With the consistent loss of lesbian bars, feminist bookstores, and other queer, trans, and women-centric safe spaces (both physical and virtual) it’s become even harder for those of us who aren’t cis men to find one another. One such virtual space that has become a de facto dyke bar is Personals, an Instagram account, specifically for queer, bisexual, and trans people, that posts user-submitted, text-based personal ads, encouraging interested parties to follow up with the poster on their own Instagram page, linked and included with the caption.
Personal ads are not just for queer people, of course, but Personals creator Kelly Rakowski’s modern reimagining of dyke-centric ads from the pages of the ’80s and ’90s lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs is a frequent meeting place for anyone who fits under the wider LBTQ umbrella.
In early November, Rakowski announced Personals would be making a major move, launching its own app with a new name: Lex. After months of beta testing from Kickstarter supporters, Lex (as in “lexicon”) is now available for free download, offering the same text-based personal ads and missed connections. Rakowski says an app was necessary based on the number of ads she began receiving (what started as a few hundred a month took an uptick into the thousands), which meant she and a small part-time staff were overextended. A 2018 Kickstarter campaign raised nearly $50,000, which all went to the development of Lex. Anyone who donated to the campaign were early beta testers of the app, providing crucial feedback that Rakowski said she was able to implement in real time before Thursday’s launch.
“It really is following the same concept of the Instagram account, except it just makes everything easier,” Rakowski says. “So you’ll be writing personal ads or missed connections, you’ll have your own profile and you can make your own profile name for Lex. There are no photos, at least for now — we have zero photos. It’s completely this lo-fi format.”
Personals was limited by Instagram’s algorithms and options. Because there was no search capability, some posts would be buried and go unseen, and users had to scroll through ads. Now, Rakowski says, users can post and edit their ads at any time. They will stay posted for 30 days with the opportunity to be re-upped or re-created, and in-app messages can be sent with no match required. Rakowski says Lex will continue to be text-only with an optional link to the poster’s Instagram account ― “at least for now.” But the app will allow for searching location by specific mileage and keywords (“I give the example, you can search ‘butch bottom’ or ‘pizza,’” she offers.) This keyword search, she hopes, will also help queer people of color find one another.
Though specified as a friendly space to further marginalized populations like “QPOC, people with children, 40+ crowd, rural queers, people with disabilities, people with chronic illnesses, asexuals worldwide,” Personals Instagram seemed frustratingly and overwhelmingly white to some users. Earlier this year, an Instagram account called QPOC Personals launched in response to users who felt that Personals favored submissions from white people and fostered a less-than-desirable space for queer people of color. After some public discourse about Personals ownership, Rakowski (who is white) apologized and announced some changes: Queer people of color no longer had to pay for their ads to post, and their submissions were said to be prioritized, which meant they not just had a higher chance of being posted, but were done so ASAP versus the weeks it could take for the small team to create and post an ad.
Former Personals poster Sofía Ramírez Hernández says she loved the idea of the written ads and made “several platonic connections,” but was nervous from the beginning that Personals “was claiming to make space for marginalized communities while not addressing the predominantly white presence on the account” and “perpetually allowing harmful rhetoric in the comment section.”
“I had my fun with it and then quickly unfollowed the platform,” Hernández wrote in an email. “That entire disaster, namely the racist rhetoric that many white followers of Kelly’s page felt moved to unleash was more than enough for me to leave the page.” Rakowski’s response to the QPOC Personals page, alleging that its name and initial logo was taking away from her brand despite personal ads being a popular and well-known concept she borrowed herself, was seen as flippant by queer people of color, but ultimately supported by some white Personals users. Because this kind of dichotomy exists in most white-centric queer spaces, Hernández says, “Many of us were not surprised.”
“It was too white, for sure,” says Tai Farnsworth, a queer woman of color who posted a Personals ad last year. “But I did feel the creators were working hard to make the space more accessible to POC. I appreciated that POC didn’t have to pay. And I liked knowing that they prioritized those posts.”
While Hernández and others might not be joining the new app, both the prioritization of POC and a new interface will be incredibly beneficial for the new Personals era. The new Lex marketing campaign (led by intern Anita Osuala, who also came up with the new name) has a noticeably diverse cast of queer people encompassing all kinds of identities.
“We’re definitely always thinking of ways to make it more welcoming to everyone,” Rakowski said. “I was encouraging people to say they’re white and not just assume that white is the baseline.”
While in beta, Rakowski could make updates to the app in real time. “How I’m explaining it to everyone is this app is going to evolve according to people’s feedback and the community,” she says. “And hopefully when I get funding, make it better.”
