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Love at first algorithm: Finding my gay soulmate

To kick off Duke’s second unconventional semester, an exciting way to meet other Duke students was presented to the socially distanced student body: the Duke Marriage Pact. This trendy algorithm has made its way through universities across the U.S., giving students a psychology-backed way to meet their back-up soulmate. With a few thousand other Duke students, I decided to toss my hat in the ring, and trust in both the matchmaking abilities of a fifty-question survey and the previous selection by Duke admissions. Faced with this exciting semi-dystopian prospect, I was left thinking about everything most twenty-one-year-olds think about: marriage, sex and death.

Now, you are probably thinking—”Nathan, why would you want to do the marriage pact? Don’t you already know every other gay on campus?” And I would answer, “Yes, but like every other dating app, I am simply bored and curious.” I don’t expect to be paired with a complete stranger, as the gay community on campus feels small, but I recognize the possibility of being matched with a first-year (they wouldn’t do that to me, right?) that I’ve never seen in the flesh. And with around 400 extra heterosexual women, it seems that no bisexual men will be paired with men, further reducing the man loving man pool. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll have the Duke Chapel gay wedding of my dreams.

As a five-year gold star member of the LGBTQ+ community, I have had my fair share of online dating. As a gay youth in Texas and North Carolina, dating apps have been the primary way I’ve met potential suitors. I would much prefer going to a bar or playing in a queer volleyball league, but these opportunities are scarce in one of the worst gay dating regions of the country. Even before the pandemic, Grindr and Tinder felt like the only watering holes for gays. These apps use a few algorithms, but mostly let users decide who they speak to based on physical appearance and a short bio. The Marriage Pact presents a refreshing departure from superficial formats of other apps, blindly pairing us with our personality compatible soulmate. And although physical attraction is foundational for most relationships, this matchmaking is for when we’re old anyways.

Taking the fifty-question survey spanned subjects of background, personality traits and opinions. Recently I received a fun “Hot Takes” fact sheet, showing my responses that were drastically differently than most Duke students. The first one was: I would much rather be left at the altar than leave someone at the altar. This was a no-brainer, as I have had the pain of being a heart-breaker and having my heart broken, and I prefer the latter (It’s easy to pursue your own happiness when the other person is finding theirs). The second one was: flirting is harmless, which I was surprised to see that other people did not agree with. The survey overall made me wonder a bit more about how being gay affected my responses, and at a deeper level—how I viewed monogamy and marriage.

It’s easy to forget that gay marriage was only legalized across the U.S. five years ago, but this is the context many of us grew up in. My earliest states of denial were largely influenced by my desire for a normal life and family, and my internalized belief that being gay would detract from that. With rapid increases of acceptance of gay marriage, the dream of a homonormative domestic life has never felt more attainable. Gay love is just like straight love now, right?

Marriage itself is a heterosexual invention. With the primal intent of creating a nuclear family unit, the union of marriage for a while had no room for queer people. And as many members of the LGBTQ community argue, it still doesn’t leave room for most queer people—only those who blend in. As a gay middle class male, it’s easier for me to assimilate to the mold of monogamy, but it doesn’t feel quite like queer liberation. I can’t help to wonder if the ingrained values of Catholicism and other institutions of socialization have led me to seek a soulmate, not my romantic inclinations.

Monogamy is often presented as not only the societal expectation, but the morally just action. Promiscuity and sexual deviance are threats to that sanctity. For many queer people, we are taught that our sexuality or gender are deviant from what is socially acceptable. By adhering to standards of monogamy we are able to lessen that experience of deviance. This is why a happily married Pete Buttigeig is much more politically appealing than a less conformist counterpart.

So when I fill out the Marriage Pact as a gay person, I address a lot of different fears. I don’t want to feel unloved when I grow older. And since I am conditioned to view monogamy as the righteous goal, to be unmarried is to feel unaccomplished as well. To be alone and gay would be to fail, proving the traditionalists of society correct. It would just be further evidence that happiness requires a normative path.

Each day, I understand more that feeling loved is more than a lifelong promise or a picture-perfect Notebook story. It is present in every aspect of my life, with every person I cross paths with. As a romantic, I am of course open to sailing away into the sunset. But as a Catholic-raised gay person, I must detach my lingering guilt from what I view as an ideal life. A happy ending to life is nice, but there can also be plenty of happy endings along the way.

I am excited for this fun experiment of the Duke Marriage Pact, and hope it leads to new friendships and a few romances here and there. For the queer folks who also get scared every now and then that you’ll be unloved: you will always find love from your people. And hopefully you will experience romance along the way, but don’t panic if your story doesn’t match the ones we have been told from birth. Soulmates are for straight people.

Nathan Heffernan is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. 

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