Last year, after teeter-tottering between being fetishized for my size and fending off more than my fair share of nasty fatphobic messages, I finally hit my limit. I declared dating app bankruptcy and deleted them all in one fell swoop. During this time, I was dealing with a lot of internal turmoil, too — coming to terms with being queer and feeling unsure of my gender.
After a healthy bout of soul searching and working through my gender dysphoria with my therapist and friends, I came to the conclusion that I was a non-binary femme — not identifying with either gender, but enjoying presenting femme outwardly. My newfound comfort in my identity coupled with my ever-present libido had me feeling ready to step into my main character arc as an enby baddie. So, I gamely decided to give online dating another go, only to be pretty disappointed with what I found.
Many Dating Apps Have Added Gender & Orientation Options, But Their Filters Don't Always Work As Intended
I re-downloaded a handful of apps — Feeld, OkCupid, BLK, and Tinder — to get a full breadth of experiences. Although Feeld isn’t the most racially diverse platform that I’ve used, I will say that it was the first to make me feel comfortable with identifying as Non-Binary on apps, as the platform was already fairly inclusive and offers a range of gender options.
On OkCupid, I was able to properly identify myself as enby and also choose to be shown only queer men, non-men, and non-cisgendered people — folks who would have a better understanding of my identity and experience. However, straight men were still being put on my radar left and right as potential matches, a filter issue that other users have reported as well.
The BLK app allowed me to properly select my gender, but I couldn't select who I wanted to be seen by. As a result, I had an influx of likes from cishet men in Nike tech suits and Timb boots whose profiles announced they were looking for “real women”' followed by other transphobic comments and an alarmingly large amount of emojis in their bios.
Most apps had clearly taken steps to improve their gender options and orientation filters since I'd last been on them a year ago, but in my experience, making those selections didn't radically affect who I was seeing or who was seeing me.
“Being able to filter out partners by sexual orientation and gender is literally the bare minimum,” says 26-year-old educator and basketball coach Sonya G. “If I only want to be shown to women or non-binary folx, why would I want cis men to be able message me?”
Some dating apps, such as Tinder, seemingly have a visible presence of non-cis folks, but it comes with a catch. Bianca L., a 24-year-old grad student, feels that the app is reductive in how it displays someone’s gender.
“Tinder has a lot of gender and sexuality options, but in the end, the situation is like, ‘We know you said you’re trans, but do you want to be in the woman category or the men category?’ You have to make that choice, and it pigeonholes you,” Bianca says.
Emotional Toll Of Being Othered on Dating Apps
For 30-year-old program facilitator Lauren D., being openly non-binary on dating apps has lead to some vile interactions with other users. “I’ve received a handful of messages that were extremely negative on Hinge. One specifically said, ‘Gender nonconforming? It’s sick people like you are ruining the world’.”
With the rampant transphobia that happens in these online spaces, many people like 28-year-old content creator Geneieve G. don't feel comfortable disclosing their gender identity on dating apps and avoid the platforms altogether.
“When I was on [the apps] I never even got far enough with anyone to disclose my gender identity. They definitely do a disservice [to non-cis people] and can even be scary because you could be put into violent situations [for coming out],” she says.
For many enby folks, these kinds of interactions are an all-too-familiar part of online dating. On the Hud App, a cishet, white man specifically liked my profile just to tell me that my pronouns were she/they because I was fat enough to be multiple people. I swiftly deleted my account and called out the app on both an Instagram story and in a comment on a post, but they have yet to respond.
The lack of protection, accountability, and support on these platforms seems to be a common thread, however. With the exception of Bumble, on Tinder and other dating apps, the reporting features seem to be a dead-end interface rather than a system put in place to ensure the safety of its community. Once a user is reported for harmful behavior, there is no follow-up message ensuring that the person in question has been removed.
Dr. Akua K. Boateng, a licensed psychotherapist, feels that this is one of the many manifestations of these apps’ failure to achieve their primary goal — creating opportunities for all users to connect.
“Representation helps us to feel seen, included, and fosters a sense of belonging,” Dr. Boateng tells Bustle. “The lack of enough proper gender identities for non-cishet folks on dating apps ensures feelings of being othered and excluded in a space meant to connect.”
Sex blogger and dating expert Tatyannah King agrees.“[It’s great] that OkCupid, Tinder and Hinge now have multiple gender options,” she says. “But having the gender portion of the personal information section set up in the ‘male/female/other’ way almost implies that identities that don’t fit into the confines of cisheternormativity aren’t normal.” The options are there, yes, but they’re presented in a way that further marginalizes enby folks.
As a person who is fat, Black and non-binary, I’m constantly dealing with two ends of the attention spectrum — being fetishized for who I am, or being completely invisible. It’s extremely tiresome and degrading to explain who you are to people inquiring to pass judgement, not attempting to get to know you. For me, being able to successfully filter out the people who I’m seen by on apps isn’t a nice-to-have feature, it’s essential.
Reimagining a More Fluid World
The ability to date and make connections online is crucial for enby folks — especially in geographic areas where there aren’t a ton of options to meet people in LGBTQ-friendly spaces. Getting to know someone online before meeting up IRL goes a long way to feeling safe on a date.
And while the current online dating landscape isn’t very welcoming to non-binary people there are glimmers of hope. Sophie Mona Pagès, CEO and founder of LVRSNFRNDS and non-binary themselves, has established a platform that embraces fluidity.
“At LVRSNFRNDS, we strive to create this kind of space for people to connect through conversations, with friendship as a baseline. Our space is safer, runs on diversity and inclusivity, and embraces fluid identities,” they say. “The team and members decide which new members to let in based on a series of questions about their intent and values, and members are not defined by a fixed profile where they tick boxes.”
I don’t know if society will ever fully awaken from our collective cisheternomative fever dream, but one thing is certain — these apps have a lot of work to do in order to make their spaces safer for and more inclusive of enby folks.
Dr. Akua K. Boateng, licensed psychotherapist
Tatyannah King, sex blogger and dating expert
Sophie Mona Pagès, CEO and founder of LVRSNFRNDS