America is still racist. Growing extremism on social media and sobering images of white nationalist violence have quashed some of the idealistic expectations set in place in the early aughts. It is disheartening today to witness critical political decisions being made on the advice of racist apologists.
Perhaps because of this context, perhaps because of our zeal for acceptance by mainstream culture, or perhaps because of something atavistic, segments of the LGBTQ community are equally plagued by racism. Screenshots of conversations on apps can now unmistakably render what might previously have been dismissed.
Scruff has enjoyed its status as one of the largest and highest-rated social dating apps for GBTQ men since our launch in 2010. With more than 14 million members, our app touches a deeply personal part of gay emotional life. As the CEO of Scruff, I believe the question we face today, in 2018, is whether the inclusion of ethnicity and/or race in a dating profile buoys a broader culture of racism, and whether the expression of racial preferences in profile text is itself sexual racism. Put another way: Does racism begin only at the point of full-throated discrimination? Is the expression of racial or ethnic preferences in dating and hookups racism? And are the two equivalent?
There is honest disagreement over these questions, and this disagreement is made more fraught because gay men who have had personal experiences of marginalization are now being asked to confront and challenge their own prejudices. People who never would have genuinely considered race as a factor in employment, friendships, neighbors, or other areas are now being asked to question the racial components of their sexual and dating preferences. Such discomfort, however, does not excuse the suffering of the numerous LGBTQ minorities, looking for the same emotional and physical connections but subjected to numerous forms of online racism.
I can answer these questions personally: I do believe that racial preferences in dating can rightly be labeled as sexual racism, and when racial language is found in online dating profiles, extreme racism is brought one step closer to being acceptable. I also believe that racism is systemic and nuanced, and more complicated than a simple binary of “racists” and “nonracists.”
That said, the social dating app universe is much bigger than myself and is shaped by the opinions, experiences and reactions of everyone who participates. As a business, Scruff wants to act thoughtfully in fostering a dialogue that listens to and values all of these perspectives.
Historically, Scruff has always allowed members to enter their ethnicity, and since 2013 has allowed members to search their nearby grid by numerous factors, ethnicity included. Since 2015, Scruff has unlocked extra profiles in the nearby grid to guys who filled out their entire profile. Ethnicity was one of about a dozen such fields that constituted a complete profile. At no time was a statement of ethnicity ever required to use Scruff. When Scruff implemented these features, they were a standard followed by numerous online social and dating services. We adopted the ethnicities defined by the U.S. Census and considered the feature complete.
As of our latest release, Scruff has started sending in-app messaging to profiles in the United States with racial language in their descriptions. The messaging looks like this:
We hope to increase the awareness of and conversation about issues of race and discrimination on our app and in the community at large. As part of our effort to be more responsive to queer voices of color, we conducted applied research and interviewed queer men of color, who strongly indicated to our team that racial language, including both negative (“I don’t date …”) and affirmative (“I only date …”), have made them feel frequently objectified, often excluded, and sometimes dehumanized.
We have faith in the sincerity of Scruff members to find and foster meaningful connections. Furthermore, we value our role in bringing together a diverse and caring group of men who are ultimately seeking community and love. The time has come for us to take a moment, shine a light on the consequences of racial words, and encourage a broader conversation.
In addition to these new notifications, Scruff will no longer show ethnicity by default. Only members who include data about their own ethnicity will see ethnicity metadata on other profiles. On this point, we again understand that people disagree, and because of this our approach will continue to evolve as we listen and learn more.
There are many forms of discrimination, racism being one. Ageism is a problem in our community, as are body- and slut-shaming, and discrimination based on HIV status. Discrimination is also a global phenomenon, not just confined to the U.S. In the coming quarters, we plan on taking steps to expand our knowledge of LGBTQ discrimination and mores globally. We thank everyone who continues to be a member of our community, especially those of you who have been with us for so many years. I also acknowledge Scruff's critics, who hold Scruff to high standards of conduct and point out where we can do better. The founders, creators, and employees of Scruff all feel a duty to our members and to the global LGBTQ community, and do our best to meet and surpass those high standards every day. We are grateful for the trust our community has placed in us and hope, by encouraging more empathy, we can ensure the connections made on Scruff are rooted in tolerance, respect, and love.
ERIC SILVERBERG is CEO of the Scruff app.