Why Is It So Hard For Trans People To Find A Respectful Hookup Online?

An investigation.
Overall, the choices for T4T hookups are not great.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo:Getty Images
Overall, the choices for T4T hookups are not great.

When my partner and I decided we wanted to seek out casual sex partners, we were hopeful. On a trip to Los Angeles, feeling frisky, free and full of vacation vibes, we put up an ad on Lex, a text-based platform for queer people of all genders besides cis men.

The post, creatively titled “Vacation Hookup” and posted by my partner, read: “Come fuck my boy while I watch and maybe give you tips. T4T only.” We had tried a similar post when we were home in Boston and had no luck, so we hoped a change of scenery would help.

We got plenty of messages, but none were even close to what we were looking for. Most of them were young, under the age of 24. Both of us are in our mid- to late-30s, which made sex with someone who was practically a teenager unappealing. Several seemed more interested in riding my partner than fucking me. And then there was the one cishet man who didn’t seem to know where he was. Despite trying several times now, we have never successfully solicited a threesome or casual sex experience through Lex.

In theory, there are plenty of apps where queer people can seek casual sexual connections. And while people of all genders have unsuccessful or upsetting experiences on those apps, trans people seem to struggle the most. As a trans person navigating these hookup apps, it too often feels like I’m making do with an app that wasn’t created for people like me in mind.

Grindr has historically been a hellhole for many trans people, though they’ve made massive leaps in the last year. For me, personally, Grindr (and Scruff) don’t feel geared towards me; I’m a transfag on tesosterone but I still read to most people as a woman and I have breasts. My partner, a trans man, would likely have a lot of success on those apps, but I just don’t feel comfortable navigating them.

“Transfemmes largely wind up on Grindr, and transmascs largely wind up on Scruff, so we’re being separated from one another there,” said Jack Gieseking, the author of ”A Queer New York” and a researcher who is launching a lesbian, bi, queer, trans and sapphic dating apps survey. “The people who are coding [these apps], the people who are taught to code, the people who are hired and listened to and trusted in the culture of tech, largely are white, cis, heterosexual men and so we’re seeing that in our everyday lives and in our dating apps.”

Lex, which started as a platform for queer dating and sex reminiscent of lesbian personal ads, just stripped the sex from its branding in a way many people find very problematic. Hashtag Open does have a T4T option, but there appear to be very few people on the app.

“If you’re looking on Tinder, it’s all cishets looking to be ‘spicy’ or cishet folks experimenting. Women there often unmatch when they figure out I’m trans,” said Tyra, a 47-year-old trans lesbian from Pennsylvania. “If you’re on Grindr, it’s all cis gays being shitty — or chasers for trans women. And who the fuck knows what Lex is anymore.”

Overall, the choices for T4T hookups are not great — either we are hypersexualised in ways that are incredibly dehumanising or we are stripped of our sexuality in order to assimilate and seem nonthreatening, which is infantilising. “I end up having to choose between whether I want to be seen and understood by a sexual partner as a whole person or whether I want a big variety of people to fool around with,” said Reed Eliot, a 30-something queer and trans person from Minneapolis.

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From its inception, Lex seemed the most likely to fill this gap in the market. The On Our Backs personal ads that it was based on were always kinky and raunchy — essentially lesbian culture’s version of cruising. Mixed in with ads looking for dates and people looking to start a bird-watching group were posts seeking fisting partners or orgies.

“I wanted [Lex] to be this very special fun community bulletin board where people could ask for book clubs and also a fisting bottom, you know?” Eliot said. “But it felt like it was weirdly hostile to trans folks.”

Then, at the end of January, Lex announced a massive rebrand. The app was evolving from a dating app to a community space. When I reached out for comment, Lex responded that it surveyed the app’s users and found that “the majority of them were wanting a platform to find queer friends and community in their area” and “the rebrand represents this evolution.” That said, “we encourage Lexers looking for dates and hookups to continue horny posting on Lex!”

But casual users might be surprised by that. After all, the app announced its rebrand on social media with a “how it started”/“how it’s going” side-by-side. On the “how it started” side were On Our Backs personals seeking kinky sex. On the “how it’s going” side was a Lex post for a T4T tea party. The choice to position itself as moving away from explicit sex-seeking ads sends a message, whether Lex intends it to or not.

“I have had some good hookups from [Lex] and a nine-month relationship,” Tyra said. “But still, it’s so blah. It feels so fucking centrist.”

When I complained on Twitter about my lack of options, I got several people suggesting that I try Feeld, which markets itself as an app specifically for people looking for casual and group sex (in addition to nonmonogamy). I signed up for the app and was greeted by an array of options for my gender and sexuality — off to a good start. I then could choose what kinds of connections I was looking for. I selected several, including “threesomes.” It asked me to narrow the kinds of threesomes I was looking for down even further, giving me the options “MMF,” “FFM,” “FFF,” and “MMM.”

At that point, I closed the app. None of those gender markers fit my identity as a nonbinary person, meaning I didn’t exist in the options at all. I also don’t sleep with cis people, so even though my partner is a man, he is trans, which is an important distinction for me. Where was the “T4T” option?

“Feeld offers the option of the ‘threeway’ tag, which serves trans or nonbinary individuals, or those seeking gender combinations not offered in the pre-set options,” Julia van der Laan, a spokesperson for Feeld, said. But that still doesn’t allow trans users to narrow their preferences down in the same way that cis people can. She also volunteered several other workarounds which included filtering search criteria and being open about preferences in your bio on the app.

There have been positive steps recently. “Because people have fought from without and within these apps” to push for change, Gieseking said. Grindr recognised the issues trans people were having on its app, which Tyra summed up as: “hostile to trans women in search of trans women, unsolicited dick pics and straight-up hate messages from cis gay men, and chasers aplenty.” In response, Grindr commissioned a pretty impressive whitepaper rethinking trans presence on the app.

That was spearheaded by Grindr’s senior director of customer experience, Alice Hunsberger. Hunsberger has spoken about her own trans family member, which means “that [work] was fuelled by someone who personally cared about trans people in their lives,” Gieseking said. “I don’t know of many trans people who work in the industry.”

That’s why Gieseking launched their survey. In the hundreds of studies that Gieseking reviewed that looked at lesbian, bisexual, queer, trans, and sapphic experiences on dating apps, they found that the studies overwhelmingly tended to focus on or assume that the participants they are studying are cisgender. Studies looking at — or even explicitly including — trans experiences are few and far between, if they exist at all.

Since the changes at Grindr have been implemented, users have noticed a difference. “I find myself having to explain my transness a lot less often, and I have a lot fewer people misgendering me,” Eliot said of the changes made by Grindr. “It does still happen, but usually now if it happens, it is coming from someone being wilfully hurtful instead of not knowing any better, so I block and move on.”

Even still, many trans people are finding success in less formal ways, off the apps that are supposedly designed for the purposes of facilitating sexual connections. Tyra longs for the days of Craigslist, as does Eliot, though the latter has found success on kink-specific local subreddits. And then there’s always the tried-and-true DM slide, which many people — myself included — still swear by.

In a world that wasn’t necessarily built with trans people in mind, we have always been left to fend for ourselves and find our own way. It will take a lot more than exclusionary algorithms to stop us from getting laid. My partner and I may have a threesome scheduled for the next time we go to Los Angeles, and it didn’t come about through a hookup app — it’s a Twitter mutual of ours.