Astrology tech can provide a safe space for the LGBTQ community, but there are limitations

[Original Post] Astrology apps like The Pattern and Co—Star want to bring the LGBTQ community together, but how successful are they? Image: Vicky Leta / Mashable By Aimée Lutkin2019-06-14 13:00:00 UTC Mashable is celebrating Pride Month by exploring the modern LGBTQ world, from the people who make up the community to the spaces where they […]

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[Original Post]
Astrology apps like The Pattern and Co—Star want to bring the LGBTQ community together, but how successful are they?

Image: Vicky Leta / Mashable

Mashable is celebrating Pride Month by exploring the modern LGBTQ world, from the people who make up the community to the spaces where they congregate, both online and off.


The ancient art of astrology has been experiencing a cultural resurgence. Maybe it’s the uncertainty of our current political climate that’s causing people to turn to the stars for solace. Or maybe it’s because astrology, like everything else, is merging with technology in a way that is making it more accessible than ever, transforming its practice in the process. At the forefront of this revolution is the LGBTQ community. 

The connection between the queer community and astrology is as ancient as the practice itself, as Mashable wrote in 2018. Increasingly, astrology is being discussed on sites like Tumblr and Instagram, visual mediums that allow for rapid dissemination of ideas and which are more popular than Twitter or Facebook amongst marginalized demographics. A 2016 research project called Scrolling Beyond Binaries based in Australia discovered that 64% of LGBTQ respondents used Tumblr; another report from the UK government showed that a “greater percentage of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people” used Instagram compared to heterosexual people.

To that end, queer people already immersed in astrology have folded it into their use of the internet, turning a practice as old as fire into an unruly blaze. What was once a relatively private practice for studying personal charts has blown up and disseminated through social media channels. Talking about your sign is as common as discussing the weather — at least in LGBTQ circles. But while astrology technology has created new systems of support and identity for queer people, opinions differ on how it should be used, thus highlighting its limits.

Astrologer Chani Nicholas, who identifies as a “queer, cis, Jewish woman,” is keeping an open mind. Nicholas wrote in an email to Mashable that she sees the use of astrology technology as especially important for queer communities, who might feel excluded from discussing their interests in the real world. She sees astrology as a system that validates human experiences with archetypes, and the more relatable something is, the more likely it is to be magnified online by an algorithm. That’s why astrology feels amplified in online spaces, spaces she sees as being especially necessary for queer people.

“It grants access to connect with like-minded folks in a way that can be challenging ‘IRL,’” Nicholas explains.

The astrology communities that sprang up naturally on social media paved the way for the development of more specialized networks and apps. While many individual astrologers and websites have developed their own apps for sharing horoscopes and spiritual guidance, The Pattern and Co—Star are two that have become increasingly popular as social networks, tying together folks interested in astrology and online community. Both offer intense personal readings as well as a way to connect to other users.

Co—Star facilitates private messaging and allows users to compare their charts for compatibility. The Pattern shows you not only your own predictions, but the astrological energies influencing your friends. 

Banu Guler, one of the co-creators of Co—Star, says the app doesn’t track “queerness” in users, but her own experience with astrology in her social groups informed her approach to developing it.

“It seems like a lot of how queers use astrology … is a little bit different than how most mainstream astrology gets treated,” she says. “It’s really humanizing, and tender. And it’s kind of a campy play on identity, and the reason it works for us is that it uses that paradigm.”

While astrology is often perceived as a tool for self-exploration, Guler thinks what it’s also “exceptional at is creating intimate conversations between people.” And this seems to be how many queer communities use it, with tech facilitating closeness both online and off.

In part, Co—Star’s appeal to the queer community — and its ability to foster intimacy — can be tied back to how it’s used. Guler tells Mashable that the service’s popularity stems entirely from word of mouth. It doesn’t use advertising, which means many of the app’s networks are composed of people they already know, thereby reflecting users’ real-life networks. The mirroring of these social groups was a deliberate design decision, says Guler.

“I think there are a lot of different ways to trap people in liking and scrolling holes and it isn’t the same as sitting with a friend on the couch and talking about your compatibility and your chart and having that really intimate conversation,” she explains. “We have tried to be really intentional reverse engineering what it feels like when we’re sitting with close friends and building that into the app rather than saying, ‘What are the paradigms all the other social media sites use?’”

