Let’s be real: If you aren’t on dating apps, you’re going to have a very hard time finding someone to love (or hook up with).
Unfortunately, the apps aren’t the most welcoming place for trans men and women. Mainstream apps like Tinder, Grindr and OkCupid have been slow to recognize the needs of their trans users. It wasn’t until 2016 that Tinder made it possible for users to specify gender identities like “transgender,” “trans man,” “trans woman” and “gender queer.”
Apps that do cater to trans men and women leave a lot to desired; Transdr, one of the better-known apps, has been called a “hot mess” for use of multiple derogatory terms in both advertisements for the app and on the app itself.
And even if you do find a match on an app, dating IRL can pose very real threats. Though roughly 1.4 million Americans identify as transgender, there’s still a widespread lack of understanding of trans issues among the general public. And sadly, transphobia is on the rise; 2017 was the deadliest year for transgender people, with at least 28 deaths tracked by the Human Rights Campaign.
There are bright spots, though: The creators of @_personals_, an Instagram account for lesbian, queer, transgender, and non-binary people looking for love via an old-school classifieds approach, are currently crowdfunding in the hopes of building an app. And in September, OkCupid became the first mainstream dating app to add a dedicated space on profiles for the LGBTQ+ community to state their pronouns.
To get a better understanding of what it’s like out there, below, we talk to three trans men and women about their dating life, how they stay optimistic and what dating apps need to do to become more inclusive.
How would you describe your experiences online dating? Do you mention that you’re trans in your profile?
Christiana Rose, a 24-year-old YouTuber from St. Louis: On my bio, I do address that I am transgender because I find it easier to weed out the guys who aren’t interested in me right away. There have been a lot of off-putting experiences anyway. The biggest issue I have is when guys jump right into asking what’s in my pants ― it’s so inappropriate and disrespectful. Also, tons of guys only look at you as a fetish, and honestly, that’s what really hurts. I’m a woman, not your sexual fantasy.
Dawn Dismuke, a 22-year-old YouTuber and aspiring model based in Los Angeles, California: Once men find out that the woman in the default picture is transgender, all respect flies out the window. They start asking disrespectful questions like, “Do you still have your male parts?” As if that’s ever OK to do! You instantly become a fetish. Online dating is difficult enough as it is, but as a transgender woman, it’s even worse.
Jackson Bird, the 28-year-old host of the podcast “Transmission” and the YouTube series “Queer Story,” who lives in New York City: If you disclose that you’re trans right away in your profile, that’s good because anyone who has a problem with that won’t even approach you. But it also means you might get people who fetishize trans people and are only interested in you because you’re trans. But then if you don’t disclose... when do you? It gets scarier and scarier the longer you don’t tell them.
The pleasant surprises are when you find fellow trans people on the apps. Even if you’re not into each other, it’s refreshing to just chat and vent about the shit you’ve both been seeing on the app.
Do you ever try to meet people off the apps?
Christiana: I’ve actually never dated in real life. I only go on dates after meeting online and disclosing that I’m transgender. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable telling a guy at a bar or anywhere you meet guys. Trans hate crimes are still a big problem in the community and my sisters and I are at risk of being killed or beat up for living as our true selves just because someone isn’t comfortable.
Dawn: As a trans woman of color, it definitely feels a lot safer and a lot easier to date online because it’s easier to come out as trans by pasting it on your profile and have them already know what they’re getting themselves into. Otherwise, you have to build up the courage to tell them eventually in person. Every person has a right to know who they’re laying their heads next to!
Jackson: I prefer to meet people through mutual friends. Even with all of the person’s personal information out there on the internet, they still feel too much like strangers. I think I still have that stranger danger mentality from growing up. Plus, did I mention I suck at making a move? I’m hopeless. It’s much better for me to be explicitly set up by friends or have a real slow burn with a crush I met in person first. In-person can be tricky, though, because then you don’t know when to disclose your trans status. And for me, as someone who is very public about being trans online, I never know if I should just assume they’ve Googled me and found out. Sometimes I’m just sitting there wondering if they know or not and, if they don’t, how disappointed will they be if I tell them.
If app developers want to make dating sites a more welcoming space for the transgender community, what changes should they make?
Jackson: Well, I definitely don’t like apps that let people you haven’t approved message you. Like on Tinder, you have to both have swiped right to be able to message. That simple level of consent cuts out a ton of the harassing or gross messages trans people might get from randos.
Apps that haven’t expanded their gender and sexuality options beyond the standard binary options, what are you even doing? How’s a nonbinary person supposed to use your app if there isn’t even an option for their gender?
Dawn: At first dating apps weren’t giving women who were trans the option to have “transgender” as their identifier, but now they’ve stepped their game up and applied it! I also think users should have the option on an app to choose if they’re seeking a trans man or woman so they have easier access to matching with us.
Christiana: I honestly don’t want a “looking for transgender” option on dating apps ― I feel like it would be used for more guys trying to treat us as a fetish! Tinder does need to be more inclusive, though. Tons of trans people, including me, get kicked off Tinder temporarily because guys don’t read your bio and see you’re trans so they unmatch or report you. If that happens enough, your account gets flagged for review and you can get banned for too many reports.
