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Morgen Bromell

Hacking Liberation: Building Safe Platforms for All Genders

Sept 15, 2017 at 4pm


MORGEN: Sup, y'all? Hey. My name is Morgen. I'm 25. I use they and them pronouns only and I'm also the founder of Thurst. Thurst is a dating app for queer people in general, which is great. It's a product that I needed. The beta had 1500 user sign-ups, without any official marketing or paid marketing at all. Just word of mouth through community. It resonated with a lot of folks, especially young queer and trans people who wanted to date more effectively. We're relaunching a more comprehensive version in two months because the beta failed. If anyone has ever worked with Amazon Web Services, you know that struggle. So it's all been pretty rad. Thurst was featured in a lot of press and media sites that provide us with a lot of clout. Much of it a little undeserved, I think. Being Black and queer and young, you get this hypervisibility around your projects but it doesn't translate into funding. So it was a weird space for us to exist in. Like, oh, we're everywhere. My face is on the cover of Huffington Post but my bank balance was like... Ha-ha. So I took it all and moved forward.

MORGEN: I wanted to talk about tech spaces in general. I'm Black and queer but also a descendant of Black people, formerly enslaved. My grandmother walked off a plantation. It's a blessing to be here. But I want to acknowledge that many Black people in tech spaces are a product of many communities, many families, a lot of effort that shouldn't have had to have existed put into us, so we can decolonize our spaces and make our lives easier through tech. So I went to business school in Boston and then I left, because Boston is cold and racist. While I was in Boston, I also worked at an MIT startup, which gave me the idea of, “Oh, you can create your own thing and people will pay you for it.” The startup exited in four months, which was wild. They didn't have any stake in that. But it was interesting to see the turnaround in how you can have an idea and it kind of has to work. Not really. And people will give you money. That sounded like a win to me.

MORGEN: I went to art school in Brooklyn because I wanted to see more Black people and create things in general. And I also came out. That was an exciting year of my life. And I wanted to find an easier way to date. I was around 20 and I wanted to date every day. But I was queer and it just was like... Oh, I'm using OKCupid. That's not working. I'm using Tindr. That's not working. Swiping through 50 guys is not my ideal hobby. And those platforms at the time weren't very queer at all. The understanding of gender and sexuality apart from heteronormative standards just didn't exist. And so I realized beyond just sitting at a bar with friends and complaining about Tindr there was a larger issue at hand. Many of my friends who were trans and non-binary, especially trans women were like, “Dating sucks but it's also violent. It's dangerous for me. I don't think just: ‘Am I gonna enjoy this date or like this person’ but ‘Will I get home? Will I be stalked? Will my life be threatened?’”

MORGEN: And so you think about dating and accessibility and that's when I realize it's a much larger issue than sitting at a bar, complaining with friends. I also realized…every dating app founder was white. So that mattered. Who could view me as a romantic person, a romantic body, outside a white normative lens. Very few were queer. So... Obviously there's Grindr, but that's a whole ‘nother talk, I think. And all of them had class privilege. So... Oh my parents or my friends and family gave me 50K, 100K. To start a platform where other people like me, other class privileged people, other socially privileged people could date and connect. And that felt weird. How could they know what dating or living was like for me, how could they imagine my life and how I wanted to connect and potentially build a life with other people? I also wondered how folks who were more marginalized... I'm relatively able-bodied, I have visible and invisible privileges, so I can go and complain about these things in a bar and that for some folks was way more beyond the energy they wanted to give up to commit to dating. So I wanted to build my own dating platform.

