The Trials, Tribulations, and Successes of Navigating Queer Online Dating

The Trials, Tribulations, and Successes of Navigating Queer Online Dating

Let’s talk about Tinder.

We all know her. Some of us love her, some of us hate her, but most of us have a complicated relationship with the popular dating app. I, for one, lean more towards the former—while online dating can be absolutely exhausting, I still find that I’m somewhat successful with my Tinder endeavors. Is it because I’m a lesbian and don’t have to deal with the (usually) disgusting cis men that my straight friends are terrified of? Perhaps yes. But I realized it’s not just me—online dating has deep roots in queer history and its community.

While people who coupled up with the opposite gender had the privilege of meeting IRL way back in the 18th century, people who wanted to link up with the same gender didn’t have this freedom. So, the personal ad was born, where (typically) men would use code words and post discreet ads to find other interested men. They would then meet in “Molly Houses”— ___’s typically disguised as cafes or bars — to host these meetups and hookups in a society where any same-sex desire was condemned. 

Personal ads and columns continued through the 1980s, and it wasn’t necessarily as discreet, but the ads would still act as safe spaces for gay men. These newer ads also (finally!) catered towards lesbians who were in search of a partner. They were posted in newspapers, and to give queer women an outlet, lesbian erotica magazines — such as the infamous On Our Backs — commonly hosted these ads. 

So even before the internet existed, queer people sought out partners through methods that are similar to what we see online today. They used these platforms for safety, to be discreet, and to figure out where the gays hide due to a lack of visibility and public space. While much has changed since the days of personal ads, it seems that these three aspects continue to be relevant, maybe to a lesser extent, in the queer community. Particularly in rural and conservative areas, it can still be extremely unsafe to be both out and also actively dating as a queer person. Most commonly, however, it still feels impossible to know where other queer people are, and on top of that, to know if other queer people are interested in that way. 

So! Online dating quite literally changed the game—first with Craigslist personal ads (rip), then with those older websites like OkCupid (although it is the most LGBTQ+ inclusive), then to the most common method today—the dreaded dating app. We all know Tinder, no matter how tired we get of swiping left on couples looking for a third. Bumble and Hinge recently shook things up, but mostly for the straight community (using Bumble as a woman who’s interested in other women is essentially pointless). Grindr is one of the only explicitly queer dating apps that has gained widespread popularity, even though the users often deal with transphobic and racist incidents. The Instagram account of @_personals_ updated the antiquated personal ads into an online platform where queer womxn, nonbinary folks, and trans men can submit their own ads, which would later be submitted on their account for interested people to comment on or directly DM the person.

Speaking from my own experiences, I, perhaps ashamedly, hold Tinder very close to my heart. I downloaded the app my freshman year of college, still unsure of my lesbian identity, and getting those first matches validated my complex feelings and acted as my own gateway into lesbian dating culture. It took me six months to actually use the app, and my first official Tinder meetup was entirely platonic. My first romantic Tinder date was absolutely atrocious, and I continued to have a few more of those bad ones, mixed in with equally amazing dates and some more meaningful relationships. I sometimes would be embarrassed to tell others that I met whoever I was dating through Tinder, but now I start to feel less weird about it—we all have Tinder, most of us use Tinder, and finding queer love IRL is too damn hard

My reasoning for continuing to use Tinder is quite clear, as it became apparent after a fair amount of successful experiences. Finding a queer community is hard enough, especially at my school, which seems to only prioritize cis gay men rather than all LGBTQ+ folks, so finding queer women that are also interested in me is a difficult feat that straight people never have to face. My social anxiety, on top of my inability of knowing if a girl is flirting with me or just being friendly, and my failure in finding these queer women in physical spaces leaves Tinder as the most viable option. 

So why is online dating so fundamental for the LGBTQ+ community?

I’m only one lesbian who is pro-Tinder. Online dating’s queer history, as well as my own successes, gave me a glimpse into the intersections of dating apps and queerness, but I wanted to know more. For research, I suppose, but also to see if the accelerated progression of online dating is actually beneficial for us LGBTQ+ folks. Is it safe to assume that everyone in the community actively seeks out partners through the internet, or if they’ve even tried it in the first place? Was Tinder just a space to find sex and/or romance, or could it possibly be essential in fostering queer friendship and community? 

