Michigan Teen Arrested for Grindr Hookup: Homophobia and Why We Shouldn’t Criminalize Queer Youth
Late last week four Michigan men were arrested for allegedly hooking-up with a teenage boy. Eighteen-year-old Cody Swatling is among four men facing felony charges for engaging in sexual acts with the 15–year–old, whom he met on the gay app Grindr. The teenage boy bypassed Grindr’s age restrictions and created an account, pretending to be a legal adult. Over a span of three months, the teenager had consensual sexual encounters with Cody and three other men. The men were arrested after a family member of the 15-year-old contacted the police. Cody is currently being held on a $500,000 bond and faces decades in prison depending on the charges.
Recently, another Michigan teen garnered headlines for his dalliance with a presumably 17-year-old girl. Zach Anderson didn’t know, however, that the girl he had a sexual encounter with was actually a 14-year-old pretending to be 17. Despite the facts of the case, a particularly overzealous judge decried Zach’s “questionable” behavior, citing his participation in hookup culture.
“You went online, to use a fisherman’s expression, trolling for women, to meet and have sex with,” Judge Wiley scolded. “That seems to be part of our culture now. Meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this whatsoever.”
Judge Wiley, even after pleadings for leniency from the supposed victim and her mother, decided to make an example of Zach. After word of his conviction broke, many called the judge’s decision unethical and harsh. Fortunately, Zach’s family stood by him and heavily publicized his case, leading him to be interviewed on CNN, 20/20, the New York Times, and other major news outlets. As a result of the grassroots organizing around his case, Zach’s conviction was vacated earlier this month and he was removed from Michigan’s public sex offender registry, but he still faces legal battles when his case is retried.
The case of Zach Anderson is not unique. Too often are we hearing of adolescents and young adults led astray by an underage user of a dating app pretending to be of legal age. Unfortunately, it is largely impacting queer young adults. We must ask, could there be such a groundswell of public support like what Zach saw in a same-sex case like Cody Swatling’s? Will gay rights groups speak up for the decriminalization of consensual gay teenage relationships and the rights of queer youth? Are queer relationships seen as inherently more coercive and non-consensual?
If recent history is to be believed, then no, there will be no public outcry. Dakota Freeman, a 20-year-old out of Utah, is ensnared in a similar situation. He arranged to meet with a 13-year-old believing he was 18. Dakota arranged to meet the teen at his hotel, where the teen’s parents were also staying. They had sex in a bathroom while the teen’s parents slept next door. The father of the boy caught Dakota as he was on his way out the door and alerted police. Dakota was arrested and charges are pending, and more may still be arrested while police continue to search the teen’s phone. In comparison to Zach’s case, we have yet to see a national outcry arise from either of these cases.
Not even “Romeo and Juliet” statutes will protect Cody from some charges. Michigan law forbids sex with anyone below the age of consent of 16–no matter the age difference. The only protection it affords is potentially keeping a close-in-age adolescent off the sex offender registry. Teens in other states may not be as lucky. Texas explicitly excludes gay teens in Romeo and Juliet laws. The bill HB-71, which would have provided that protection, was shot down earlier this year.
Gay adolescents are severely lacking in legal protections. It is not surprising, then, that LGBT youth are far more likely to be caught up in the prison pipeline than their straight counterparts. In fact, a research study has shown that gay male teens more often face discriminatory prosecution and harsh punishments for age-of-consent violations than their straight or lesbian peers due to “moral outrage” from community members. Is Cody’s Grindr case one of selective prosecution and moral panic? Is Cody the victim of homophobia?
This is not about victim blaming or shifting responsibility. Rather, it is about being receptive to talking about sex. Parents of gay teens are particularly leery about discussing sex with their teens. They don’t know how to talk about sex, don’t know their teens are gay, or don’t want to believe that they aren’t straight. Yet, it is having lasting repercussions. Without the means to openly discuss sex, teens will find other covert outlets to express their sexuality, like Grindr or other dating apps. The age restriction is easy to circumvent. At the click of a button you become of legal age, opening a world where countless (and often shirtless) men await a danger they aren’t expecting. We must protect our community and stop the criminalization of queer youth.