Hate OKCupid? Try Online Dating When You're Transgender

Fear of rejection and safety concerns plague transgender people who date online. A new dating website wants to change that.

(Photo:  Alessia Cross/Flickr)

Jul 29, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who lives in New York City. She has written for Mother Jones, BuzzFeed, The Believer, and the New York Observer.

Winter LaMon is a 28-year-old transgender man who lives in New York City. He joined the online dating site OKCupid six years ago, about three years before he transitioned. He dates men and women, both transgender and cisgender (a term for people who aren't trans).

After LaMon transitioned from female to male, he didn’t change his gender to “male” on his OKCupid profile; instead, he started a second profile where he identified as “male.” He kept the female profile active because he thinks that some women who typically date other women might also be interested in dating transgender men. In both profiles he makes it clear that he is “a trans guy” and that people should “only message me if you’re cool with that.”

Part of the need for this complicated negotiation is that OKCupid doesn’t allow users to identify as “transgender”—just “male” or “female.” The site has been in the news this week after cofounder Christian Rudder announced that developers secretly changed some people's compatibility ratings and removed profile photos to learn more about behavior on the site. While some have criticized OKCupid for showing people false or manipulated content as an experiment, the site's failure to accommodate transgender users may be a larger and more long-standing ethical dilemma.

In 2013, an online petition asking OKCupid to accommodate trans and genderqueer people received more than 1,000 signatures. Ryley Pogensky, the genderqueer person who created the petition, said that when he asked OKCupid about adding more gender identity options, a representative told him it would be difficult to change the site because it was built “in a pretty binary way.”

LaMon has noticed that his male and female OKCupid profiles get different matches. While he has dated some people through the site—it’s where he met the woman he’s seeing—he is frustrated with the limited ways transgender people are able to identify on the site, “because you don’t fit into these little boxes, or the people you’re interested in don’t fit in neat little boxes.”

LaMon wasn't alone in his discontent. Last year, Yeni Sleidi met a software developer named Asher Snyder who was fed up with what he calls the “Tinderification” of online dating. On Tinder, users swipe right on photos of people they think are attractive and left on those they don’t like. This means photos are far and away the most important part of a dating profile, and Snyder complained that cuteness isn’t necessarily “an indicator of compatibility.”

Sleidi appreciated Snyder’s critique and she signed on to help him create a new dating website called Mesh. Sleidi said that she is "very gay," and some of her transgender friends are uncomfortable using OKCupid.

From the beginning, she knew it was important to allow people to identify as queer and transgender in their profiles. The other Mesh founders, who are straight men, agreed.

“They’re very good guys. As soon as I explained to them why it was important, they got it,” Sleidi said.

Mesh, which is in pre-beta, allows users to identify as male, female, transman, transwoman, or non-binary—a person who doesn't identify as male or female. Categories for sexual orientation are straight, gay, bisexual, or queer. Users can also tell Mesh if they are interested in meeting men, women, or everyone.

Like OKCupid, Mesh has an algorithm that helps determine compatibility. But the site also gets really deep into matching. If you specify characteristics or preferences you don’t want potential dates to have (Republican, vegan, straight), Mesh will block those people from seeing your profile. On Mesh, people only see a trans person’s profile if they’ve already indicated they’re open to dating transgender people.

This has the potential to make online dating more thorough and more fruitful, but safety and acceptance for trans people who date online may take more than an algorithm. As LaMon noted, it all comes down to “the age-old question of when you disclose” your transgender identity.

LaMon prefers to be out about his gender with potential dates. He thinks people will figure it out anyway when they meet him. But not every transgender person wants to be this open. For those who don’t disclose their trans identity online, safety and rejection are big concerns.

Colleen, who asked that we not use her real name, is a 30-year-old transgender woman who has been dating online since she was a teenager. She's in a monogamous relationship now, but before she fell in love she had an OKCupid profile that identified her as a straight woman. Most people who meet Colleen don’t know she’s transgender. Typically, she discloses after she's gotten to know someone. Soon after Colleen made a profile on OKCupid she agreed to a date—just to test out the site. She and the guy hadn't had much communication, and she assumed he was mostly interested in hooking up.

As soon as they met, he asked her, “Are you trans?”

This doesn't happen often, Colleen said, but when it does she tries to play it cool.

“Yeah, what’s up?” she replied.

The man turned around and walked out the door.