7 min

The Social Media Revolution

Is Grindr killing the gay village or merely forcing it to reinvent itself?

The social media revolution Credit: Illustration by Paul Dotey

As Toronto prepares to host WorldPride in 2014, Xtra takes a closer look at what makes a gay village. In the third of a five-part series, Kaj Hasselriis follows his iPhone to find how social media is expanding the traditional borders of Toronto’s gaybourhood.

I strutted into Buddies in Bad Times Theatre for an event called the Strip Spelling Bee feeling pretty cocky. The woman working the box office asked me, “Are you here to strip?”

“Hell no,” I responded. “I’m here to spell!”

I accepted a free pass and a beer in exchange for my chance to compete. As a great speller (and proud of it) I fully expected to keep all my dignity.

I quickly found out how wrong I was. The event, which attracts a couple of hundred hipster nerds every month, is designed in such a way that even A+ linguists are forced to do the full monty. That’s because all the words in the bee come from an enormously thick medical journal and run at least 20 letters each.

I quickly discovered that most of the other contestants knew the ruse and were more than happy to fling off their clothes and reveal leather harnesses, hot-pink panties and other X-rated undergarments. In the final round, everyone stripped down to their birthday suits and flashed their family jewels while the packed crowd shrieked with joy.

The Strip Spelling Bee, which takes place on a regular basis at Buddies, is the brainchild of a crossdressing geek named Sherwin Sullivan Tjia. It’s the perfect example of an event that exists only in the gay village thanks to the advent of social media. Traditional spelling bees have been happening for at least two centuries, but the non-traditional way that Tjia spreads the word is what has allowed him to turn his raunchy version of it into a success. “I became an event planner when Facebook appeared,” he says matter-of-factly.

To promote the bee, all Tjia has to do is create a free event page on Facebook, invite his friends and watch others join. “You can see who’s going, ask people to go with you and hook up with people you meet,” he says. “It gives you a lot of control.”

Social media has changed the world — including our Church-Wellesley Village — in exciting ways and given fresh power to innovators like Tjia. But there’s no doubt it’s also intimidating. When I finally bought an iPhone, it took me several days to take it out of its perfect white box and power it up. But as soon as I did, I was hooked. Shortly after, while walking down Church Street with my best friend Clare, I pulled it out and showed her my new favourite app, Grindr. “You know you’re killing the gay village with that thing,” she said.

Or maybe social media is making the Village bigger and more accessible than it’s ever been.

Until recently, outreach coordinators at the AIDS Committee of Toronto focused their attention on bars, bathhouses and Pride events — the easiest way to find a critical mass of gay men. Thanks to social media, the borders of the Village have expanded digitally, and so has ACT. Today, the organization has an online outreach coordinator, Mason McColl, who spreads safe-sex information throughout a new virtual Village.

Every weekday morning McColl sits down at his desk, logs on to Grindr, Scruff, Squirt, GuySpy and other dating and hookup apps and connects to dozens if not hundreds of guys. Except he doesn’t advertise himself — he posts an ACT logo on his profile and asks guys if they have safe-sex questions.

“Not many guys are comfortable enough to go up to a stranger in public,” McColl says, “but they’re happy to talk behind a picture of their dick.” The day I talked to McColl, he had just finished two simultaneous chats, one about blowjob risks and the other about having sex while high. “In person, not everyone wants to pick up a handful of pamphlets, but it’s easy to click or tap for more information,” he says.

McColl says ACT’s mandate has always been to meet guys where they’re finding sex. Now, McColl widens the digital borders of the Village and draws in guys who might otherwise stay socially isolated. “For some guys,” he says, “this is the only time they get to talk about gay sex.”

For Toronto social media pioneer Jaime Woo, the kind of Village-expanding work that McColl does is still too rare. “The Village hasn’t evolved to coexist with Grindr,” he says, or other digital platforms for that matter. “Toronto is a tech hub and a queer hub, and yet the intersection of the two is still embryonic.”

