by Morgen Bromwell

I get asked often why I decided to start building Thurst, which was the first dating app for queer people of all genders, and the answer has always been painfully simple I think all people deserved to be seen and validated for who they were. What is more interesting to me — rather than the frequency in which I receive this question — is instead why someone would ask it.

For the first two years, while working on this project, I was aware of the wall of social expectation that we’d be chipping away at from the very beginning. I started Thurst because I wanted to validate myself and have a space where others like me could be seen and validated. That issue isn’t the root but rather an effect of existing in a world that valued certain bodies, lives, and lived experiences over others. My task wasn’t to simply build an app or raise funding but to figure out how to push against the social norms of dating and love.

How we perform love is based heavily on many environmental and psychological factors outside our individual control. Our common understanding of love is a social construct, supported by the ways in which we see ourselves connected to other people and which people deserve our love, affection, time, money, care, and consideration. Love is integral to our lives and sense of self but in many ways, we’ve commodified love because we seek validation through hierarchies. Love becomes something that you make a marketable profile for, to sell yourself to other people, to fit into this market of desire and attraction where you can then find someone who matches your criteria.

desire_graph_01

Source: https://www.datingadvice.com/online-dating/online-dating-race-statistics

Whenever I am asked about the current industry reports and studies from OkCupid to who is preferred and favored, I remember how it felt when I first read them. I wasn’t shocked in the least, because I had seen these dynamics play out before me in every space I existed in, from my high school and university to any workplace or party. If you don’t have protocols to address and challenge structural inequality within dating culture, you’re designing and developing for it. Many of these companies are designing for the objectification and abuse of marginalized people because these obvious oversights benefit the users that fall within the upper rungs of artificial socio-sexual hierarchies. Ultimately, it’s violent to publish reports naming the effects and consequences of a violent multi-century system as simply “dating,” without implicating the colonial and white supremacist roots of the landscape in which the study was conducted. This status quo was rarely challenged because it went where we deemed private: our bedrooms, our DM’s and texts, and our heartspaces.

Frankly, we rely too-heavily on privileged, cis, white-led corporations running these dating platforms to inform the culture around love, dating, intimacy, and relationships. The people who are least like the majority of the world currently are making technical decisions and creating the internal rankings and hierarchies that shape how we are valued based on our perceived level of attractiveness. The values, biases, and limited perspectives of the designers, developers, and creators deeply impacts and guides how these dating platforms work. Until we get a look at the demographic breakdown not of the users, but the owners, founders, developers and other employees of these dating platforms, we won’t have a clear path to providing solutions to reduce harm and discrimination for marginalized folks navigating these dating spaces. We privilege the perspectives and discriminatory reflexes of those in power.

We often think of love, sex, intimacy, and desire as a special realm of our lives that escapes the dirt of our social ailments and oppressive behaviors. There are Instagram accounts and Facebook groups dedicated to seemingly “odd” pairing and relationships, most worshipping the identity in nearest proximity to white masculinity. We’re looking to assimilate based on who we touch, are seen with, and form relationships with. The value of social worth is so neatly interlocked with desire and who is perceived as worthy of our love, desire, attention, and praise that a true gender and sexual liberation would also be a black feminist class liberatory movement.

To begin to gently break apart the thorny restrictions placed upon our sexual and social behaviors would result in nothing less than a complete revolution. We would need to not only name and confront the ails of our society that have lead us to treat each other so callously, but we would also need to implicate the people and structures who uphold discriminatory, oppressive standards and systems. The question isn’t about how we can love each other more fully, as I once thought, but rather a proposition for justice. True equitable love, in the sappy way that is often touted in liberal circles, requires justice and accountability. It requires that we take account of the past, not just the bits of history that suit us, but the full and whole truth of how we, as a people of many experiences and backgrounds, have ended up in this white supremacist world that only sees some people as worthy of love, life, and respect.

The task ahead of us, collectively, can seem daunting. We can start by challenging how and why we have graciously accepted these toxic, harmful social norms into the umbrella of queerness, into the fabric of our daily lives and why activism seems to exclude liberating people within the context of dating.

One of my favorite writers, Caleb Luna, notes in his essay, Treating My Friends Like Lovers: The Politics of Desirability, “But our desire and desirability is not just about who we do or want to have sex with, or who or how often people want to have sex with us. It informs how we treat people in the larger world.” [Caleb Luna, March 17, 2018, The Body is Not an Apology, https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/magazine/how-to-be-fat-caleb-luna-sub/]