I took these questions to my Instagram followers, and based on some poll results I posted on my stories, it’s apparent that there is some sort of link. Although several queer people I know refuse to even get dating apps, 89% of people who identified as LGBTQ+ in some way have at least downloaded dating apps. This isn’t to say that all of them actively used these apps, but at least the outstanding majority have Tinder on their phones. But doesn’t practically every single person under the age of 28, queer or not, have Tinder? 

Thanks to a plethora of reasons that are linked to queerness, LGBTQ+ folks use (or fail to use) Tinder in various ways—numbers decreased when I asked who had been on dates, or simply met people in physical spaces. Only 75% had been on dates, while a quarter only used Tinder because they liked swiping, seeing their options, and getting matches. Several of my straight friends have said they like doing the same—that swiping is fun, and that they could never actually meet the men they matched with, presumably because they were, well, straight men. Yet swiping could mean something entirely different for queer people, especially for those who are just beginning to understand their sexual and/or gender identity. It can be reassuring to find who you’re attracted to, especially when they’re also queer, and getting those initial matches is validating as hell. 

Marney, a 19-year-old student, uses Tinder as a way for her to explore her newfound bisexuality in a safe and comfortable way. She says, “I talked to a lot of other women who either felt the same way or were very comfortable in their sexuality and expressed pride that I was finally taking control of my [bi]sexuality.” While these matches were merely conversational, as she’s never been on a Tinder date, they were “empowering experiences” for her that highlight the queer power of online dating, even if it never leaves the screen. 

I definitely felt this way at first—talking to women on Tinder when I first downloaded the app as a baby gay was exciting, although I never wanted to take anything to the next level (thanks, social anxiety). Yet I pushed forward after some months, and the majority of my queer followers have done the same. However, not all of these dates were romantic; 71% of those who went on dates (typically) did so in hopes of sex and romance, while the rest were seeking something friendly with fellow queer people. I’ve literally never heard of Tinder being a site for platonic connections for straight people; most of my non-queer friends only get confused when I tell them that I met one of my close friends through Tinder two years ago. But for us LGBTQ+ folks, community sometimes feels even more important than finding love. 

Julia, 21, says that she doesn’t always explicitly seek out platonic connections, but that they rather happen naturally. “Sometimes, you meet someone after talking and realize there isn’t sexual chemistry, but there’s normal friendship chemistry,” she told me, and this situation is what happened when we met through Tinder two summers ago. I also feel the same way—while I don’t use Tinder just to find friends, I’m always delighted when a non-romantic match expands my circle of queer friends rather than vanish into thin air.

But, at the end of the day, most of us use Tinder and other dating platforms for two things: casual hookups or good, old fashioned romance (or both!). Just as we had to seek out other partners through those personal ads before the internet, the same is seen through modern online dating practices. Using apps and the internet to filter out who’s even queer in the first place makes dating so much easier. This feels like the most obvious reason as to why queer people are so fond of the practice, but it digs deeper, as told by the fact that only 46% of queer online dating users go to their beloved apps simply because it makes it physically easier to find a queer partner. The rest primarily use online dating due to a more complicated concept of what I like to call “gay anxiety”—a splendid mix of social anxiety and being absolutely clueless in how to date or flirt with other queer people. While I admit I use Tinder because it’s far easier than meeting people IRL, I definitely lean towards the latter reason. It just makes sense to me, and many other queer people, to use online dating to essentially “skip” all the scary parts of connecting with people in real life settings. Not only do you know that you’re both into each other (in some way) after a match, but you’re able to set boundaries and what you want through talking through the comfort and safety of a phone. The same goes for @_personals_, as the ads include details about the person themself and who/what they’re looking for. Commenting on posts or sending that person a DM explicitly shows that you’re interested, whether you’re looking for queer friends, sexual partners, or your future wife.

Queer online dating seems great—why are some people so opposed to it?