Compare that to large social media sites, like Twitter or Instagram, which have had well-documented issues with harassment, the targets of which are frequently women and LGBTQ folks. According to the Women’s Media Center, LGBT youth experienced “almost three times as much bullying and harassment online as their straight and cisgender peers.” An app like Co—Star, on the other hand, wants to facilitate online social networking without attracting Reply Guys or trolls who have no interest in the topic, because the app doesn’t allow you to communicate publicly or send photos. If someone tries to add you multiple times, Guler says they can be blocked forever. In an email, Guler commented that this has allowed Co—Star to avoid “many of the harassment issues the big guys have faced.” 

Still, Co—Star currently has no formal policy on harassment: its design just naturally weeds it out. The company did hint at plans to add more social components, however, at which point they say they will formalize anti-harassment policies to “ensure our community continues to feel it is a safe and intimate environment.”

Patrick Keene and Glo Tavarez are two queer performers who co-run an improv show in New York City called a “Taste of the Peculiar.” The show pairs two improvisors for a set based on their astrological compatibility. Tavarez says they often take time during the performance to encourage audience members to sign up for The Pattern and Co—Star (especially anyone they have a crush on, so they can check their charts). Tavarez first heard of Co—Star from a queer friend who downloaded it while out on a date, using the app as an icebreaker to get to know each other. She takes astrology very seriously, but the apps themselves are also just a fun jumping off point for starting IRL conversations.

“If you are at a party and have some kind of anxiety — not everyone watches the TV shows you watch, not everyone listens to the same music, not everyone has the same opinions about shit,” she says. “But if you pull out an app, it’s for sure a very fun way socially to connect and build a community.”

Tavarez says she often uses this technique when she meets a girl she likes because it allows her to “vibe” with somebody without “being creepy.”

Keene is on the astrology apps, and acknowledges that almost everyone in his queer community is as well. But when it comes to sharing through social media, he prefers to use popular astrology memes, posting them on Instagram and texting them to friends.

“I identify so strongly as a Pisces,” says Keene. “The memes are a fun way of expressing all these different aspects of a Pisces… They’re so funny, but they also feel very real to me.”

And as silly as they are at times, the memes also bring him closer to self-acceptance by allowing him to easily share how he sees himself.

“I really do think that in terms of creating an identity and feeling comfortable in your identity, astrology has always felt like something I could lean on,” he says, adding that it’s a helpful tool as a gay man.

Not everyone finds the community supportive, though. For Jessica Lanyadoo, a queer astrologer who has been practicing in San Francisco for decades, the proliferation of tech-centered astrology has mixed results. Lanyadoo says she built her business “before the Internet,” and now uses social media as a tool to connect with people interested in that business — but she won’t use astrology memes on her popular Instagram account. She is much more likely to use memes to express an emotion or idea than to describe a sign.

“There are thousands and thousands of [astrology] memes based on stereotypes, and misinformation, and they’re MEAN,” she says. Lanyadoo says that for years she’s been referring to Geminis as “twin stars,” because she thinks they’re such a “cute” and lovely sign; only in the last year has she begun receiving messages from Geminis thanking her for this affectionate nickname because they tell her “people hate us.” 

“Sun sign hate devalues individual humans, and makes people feel bad about themselves,” she says. To Lanyadoo, this reflects how memes flatten the practice, and she fears they will lead to a backlash against astrology. And it’s “ridiculous” to Lanyadoo that people would try to make others — especially LGBTQ folks contemplating their identity — feel badly about themselves based on an astrological sign.

Keene, for his part, says there are times when he encounters memes where the creator “obviously doesn’t have a grasp of the sign,” but thinks it’s okay to pass those by. He likens them to political memes in the sense that you definitely shouldn’t be getting all of your info from them. Political memes are often condemned for their lack of factual accuracy, but astrology functions very differently from politics. The information contained in someone’s chart is dependent on interpretation, so who is to say what is accurate? 

Colin Bedell is an astrologist and co-creator of website Queercosmos, a website dedicated to discussing astrology and horoscopes from an LGBTQ perspective. He doesn’t see any harm in the proliferation of memes and trusts people to make their own calls about what feels right or wrong.