Jackson: Overall, I think every social app could benefit from continual, dynamic improvement to their abuse reporting systems. Abuse, harassment, spam and more are going to happen on every platform no matter what. Your app will stand out by how it handles those situations when they occur, not by trying to act like they don’t.
What’s your best advice for someone who’s never dated a transgender person? And looking forward, what approach should they take when navigating sex?
Jackson: Do your research. Google some basics on trans issues. Read articles and watch videos by actual trans people. Remember that it’s not your date’s job (or any trans person’s job) to educate you. And don’t make a big deal out of it.
If and when it comes to having sex, ask them if anything is off limits and how to refer to different parts of their body. This kind of open communication is good for any sexual relationship, but doubly important with trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming folks. Also, start challenging yourself on how you think about gender, both your own and other people’s. What does it mean for people who aren’t women to have vulvas and people who aren’t men to have dicks? Challenge yourself to think about sexual attraction beyond genitals and with more focus on the complete human.
Dawn: Be openminded and develop thick skin because people will talk negatively about you for dating a trans person. When you find out the person is trans and you’re OK with it, don’t go asking personal questions right away unless they say it’s OK when you ask permission. And if you aren’t OK with them being trans, just be nice about it and kindly say you aren’t open to it. There’s no need to be rude and call names! Once I was chatting with a guy online, and he had no clue I was transgender at all. I was very scared because I thought he wouldn’t be interested in me based on my past experiences. I was wrong about him. He was very sweet and said he didn’t care because all he saw was a woman. It didn’t matter to him what my past was.
Christiana: Treat them like you would any other cisgendered girl or guy. We don’t want to be the freak you tried to date and treating us differently makes us feel that way. Be careful what you ask; asking if they have had surgery could be triggering or upsetting to some trans people. And if gets to sex, hopefully you’ve gotten to the point where you guys can have a conversation about limits but just keep an open mind.
“"It’s annoying how many guys think it’s OK for the first message to be asking about what body parts I have."”- Christiana Rose, a 24-year-old YouTuber from St. Louis
In one word, how would you describe dating as a transgender person in 2018?
Christiana: Annoying. It’s annoying that guys on dating apps feel the need to try and tell you about yourself. I get tons of messages from guys who aren’t educated saying, “You’re not a woman. Stop playing in mommy’s makeup and take the dress off.” And it’s annoying how many guys think it’s OK for the first message to be asking about what body parts I have.
Jackson: Nerve-wracking. I mean, this is totally just my opinion and maybe it’s not the most accurate read on the climate, but I do have to say that it’s pretty dang nerve-wracking to not know if your date is someone who will be cool with you being trans, awkward about it or want to murder you. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are bigots using dating apps to find trans people so they can harass us online or potentially assault us in person. That’s why I generally try to date queer people and friends of friends so I can be fairly confident they’re cool with trans people.
Dawn: Hard. It’s hard because you never know who has good intentions for you. You don’t know who is going to treat you with respect like any other woman and who’s just using you for your body.
What’s your sexual orientation? What types of people do you find yourself attracted to most, in terms of how they identify?
Jackson: I’m bisexual (meaning attracted to people of the same and different genders to mine — so I’m attracted to agender, nonbinary, etc. folks as well, not just men and women), but I tend to only feel comfortable around people who identify as being a part of the queer community in some way. Whether or not it’s true, I get scared that a cisgender straight woman or cisgender gay man would be disappointed by, confused by or even disgusted with my body. I don’t write them off completely, but I am cautious.
Dawn: I used to only be attracted to men who identified as straight but now I’ve opened to men who identify as bisexual. With them, I still usually get that masculine touch that I need, but they also aren’t expecting unrealistic things from me and are generally more open-minded! I stay clear from closed-minded jerks who ask questions like, “So do you still have your male parts?”
Christiana: I identify as a straight woman. I find myself interested in straight guys! I don’t really have a type. I do stay away from guys who have been with other trans girls. I do not want a guy who sleeps with trans girls as a fetish.
If you’re looking for long-term love, what do you want most from a partner?
Christiana: I would love a long-term relationship. My wants are simple: I don’t want to be the secret that he’s hiding. I want to meet his friends and family. I don’t want him to try and hide that I am trans. I have come a long way, and I’m proud of that.
Dawn: It’s pretty simple for me, too: I want honesty, trustworthiness and respect. If there’s no trust or respect in the relationship, then we have absolutely nothing.
Jackson: I’m a hopeless monogamist so yeah, I’m in it for a long-term partner. I just want someone I can be myself around and who is comfortable doing the same. I really love the word “partner” because that equality and balance are exactly what I want in a relationship. I think the greatest relationships are when you bring out the best in each other and can laugh together, collaborate on projects, really share your lives and be so much more than just romantic partners. This naive idealization is perhaps why I’m single.
What advice would you give to other transgender people who are apprehensive dating and presenting authentic selves in general?
Christiana: I would tell them to be open about who they are from the get-go. If you’re reading this and just coming to terms with being transgender, know you’re beautiful and you don’t need to put up with people treating you differently on dating apps — you will find love and you are lovable. I know that’s what I was scared about most.
Dawn: I would say don’t be afraid because there’s always going to be someone out there who will cherish you for you. It just takes some time ― everyone has someone!
Jackson: Honestly? I think I need advice myself.