Obviously, online dating, and especially Tinder, has its flaws that are unique to the queer community. Dating is never simple, and putting it on the internet doesn’t solve all of its problems (and often instead creates others instead). Many queer people, particularly lesbians and other queer women, told me that they weren’t fans of online dating simply because they like meeting people in real life—the connection and “spark” is usually more evident and genuine than doing so through a phone screen. While this is probably true in most cases, as online connections can be a bit illusive, people tend to physically meet their online matches if they wish to see if that connection is real, which can lead to realizing you shouldn’t be more than friends if the chemistry isn’t there. 

But what if meeting never happens? Hannah, a 25-year-old lesbian, says that she’d rather meet people through more organic means, not only because the chemistry is usually better, but because “[she] feels like people are less willing to actually meet in person unless there is some real life connection.” Thanks to my polls and further insight, Hannah isn’t wrong—so many queer people use Tinder without ever going on a single date. If you want to actually make romantic connections through Tinder and other online dating platforms, it might take some extra work to find others who are interested in meeting as well, which is where direct communication comes in hand—simply ask her out if you like her!

It can also be tricky to decipher exactly what kind of connection you and a match have, especially when so many friendships are made through online dating platforms. This tricky line is why Rhiannon, a 24-year-old queer woman, prefers to use online dating for men rather than women. “I feel like with dating women it’s more important for me to identify chemistry to distinguish between romantic/sexual interest and friendship,” she says. “The online aspect created a barrier for me in that regard… With men, I either like you or hate you. Rarely do I want to be friends with men—so online dating them is so much easier!” Only somewhat shocked, I realized that online dating could be a bit blurry in this sense. Although it can foster more explicit communication, particularly for those who are more comfortable speaking online than in person, it might be impossible to know what you want out of a match until you actually meet them.

For others, however, it seems like their bad experiences have made them entirely give up on the idea of online dating. A 21-year-old lesbian student I spoke to has tried Tinder three times too many—first to see if she was still attracted to men, then to get a sense of the queer scene when she was abroad in Ireland, then finally to see what gay Tinder was like when she returned to the States. She told me, “Most of the girls [in Ireland] were looking for a travel buddy or looking for a third in a threesome with their boyfriend. But I thought maybe the dating apps would change in America, so I re-downloaded Tinder for a brief period and deleted it. Same experiences. I think online dating can be great, but you just have to weed through the bad ones.” Tinder is, to put it lightly, downright exhausting, even before real-life connections are made. Trying to find a romantic connection as a queer person is already a difficult act in itself, but filtering through those who are only interested in experimenting or threesomes makes it even more soul-crushing.

Even with Tinder horror stories in mind, there still seems to be an overwhelming amount of success stories, especially when including more inclusive platforms like Personals. So what does it look like when online dating doesn’t fail us queer folks and actually facilitates exactly what we were looking for?

When online dating doesn’t disappoint

While some queer people immediately find their soulmate within moments of trying online dating, this usually isn’t the case—to reiterate what that lesbian student stated, weeding through the bad ones is usually a requirement of queer Tinder. However, some really beautiful stories can surface, even from those that used to hate the app. Cait, 28, says that she “usually hates online dating as a queer person with all the couples seeking a third and a lot of womxn wanting to talk but not actually meet up.” However, she met her fiancée through the app. “We both expected to be a one night stand, as she lives in a different city,” she told me. “But here we are, still together!” Cait’s story is only one of a handful of cute as hell Tinder and Personals stories, showing that maybe online dating can lead to successful, gay romance, something that feels so rare in this heteronormative world.

Tinder can be a means for the newly single to not only move on, but also seek out other queer experiences in a new city. Emily, 23, used Tinder six months after her breakup and right as she moved to Brooklyn. With her lack of a centralized queer circle of friends, along with her “not [being] the type to approach someone out, especially because [she] wasn't going out in queer settings,” she hesitatingly went on Tinder to find she was only interested in one woman—her now-girlfriend of over a year, Hannah. Apart from her committed relationship, she’s recently back on Tinder due to their new status of being romantically monogamous but sexually open. Emily says that being on the app again for this purpose “is weird!! Especially because neither of us have ever tried being open. I never realized how annoying people are on Tinder about being open. Like I didn't know it was such a thing. Tinder is weird and being open is weird, but so far, it's just fun and weirdly makes things comfier.” Although her relationship with Tinder isn’t entirely perfect, especially since she’s newer to the app due to her long term relationship before Hannah, it’s able to facilitate both her current relationship and other queer sexual experiences that are typically hard to find in real-life settings. 

