Grindr Steps into Gay Rights Fight, Moves Mobile Users to Political Activism

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Last summer, gay men in Saratoga County, NY got a notification when they checked into Grindr. It was a message saying that Republican State Senator Roy J. McDonald was on the fence when it came to the gay marriage bill and that with a press of a button their phones would be automatically connected to McDonald’s office.

Did it work? It’s hard to tell how many men actually called the five politicians that were considering breaking with their party (or, in the case of Democratic State Senator Ruben Diaz, his religion) to support same-sex marriage. But in the end it passed 33-29, with McDonald and several other Republicans supporting it.

Grindr, in case you didn’t know, is a location-based app for iOS, Android and BlackBerry that connects gay men — for casual hook-ups, yes, but it also serves as way for guys to get recommendations while visiting new cities or, in the case of some more repressive countries, just know that there are other people out there like them.

It’s immensely popular, with 4 million users in 192 countries, including large numbers of active users in countries like France, Brazil and Thailand. And while the gay community leans heavily democratic in the United States, it is by no means politically monolithic, meaning outright partisan campaigns can still ruffle feathers.

“Do I fear it?” says Joel Simkhai, Grindr’s CEO and founder, when asked if he is afraid that he might offend his users. “No. Do I think about it? Yes.”

“We supported a Democratic Senator in Massachusetts and we did get people who said ‘We’re canceling the service.’ That’s their right. But we’re different than any other kind of business because we have a responsibility to the entire community. Obviously, we’re a business, and if all of our users said ‘Hey Joel, you should get out of politics,’ maybe I’d reconsider. But the vast majority of our users support us in this.”

Not every initiative is as direct as having users directly call a U.S. politician. In November 2011, Grindr for Equality sent 57,009 people to a petition to stop politicians in St. Petersburg from enacting a ban on “gay propaganda,” a vague term critics claimed would essentially ban homosexuality in the city. Currently, working with All Out, they are collecting signatures to push UN member states to condemn violence against gays in Iraq.

Still, petitions are one thing; getting users to directly participate in the political process is another. This fall, several states have bills affecting same-sex marriage on the ballot, including a referendum in Washington State to overturn gay marriage and a bill to legalize it in Maine. Then there’s the presidential election, featuring the incumbent, Barack Obama, who recently stated that he thinks “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Pushing people to directly support a political candidate can be bad for business. Surely some Log Cabin Republicans might be turned off by any attempts to get them to vote for Obama, but come fall, Simkhai plans to ping users with the option to donate money or make phone calls to political candidates with the press of a button.

“Electing offcials that support gay rights is vital,” Simkhai says. “Other grassroots efforts are important, absolutely. But electing officials that support gay rights is probably the most important thing you can do to support gay rights.”