OPINION: Tech companies should take action on offensive transgender dating apps

by David Minns | Butterfly
Tuesday, 4 February 2020 09:59 GMT

A woman holds an iPhone 11 Pro Max while giving a live broadcast after it went on sale at the Apple Store in Beijing, China, September 20, 2019. REUTERS/Jason Lee

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

App stores should change their policies to exclude words that trans people find offensive

*This opinion piece contains strong language throughout

David Minns is the founder of the transgender dating app, Butterfly

Ask a transgender person for three offensive words used to describe their gender identity and the replies are very likely to include the following: “shemale”, “ladyboy”, and “tranny”.

Unfortunately, many non-trans people are unaware that these terms are hurtful. But these words are used frequently within the online dating industry.

Trans people are often fetishised within many dating apps and sites that claim to be dedicated to them. These sites are synonymous with casual sex, hook-ups and fantasies, producing an environment that is far from ideal for a trans person looking for a serious relationship.

Jennifer, a 43-year-old British trans woman, told me, “A message notification comes in, you open the app and the guy looks nice. Then you read the message, ‘I have always fantasied about having sex with a shemale.’

“It makes you feel like a gimmick, something people want to cross off their bucket list. Firstly, I would like to be regarded as a woman and secondly, what’s wrong with a question about my interests, music tastes or just a simple compliment?”

The prevalence of these dating apps and site result in many non-trans people incorrectly concluding that the majority of trans people are looking for casual relationships and re-enforces the acceptance of hurtful language.

For example, searching for “ladyboy” in the Google Play Store produced 255 results.

The way Google Play works doesn’t mean that all of these apps use this term directly. But Google Play’s search system appears to map “ladyboy” and “shemale” to transgender.

If this is the case (only a Google employee would know for sure) then Google algorithms are not helping to raise awareness of what is hurtful language.

There are also still at least seven confirmed dating apps that use offensive terms directly within their branding and descriptions on the Google Play Store, according to my searches.

The number is likely to be higher but Google’s search algorithm makes it difficult to determine an exact value.

Meanwhile, searching for “shemale” in the Apple App Store produces 14 results.

Apple’s search system appears to be keyword driven. So, the offending apps are using the terms in the public descriptions or their private keywords, which are hidden from the public.

To improve this situation, there are three areas that need attention.

Until there is a significant change in the awareness of words that are offensive to trans people, companies will continue to use them in their products and branding, because these terms generate traffic, clicks and sales.

More media coverage of the issue would be immensely beneficial - a combination of both mainstream media reporting and individuals using social media.  

Secondly, the major app stores have very detailed polices for product acceptance.

Apple’s app store policy on “objectionable content” states that apps should not include content that is, “Defamatory, discriminatory, or mean-spirited content, including references or commentary about religion, race, sexual orientation, gender, national/ethnic origin, or other targeted groups, particularly if the app is likely to humiliate, intimidate, or place a targeted individual or group in harm’s way.”

So Apple’s existing policy could mean that many transgender-focused dating apps are already in breach of this objectionable content clause.

Google’s app policy for inappropriate content only covers hate speech on the basis of gender and sexuality. And its examples within the policy document only cover extreme cases.

Google may, therefore, need a revision to their policy to restrict offensive transgender terms.

Any enforcement or changes of policies to ban these terms by app stores would be significant, as the app developers would be forced to comply to stay on (this wouldn’t impact websites, though, which are essentially unrestricted).

If you’re a trans person choosing a dating app or site then consider checking their descriptions, to see if words you find offensive are being used to promote the brand (although it’s possible such words could be referred to highlight why they shouldn’t be used).

But these words are prevalent across so much of the internet that change isn’t going to be a quick or simple process.

App store policies are the first logical step, though.

Typing in “shemale” to an app store should return zero results. This would hopefully mean many users questioning why and starting to become more aware of the offensiveness of such words. Meanwhile, developers would have no financial benefit from using them.

Transgender people must be represented fairly on dedicated transgender dating apps, rather than being further marginalised as objects of sexual fetishes.

Everybody, regardless of gender should be able to date online with dignity and respect.

Apple and Google have been contacted for comment