Toggling queerness: Code-switching on dating apps

Rhiannon Ní Chinnéide explores the heteronormativity of mainstream dating apps and offers some useful alternatives for those who are tired of changing themselves to fit this mould

A year after discovering that I was queer, I downloaded my first dating app. Being only 15, my app of choice was one called Yellow – later renamed Yubo – which was marketed to teenagers as a place to “make friends” and “meet new people”. Conveniently, this app mimicked the swipe-and-match interface of Tinder and Bumble, so it was no surprise that my peers and I used it for the same purpose. Now, at 22 years old, I have accumulated a delightful and shameful eight years of experience on the apps, which, for better or for worse, has taught me several things about digital dating.

First and foremost, I have learned that creating your profile is a delicate art. You should include a bio, but it shouldn’t be too long or too short. List your interests, but don’t be too basic – no “pints”, “TV”, or “music”. It’s best to have at least two attractive photos (to prove you’re not a monster), one funny one (to prove you’re not too serious), and one taken with friends (to prove you’re not a loner). Miniscule details such as cringe-worthy Snapchat filters or unflattering angles could be the difference between a potential match swiping left or right. Because of this, we all make sure to put our best foot forward and present the most attractive version of ourselves on dating apps. This subtle manipulation of our own presentation conveniently pushes the parts of ourselves we deem least desirable to the background, letting us switch between our real and refined selves at whim.

“Queer people experience an added pressure to code-switch when using the apps”

This strategically selective process is, in my opinion, a digital form of code-switching. Code-switching, while originally a term used in linguistics to describe alternating between two or more languages, has taken on a second, colloquial meaning in recent years. It now also refers to the process of intentionally presenting or concealing certain parts of your identity, such as ethnicity or sexuality, to best adapt to specific situations and gain social approval. While everyone on dating apps is doing this to some extent, I believe that queer people experience an added pressure to code-switch when using the apps, as we are a minority within an overwhelmingly heteronormative user base. 

From the queer men in my life, I have learned that there is often pressure for queer men to conceal their more effeminate traits while dating, as they are often expected to perform masculinity if they want to find a partner. Although this issue is prevalent among queer men dating other men, it is especially pertinent for those dating women. The pressure to present an edited version of the self causes queer people to code-switch when using the apps, reducing themselves to an acceptable, heteronormative version of who they actually are. In my own experience, I have found this process of reduction to be a tiresome effort. As someone who has dated various genders, I’ve learned that different demographics require different approaches, whether it’s the way I communicate, the pictures I choose to feature, or the parts of my personality I choose to highlight. Over time, I have noticed that I tend to code-switch depending on both the gender I am swiping on, and the app that I am using.

On mainstream dating apps, there is more of a need for code-switching as its users are a mixture of queer and straight people, and there is a greater sense of heteronormativity built into their interfaces. Take Bumble, for instance. Its interface was designed with only straight couples in mind, as its unique selling point of women texting first becomes redundant and impossible to implement when it comes to same-gender couples. Oversights like this alienate queer users and make queer-centred apps much more desirable to us. While Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge are the most-used mainstream dating apps, HER and Grindr are two popular queer alternatives. For those who are monosexual, i.e. individuals who are attracted to a singular gender only, such as gay or straight people, the mainstream apps can be a perfectly viable option. However, for those dating beyond the binary, there is a bit more to consider. Apps that are exclusively queer are often favoured by this demographic as they offer a much more comfortable environment for their users, and centre queer people as the rule and not the exception.

As someone who has used both mainstream and queer apps, my experience has varied greatly depending on which box I tick under “looking for: men, women, or all”. When I am presenting myself to men, I often find myself reduced to a heteronormative, 2D version of myself, but when I am presenting for women and non-binary people, I feel more comfortable being authentically myself and expressing my queerness freely. Because of this, queer dating apps have always provided a more authentic experience for me, and require less effort when it comes to code-switching. 

Internalised gender roles also have a significant impact on the ways in which I code-switch. I have often felt boxed in by the role thrust upon me when I date straight men. Having to be the “woman” to someone’s “man” changes how I present myself and how I behave on the apps, from selecting more revealing photos to being more hypersexual when messaging. However, when I am dating other queer people, I am not restricted to this gender role, and I am given the freedom to be unapologetically myself (or as much as I can be on a dating app). While historically men have appreciated the highly feminised, heteronormative version of me, my fellow women tend to appreciate a more authentic presentation, which is more achievable on queer-centred apps as they were not designed with only straight couples in mind.

On the mainstream apps, I find myself constantly code-switching between a “straight” and a “gay” version of me, toggling my queerness on and off. While this is ultimately, the product of a heteronormative society, what could help prevent this issue is a reimagining of the dating app interface altogether. If we were to design an app which doesn’t reduce people to such finite versions of who they truly are, many of us wouldn’t feel forced to “pick a side” when it comes to queer dating.  

So long as dating apps exist in the format that they currently do, their users will have to continue bending themselves to the whims of the app’s features and reducing their identities to easily digestible profiles with little room for nuance. What queer dating apps succeed at, is reducing this effort, at least marginally, as their features are not entrenched in heteronormative ideas of dating. To any queer students reading this, I would suggest that you ditch Tinder for HER, and Bumble for Grindr, so you too can spend less time presenting yourself within the rigid constructs of heteronormativity, and more time finding matches as your genuine self.