Why I’m Skeptical About The New GENDR App For The Trans Community

In early May, Attorney General Loretta Lynch spoke about the legal actions being taken against the state of North Carolina regarding their discriminatory anti-LGBTQ law, HB2, which especially affects the trans community. Within remarks made directly to the transgender community, she said, “But no matter how isolated or scared you may feel today, the Department of Justice and the entire Obama administration wants you to know that we see you; we stand with you; and we will do everything we can to protect you going forward.”

Since then, 21 states have filed lawsuits against the federal government over the Obama administration’s recommendations regarding transgender students in public schools. Increased visibility of the transgender community and the issues that influence our daily lives has yet to result in our safety and wellbeing.

According to a report put together by The Center for American Progress (CAP) and the Movement Advancement Project (MAP), discriminatory laws targeting the LGBT community and the lack of legal protections “create higher levels of poverty among LGBT people across the country.” It also states that transgender Americans are nearly four times more likely to be living under the federal poverty level. The LGBTQ community is still struggling, and we need safe spaces, online and offline, where we can breathe easily.

GENDR, a new mobile app and web community, is presenting itself as a vehicle for just that. The private network, which costs $5 a month or $30 a year, bills itself as “the world’s first and only app created for the gender variant and queer community” and “a dating app, ezine, and community all in one place.”

Barry Brandon and Christine Courtney-Myers, who both have extensive backgrounds in marketing, branding, and event planning, are the co-founders ­­­of GENDR. “I live the simplest life that I can, unattached, so that I may live nomadically and travel and experience the world,” Brandon begins when I ask about his inspiration for starting GENDR. “Eventually, I not only grasped a keen understanding of the gender and sexuality identity spectrums, but it also gave me the key that unlocked a clearer understanding of myself.”

But what exactly is GENDR? Beyond the trendy name that brings to mind popular dating apps like Grindr and Tinder, what does this platform provide?

Brandon, who identifies as agender (pronouns he/him or she/her) and is demisexual, says that the coming-out experience was freeing, but meeting others who share similar identities has been difficult. “GENDR came into my mind after realizing other apps weren’t quite working for someone like me,” he continues. “At that point, I had spent a significant part of my life travelling, and I needed a safe way to meet people around the world that had similar interests. I was having trouble meeting people when I traveled that just wanted to talk. That type of community just didn’t exist for me, and I felt that it really needed to be created.”

There is more than enough room in the world for something like GENDR. But the more I dug into the story and purpose of the app, the more I questioned whether it could actually serve the community — my own community — that it ostensibly aims to serve.

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The central premise of GENDR raises some questions. Brandon says it’s a social network specifically for people like him who travel and have trouble meeting others in the queer and gender variant community who want to have conversations. But should such connections really come at a cost? I’m not a world traveler, but I’ve met many different people and have made lasting connections with others who do not fit the cisgender, heterosexual mold society continually forces upon us — and I didn’t have to pay a fee to meet them.

Mightybell created the app, and the co-founders pay a monthly fee to use the service and their own branding. “[Mightybell] was the perfect alternative to custom development of its own website and app,” Brandon says. There is nothing wrong with using a predesigned application; time and expense that would have been spent on programming, development, and upkeep is now available for ensuring that this community meets the needs of its users while providing a safe environment. The professional backgrounds of the founders provide the experience needed to promote and market a product. But here’s the thing: We aren’t products. And they don’t seem to understand the needs or experiences of the gender variant community.

For instance, Courtney-Myers — one-half of the team that created and financially benefits from a community designed, in part, for trans people — is cis. More troublingly still, she was automatically assigned to be my “Host” upon sign-up until I opted out via the notification settings. A host is a member that you’re connected to by default — they welcome you to the community and all of their activity on the app appears in your personal feed and notifications. Do the founders know that many trans people who are out online are harassed, doxed, and abused by cis women — straight and queer alike — on a regular basis? If they did, they would understand how disconcerting and unexpected it would be to certain members to have a cis woman be your default “Host” upon joining.

Moreover, there is nothing provided right now within the GENDR community that does not already exist, at no cost, elsewhere on the internet. Whether it’s in the form of a private Facebook group or an invite-only Google Hangout, niche Tumblr communities or groups on Twitter and Reddit, these communities, discussions, and networks have existed for years, and trans and queer users have been happy to make them their home. And all of these networks provide the ability to chat privately with individuals and groups of members.

