Once upon a Grindr: How a ’60s dating service set the stage for the app that transformed gay dating

America, Grindr, 2021 statistics, Unites States
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A tap. A text. No response? One more try to gain attention. 

Ah, finally an answer. “hi. how are you?” 

“Good, into?’’ … and you know how the rest goes. 

It’s almost as if we have created a routine script, a bit like a mating call – for gay men. But the ostensibly repetitive sexual CV often presented to potential matches on Grindr is nothing new. In fact, the good, bad, sexy, and sometimes funny app had a predecessor. 

It traces back to 1965. And even more- three straight Harvard students created it. Well, to be completely truthful, their intent wasn’t precisely to start a sexy app to fulfill your midnight blues, but rather to create a digital matching system for straight people. 

And that they did. In 1965, Operation Match, which would eventually become match-to-match, was born. An applicant would pay 3 dollars and receive a long, almost tax-return-like form. Do you ever get the dooming sensation you’re going through a job interview every time you’re looking for some midnight fun? Well, that’s nothing compared to some of this form’s questions:

  1. I would consider dating someone as short as (indicate minimum acceptable height). We’ve seen that before on Grindr!
  1.  Is extensive sexual activity preparation for marriage part of “growing up”? At this rate, I should have been in a 60-year-long marriage
  1. Do you believe God answers prayers? If you say yes – the bigots win, and you might turn straight! 

The form would be completed with mostly yes and no answers and sent back to be digitally processed through a house-sized IBM computer that would create potential matches. Within four weeks, the candidates would be sent a list of numbers; the rest was magic. So many through this service got hitched and are together to this day. How wholesome! 

The service proved so successful that by 1968 the three Harvard boys decided to expand to a brand-new demographic: the homosexuals. This might not sound like much today, but in 1968 being gay was far from accepted. Nowadays, few would bat an eyelid. A company trying to attract the LGBTQ+ demographic? Ground-breaking. Not to mention, this ‘service’ preceded the Stonewall riots and the heat of the gay liberation movement. 

But there was one little problem: All three were straight. They most likely needed to learn how to access the demographic. So, here’s where Franklin Kameny – one of the great fathers of the gay liberation movements – came to play (literally). The clueless founders asked Franklin to become the president of the newfound project. The idea appealed until the ethicality of profiting from love hindered his activist values. He ultimately declined, thus launching the project into the abyss. 

Pioneers, however, rarely profit or bask in the light of their inventions. Sometimes, their only scope is to set a solid foundation for those to come. 

For example, did you know that pizza traces its origins in Persia? Yet, it was the Italians that brought it to the world. Or think Myspace – great concept – but Facebook ultimately took the prize home. History is filled with pioneers and winners. And they are not always linearly sitting on the same winner’s pod.

Shortly after the service’s demise, the center stage was taken over in the 70s by Parisian lesbians that wanted to build a solid lesbian community – and a frivolling dating scene outside of the knacky cafes of the Latin Quarter – by connecting lesbians in the rural French countryside.

So they created Minitel – the first lesbian dating service capable of instant communication, chat, email and information access. Lesbian activists utilized Minitel as a feminist technology that could advance their shared vision of collectivism in a non-capitalist community based on solidarity and affective ties. Minitel was revolutionary, preceding the Internet and utilizing phone lines for connection.

But it wasn’t long before the French gay men developed their own version. Now, it wasn’t as deep – depending on how you look at it. Their objective was not to create an anti-capitalist movement but simply a faster and more effective way to find each other. So, they made their own version of Minitel – a chatroom that worked on a coded language system that would allow gay men to meet discreetly. 

The ’60s and the ’70s really were pioneering times for LGBTQ+ dating services. However, none – or none that gained notoriety – were created as dating services became more popular in the 1980s. LGBTQ+ folx had to linger around straight-oriented ones for almost 20 years. But as the technological innovations of the ’90s gained momentum, gaydar – Grindr’s guncle – made its debut. 

The initially desktop-only website was founded in Cape Town, South Africa by London-based Gary Frisch and Henry Badenhorst, partners in business and in romance. Sadly, the service was created too late to profit from the dotcom burst, but it nonetheless proved highly successful. 

The website revolutionized the cruising business, taking it from darkened alleys of Hell’s Kitchen to the brightly coded ones of Microsoft 99’. The service proved popular and unrivaled until 2009, when good ol’ Grindr knocked on the door. 

Grindr’s success was inevitable. From its creation, it took a space on people’s phones, being of the first third-party apps ever created on Ios. Its modern ‘storefront’ and location services were unparalleled, and as a result, the gays – like a herd of birds – moved to the next best thing, leaving gaydar to pasture among the other, less popular LGBTQ+ dating services. 

To this day, Grindr, although not unrivaled, remains the most popular LGBTQ+ ‘dating’ – if you can call it that – service. Its history is filled with a turbulent past of ownership, data usage and scandalous gossip. Yet, we don’t bat an eye. We are still here. Texting, tapping and blocking are almost second nature to some of us. 

We have become accustomed to the taps and the instant gratification it bestows, knowing full well that if we desire, sex is only one text away. And despite how fun and adventurous that might be, let’s not forget those who tried and failed to create online communities as connected (or arguably disconnected) as ours.

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