“How big is your cock?” says a text from Mandingo Lover on Grindr.
Mandingo Lover types the precise measurement of his penis — as he was asked — with the requisite 2cm variance for exaggeration on this kind of platform.
But before he’s shared the triumph of his size, a flash of naked images of Mandingo Lover pops up on my screen. He looks like a typical corporate professional, and he certainly shows great diligence in taking these pictures. He has shots from all angles.
But there’s a plot twist ahead. He’s white. I proceed to ignore him.
Great Dane Club, Braamfontein
The music is loud. The place smells like cheap nicotine mixed with wafts of weed. I open my phone to read a message.
“You are not far away from me; where are you?” username Quickie has texted. The app proudly declares we are 500m away from each other.
I reply. Within two seconds, I get a response.
“Looking for someone to give head. I like your profile. I hope you are not fem, I hate these fem boys. If I wanted a woman, I would have gone for one.”
I look at his profile picture. He is not good-looking enough for me to betray my politics. I ignore him.
For the next hour, I try to search for someone for a hook-up. Often, being gay on dating apps feels like undergoing an X-ray of your innermost self. After a careful examination, you may even start finding problems that do not exist.
There was never anything wrong with Quickie or Mandingo Lover, or with me. But gay dating is a perilous exercise and I have always relied on gay dating apps to make connections.
I am the 21st-century kid who has had a dating app since primary school. I have had Mxit, Mig 33, 2go, Badoo, Meet Market and many others. I have used the apps while in the closet and I continue to use them now as fully fledged homosexual.
The apps have always offered a level of safety that is missing in physical interactions. The thought of asking another man out continues to freak me out because it can always end up in a fist fight or in an uproar of being shamed.
“What the hell made you think I am gay?” is a scary question that can make a handsome, muscular, confident man like me shrink into the well-worn shell of his insecure 12-year-old self.
The virtual world offers safety but it comes with a social contract that is not written in the terms and conditions when you sign up.
1. No fats and no femmes;
2. White gays are interested in seeing the penises of brown or black boys before their faces;
3. If you are disabled, don’t sign up. No one wants you;
4. Bottoms are secondary citizens; everyone wants one but is disgusted by the act; and
5. Trans and nonbinary people are not wanted here.
This, however, does not mean that I have not met sensitive, smart, beautiful men on these apps. I have formed intimate virtual realities where celibacy could be maintained for months because user XYZ could video-call me and some form of sexual gratification could exist.
Sex in this way becomes something else. For a rape survivor, it relaxes the anxiety of being with another human being. I feel safe, I am at home and I just hope that no screenshots are being taken.
Feminist writer Zoe Samudzi writes: “The relationships created by this so-called culture, whether they last for years or months or even a single night, are not fundamentally different from the necessarily transactional nature of romantic and sexual relationships that take place within capitalism.”
When you examine the unwritten social contracts of dating sites, you realise they do not exist solely as virtual reality. Rather, they exist as an exaggerated version of reality. And yet there is also an extreme honesty, because the disposability of your body is just one swipe away.
In clubs and at social gatherings, I find these rules are more relaxed as people get to know one another over beer and attraction happens outside an X-ray audition where my body parts have to represent my whole life as a person.
But homophobia drives us to the online world. It shapes the intimate ways with which we relate to one another and create relationships, even when we are alone and patiently waiting for someone to tap on our profile.
Waiting for the next ping on my phone, I hope a nonbinary femme fat appreciation world is possible — both on Grindr and off it.
Thabiso Bhengu is a producer for the television show The Big Debate