Colonialism affects how we view ourselves and each other, and we all operate within a sexual social economy the privileges. The implication of being deeply invested in this sexual social hierarchy is that we lose ourselves and the truth. We fail to see the beauty, worth, and magnificence in each person because they don’t fit the narrow criteria smashed into our minds. We are all aware that we think this way, yet we are hesitant to change, for fear of being spotted as a deviant or not having the ability to both understand the social order and strive to be on top of it. I felt compelled to create Thurst because I was already within the realm of deviancy in regards to my identity, politics, and how I aspired to move about the world. I firmly believe that when we focus on justice for black people (which includes and centers black queer, trans, non-binary, and other marginalized black identities) we will have justice for every person. In this case, the solution to the problem of widespread violence towards queer people is at the root. We cannot heal what we cannot see or validate. So many people, regardless of political affiliation, refuse to acknowledge that the pains and horrors of anti-black indigenous genocide, the trans-Atlantic slave trades, and colonialism are being replayed in real-time. We will be able to see and love each being outside of a socially constructed value system when we condemn the society that allowed this mistreatment, abuse, and degradation of so many communities in the first place. Queer liberation is a condition of black liberation.

What are we hoping to do about it?

The main priority for Thurst has always been safety and security for our users. I sat for many months contending with the implications of failure. What would it look like to create an app that directly counters the violent culture of other heteronormative dating platforms, many of which allow marginalized queer users to be unprotected targets for harassment or other types of abuse? I’ve learned in many social justice-oriented spaces that accountability is critical to establish trust; identity and politic are not enough. It was not enough to be black and queer and intimately understand the tribulations of navigating a society designed to eradicate me.

The app was intentionally very simple at launch. We don’t aim to dazzle with features and special effects. The main objective now is to reduce harassment and tailor the user experience over time to be less abrasive to users who already have had unpleasant experiences on other apps. Being different isn’t enough — we want to be more right than wrong in regards to in-app safety, security, and community accountability.

What we can realistically do is speak as loudly as possible, to spread our truths and work to free as many people as possible, and by creating a platform, a small space just for queer people, that centers black and indigenous people. My hope is that by slowly but consistently working towards creating a justice-based platform that can connect queer people, more people will feel like they can be just as they are. As we continue to grow in users and awareness for the app increases, I hope that we can slowly raise the standard for what people can expect from us. I want marginalized folks who use the app to push back against societal expectations as well as our own expectations and actions. Thurst is aspiring to be a platform that listens to the community and adapts to reflect the needs of the queer community, beyond surface level marketing and simple design choices.

The key design change was to require users to agree to our terms and conditions as well as a community policy. The purpose of forcing users to review a simple community policy that states that we don’t tolerate any oppressive behavior was to set the tone for interaction on the app. The first interactions, apart from signing up, are rules and guidelines that are non-negotiable. We have managed to reduce in-app harassment and abuse to nearly zero by being firm about protecting folks who are most targeted or ignored on other platforms.

We intentionally don’t collect sensitive or particularly important user information — we allow users to create their own identity independent from social media profiles so that folks who aren’t out or require a higher level of privacy can feel safe. We only verify a phone number to protect other users from multiple accounts, spamming accounts, and make sure we have unique users. In the design and ideation process, I frequently ask, “Why are we collecting this information and is it necessary? Can this information that we collect be used for harm, either from other users or by us (or anyone who accesses our app in any way). I try my best to be intentional and thoughtful about each decision.

We won’t always be right; in fact, we have been wrong many, many times. But, the times that we have been right have been exciting and made it worth all the design and development error. Slow movement within a small team allows us to see each part of the process and evaluate each step, because a user’s trust is much more important than industry validation, focusing more on sales and user growth instead of quality of interaction and reducing harassment. It is the consistent, forward step that determines the finish in a marathon and so far, we are right on track.

As a black queer founder, my identity is inherently political but my actions following the ideation phase would define how well I understood and could receive the truth. The truth is that the world will not change based on our mere existence — we cannot change everyone’s minds and hearts and we cannot undo a half millennium of violence towards marginalized communities in a year or a decade. We cannot change all origins of desire, but we can begin to create mirrors to recognize and change harmful behaviors in our dating, relationship building, and within our own spaces.

I believe we can rapidly change how we see each other and how we desire each other within platforms like Thurst, by creating rules and mechanisms that push back against norms and reaffirm “positive” behavior by studying our users and moving the user experience closer and closer to the threshold of acceptance. The tipping point of understanding how to truly reprogram our collective hierarchical based desire is just beyond the realm of our comfort. I have no doubt that it is possible to have real discourse amongst everyday people about the ways in which we love and share affection and attention, but there is a great deal of work to do. The aim is to free as many people as possible from the psychological and literal confines of our white supremacist ableist racist society and begin to imagine a new world, a world where we can love ourselves and others as full, whole beings.

Morgen Bromell is a black queer technologist and CEO and founder of Thurst, a dating app for queer people of all genders. Thurst aims to create a space for marginalized people, especially trans women, to connect with community and find love. Morgen is working towards making tech more accessible to people of color through software and community initiatives and activism. They are interested in science fiction, Afro-futurism, comics, and vegan donuts.