'Our hope is that anyone who is a gay woman will be on this'
June 9, 2013 4:00 AM
Software developer Ariella Furman with her Wing Ma'am profile on a smartphone.
By Deborah M. Todd Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Catching the eye of a special person across a room never guarantees a date, but the idea of making a move can be paralyzing if you're not sure that person shares your sexual preference. Add the uncertainty of making friends in a new town or living in an area with few gay-friendly spaces and those hurdles can be discouraging.
For Ariella Furman, making connections between members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community is more about social mobility than the disappointment of lonely Friday nights.
She says her location-based social networking app, known as Wing Ma'am, can do that.
"It opens up the circle for dating and friendships in the community and creates a sense of unity and impact in numbers, because our hope is that anyone who is a gay woman will be on this," Ms. Furman said.
The 26-year-old Philadelphia native who came to Pittsburgh as a freelance animator in 2010 was inspired to create Wing Ma'am when she hit walls trying to break into the city's LGBT community.
When she couldn't find online event calendars and grew tired of going to the single lesbian bar she knew, she created Impulse, a website dedicated to LGBT events and issues in Pittsburgh. After Impulse grew from a handful of new friends to more than 4,000 members in less than two years, Ms. Furman knew she wasn't alone in her frustrations.
So when a friend suggested her next project should be something for gay women modeled on Grindr -- a gay men's location-based social networking site with more than 4 million users -- it wasn't long before she went from animator to tech entrepreneur.
Using $30,000 of her own savings, Ms. Furman and a developer built the first version of Wing Ma'am this year using Unity 3D, a game engine that cross-functions as a Web development tool.
Like Grindr, Wing Ma'am comes with tools that allow lesbians to find others who have signed up for the service and it provides location-based event calendars. As an extra safeguard, she added phrase-sensitive tools that will flag offensive users, as well as tools to block users and a list of safety guidelines warning users to meet in public places or to tell a friend that they're meeting a Wing Ma'am user.
The app, still in the earliest stages of a beta test with a handful of Pittsburghers, is already getting local and national buzz.
Ms. Furman is in the process of signing on with a local startup accelerator. Wing Ma'am's campaign through crowd-funding site Indiegogo has raised more than $11,000 toward a $20,000 funding goal.
Once she reaches the goal, she plans to make final tweaks to the app's design and to launch the app in three cities that will be decided by -- what else? -- an Indiegogo vote. She plans to release Wing Ma'am across the country in August under the iOS and Android platforms.
Lyndsey Sickler, director of the Downtown-based Gay and Lesbian Community Center, said word of the app has already gotten around in Pittsburgh's LGBT community, a feat that isn't always easy to do with people who tend to stick to tightknit groups of friends.
"I think it's a fair assessment to say the community can sometimes be cliquish. I think people just get used to the people they're used to," she said.
Comfortable or not, Ms. Furman said that type of self-imposed segregation fractures LGBT communities and makes everything from mobilizing for social justice to helping women who are coming out unnecessarily difficult.
"It's an issue for each and every person I've ever talked to," she said. "When we polled people, everyone said they wanted that larger sense of community and over the years it's just broken down. They're definitely jealous of the gay men's community. I can say that I'm jealous."
If coming together socially is the start of coming together as a whole for the LGBT community, Pittsburgh is off to a solid start this year.
In addition to Wing Ma'am, Pittsburgh Pride has released a free smartphone app that will serve as an event calendar for this year's Pridefest, which is expecting more than 100,000 attendees. The Gay and Lesbian Community Center also features a community calendar, the GLCC NewsBlast Google Group and links to events geared toward LGBT couples.
And while Ms. Furman expects Wing Ma'am to lead to "book clubs, bands and craft nights," she doesn't discount the idea that it could be used much like Grindr, often touted as a place where men find the loves of their night, rather than the loves of their lives.
But to Ms. Sickler, as long as they're coming together in a positive and safe way, the app has done its job no matter how it's used.
"When you have anything that brings people of like interests together -- it doesn't matter what it is -- there are going to be hookups," she said. "That's part of connecting."