Image: Grindr’s Press Kit

The Advocate reports that Republican Sen. Stephen Nass of Wisconsin has written a letter to UW-Madison, threatening to cut the university’s funding over the teaching of a 2011 article about racism on the gay hook-up app Grindr. Nass reportedly sent his letter last week after he caught wind that sociology lecturer Jason Nolen assigned Alex Rowlson’s story “Not Just a Preference” to his How Race & Ethnicity Shape American Social Life class. Rowlson’s piece originally appeared in the now-defunct Fab magazine. (The magazine’s website no longer exists, but you can read Rowlson’s story via the Wayback Machine.)

Rowlson’s prescient essay took on a topic that five years later is still all too common—discriminatory attitudes shared openly on Grindr and similar hook-up apps that are often explained away with the attached caveat of “sorry—just a preference,” as if to imply that sexual preferences are immune to the influences of society at large. A quote from writer/activist Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore provides Rowlson’s nut graf: “On the one hand, people are stating their preference, but on the other, these are not neutral terms. If we were living in a culture where everything was the same, it wouldn’t be a problem. But when sexual preference reinforces dominant systems of power in an unquestioning way, that’s when it becomes problematic.”

The Advocate calls Nass’s response “angry” and summarizes it like this:

Nass’ letter to the Board of Regents and university chancellor makes it clear he doesn’t want racism on Grindr ever discussed on campus. “We often hear significant whining from the officials at UW-Madison on the need for more state funding and higher tuition,” writes Nass, who has threatened the university’s funding before for talking about race. Nass lists the cost of the course, says it’s being “subsidized” by the state, and questions tax dollars ever being spent on UW-Madison. He demands university leaders read the “offensive material” and report back to him on its “educational value.” Their responses will be “part of evaluating the system’s 2017-19 biennial budget request,” he writes.

Nass claims he got a copy of the reading assignment from a student who complained.

“The essay in question analyzes the terminology used by gay men in describing their sexual wish-lists on ‘hookup’ or dating sites. The essay contains vulgar, obscene and racist language,” he complains.

The last portion is particularly tone-deaf (it’s like complaining that 12 Years a Slave contains racist language), but Nass’s outrage is wholly misguided. Grindr and hook-up apps of its ilk are among the few remaining spaces solely inhabited by men who have sex with men, so they provide a sociological constant that can illuminate racism without it intersecting with, say, homophobia, for the most part. We’re all sharing the world together, and not everyone is a white 63-year-old man in Wisconsin, so examining the cultural practices of specific populations, even when those practices involve sex, is something those who are interested in human behavior sometimes do. The issue of racism amongst queer people is particularly fascinating given that queer people in a heterosexual world, regardless of race, have the life experience to understand how devastating discrimination based on otherness can be. Anything less than compassion for disparity amongst gays is, in my opinion, counterintuitive.

But beyond the principle, there are specific reasons for considering gay dating prejudices and racism, reasons that go beyond pondering for pondering’s sake. The first is to shake people out of their racist bullshit practices. People are frighteningly complacent when it comes to their “preference,” especially when that preference aligns with greater societal stereotypes. It’s my sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of those who would outright reject certain segments of the population based on race aren’t quite up to speed with critical race theory and have not thought this through to any useful extent—“preference” can be a way of conveying thoughtlessness. In 2009 in the Journal of Sex Research, Columbia University Associate Professor Patrick Wilson and a team of other researchers published a study titled “Race-Based Sexual Stereotyping and Sexual Partnering Among Men Who Use the Internet to Identify Other Men for Bareback Sex.” That study found that broader cultural ideas about the sexual attributes of different racial groups “that our participants endorsed were clearly linked to larger cultural lenses through which Asian, Black, Latino, and White persons generally view each other.”

Eliminating racism may not be much of a concern for a white Republican senator from Wisconsin, but for those who are interested in the cause, examining the function of racism, as well as its roots, in as many facets of culture as possible, is completely logical.

The second reason why this is worth looking at—and this is a big one—is that anti-black racism may be a factor that contributes to the astronomical rates of HIV among black and Latin men who have sex with men. One in two black men who have sex with men (MSM) will be diagnosed with HIV if rates of infection continue as they are, according to a statement released by the CDC in February. (The projection for Latin MSM is one in four.) The theory, according to several experts in the field, goes something like this: White MSM racism causes MSM of color to avoid white gay spaces (also known as simply “gay spaces” in greater culture that ignores intersectionality). This creates a much smaller dating pool of black MSM (though it should be noted that the agency of black and Latin men contributes to defining the dating pool as well—data shows that black men tend to choose other black men themselves, for reasons that extend beyond white racism). Black and Latin men, then, find themselves in a smaller dating pool with a high concentration of untreated HIV positive guys, given the disparity in medical care for blacks and Latin men. Transmission is much more common when HIV isn’t being treated with antiretroviral medications. This is especially prevalent in the Deep South, specifically in states that don’t have Medicaid expansion. For more on this particular facet of the epidemic, take 10 minutes to watch this PBS report on HIV in the South that aired this week.

The issue of HIV in black and Latino MSM is even more complex than that, and certainly seems as hard to solve as racism itself. Regardless, what we see is MSM of color being treated later, which yields more complications or cases of full-blown AIDS upon diagnosis. This is a huge problem that is consistently ignored (the CDC’s one-out-of-two projection actually dates back to 2009 and has been reported regularly since) and merely getting people to consider the interpersonal roots, which at the very least exacerbate it, is a step in the right direction.

I reached out to the UW-Madison professor Jason Nolen regarding Nass’s response to his class. Nolen forwarded me a note that was UW-Madison sociology department chair, Pam Oliver’s official response. It reads:

Jason Nolen is an award-winning instructor, who has received positive reviews from his students. He has taught Sociology 134 five times, including this summer.

Sociology 134 is a class on race and ethnicity. This specific class session addresses race and ethnicity in the context of marriage, the family, and relationships. The last part of this class session focuses on research about racism in online dating sites (primarily OkCupid and Grindr).

The reading in question was meant to highlight some of the analysis that has been done on sexual racism on Grindr. Taken within the context of the course, the material appropriately pushes boundaries in order to spark discussion.

Among adult college students, analyzing how people talk about sexuality is considered appropriate material. It is true that sometimes young adults can be uncomfortable with material about sexuality presented in class.

Nolen has specifically addressed this issue in the class syllabus, a section of which reads, as follows:

“I expect you to participate in lecture, discussion section, and independently with your peers through a variety of course requirements. Most people have not had much practice talking about race and ethnicity, and some of the topics we will explore are controversial.

“Participation will likely feel uncomfortable at times - both as a speaker and as a listener - but productive conversation is the goal. It is crucial that we all remember that every person is living with a race and ethnicity (and sex, gender, sexual orientation, class, size, belief system, nationality, etc), and each person’s individual perspective is relevant to our conversation.

“Speak up and feel free to disagree with me, the TAs, or your peers, but always stop and think about how you can phrase your words to respect everyone in the room and their unique experiences. Likewise, push yourself to assume that everyone else in the class is coming from a place of good intentions, of trying to learn and struggle with the concepts of the class. Come with an open mind, respect the different experiences of others, and be prepared to rethink your own assumptions about racial and ethnic relations.”

Should students have concerns with material presented in their courses, they are encouraged to discuss the issue with their instructor or departmental chair.