MORGEN: There's a lot of holes in these spaces, a lot of ways to improve and a lot of people who weren't being seen. First I had to reimagine what safety and security looked like. The idea of going out on a date that involves a lot of senses of safety that are afforded through privilege, a lot afforded through whiteness. Are you in a neighborhood where you feel safe going on a date? What does that space look like? Where do we go to date? And who has the privilege of inherently being safe? Users who don't fit into the gender binary. Are you okay leaving home? I had people saying online dating would be great for me, but I don't feel comfortable leaving the house every day for work, so what does it mean to leave the house for someone I don't know. Then I had to revisualize love. This was a hard one. First I thought, “Love is just hooking up, my last relationship, the connections we have between friends and family.” But it's much deeper than that. Love in many ways is also a social construct, the ways in which we see ourselves connected to other people. No one in my family had experienced love the way I see it in these white rom-com movies. My mother chose love as survival. My grandmother, the same thing. If you're a marginalized person, you don't necessarily have the time, privilege, and access to do these traditional dating things. Love is conflated with survival. Love is conflated with necessity. And so a lot of my friends, especially working class trans folks who were like, What is love? Almost as a joke. “What's love got to do with it,” right? Love in many ways has become privilege, thanks to capitalism, where folks who have a lot of time and money are like, “Oh, I'm gonna date now.” I remember when I first started this, I was like, “The irony of being a founder of a dating app and not having the money and time to date.” Realizing that love is actually a privilege for many folks. Especially Black and Brown folks.

MORGEN: So who gets the love? Who finds love most easily? And for what reasons? And so there's a lot of talk, a lot of data that exists, especially from dating platforms like OkCupid, Tinder, et cetera, where white men are considered the most desirable. That's no surprise. When we think about the origin of this country, who has had the most power to access these social spaces and created these social spaces to thrive in? So it came down as a conversation of... It's not just hard for me to be a queer black person in Brooklyn. It's hard for me to exist. How can we untangle those things? Love is integral and it should be, but in many ways, we've commodified love. Love becomes something that you make a marketable profile for, to sell yourself to other people, to fit into this social gap or social market where you can then find someone who matches your criteria. It's a very weird dynamic, I think, that is directly hinged on capitalism. And so automatically, Black people, especially Black women and Black femmes, Black trans women are de-centered, but also the most marginalized in that group. And so who is excluded from being loved? Obviously the most marginalized. The people who can't use dating platforms because they don't see their gender, because they don't see people of their community. They don't see people who look like them. And so you can't even imagine love if you go on Tinder and you're saying... I'm swiping through 30 white dudes. The algorithm didn't really understand what I wanted. So I can't even imagine that. So who is seen as worthy of love? I wanted to shift that. I think that is the main purpose of going through many notes, many emails, many text messages from people, random users, and saying, “Are we worthy?” Like, what does it really mean to be worthy of love? Collectively, how can we change the idea of worth? Especially in these digital spaces.

MORGEN: I think hypervisibility has happened in this era of Vice News, all these media sites focusing on Black and Brown bodies, but especially how we love. Changing that discourse was my goal number one. Was I invisible online? The answer was yes and no. Data from all platforms said no. So if you go on Twitter, obviously folks know what Black Twitter is. But it seems like Black folk were creating pretty much all the content that I found interesting. Just putting that out there. I was like, “Okay. Facebook, Twitter, all of these platforms.” So I was like, We're visible. We're present. We're creating all these interesting things. We're the inspiration for shows, music, media, et cetera. We're pretty much leading this new area of how we consume ideas and creativity. But yet when it comes to interacting with each other, or even interacting with people in general, it seems like we're not centered or even included. It seems like—and this is apart from queerness—Black and Brown folk, marginalized folk, but especially Black and Brown marginalized folk at the intersection of many identities are being erased from the idea of who deserves romantic love. And so I wanted to fix that. So one issue for me, I think, existing in tech, is realizing that there are people who create these problems.

MORGEN: So there are many ways and many talks about creating solutions, but I think we need to talk about who is creating the algorithms on various platforms that cater to various people, telling them that you're more desirable than these people, based on how you look, your income, height, especially race and location, and the ways we privilege people and allow them to connect and access that privilege of love. Which I think... When only a segment of the population has access to something that we know is soul-nurturing, it is deeply spiritually degrading to everyone else. The idea that you have to work so hard to earn and attain something that I think is natural and inherent to us is beyond me. So we also deal with the objectification of trans and non-binary users in these same spaces. And that I think is designed, planned for. If you don't design to prevent it, you're designing for it. And I think many of these companies are designing for the objectification and abuse—especially the harassment of trans and non-binary folk as part of our wider culture of dating. When you have someone who is privileged, you have to have someone who is underprivileged. When you have someone who is seen as desirable, you have to have the opposite. So especially in platforms like tinder, you create a basis for saying: That's what I don't want. The swipe right and the swipe left. You have to have the Other. And unfortunately that Other means that a lot of people are being used as simply fodder. And that really hurts me. So I wanted to address that as well. So we hope to solve these problems. They're manifold.

