Kicking the hornet’s nest

Before I downloaded ‘Hornet’, the increasingly popular gay social networking phone application, I read some online reviews of it.

One frustrated user wrote: ‘So useless! … Im [sic.] not trying to be mean but it’s like [the Hornet developers] are sleeping in their offices … So buggy, the look is out-dated as, and it crashes!!’

In these reviews, people overwhelmingly criticised Hornet for its bugginess, its inconsistencies when scrolling through profiles, and its poor ‘blocking’ system. Many on the iTunes store focused on its gaudy orange colours, its penchant for crashing at inconvenient moments, and how the app blocked the wrong profiles by mistake.

But I was more interested in thinking about Hornet’s cultural and representational meanings and how it differed from Grindr, the reigning queen of gay phone social networking.

Friends had been telling me there was a new pool of queers on the app, apparently since it provided more flexibility and was not as restrictive  han Grindr. Frankly, I figured that it would be worth trying since it really couldn’t beat the losers I’d been meeting and greeting while writing my honours thesis this year. I had become truly wearied with existing online dating apps and resented some of the ways these programs fed narcissism, vanity, and encouraged the erasing other people’s ethnic or sexual identities. Another friend actually encouraged me to download Hornet specifically because he knew there would be certain features with which I would take issue, and about which he wanted to hear my exhaustive and ranting diatribe. (I don’t always rant, I assure you.)

I’ve since spent a few weeks on Hornet, experimenting with both the free trial as well the paid subscription one. I found it a fascinating yet problematic experience. What proved the most compelling part for me – aside from the uninteresting conversations I had with those who bothered responding to me – was the way the app implicitly engaged with gay male cultural politics.

But first some more peripheral observations.

Firstly, the developers were quite clever to choose ‘hornet’ as their app name. Naturally, the first meaning refers to the insect, a type of venomous wasp, which can sting its prey to death and travel long distances with its fellow flying cronies. The implication is that the Hornet app can allow users to cover large areas for cruising and canvas different areas of world until they ‘plant’ themselves somewhere.

The second, and more applicable meaning to the app, is the pun on ‘horny’. Given that most gay so-called social networking apps attempt to de-emphasise their sexual elements – using words like ‘networking’, ‘socialising’ and ‘online chats’ to stress a romantic, social or platonic component – Hornet implicitly suggests a hook-up based electronic interaction in the app.

Like Grindr and other apps, Hornet asks you to provide a series of uploaded photos of yourself and a brief description, with your height, weight, age and other statistics. What people have told me that they’ve enjoyed more with Hornet is that when you look at a profile you can scroll through three to four photos of the user. Apparently, one photo (what Grindr provides) can be deceptive and viewing more than one image allows you to see a more convincing representation of the queer to assess them as a potential sexual or social candidate.

You can set your location to anywhere in the world, which I think is one of Hornet’s strongest and most appealing features. There is a small search area where you can write a place (for example, London CBD, United Kingdom) and the app will plant you in that location for you to queerly cruise abroad. I did actually get a few unexpected messages from queer folk overseas, including one up-and-coming (the phrase is applied quite loosely) ‘pop singer’ from Cheshire, UK. I was invited to subscribe to his Facebook page and listen to some preview tracks, all of which I politely declined.

With the premium subscription you can select your target market by age and race. I experimented with the premium subscription at a price of $8.49AUD for a month and found the ‘filtering’ process immensely alienating. While there were those users who clearly disagreed with the politics of the process, and ironically marked themselves as ‘Native American’ (amongst other ethnicities), I disliked the experience. In hand-picking and filtering your sexual/romantic/social choices of gay men by race you run the risk of subscribing to misguided political and cultural norms that suggest you are necessarily ‘attracted’ to one race over another. It compounds the pre-existing racism that these gay social networking apps are fuelled by, when users attempt to erase non-white men and privilege the white (and no doubt gym-ready) gay male body.

By using the word ‘filter’, the connotation is that you are refining your search for a ‘cleaner’ or more ‘accurate’ array of men to suit you. To ‘filter’ is to ‘clean’ or ‘weed out’ the existing catalogue of gay men Hornet provides, subliminally suggesting that by filtering by age, race, and weight etc, you will find the more ‘truthful’ or appropriate partner.