“Great, let’s democratize it,” he says. “If it’s not accurate or it doesn’t resonate with them, let’s assume that the reader has enough intelligence to know that.”

If anything, Bedell thinks astrological memes have actually made people’s understanding of their signs and charts more nuanced, because they want to go deeper. Bedell says he’s learned to “refrain from dumbing down his language online because “people are hungry for this rigorous information.” 

Not everyone sees technology as the great astrological democratizer. Performer Jes Tom wrote in an email to Mashable that their relationship with Co—Star is one of exclusion. The app is currently only available for iOS, and they have an Android. While Tom would never call Android users a “marginalized class,” it’s not insignificant that they cannot access a social network of intense interest to so many of their friends.

“In popular culture, iPhone is considered a stylish class signifier, and Android is considered comparatively uncool,” they write. “There are plenty of memes that reflect this. iPhone and Apple products are also generally inaccessible — they are much more expensive and fragile.”

Tom says that when they’re engaging with queer friends about astrology, the conversation often grinds to a halt when they say they don’t have Co—Star. This means that if there is a special place for discussing astrology via the app, it’s not accessible to everyone.

“Is it a safer space or an exclusive club?” they ask. “Is it for queer people, or is it for SOME queer people only? And if it’s the latter, then what does it mean to be left out of the ‘curation?’”

“Is it for queer people, or is it for SOME queer people only?”

Guler says she’s very aware that Co—Star’s availability (or lack thereof) is a frustration for many, saying the design team is hoping to release a version for Android by the end of the year or sooner “if the stars align.”

“I think we are all super connected to a lot of people on Android who are sending us a lot of angry texts,” she jokes.

Conversations about accessibility to spiritual practices like astrology extend beyond tech to the real world, as well. As Bedell says on his site and reiterates in conversation, “If it is not accessible, it’s neither radical or revolutionary.”

“The vast majority of people that I speak to are on board with that value,” he says, adding that he incorporates scholarship opportunities to any events or workshops he hosts, and they’re always livestreamed for people who can’t physically attend, either due to distance or disability. But, as Bedell points out, the average person interested in astrology may not be aware of conferences and workshops offered for astrological practice; an app or the internet can be the first window into opportunity. These access points are especially important for marginalized groups, including young, queer people who may not necessarily feel like there’s a place for them at established astrology conferences.

“If it is not accessible, it’s neither radical or revolutionary.”

Online though, there are potential hidden costs to that access, since it frequently means allowing tech companies glimpses into the lives of their users.

While Co—Star is fairly open about its origins, with public personalities like Guler attached to it, The Pattern remains mysterious; as The Daily Dot wrote in late 2018, the creators of the app seem to be unreachable. Several emails sent to their website contact from Mashable have gone unanswered. Though Co—Star is more transparent in many ways, the app still uses cookies to collect data on users, as Mashable wrote earlier this year. In addition to needing your email, contacts, and birth date, the app knows what site you referred you to it, how often you check it a day, and the number of times you’ve made in-app purchase.

Though Guler has denied anything sinister in this data acquisition, signing away access to your personal information to an app certainly has grander implications than one private astrologer knowing your business. In a piece for The Outline in April 2018, Caroline Haskin wrote that several astrology apps have access to users date of birth, gender, location, and maybe even medical information, all of which isn’t protected from distribution by The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 because astrology apps are categorized as “entertainment.” A profile might also stick around a lot longer than a person’s interest in astrology, meaning a user’s data in an app could be available even after deleting their account.

The sheer visibility of astrology has additionally led to its co-option by big business who see a new way to manipulate consumers. Fast Company reported in April that Amazon Prime’s Insider newsletter was sending users monthly “shopping horoscopes,” a pretty clear-cut example of spiritual practice being turned to capitalist ends. 

The accessibility of astrology through social media platforms and apps is a wonderful thing; but those platforms are at their root controlled by corporations who may or may not have a vested interest in the concept of safety or privacy. If a “safe space” for LGBTQ people can exist in the world of online astrology, it still needs to be maintained through actual relationships and active awareness of how these apps function. As Nicholas explains, “technology is best used as a point of departure, investigation, and inquiry. Nothing can replace human-to-human contact.”

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