MORGEN: We have a lot of work to do. And our simple message is that we prioritize safety, security, and community accountability above everything else. Every user has to agree to several agreements before they join the platform. One is being accountable and being aware of their dynamic and how they relate to other people. I think on many platforms, either in dating apps or dating spaces, we are unaware of the many ways in which we de-prioritize someone's characteristic or some feature about themselves and we see it as undesirable, based on that lens, the way that we market ourselves, and see each other as objects, right in that moment, is very harmful. So community accountability, I think, is really essential to addressing that key problem. And through allowing users of all genders—and that's a deeper topic, because I think gender should be obsolete, but... We are decolonizing ourselves and our community. So the idea of gender itself is something I've thought about for years, I think. Really centering Black bodies that have been gendered through many violences, right? So I want to acknowledge first that we're on indigenous land, and through the colonization process, people inherently were gendered. White people were gendered and white people also gendered other populations, especially Black bodies through enslavement. So you think: Who is gender? Who is being gendered? Who is being marked as binary for the state and how can we remove those so people can simply exist? It's beneficial for people to say: I'm able to find myself, date for the first time, use this platform even if I use a binary gender, because I know that people feel more freely seen or more affirmed on this platform. So that's the goal. We're looking to remove the painful marks that society has put on bodies and allow people to just love and connect.

MORGEN: So I just have five quick tips. You're welcome to use them for any platform or any space that allows users to interact. But this is centering gender and focus who are trans and non-binary. You have to care a lot. So I spent years really just mulling over this issue. From just a casual dating conversation when I wanted to hook up with literally every person I saw, to... Larger questions around empathy. What it means to design and develop something that's deeply effective and that's deeply transformative. And I believe empathy is larger than the dictionary definition. It's existing in the problem and collectively creating a solution. So can you exist in someone else's issue, their livelihood, the things that they struggle with, and then work with them to rebuild that world, that space, to better cater to everyone? The second one is really important. It's considered research. I feel like there are many companies and platforms and tools that help you conduct research, right? And host surveys. But there's something deeply important, I think, about interpersonal research. Sitting down with someone and prioritizing them in that moment and getting information beyond just data points, but really humanizing someone in research. And that's...

MORGEN: One of the things I've learned in creating this app is that people are beyond just data points. It's so easy to create an algorithm. It's so easy to create protocols. It's so easy to design things around several data points. But beyond that, figuring out what information is missing in someone's answer. Does someone have the ability to answer? Answering I think in many ways can be ableist. Can you come to the space if you're hosting an in-person survey session? Can you send an email? Can you talk about various traumas you've experienced in dating and in love? And there's a whole segment of people we realized that were being invisibilized in that process. People who had never been asked certain questions, people who couldn't answer those questions. And then figuring out what was missing. So that was the hardest thing, and I think a lot of that could be derived interpersonally. Noting what's missing and trying to figure that out. I think a lot of this dating industry has simply navigated around it. Who is easiest to create for? And then create that thing. It's easiest to make dating platforms for straight white men. Let's make those things.

