When apps like Tinder first hit the mainstream, people were quick to reflect on how casual dating was killing modern romance. In the years since, millennials were mocked for concepts like “ghosting” — the practice of slowly killing off a relationship through avoiding, evasion, and silence.
But what does the supposed death of modern romance mean for those of us who have never had it as an option? Is “ghosting” experienced differently by queer people? And if so, how?
I Am A Serial Ghoster and I Have No Excuse
I always imagined that the people who ghost you are the same people who kill house plants. It’s a passive crime; at the most, you’d be convicted of manslaughter. I used to think that ghosting happened unintentionally, because the first time I realized I ghosted someone was entirely by mistake. It happened over a year ago, but I think about it constantly.
The first time I recognized my potential as a ghoster was at the beginning of my fourth year of undergrad, though the incident was actually several months in the making. The year prior, I matched with someone on Tinder and we had a great conversation. It moved to text. Then a week or so after I followed him on Instagram, he showed up in my “People You May Know” on Facebook — a feature that for many queer people basically amounts to a running list of unopened Tinder matches and cute Instagram profiles. Months later, I saw him on Grindr and we messaged a bit back and forth, and he added me on Snapchat. I texted him to ask him out, but the scheduling didn’t really work out. For the entire month of September, we tried to find a time where we were both free and able to meet up. Eventually it boiled down to a single text, from me, saying, “Sounds good — I’ll message you on Friday to confirm!” I think I actually used the exclamation mark. I was genuinely excited.
Days passed. Friday came and went. The next Thursday, I complained to my friend that this guy made plans and never texted me. “I’m just going to ask him what’s up,” I said, proud of myself for taking a stand. Screw these silly power dynamics and mind games! I’m not afraid to ask someone out twice! I’m secure enough to be the bigger person and try to make things work! The self-congratulations were already in high gear.
And that’s when I saw it. My message, sent over a week prior. The deadline long passed. I suddenly realized that I was not the hero, standing up to silly dating conventions and defying this obsession with noncommittal “chillness.” I wasn’t the voice for a new generation of queers freed from insecurity and uncertainty. I was the villain. I was the ghoster.
In a panic, I texted him again, apologizing and asking when he was free. But in the space of that week, his schedule had filled up and he wouldn’t have a night off until October. The next time we talked, he was firmly in a relationship — someone else with a more convenient schedule texted back in time. They’re still together, over a year later.
What I’ve discovered since is that not only am I an occasional ghoster, but I am actually a serial ghoster. I perpetually break plans, forget to respond, and leave people hanging. Once I convinced someone to leave a house party and then fell asleep by the time they arrived; I woke up to five furious messages, to which replied with “Sorry lol i fell asleep.”
I’ve forgotten names, birthdays, and numbers. I’ve ended conversations mid-sentence — I might receive a direct question, and then turn off my phone to go do something else. Even as I write this, I’m technically online on Grindr right now but not responding to anything. I’m the worst kind of person to date.
Yet my standards are outrageously high. In the fall of 2016 I spent two great afternoons with a beautiful boy, and when he didn’t respond to my text for two days, I immediately deleted him from all my social media profiles. I have no patience for ghosting, but I do it like it’s my job.
All this notwithstanding, my house plants seem to be thriving.
Who Needs Clean Breaks Anyway?
Looking back on the year, it’s hard to put names and faces to the ghosts of stillborn relationships. I can’t even think of the number. Things are born and they die, and we move on. I remember the people who left me hanging. But now when I see them on Tinder or Grindr or Instagram or Facebook or anything else, I block them and move on. This way, I can claim it. They killed the plant, but I dug up the roots.
Ghosting is sad, and endings are always uncomfortable occasions. But not everything needs to come back to life. Not every plant is made to handle the cold. If it was going to live, then it would; if they cared about me, they would not ghost me. I don’t ghost people that I have fallen for. The mere fact of ghosting means that the relationship was not going to last.