I prefer the non-filtered experience, where the diversity of gay male identity is celebrated and the categorisation of the male body is not restricted to a table of numbers.

Furthermore, to participate fully in the Hornet experience, you are encouraged to provide your current HIV-status and known date of your last check-up. This element of the app is the most problematic of all. Hornet itself describes this feature as the ‘KYS: “Know Your Status”’. It lets you ‘share your HIV status and reminds you when it’s time to get tested’.

I decided not to publish my HIV status because I disagreed with being defined in those terms; not only would my whiteness be important to my capital and value on the app, my HIV status apparently would too.

To ask gay men to (self-)define themselves by their HIV status is a complicated political and cultural decision, misleadingly obscured by the pretext to ‘know your status’. It implies that gay men must answer this question in order to qualify for the app. The KYS option suggests that a user’s HIV status defines a (gay) individual just as much as their height, weight and race do.  Shouldn’t the KYS option be a decision made on the user’s part, rather than a prescriptive for every user on the app? Even if one chooses not to select either option (HIV-Positive or HIV-Negative), its presence on the app in the first place is problematic. By not answering your KYS status and not publically displaying it, its absence only points out its presence – you have a HIV status but either do not know it or choose not to be defined by it, which ironically you are by not displaying it.

It was fascinating how Hornet engaged with the politics and vocabulary of the closet. Hornet allows you to have ‘public’ photos as well as ‘private’ locked photos and users can request to see your private photos and you can reveal your private photos to users. The irony, of course, is that Hornet specifically states as a term of usage that you must not upload images of a pornographic nature, which is exactly what these private photos are primarily used for.

What I  found mesmerising was how this public/private photo ensemble could allow you to ‘out’ yourself through your private image. Because the closet and coming out are constructed around a binary vocabulary of publicness and privateness – or, in this case, seen-ness and unseen-ness – you could ask a user to ‘out’ themselves by requesting their private photos, should their public photos be of landscapes or their torso.

Hornet’s dichotomous and implicit reconstruction of the closet feeds into gay male identity politics. I argue that by allowing you to expose and conceal photos – such as of your face or your genitals – Hornet allows us to participate in the coming out experience. When you reveal your face to another Hornet user, you ‘come out’ and self-identify as gay, bisexual, or queer. When you conceal your face, you retain your closeted identity – something just as meaningful and important as an out gay male identity

In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick writes about homosexuality operating as an unspeakable identity throughout Western culture, primarily after its linguistic and scientific creation in the late nineteenth-century. It was commonly cited as the ‘love that dare not speak its name’, as the deviant and perverse duplicate of heterosexuality. (Ironically, homosexuality was created first, while heterosexuality  was  formed  later,  constructed  around the basis of the pathologised homosexual identity.) The ‘closet’ embodies many of the historical and cultural meanings, and to conceal one’s queerness in the closet is to avoid the pathology, stigma, and shame wrought by our homophobic social order.

These meanings all circulate in Hornet through the binary presence of public/private photos and indeed private conversations. I think this is what has appealed to so many users – an array of public photos that show the many ‘sides’ of the (out) user, while also giving you the ability to construct a private photo album. Whether these images are pornographic or act as an ‘outing’ of your identity, they nevertheless instantiate the closeting/outing meanings that have circulated around homosexuality for close to hundred and fifty years.

The app’s new features, like its global cruising option and race filter, will appeal to users wearied by Grindr (although Grindr has recently transformed itself into a very similar format to Hornet).

While Hornet may emerge as a serious threat to Grindr, and other gay social networking apps, I think some of the ways it constructs gay male identity are concerning. Either way, existing apps like Grindr or BoyAhoy are following suit like Hornet and providing ‘race filters’ in their paid subscriptions. Whether I’ll continue using these apps, I’m yet to answer but I suspect I’m sure to be hit on by pop stars in Cheshire, England if I do.

Nathan Smith

Nathan Smith is a freelance writer and graduate student at the University of Melbourne, specialising in queer and cultural studies. His writing has been published in Los Angeles Review of Books, Times Higher Education, and Overland. Nathan tweets @nathansmithr and maintains a website at

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Great article nathan! Some very interesting insights. Reminds me of a critique I read of gay male gender politics along the lines of “they march the streets in the name of equality for all, while their grindr profiles read ‘no femmes, fats or asians'”

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