MORGEN: But for me, I wanted to go the opposite direction and say, What is the most difficult issue? Who has the most difficult time dating and interacting in society? And how can we create those solutions? Design shouldn't be oppressive. So just the simple design of various dating platforms and dating spaces has binary genders, so it's male/female and then other. So clicking other requires the othering of yourself, the understanding that there's a priority on binary genders, and then selecting... So there's a lot of psychological work that goes into that. A lot of emotional work for some people. I've heard from various users who have tested our platform, saying... Just the simple act of removing any gender at all was very affirming. They felt like they didn't have to categorize themselves. There's a lot of violence in that too, I think. Having to label yourself, when... Especially for younger folks, I've heard, gender shifts and changes. It's very transformative. Our ideas of ourselves shift and change as we grow into ourselves. So having things be very open and free is more affirming than trying to create as many labels as possible. I have a lot of beef with the Tinder CEO. I like to talk trash in the media, even though I have very little clout in that arena. They recently added, I believe, something like 45 or 46 genders. But it's still the binary prioritization of male, then female, then other. So I think when you have straight folks, especially straight white men, creating things simply as, “We've added this feature. Now please be quiet…” Type of thing... It magnifies the violence, I think. When we don't acknowledge that the people who should be doing this work are trans and gender non-conforming folk. Designers that are aware of the nuanced choices that change someone's decision between saying, “I deserve to find love today or maybe I'm not gonna go for it at all.”

MORGEN: Use tools and services by companies that support your greater vision. So we just go to conferences. And I didn't have any money for Amazon Web Services. So I would ask for a free badge and then go up to the Amazon rep and say, “Can I please have credit?” And it worked, like, seven times. The first few months of the beta testing was pretty much paid for just by asking folks to support our vision and support what we were building. And then I was like, “I’m just gonna do this with every company, because I don't want to pay for anything.” So sending people an email, saying we're trying to decolonize this dating space, trying to create a safer platform for users of all genders, but especially trans and non-binary users. You would be surprised how many allies really show up when you ask them to show up. So that was our goal and it became a policy of only working with companies that understood what we were building and fully supported it either with capital or credit or other things, just messages of... This is how you can best adapt this tool to make this platform better. So that's inherently created a community of other tools and services, but also people creating their own startups that are adjacent to ours, that can just offer space for us to grow. And so I think when you create a solid foundation of people who really have your back, personally, but also career-wise, I think it allows for longevity and for making things stronger.

MORGEN: So the last one is super important. And I'll just go on about this. But hiring collab with the people who are your ideal users. I've seen a lot of segmentation in the industry where you do user tests, but there's something important about bringing people in and paying them to do that work if you don't know how to do that work. My whole team is Black. We're all queer. Two of us are non-binary. And that's just saved us a lot of time, I think. We haven't had to talk about intros to anything. Pronouns are automatically respected. We automatically make development and design choices that automatically reflect our lives. And when we don't know something or we have a question, we simply pay someone else to help us answer it. And people are wondering, “Oh, you saved a lot of time doing this. How did that work out?” I'm like, “We're not a team of straight cis white men. It was inherent in our development process.” And I... I think that model should be applied, because for me, the most radical thing that I can do, or any technologist that has access to capital or conferences or spaces that hold resources is to pay trans and gender non-conforming folk, period, for every single thing. Every instance of emotional labor, literal labor, et cetera. I think the ways in which people are simply present in our spaces transforms those spaces, and so through this work, we've just created an inherently collaborative effort where everyone is automatically pitching in but automatically understanding that their labor, their time has value to our team. And so you save a lot of time accessing those lived experiences, but I think it's also spiritually affirming to say my lived experiences matter in this development process. Which is a new idea for me, but something that has really been helpful in just, like, moving forward, I think, with this project. It's the only reason this app exists.

MORGEN: And I think... I see a lot of projects that are budding from trans and gender non-conforming designers and developers, but haven't reached the next stage of development. It's because there isn't an affirmation. We don't have a community that is pushing these projects forward. So while we're building this and while we're paying other people to help us work on Thurst, we're also inspiring other people to continue their own projects and create their own solutions to niche or nuanced problems that then inherently support our user base. So it's kind of a flip-flop back and forth that really has worked out well for us. But that's all about Thurst. Feel free to ask me more questions after.

MORGEN: I really appreciate you all being here and thank you for sharing space.

Morgen Bromell

Close-up of Morgen Bromell

Morgen is a 25-year-old black queer technologist and CEO and founder of Thurst, a dating app for queer people of all genders. Thurst aims to create a space for marginalized people, especially trans women, to connect with community and find love. Morgen is working towards make tech more accessible to people of color through community initiatives and activism and they are interested in comics and vegan donuts.