Woo hears the same angsty declarations we all have about how social media is ruining the Village (Guys are staying home! No one’s going to the bars anymore! The parks aren’t what they used to be!). He responds by questioning what Village leaders are doing to update their institutions in the face of social media’s addictive glow — to say nothing of the competition from upstart, social-media-driven events like the Strip Spelling Bee.

As technology injects shiny new options into our age-old “meet” market, Woo doesn’t see so much as a fresh coat of paint on many gay businesses or, in bars, an emphasis on much more than alcohol. On Church Street, he says, “guys tend to buy drinks, stand around and stare at each other. Then when everyone’s drunk enough, you get permission to hit the dancefloor.” Nowadays, social media gives them many other ways of connecting. “You don’t have to hang out in the Village to find like-minded people and do things with them,” says Woo, the author of the new book Meet Grindr: How One App Changed the Way We Connect. The problem is that many longstanding institutions within the Village aren’t offering many new options.

“There is a serious gap that needs to be addressed here,” he says. Often, the problem runs as deep as tech basics. “Sometimes I see websites from the community that are severely outdated,” Woo says. “I understand LGBT organizations are limited on resources, but it’s a chicken and egg thing.”

But while some in the gay village struggle to get past DIY-looking web design, many others are using social media to make strong new community connections. Woo used Twitter to create an event called #queersandbeers, then joined the board of Ten Oaks, an LGBT-run kids’ camp, after responding to a tweet about it. Sex workers have been connecting online with clients for years and, more recently, trans kids have started a new trend of posting personal stories on YouTube. Toronto Pride recently expanded beyond its Village borders by asking 15,000 Facebook friends, many of whom live outside the country, what the theme of next year’s WorldPride should be (the winner is Rise Up!).

Hook-up apps, which have admittedly encouraged some people to stay home and entertain, are starting to make it easier for their users to find out — and even spread — community information. The bear-friendly app Growlr allows its users to send “shouts” to tell everyone in the area what’s going on, instead of just messaging people one on one. And, thanks to a simple hashtag created by Toronto web whiz Justin Stayshyn, Canadian queer news is spreading faster than ever.

“Twitter is like a community hall,” says Stayshyn, who started #canqueer. “You come into the room, you shout your news and hopefully someone follows it.” He admits that “social media, at its worst, is narcissistic,” but he rejects the criticism that it keeps people at home. “Twitter, in its ideal sense, motivates people to get outside and do things,” he says, including within the traditional boundaries of the gay village.

One person who knows more than most about the power of social media to encourage activism is Leanne Iskander. She got support on platforms like Facebook — then in real life — when she organized a GSA at her high school. “It’s a really great tool for organizing and getting things done,” she says. “It allows you to reach people you wouldn’t otherwise.” Iskander got supportive Facebook messages and friend requests during her campaign and, as a result, now gets posts on her newsfeed from community elders like Brad Fraser, Gerald Hannon and Jane Farrow.

The Strip Spelling Bee isn’t the only event that Tjia organizes through his Facebook page. The other, called Queer Slowdance, is inspired by an idea that’s even older than the spelling bee. There’s no kinky catch to the slowdance, though. It’s held in a giant community hall that’s dressed up with balloons and streamers to capture the atmosphere of a high school prom. Everyone who enters gets a dance card that lists all the slow songs that will be played. You’re encouraged to book partners for your favourite ones. The Queer Slowdance is a charming, old-school event that’s promoted through new forms of communication, and it’s a huge hit, especially with women. For Tjia, it’s proof that social media can still motivate people to look away from their flickering screens and venture out into the real world. Why? Because no matter how captivated we are by our smartphones, he says, “people always have to meet in person. People still gotta meet and kiss and hug each other.”

For traditional Village institutions, Tjia’s slowdance success serves as a warning. Unlike the spelling bee, it takes place many subway stops away from Church and Wellesley, not even in Queer West, but at Bloor and Dovercourt. So Tjia’s not just expanding the digital geography of the Village — he’s stretching the borders of queer Toronto and taking partygoers further away from its heart. Village businesses can get them back as soon as they start tapping into the social media revolution.

Check out part one and two of Xtra‘s five part Village series:

The changing face of the gay village

The gay village as ethnic enclave