside the gender binary on almost every popular dating app.
When signing up to Tinder and Bumble — the two highest ranking dating apps on the Australian App Store — users are prompted to select their gender from the options ‘Man,’ ‘Woman,’ or ‘More,’ which takes them to a search bar with a wide range of gender labels. However, if a user selects a gender label like non-binary, a new, mandatory menu pops up below, forcing them to choose if they’d like to be included in searches for ‘Men’ or ‘Women.’
This leaves non-binary and gender nonconforming people in an uncomfortable position with limited options — we can either essentialise ourselves into binary gender categories in order to use the app, or be pretty much excluded from the online dating world altogether.
There is a clear monopoly in the yearning market, and let’s just say, I’m in jail.
This exclusion should not come as a surprise — dating apps have a well-reported history of operating in transphobic ways, with platforms like Vice and SBS reporting the banning of trans people’s accounts without justification and failing to respond to reports of harassment and trolling of trans users.
However, with social media allyship to LGBTQIA+ communities becoming central to the brand of many of these companies, I perhaps naively believed the apps themselves had changed. Tinder features endorsements from many queer and trans celebrities all over their socials, as well as highly viewed informational videos about LGBTQIA+ identities on their Youtube channel, including a video about non-binary identity I, quite literally, watched months ago while exploring my gender. Tinder and Bumble have also, in recent years, introduced features to be more ‘inclusive’ to queer people — such as the ability to see people of the same sexual orientation as you first on Tinder, and sexuality, gender and pronouns becoming built in to profile categories on many more apps.
However, the fact that non-binary gender identities still cannot exist inside the algorithms of these apps exposes the limits of superficial changes to actually make dating apps into welcoming spaces that work with LGBTQIA+ users in mind. While queer understandings of gender and sexuality that question binaries and biological essentialism are becoming more and more visible in many communities, particularly online, Tinder and Bumble’s algorithms still structure the world of their apps according to the reductive assumption that every person, and the people they are attracted to, can be easily categorised into binary gender categories. These algorithms and their way of thinking about gender have a powerful influence, shaping the online dating lives of millions of users in Australia alone.
In theory, the solution to this is simple. Just in October, Hinge — another top-ranking dating app — released an update to its gender identity options. Hinge users can now ask to be seen in searches for ‘Non-binary,’ as well as further customise their preferences to e.g. specifically ‘Women’ and ‘Non-binary’ instead of simply ‘Everyone.’
The ease with which this added gender category functions on Hinge hollows out any functional excuse for Tinder and Bumble’s lack of gender options. However, tacking the ‘Non-binary’ gender category onto the existing structure of these apps fails to consider that, perhaps, many of the issues that LGBTQIA+ people have with these dating apps are because their algorithms centre almost entirely around gender.
Firstly, it still positions gender identity as the most important part of attraction, no matter how many genders they add, failing to acknowledge that attraction is complex and multifaceted and that for many of us, someone’s gender label is far less important than other aspects of their being. Secondly, it produces a strict and categorical way of looking at the genders of others I would argue doesn’t reflect the messy, nuanced way we perceive gender and fall for each other in lived reality.
The algorithmic exclusion of non-binary people from dating apps provides us with an opportunity to imagine what dating apps actually made with LGBTQIA+ people in mind could look like. What if we had a dating app that was focussed on the complexity of attraction and considered our many facets as people? What if gender wasn’t even part of the algorithm? What new kinds of connections would that app make possible? What norms of gender would that perpetuate? What world would it be actively shaping into being? Is that not the world many of us — and not just LGBTQIA+ people — want?
Alas, until that app exists, I’ll stick to yearning in the real world.