At this point, online dating is almost like a queer rite of passage for most millenials, xennials, boomers, and Gen X-ers who were part of Planet Out or early W4W Craigslist (RIP), but most mainstream dating apps aren’t set up to benefit or protect marginalized populations. Trans women, specifically, are quick to be booted from apps like Tinder, and cis men frequently pop up as matches for users, even if they select “women only.” And while these dating apps say they’re intended to make platonic connections as well, does anyone really use Tinder to make friends?
As a serial monogamist partnered person, I’ve still been an active participant on Personals, a fan of the queer history through line, the literary lure of the sext, and an attempted matchmaker for my friends (despite it never, ever ending well). Plus, posts aren’t always romantic or sexual ― some specify looking for friends in a new city or members for a book club, while people who have posted ads say they’ve made nonsexual connections with people both online and in real life.
“Personals feels like a modern-day version of ‘Did you read the news? Did you see this on TV? Did you see what that person did in study hall?’” Alexandra Bolles says, who met her now-girlfriend through posting a Personals ad, and she’s right. Community-based cultural conversations are happening on the Personals account. There was one day over the summer when the comment section went wild over an ad specifying “no Geminis.” I spent a significant part of my day debating several friends on if singling out certain astrological signs should be considered discrimination (including a Gemini who said she “understood.”)
Outside of Lex, the only real LBTQ-specific app that has a sizable following is HER. Created by Robyn Exton in 2013 under the original name Dattch, HER now has 5 million users in 113 countries, and three different languages. They also host regular events internationally, where Exton says the point is getting people not just in the room together, but creating opportunities for them to engage (think: speed dating, karaoke contests).
“People will go with this mind-set ‘I’m going to meet someone I find attractive and have a relationship with,’” Exton says, “and then they get there and literally spend the whole night with their friends. We’re doing everything we can to try and help.”
There have been a few attempts at competitors in the queer women’s app arena (though I don’t know anyone who actually uses Lesly or SCISSR ― sorry to these apps), but all of them (including HER) follow the traditional photo-based-profile swipe scenario that Personals (now Lex) eschews.
“It’s like a sonnet,” my (single) friend Alice tells me of writing a Personals ad. “The form requires you to put a lot of thought into how you’re going to represent yourself. I feel like it tells you a lot about a person, more so than the swipe.”
The prospect of meeting someone based on who they are (“Tender Techy Mountain Boi”) and what they’re looking for (“a kind, active, family-oriented successful femme with an entrepreneurial spirit”) instead of how they look is almost as fantastical an idea now as it is to meet someone organically in person. But while early personal ads were printed without photos in order to save space and ink, Personals sidesteps the selfies for something more specific and intimate.
“The structure of Personals is designed to allow you to gauge a person’s emotional intelligence, their priorities, and to a certain extent their boundaries right at first glance,” says Bolles. “And in my last relationship, that probably took me, like, four years to learn.”
Queer people are just kidding ourselves if we don’t think looks don’t play any kind of role, though. Jenae (single in Chicago) says if a poster’s Instagram profile is private, she isn’t interested in pursuing anything. “Totally private and they have a picture of a tree? I go to a whole other Instagram page,” she says.
Despite policies and censorship that have kept some LGBTQ people from continuing to engage with Instagram, the platform has become a dating app in and of itself. Personals served as a helpful conduit, cutting through the clutter to the queer heart of the matter.
Moving away from the gram will help with some equalizing aspects, too: Rakowski says doing away with things like public “likes” and providing them only to the individual will make for a better user experience.
Lex could appeal to some new users, too, who aren’t keen to use Instagram for dating purposes. A trans nonbinary friend of mine, Kate, said they use OkCupid but often have to scan profiles to make sure users aren’t transphobic. They use Instagram largely for work, they say, and have no interest in mixing their dating and professional lives. For that reason, they’ve never posted a Personals ad but would consider using the new app if it makes them just one profile among many.
As Personals leaves Instagram and Lex enters the crowded dating-app space, the question is: Will queer people follow?
Tai tells me she’ll “almost certainly” join eventually, after she gets over her “latest heartbreak,” and Alice says she’ll download Lex but wait to create a personals ad of her own.
On launch day, Lex saw 6,000 downloads. “One thousand people active using the app at once,” Rakowski says. “It’s a healthy start!
As for me, I’m not sure it’ll be as fun to use Lex if I can’t share posts with friends or passively read conversations in now nonexistent comment sections. To really get something out of Lex, it seems, I might actually have to message someone.