The week of June 21, 2015

Exploring queer identities through dating apps

By Kari Paul

When Hilary Weaver first moved to New York City a year ago, she knew she wanted to date women—something difficult in the small Midwestern college town she’d just left. But she had some trepidation about diving headfirst into the dating scene. So she took the first small step of setting up an OkCupid account.

“I was excited to be able to branch out and start exploring my sexual identity, but I wasn’t comfortable just walking into a bar, especially a lesbian bar or any LGBT setting,” she recalls. “I was still coming around to feeling comfortable with my identity, and I really hadn’t accepted myself. With OkCupid, it was a lot easier to prepare for dates beforehand, and if I wanted to get out, I could just delete the account if I didn’t feel ready.”

Weaver says OkCupid played a major role in her coming-out process, offering a crash course in the same-sex dating world and providing a network of people whose sexual orientations were visible, a neat checkbox displayed beneath their profile pictures rather than a vague guessing game in a bar setting. It allowed her to meet friends and foster an LGBTQ community in her new city, slowly giving her the confidence to meet people organically—including her current girlfriend, whom she met offline.

“If I had never used a dating site, I really think my coming-out process would have been a lot more drawn out and a lot more difficult,” she says. “The way I met my partner was through someone who introduced me to her, but I would have been way more nervous to meet her if I hadn’t had any interaction before that.”

Despite the recent smattering of trend pieces (written largely from straight perspectives) about the death of Tinder and similar apps, since their inception, online dating services have fostered virtual safe spaces where people can test and transform their sexual identities. With more and more orientation-specific apps being released and mainstream apps catering to a wider range of sexual orientations, the world of same-sex dating has never been more accessible.

“Online dating platforms make it easier for curious people to explore same-sex relationships because they make the dating and hookup pools visible,” says Chelsea Reynolds, a doctoral student at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Communication who researches gender and sexuality in mass media. “If you’re not at a gay bar, it’s difficult to know who is queer or straight. Tinder, OkCupid, and Grindr help LGBTQ people sidestep the awkward ‘Are you into people like me?’ talk and get right down to business.”

“Since their inception, online dating services have fostered virtual safe spaces where people can test and transform their sexual identities.”

Weaver says being able to tag her sexuality on an online site gave her the visibility she felt she lacked in IRL queer spaces as a femme-presenting gay woman.

“People tend to assume that I’m straight because of how I present myself, and I think that’s always hard,” she says. “So it was nice to be able to put myself in that network and for people to know and I can say ‘I am a queer woman’ and talk to other queer femme women.”

Eric Resnick, an online dating coach and consultant for several major online dating companies, says even just 10 years ago, people seeking same-sex partners online were limited to fetish or sex sites.

“If you thought you might have an interest in the same gender, there were not a whole lot of places to look,” he says. “Now, it’s as simple as typing in ‘looking for’ in your area. If you feel like there is a part of you you’ve been holding back on, you’ve got the opportunity to hop onto almost any site and just do a quick search.”

There is a growing host of online dating services catered to the LGBTQ community. There are several apps for gay women, some of which admittedly have become something of a punchline (really though, who actually uses Her?). Gay men have Scruff, Jack’d, and perhaps the most well-known same-sex dating site of them all, Grindr, which has more than 5 million users.

The relative anonymity of these apps presents a major appeal to closeted users. Being outed to judgmental acquaintances or coworkers is less likely because anyone on the app is presumably part of that scene.

The relative anonymity of these apps presents a major appeal to closeted users.

This was certainly the case for Kyle Govans, who met his fiancé on gay dating app Jack’d. He says he was fresh out of a long-term straight relationship when he first started dating men online and was attracted to the privacy offered by the sites, especially given his family’s negative opinions about the “gay lifestyle.”

“I was really scared to actually go to a gay bar and go up to someone; with these apps you could be more discreet and choose where to meet up with people,” he says, adding that these dating services “played a vital role” in his coming-out process.

Mainstream apps are also becoming increasingly inclusive. In 2014, OkCupid expanded its sexual orientation tags to 12 different options, including queer, pansexual, aesxual, and more. The service now offers 20 different tags for gender identity besides “man” and “woman,” including agender, transgender, and genderqueer.

Jimena Almendares, chief product officer at OkCupid, says being able to use the right language is important in many online networks, but particularly those that help people find romantic partners.

“People are able to express themselves however they want and use the right language that meets how they want to talk about themselves, their gender and their orientation,” she says. “Sometimes it can be very constraining if you only have straight and gay for orientation or man and woman.”