I understand why people bemoan Tinder et al for supposedly destroying everything we ought to know and love about romance. I understand it, but I still think it’s ridiculous. These apps aren’t what’s causing me to ghost people, they just make ghosting more obvious when it happens. There are hundreds of reasons why I leave boys hanging, and vice versa, and most of them are out of my control.
Should I just break things off cleanly? Probably. There are lots of cases where it’s the right thing to do. But in general I don’t buy it. When I ghost someone, it’s never someone I’m seriously entangled with, like someone I’ve been dating for weeks. Most of the time (though with some rare exceptions), the ghosted party is a hookup, a Tinder match, a stale first date, an unsaved contact, etc. Clean breaks are rarely clean; they’re often messy, bridge-burning exercises. And when you’re queer, you run in smaller circles. You can’t always afford to lose a potential partner forever — it’s just bad business. The demand outweighs the supply, so why reduce the supply even further? You never know who you’re going to run into, how they might have changed, and if it’s worth it to try again.
I mean, maybe I’m just coming up with excuses — it’s easy to rationalize your own bad behaviour when you render it abstract and intangible. In contrast, I remember everyone who’s ghosted me, and in some ways, I’m still upset about it.
But people are not house plants. Just because you forgot to water your relationship, doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. People grow and they grow apart, and sometimes they grow back months later, like tulip bulbs blooming every spring. On more than one occasion, I went out with someone who left me hanging in weeks before, and it was way better for it. The hard truth about dating — especially casual dating — is that there are times when someone abandons you for good reason, or even no reason at all, and they’re not a worse person because of it. It just did not work out. Collect your feelings and go home.
This is easy to say, but hard to do. Still, I think there’s something to be said for drawing lines between how we are told relationships should be, and how they are, especially when it comes to comparing straight and queer dating. In contrast to straight dating, which — if I’m to believe every think piece I read — has been revolutionized by the likes of Tinder, queer dating has never fit into normative models of romance.
Queer Ghosting and Queer Ghosts
For generations, gay people could not meet at a friend’s party, grab a cup of coffee, and have a picnic in the park. Cruising was the norm, and it still is. Homophobia’s deadly cousins — poverty, homelessness, loneliness, and disease — forced us to go an alternative route. The things that straight society associates with gay deviance and queer indecency — rough hands on park benches, muffled voices in bar bathrooms, private parties and underground bathhouses — were necessities. Sometimes they still are.
In some ways, “ghosting” is a new name for an old idea. Secret sex is all we were and all we are allowed to have as queer people. Sure, the idea of gay marriage offers something in the way of spaces for romance. But overwhelmingly, the world of dating is still a straight one.
For many queer people, the phenomenon of ghosting is not a new problem that’s plaguing our relationships. It was never even called ghosting. It was called going home. You had no choice but to leave this person and maybe you’d run into them again, but maybe not. For so many of us growing up gay, the idea of being with someone we cared about was a fantasy. At best, we had glimpses at small moments of tenderness, surrounded by every kind of straight relationship with every kind of timeline imaginable.
I know so few queer people who are in healthy long-term relationships that the whole concept of “ghosting” seems foreign. When it’s so rare to even move past date #3, is it accurate to call it ghosting? Can you really be blamed for the death of something that never even took root?
Tinder was just a new addition to a laundry list of things that straight people can rely on to form meaningful connections. For queers, Tinder hasn’t changed the game, it’s just eliminated some of the risks associated wth cruising the old fashioned way, like police violence and aggressive surveillance — the kinds of risks that queer people still face in other ways and other spaces.
The fact of the matter is that ghosting sucks. The arguments in favour of it all centre around preserving people’s feelings, and I agree with them to some extent. But when you’re ending something with someone — no matter how small that something is — you’re going to hurt people’s feelings no matter what you do. It’s the nature of the beast.
Ghosting as a concept is unkind, certainly, but it doesn’t have to be rude in practice. In some ways, it’s introducing an intermission, or simply putting space between yourself and someone who was never going to be yours in the first place. For so many queers, that’s all we know. Tinder has nothing to do with it.