GENDR claims it’s different because it’s geared toward fostering connections among a specific community, but what I found during my time on the app were people, including the co-founders, just sharing articles from across the web, and posting Facebook-style status updates. The only exclusive offer available so far was a Google Hangout, scheduled for July 27, with the authors of Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom. Currently, most of GENDR is one big advertisement for what the founders envision it to be, and that vision is murky at best.

There are also calls for members to contribute original articles to be featured in their newsletter and social media feeds, where they claim exposure is a great opportunity for writers; because they are a start-up, there isn’t any financial compensation. Again, they didn’t create the application or web platform, so the fees presumably go to Mightybell and the co-founders. From this angle, it looks like Brandon and Courtney-Myers are calling on their members, whom they already charge a fee, to provide them with free labor and advertising.

When asked about what personal experiences and professional expertise the founders bring with them, Brandon pointed to Courtney-Myers’ “business and marketing experience with startups and launching companies,” and said his experience of traveling the world and recognizing this need qualifies him to co-found this community. Regarding the change they hope GENDR brings to the gender variant and queer community, Courtney-Myers wants GENDR to be the online experience that brings this particular community “feelings of validation, love, respect, and support.” She went on to stress that she hopes GENDR reduces “feelings of isolation by offering a community of humans who want to meet and connect with other humans with similar interests,” and that being open “without fear of judgment is a huge part of GENDR’s purpose.”

But for this openness to exist, there needs to be policies and plans in place for dealing with abuse, harassment, and bullying. According to a 2011 study by the National Center of Transgender Equality, 67% of transgender youth had been bullied online. When asked about online harassment targeted at the trans community, Brandon said, “Yes, it is something we take very seriously and strive to maintain a positive experience for all of our members.”

However, the creators of GENDR have no plans others than relying on their host, Mightybell, and the Acceptable Use Policy everyone signs upon joining the community, where it prohibits posts that are “unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortious, excessively violent, defamatory, vulgar, obscene, pornographic, libelous, invasive of another‘s privacy, hateful racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable.” Nearly every major social media platform, such as Facebook or Twitter, whether web-based or mobile-limited, has this kind of policy, but that hasn’t prevented abuse from happening. Look how long it took Twitter to permanently ban notorious harasser, Milo Yiannopoulos. It’s striking to me that Mightybell’s policy for a service ostensibly aimed at the gender variant community does not explicitly mention harassment or hate speech based on sexuality or gender identity.

I asked Brandon about the community they’re offering and hoping to build, and why they believe charging a marginalized community — where discrimination and poverty are inextricably intertwined — is the best approach. He told me:

“The subscription-based platform helps us grow GENDR globally, organize events and local meetups, host live chats and Google Hangouts with experts who are important to the community, and cover our operating costs and efforts to ensure the GENDR Community is everything we set out for it to be.”

He went on to say that they “put a considerable amount of thought into the membership costs structure, [and] based on the unique experience we are offering, we set GENDR’s fees at what we determined is a reasonable price point.” And he reiterated what he told OUT Magazine: “We understand that subscription fees are also a deterrent for bullies to join. Free access communities often have to deal with bullies and trolls; we strive to offer GENDR as a safe space that is free from negativity and the membership structure helps us with that goal.”

The trans community is taken advantage of daily — we are struggling financially, emotionally, and physically. We need to be paid for our labor, and our safety needs to be considered beyond just “hoping the fees will deter bullies.” As Princess Harmony wrote:

“Trans fetishizers often perform love on multiple levels. On an individual level, they befriend or romance us, feigning care and affection. On a societal level, they partake in ally theater in order to create the illusion that they care about us as people and our rights as a whole. But their love can quickly turn into hate — especially if we turn down their sexual advances.”

Will a fee really prevent these fetishizers from entering this community? Even written policies stating that this won’t be tolerated probably won’t entirely deter abuse. But what could make a world of difference is for GENDR to hire a team that moderates and observes interactions, and that’s available for users to discreetly notify.

Not a day goes by without there being a request for emergency funds on social media, often with the premise that no donation is too little, and even $5 will make a difference. That’s a month’s access to GENDR. If you have $5 to spare, check out #TransCrowdFund on Twitter and donate to someone in need. I cannot stress this enough: Transgender Americans are four times more likely to be living under the federal poverty level — we literally cannot afford a community like this.

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Lead image: Pixabay

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