I don't claim to be a pioneer of the online dating world, despite my great age. I do, however, remember a time when BB meant bulletin board and the advent of the gay chat rooms was the great leap forward. Now I don't even know how much people still use those chats, but that isn't necessarily because I have sped ahead and moved on to other things, either. I've just moved from looking to, well, just looking, and those apps on your (okay my) smart phone are lovely for that. But let's take a moment to look back at the olden days before plunging headlong into the present.
When I first ventured into those chat rooms, disclosing one's HIV status was not the norm. Very few included their status in their profiles, other than those usual intolerant "D&D Free, UB2" statements, and the chat room reserved for Poz guys, at least on the Priape Chat that was my go-to, was most often empty (and you could see by nicknames who was in it, so that probably explains the emptiness). The disclosure, if there was one, took place in a private conversation with someone. I actually used that forum to test out my disclosure skills, as being rejected by someone with a fake name whose photo I couldn't see and who couldn't see mine was not nearly as hard to take as the face-to-face rejection you could go find in a club.
Fast forward to now and there are some interesting things going on via those apps. A lot more people are disclosing their HIV+ status in profiles that include head shots and often with some very clever text to accompany the news. I am also seeing more and more discussion (or notation, at least) of PrEP and declarations of openness from HIV negative guys. A couple of my recent favourites:
“HIV neutral, ub2. Life’s too short to be a douche.”
“Status I am STD free…and I want to keep it negative for life…But I’m not serophobic!”
I have three of these apps on my phone, each with its own advantages.
Grindr, probably the most used historically at least, now allows you to choose "poz" as one (or more) of your "tribes", but offers kind of a limited space to express yourself. The casual reader (notice how I have turned myself into a "reader" of profiles – sounds so much less offensive than "creeper", no?) has to click through to see the "tribes" and any other details you choose to share, including your brief texts, divided into "Headline" and "About me". The boys (oops, did I say that out loud?) tend to be younger on Grindr, with the usual exceptions. Downsides: you can't see who has looked at your profile (not with the free version, anyway), but (upside) you can creep away with impunity, even mark your favourites to keep track of their distance from you at all times, not that I would ever do such a thing.
Also of note: Grindr has won awards for the accuracy of its geolocation aspect. As an aside, I happened to be having a drink (or was it dinner?) on a patio in Toronto many years ago with my dedicated PositiveLite editor and I was showing him how Grindr worked. Much to our surprise and delight, and no small amount of embarrassment on the part of this WASP, the guy who showed up as being "a few steps away" was actually seated at the next table!
Scruff is probably my favourite of the apps for the level of self-expression it permits (oh, and scruffy guys are a big plus for me, so that helps). No, not everyone writes a short story that gives you a glimpse into their personality and some do write a novella that you have to be really dedicated (or entertained) to make it through, but the option is there and enough guys take the time to express themselves that it makes for good reading sometimes. That's where I have found gems like these:
"You wanna know if I'm 'clean'? Just so happens I shower every morning, I brush my teeth and even put on fresh underwear every day! I also happen to be Poz."
“Your tested date means only one thing…you have no idea about HIV. Post you’re on PrEP then it will show you’re responsible.”
Scruff also allows you to identify yourself as Poz with a click and to identify that you are interested in Poz guys with a click, but I think the open-ended text areas are the most fun and interesting. Scruff also offers a couple of services like "woofs" and "would you meet"…you can see who has woofed you, but I don't know how exactly the "would you meet" function works, as I have never used it…and I guess no one has wanted to meet me…*sob*. Scruff also has several screens…international, which seems to pluck people at random from around the world (or maybe it's the most looked-at profiles?), local, by distance from oneself, and then the favourites, which allows for that stalking thing we don't ever do, right? And on that note, the other plus (or minus?) of Scruff: you can see who has looked at your profile and look back at theirs – really the closest thing to classic cruising that I have seen on an electronic device.
The third one I have on my phone is Hornet. Hornet has a few of the same limitations in terms of the space that is provided for self-expression, but it has two exceptional features and another one that I will discuss in greater depth after gushing about the first two. First, you can add multiple public and private photos to your profile. Okay, not completely unknown, but the ease of scrolling through them, I believe, is unmatched. I also can't decide whether the "Explore" feature trumps even that photo aspect: it allows you to search by the name of a place anywhere in the world and then explore the Hornet profiles in the general vicinity. Planning a vacation and don't want to be lonely? Want to anticipate the eye candy? This may be the app for you.
The feature I want to talk about more is called KYS (know your status). It is an optional feature by which you can choose to disclose the date of your last test and the result. It's interesting to be able to see the testing frequency (or recentness) of some of the guys, but, like the Scruff comment above, it might not tell you much about your status today, depending on what you've been doing since a few weeks before that last test. I tried to use this feature to disclose of my status and made it public, but it does not show up on my profile when I look for it. I wrote to the company to complain about that and was told that it shows up fine on an iPhone (I'm on Android), but none of the umpteen software updates that have eaten into my data quota since I wrote to them has fixed the problem. And come to think of it, I don't think I've ever seen a KYS that says the guy is positive. Protecting us from ourselves, Hornet? I have gone on to incorporate that into the brief text which is allowed for me to write "about me", but I have apparently not let go of the bitterness!
Probably the most surprising feature of all of these apps is the possibility to have a brief chat with someone you might not otherwise have the occasion to meet. I haven't been using the apps to actually meet people (as my profile on each of them says, "Not looking, just looking"), but I have had some rewarding and heartbreaking chats. An inquiry from a poz guy in France who was thinking of moving to Montréal and wanted to get information about immigration to Canada as a poz guy. Someone local for whom this was the first time he'd had a discussion about HIV with someone who actually has it. A guy in Morocco who hadn't been tested, but who I was able to assure of the openness of the local organization, which works with gay men despite the institutionalized homophobia in the country's laws. A recent trip to Burundi yielded both an occasion to share information about what treatments are like, especially in a developed country like Canada, and the worst heartbreak in the form of a young gay man in Uganda who was just hoping to live more freely somewhere else where, in his words, "gayism is legal".
So you see, I am not just stalking when I open up those apps on my phone – I'm educating, I'm observing the dynamics of communication around HIV in this new electronic context. Oh, and if you're into that sort of thing, I understand they can also be used to meet guys and have sex. ;-)
(This article is also published on PositiveLite.com)
UPDATE! The people from Hornet have contacted me anew to express their concern that the KYS positive status affirmations seem not to be visible on Android phones. I have to admire their reactivity and I’m looking forward to seeing this fixed in a future app update.
Second UPDATE! I can now see my status on my profile in Hornet. Excellent and efficient responsiveness. Thanks!