Color blocking

Is Scruff’s war on sexual racism all talk and no tackle?

“Is the expression of racial or ethnic preferences in dating and hookups racism? And are the two equivalent?”

SCRUFF CEO and co-creator Eric Silverberg posed both questions in a September 13 op-ed for The Advocate, and for him, the answers are “Yes” and “Yes.”

Eight year’s after the debut of the app he launched, Silverberg announced that SCRUFF finally was committing to fighting sexual racism and other forms of discrimination and bigotry on dating apps. In addition to no longer requiring users to reveal their “Ethnicity” in order to unlock SCRUFF’s special features (like more guys on the “NEARBY” grid), paying subscribers who want to filter certain races out of their “NEARBY” options first have to reveal their own “Ethnicity.”

In other words, you can’t see what “Ethnicity” box others have ticked unless you tick one first.

By relaxing one “Ethnicity” requirement, the app has actually strengthened another one. Although SCRUFF’s heart is in the right place, all isn’t suddenly swell for the underappreciated in gay society. Everyone won’t automatically open their minds and their eyes and finally stop limiting their hook-up options to “Whites/Blacks/Asians/Latinos/Whatever Only.”

Meanwhile, “Masc4Masc”, “No fems,” “No oldies,” and “No fatties” are also unlikely to be history.

Unfortunately, you can’t manage lust and desire, and making a few technical adjustments won’t stop gay men from exercising their so-called “preferences.” And frankly, I’m not so sure that SCRUFF is as committed to changing the gay world as Silverberg says it is.

One month later, the new SCRUFF looks and acts a lot like the old one. Whites rule. Everyone drools. Still. For proof, just check out the two Most Woof’d grids, which could be subtitled “Whites Only with Occasional Splashes of Color.”

If the app really wants to encourage gay men to move beyond narrow physical requirements when seeking sex and dating partners, why is it still supporting the very clichés it claims to be fighting by keeping two “Most Woof’d” grids in circulation (one featuring new members and another for SCRUFF superstars of the last hour)? As anyone who has used SCRUFF already knows, both feature mostly white-ish, mostly young-ish, mostly muscular guys, which supposedly represent what gay men really want.

A better move would be removing the Most Woof’d grids entirely or replacing one of them with something more inclusive and all-encompassing. If guys are getting enough attention to make Most Woof’d status, do they really need the extra exposure? And after trimming Most Woof’d from two grids to one, or doing away with it altogether, why not commit to a “GLOBAL” section that actually looks “global,” with men of a variety of shades, shapes, and sizes?

I’d like to see SCRUFF take its mission to promote inclusiveness beyond the search and try to get gay men to actually think about why they have such extensive checklists of racial and other requirements. It can host open conversations or feature roundtable discussions about the racism, age-ism, body-shaming, and fem-shaming that run rampant in our community.

The only way to make SCRUFF a different kind of gay app is by making it a different kind of gay app. That means making it about more than hooking up and scoring as expediently as possible by banishing all the types and ethnicities you don’t want from your line of vision.

SCRUFF bans primary profile photos that are too revealing. Perhaps it should also monitor the words that users include in their profiles. Filters don’t affect minorities the way “No Asians” and other statements of limitations do. One user can’t tell whether another is filtering him in or out, but discriminatory language is viewable to the entire public, and users pass it on to each other.

So why continue to allow it?

At the moment, SCRUFF is sending a message to members in the U.S. who include racial language in their profiles urging them to reconsider it: “Take a moment. Think about a time you were treated different because of who you are. Singling out or excluding entire groups based on race hurts. Please consider how your profile text impacts others on SCRUFF.”

Is that really going to persuade a white supremacist to edit out “No Asians” or “No blacks” or get so-called “rice queens” or “chocolate queens” to rethink the boundaries of their attraction?

Now is not the time for a gentle nudge in the right direction. The only way to fight sexual racism is by prohibiting the public expression of it. The words do much more damage to the spirit of gay men than filters and “Ethnicity” boxes.

Personally, I don’t care if guys filter me out of their searches. I’ve had far more brutal experiences with racism on dating apps than being filtered out by guys I don’t even know are filtering me out. But just because it doesn’t sting doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that it’s a symptom of a larger problem.

I commend SCRUFF for acknowledging that the problem exists. But talking about it in an op-ed isn’t the same as tackling it. It’ll require a lot more than a few superficial adjustments to get gay men to reassess how they approach race.

Making it harder for guys to search based on ethnicity won’t make race matter less. We need to get them to answer the difficult questions. But first, SCRUFF needs to start asking them.