Tinder and other online dating platforms can also spark more unconventional relationships, further promoting the stereotype that lesbians love long-distance relationships. Another lesbian named Emily, 22, met her current girlfriend through Tinder when she was living abroad in Brighton, almost two years ago. She matched with Bex while in the UK but only connected with her once while living there, when they found each other at the same bar, made out, and continued to hang out for after-drinks. However, Emily returned to America shortly after this encounter, but still continued to talk to Bex—so much to the point that they “realized [they] had feelings that weren’t going anywhere.” She told me, “October of last year, we started officially dating while in separate countries (even though we knew we wanted to date July of last year but we’re both clueless lesbians).” A few month-long trips in both London and Bex coming to Emily’s hometown of Baltimore later, they still “continue to maintain long distance by mailing each other care packages to planning FaceTime dates like watching movies and drinking a beer together.” Although long distance can seem entirely not worth it, the two would have never met and figured out that this type of relationship could work for them if it weren’t for Tinder.

Queer love stories also emerged from Personals, especially on the more atypical side, as the platform can connect queers from across the country and even the world. While many Personals connections are made trans-geographically, it can also facilitate connections in nearby cities, as seen in the relationship of Emi, 24, and Sula, 23, who are about to have their “one year ‘DMiversary’, aka the day [Emi] slid into [Sula’s] DMs after they posted a Personals ad.” For Sula, Personals was a more comfortable dating platform due to their transmasc femme nonbinary identity. They love the platform for a number of reasons, and not only because they met their current partner through it—“There’s this community accountability within Personals, so even while the posts are public and can be viewed or commented on by anyone, there are constantly thousands essentially monitoring them to ensure that only supportive comments are posted,” they told me. They continue, “I haven’t felt quite comfortable indicating the intricacies of my gender identity/expression [on mainstream platforms like Tinder], particularly as someone who is trans non-binary and presents visibly masculinely but with a feminine personality and identity. [Personals’] culture of commenting positively on a post, even if you don’t want to date the person, falls in line with queer understandings of love and connection—which are much more nuanced than the platonic/romantic dichotomy of the straight world & their apps.” 

Sula’s insight entirely reflects the inclusivity of Personals, but also why communication is so essential in relationships that begin online. For Emi, she feels that the platform facilitated all of those necessary talking points that are sometimes forgotten when people meet organically. She says, “I feel like queers are so much more conscientious of consent-based dating, so spaces like Personals made the experience feel so safe and open. On day one, we established pronouns, gender identities, and that we were both monogamous, which are things I could never imagine happening with ease and comfort back when I was in cis hetero relationships.” Both Emi and Sula say that their relationship is still established in good communication, showcasing that the internet can be even better at facilitating this skill than old fashioned, face-to-face talking. While they were based in the proximal cities of Baltimore and D.C. when they met, they’re now moving to NYC together, revealing that queer online love can be extremely successful.

These stories give me hope as a lesbian, still trying to navigate the queer dating scene, although I’ve been a part of it for almost three years. It will never stop being difficult, sometimes to the point of giving up and deleting all dating apps until further notice. But every so often, finding a meaningful connection in a sea of insignificant swipes is more than worthwhile, especially when that connection can only be made through online means. So maybe, just maybe, we might have to stan online dating as LGBTQ+ folks, for whatever reason we choose to use it—even if we never want to move past the swiping level. 


About the Author

Natalie Geisel (she/her) is a senior at The George Washington University studying women’s, gender, and sexuality studies with minors in English and communication. Her love of writing sprouted from starting her fashion blog in high school, and her current written work focuses on topics of LGBTQ+ content, culture, and identity. Launching and managing Camp Thirlby was out of interest in intersecting gender and sexuality into the world of youth and wellness, hoping to add marginalized voices, like her own queer one, to an underrepresented community. When she’s not writing, she spends her spare time at dance rehearsal, attending local indie shows in the DC area, or finding the best cafes that serve oat milk. She’s passionate about inclusive sex education and sustainable fashion and thinks everyone should be, too. You can view all of her written work on her website.

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