My Exhaustive — And Exhausting — Search For The Perfect Trans Dating App

Make no mistake — dating while trans sucks. But better options are on the horizon.

January 7 was a cold morning in Massachusetts, but my heart was warm when I woke up. Grabbing my phone, I tapped over to Google Play and set about downloading Thurst, the long-anticipated “dating app for queer people of all genders,” which I’d been waiting for since its announcement in 2015. With a fully customizable field for gender identity and a wider selection of sexual orientations than any other dating app, Thurst promised to be an invaluable resource. The install completed, and I opened the app, eager to see the UI that had taken so long to perfect.

The landing screen was all but blank, offering no tutorial — and nothing worked.

I tried to upload a picture and was met with an error message that just said “Warning!” I tried to search for users and couldn’t view anyone’s profile. Attempting to get support via the “Help” button yielded no results. About the only thing I could do was update my password.

A few days went by and the first update went live. Now, instead of seeing a handful of pictureless display names during a search, I was treated to a series of warnings that overlapped so quickly as to induce seizures in small children. Joy.

How had this gone live, I wondered? Hadn’t anyone noticed these bugs during QA?

Thurst promotional image (credit: Facebook)

It was hard to keep any perspective on this disappointment. While it’s true that Thurst is, at the end of the day, just an app, what it represents is incredibly meaningful to the trans community: the chance to change what dating is like for many of us.

And make no mistake — dating while trans sucks. Many trans people have begun to entirely eschew singles bars and clubs, knowing that straight cis men can become violent when they realize a girl they think is hot doesn’t have a vagina (or has a surgically constructed one). California is still the only state to have officially invalidated the “trans panic” defense, in which a defendant claims temporary insanity upon discovering a trans person’s identity. Any trans woman who doesn’t want to end up like Gwen Araujo may justifiably decide to err on the side of caution.

Make no mistake — dating while trans sucks.

But if you don’t want to flirt with strangers in real life, the only other option is to flirt with them online, and that’s not much better. Until recently, online dating was relentlessly heteronormative, with only two gender options. Trans people were forced to out themselves in the first lines of their biographies or risk being called liars or frauds, still a common occurrence on apps like OKCupid and Tinder, which aren’t fully equipped to accommodate trans identities; Tinder, for instance, allows trans people to identify as male or female for the purposes of search results, but has no idea how to accommodate nonbinary people.

It’s not uncommon for trans people to flee to the most popular of queer dating apps: Grindr. But while transmasculine folks are well served by the app’s devotion to guy-on-guy action, it’s far less palatable to exist there as a transfeminine person. Apart from the gendered language adopted by the app itself (ads for premium “Grindr Xtra” features boast “6x the guys”), most users are there for, well, dudes, and have no interest in those who identify as women. Some are even aggressively transphobic; I remember when, early in my transition, I received a message from someone who simply wrote “You’re not a woman. Stop. I hate that shit.”

Recently, there’s been a surge of new dating apps ostensibly targeted at transgender people. Most, however, are really meant to draw in cisgender men who want to have sex with trans women, a group of people known in the trans community as “chasers.” Predictably, we have found little solace in the arms of men we found on “Transgender Dating” (which “lets you meet nearby transgenders [sic]”) or “Ladyboys Shemale Dating App.”

I tried out a service from developer Uluvit called Teadate a few months ago and was disturbed for entirely different reasons. Although seeing only old cis men for my first 50 swipes did little to endear Teadate to me, I was more concerned with their terms of use, which granted Uluvit free reign to use user information and pictures in their advertising — a usually perfunctory bit of legalese that turns sinister when you imagine what might happen to someone who was outed as a result of an ad campaign.

Thankfully, since I began this report, Thurst has improved dramatically, and there are a few very understandable reasons for its initial stumbling blocks — reasons that, it turns out, are indicative of broader issues.

When I asked company co-founder Morgen Bromell about the glitches, they pointed out that “[f]aced with the realities of the Trump administration, we thought it was best to release the app and ask for support and help, with the hope that adapting quickly with community support would allow us to surpass some hurdles.”

And, Bromell points out, it’s not like Thurst was on equal footing to begin with:

“[M]obile app testing is very time consuming and expensive…Unfortunately, we have no formal funding nor a large, dedicated engineering team, so we build what we can and commit to transparency and constant updates and improvement as we figure out what we can. We were able to reach this stage, though imperfect, on donations and many months of labor on our own. Our primary issue has been acquiring funding as a black-led startup in an ecosystem where the majority of funding is given to young, white cis men. We are a company in the legal sense but we are also young queer black and brown people hacking together a platform for our needs and dedicating the collective energy we have to make it better.”

Understanding this context is imperative, especially given the racism and classism that still plagues queer spaces. Ultimately, the blame for Thurst being an incomplete product at launch lies with the system of white supremacy that affluent white gay people have left intact in their quest for assimilation. Regardless of our disappointment, we need to support developers like those at Thurst, rather than casually dismiss them for perceived inadequacies.

We need to support developers like those at Thurst, rather than casually dismiss them for perceived inadequacies.

That’s a lot easier when you see the leaps Thurst has made since January. It still isn’t perfect, of course — its search function has no distance options, for one — but the project is rapidly moving in the direction we desperately need it to go, and there will undoubtedly be more improvements and fixes to come. The past few updates have removed almost all the roadblocks keeping the app from being usable, and I’ve started what I hope will be a wonderful flirtation with someone I met on launch day (who, it turns out, is an adorable redhead).

Even if a perfect trans dating app never arrives, we’ll take what we can get — because between you and me, our romantic options are not exactly plentiful.

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