Prejudice. Exclusion. Difficulty in educational access. Inability to find work. Violation of rights. These are some of the daily challenges faced by transgender people. In spite of the various initiatives and projects aimed at this population in the areas of social welfare (health, social assistance and social security), education, labor and public safety, more visibility has also lead to stronger opposition.
Such a duality of advances and setbacks also persists in the online environment. Transgender people have used the Internet as a tool to combat social isolation, marginalization and the lack of access to health, economic and legal information, creating safe virtual networks and communities where they can exercise fundamental rights and freedoms, have access to critical information to build knowledge, express thoughts and beliefs and to mobilize for change.
Among the various subspaces within the Internet ecosystem, one has radically changed the way people relate: dating apps. These applications were developed to allow users to interact, socialize, and meet others through their interface. For better or worse, the growth in the use of new technologies, especially smartphones, has changed many facets of our society, including the way people establish romantic relationships. For cisgender people, it is now easier to date and hook up. However, for those who identify as transgender, online dating is much more complicated.
The first identified problem relates to the platforms themselves: having been designed in a binary way, most apps lack a real variety of sexual orientation and gender identities for users to choose (Tinder, Happn and Badoo, to name a few). ‘Real name’ policies also pose an issue for transgender people, who are susceptible as well to collection of a large amount of personal data by private companies, such as the age-rank of people the user is interested in, when and where every online conversation happens. Grindr, a dating app for the LGBT+ community, has shared information regarding HIV status from its users with third parties. Nevertheless, the app recently announced it would stop sharing this information.
Secondly, this kind of data confidentiality in dating apps is even more relevant to people living in countries where prejudice is strong and the community is extremely persecuted by the government: the simple use of these platforms can endanger the lives of users. Increased surveillance and monitoring techniques, content regulation, filtering mechanisms and even death penalties for accessing LGBT+ content online are some of the challenges brought to light by online access.
Access to personal data from dating apps has motivated state persecution and the platforms’ policies are not satisfactory when dealing with practices of data sharing with government or law enforcement authorities. These policies generally include generic terms that provide hardly any guarantees to users. Experts also argue that when a data request is considered illegitimate, the platform operator should deny the request and, to the extent that it is possible, challenge it before a relevant court. With these findings, it is clear that dating apps have an active duty to improve their terms of service and guard their customers’ data vis-à-vis third parties.
Lastly, besides these vulnerabilities that users have before the platforms and governments, there is also the exposure to other users of the apps. It is not unusual for transgender individuals to be contacted in a hurtful, sexualizing, objectifying, fetishizing and reductionist way and furthermore, they do not have a proper response by the platform, being unfairly blocked, reported or deleted [trigger warning] due to their identities.
You may have come to this part of the post thinking the scenario is desolate for the trans community in the online environment, and in some cases it can be. But there are a lot of people fighting back to change this current state. In recent years we have witnessed the emergence of several resources, guides and organisations that helps the trans community to use new technologies in a secure form, and also give tips on how to protect yourself when the virtual flirting evolves into a real date. When it comes specifically to dating apps, some applications designed for transgender people have been launched. OkCupid, for instance, introduced over 10 gender options and had a crowdsource tool to better explain the new terms. These shows that trans people are striving to develop comfortable places to meet and date without judgment and are creating necessary alternatives to the mainstreams apps that are usually developed for a cisgender public.
It is important to stress that the trans community is still academically marginalized, even in broader debates about gender, and that this post has an exploratory spirit. For you, readers, feel free to contact us if you would like to exchange references, experiences and any other material you find useful.
Júlia Knauer, LL.M. Candidate, Tillburg University
Luã Fergus, Research Assistant, Center for Technology & Society (CTS) at FGV