Almendares says privacy is a top priority for OkCupid, and the site allows users to use pseudonyms and settings like “I don’t want to be seen by straight people.” This lowers the risk of LGBTQ users being outed to friends and family who may also be on the site.

“If you’re growing up in a small town and you’re feeling very different, you can go to OkCupid.”

“What we really cared about is if you’re growing up in a small town and you’re feeling very different, you can go to OkCupid,” she says. “If you’re starting to think you want to date someone but you’re confused, you don’t have to know what you want. You can put the tag ‘questioning,’ which gives users more flexibility.”

Nearly 4,000 people on the site identify as “questioning” of the more than 200,000 people who opted for tagged orientations outside of the default options. Users can also change their orientation at any time.

“We see sometimes people reverse their orientation, or choose different ways of identifying themselves,” Almendares says. “I think it’s a reflection of life, and the fluidity of these identifying tags.”

The ability to change the way you self-identify with the click of a button may come at a cost, according to April Masini, a relationship advice columnist and author.

“The flip side of this advantage is that you may find yourself with someone who is experimenting with sexuality and may not end up being who they say they are because they aren’t completely sure when they respond to your online or tech dating profile,” she says. “Someone who presents as queer may end up being straight but wanted to try out a new identity to see if it fits.”

Masini’s thoughts ring true for any gay woman who has experienced straight couples’ failed attempts at arranging threesomes, a common complaint in the online dating world. Lane Moore, a comedian and host of Tinder Live, a show where she swipes through the dating app in front of a live audience, says the casual nature of some apps feeds into this fear for many gay women.

“Apps do not change the fundamental nature of human romance and sexuality.”

“Tinder’s harder though because you genuinely have no idea why they’re looking at women’s profiles,” she says. “Are they exploring their options, are they genuinely into women, are they just looking for someone for a threesome with their boyfriend?”

Audrey Fok, who lives in Los Angeles and has been dating women online for the past six years, says she thinks, in some ways, the ease of exploring different sexual identities exacerbates preexisting stereotypes in the LGBTQ community that bisexual or pansexual women are unsure of their sexuality or just going through a phase.

“I would say it makes it worse to a degree for bisexual women,” Fok says. “There are a lot of profiles out there that blatantly saying ‘I’m married and I want to explore,’ and when you see a lot of it, people tend to manifest that as a norm, even though it may not necessarily be true because there are definitely bi women out there who just want to meet women.”

Reynolds, the University of Minnesota doctoral student, recently published a pilot study in which she analyzed Craigslist ads and found hundreds of thousands of women each year seeking friends with benefits online, with no intention of starting romantic relationships. She says in her research she has found stigmas against bisexual people and people still coming to terms with their sexuality.

“‘Out’ LGBTQ folks tend to weed out ‘curious’ and bi folks when they’re dating online,” she says. “I see a lot of OkCupid, Craigslist, and Tinder users who explicitly say they’re interested in loud and proud homosexuals, not guys and gals that are still figuring out if they’re gay. This makes it quite difficult for curious folks to jump in head-first.”

However, Reynolds doesn’t think dating sites are perpetuating these stereotypes but rather highlighting stigmas that already exist in the gay community.

“Everyone has their different processes with being comfortable with their sexuality and with dating, and if you need to use an online site for that, we have those now.”

“At the end of the day, online dating only makes our real-life stereotypes, desires, and identities more visible,” she says. “Apps do not change the fundamental nature of human romance and sexuality.”

Obviously the primary goal of people using dating apps is to find a romantic partner, but many LGBTQ users I spoke with have had more success simply meeting friends. Fok says sites like Match and OkCupid have played a major role in cultivating a variety of relationships in her life.

“Personally I am a proponent of online dating to a degree,” she says. “I think it does take a lot of time for you to sift through all of the people to potentially meet someone who’s worth it, but I’ve had two successful relationships and met several of my best friends through these sites. I wouldn’t have forged these relationships otherwise.”

That’s also the case for Weaver, who says if she were to become single again, she doesn’t think she would return to OkCupid; she now has a strong network of LGBTQ friends in New York. But even if Weaver doesn’t use the site anymore (she and her girlfriend recently ceremoniously deleted her old account), the website remains a major part of her coming-out process.

“If you had asked me a year ago how I’d felt about using dating sites, I probably would have given you a different answer, because I’ve always kind of rejected them,” she says. “But I have a lot of insight now as to how it can help a person come out. That’s what I needed to feel comfortable.

“Everyone has their different processes with being comfortable with their sexuality and with dating, and if you need to use an online site for that, we have those now, and I think they can be really helpful in helping people become more visible with their identities.”

Illustration by J. Longo