Travel enthusiast @renegadepilgrim (aka Heather Knight) was initially quite confused when she checked her Instagram account in August 2018 and found dozens of new followers and message requests. The Portland local soon realised why when she saw that her submission to the cult queer Instagram account @_personals_ had finally been posted.
Inspired by the personal ads found at the back of On Our Backs, a queer women’s magazine published between 1984 and 2006 in San Francisco, @_personals_ was founded by New York-based photo editor Kell Rakowski. Kell also runs popular queer history account @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, and came up with the idea of @_personals_ when she posted some of these vintage personal ads on the account. Her followers loved them and after asking Instagram users to send in their own submissions, Kell was so inundated with responses that she decided to make a separate account just to post them. @_personals_ went live in 2017 as a text-only Instagram dating service exclusively intended for non-cis-male members of the LGBTQIA+ community.
Back to Heather: having heard about @_personals_ through her colleagues, the 45-year-old self-described "lesbian adventurer" submitted an ad seeking a like-minded traveller with a "current passport" and "sense of adventure". "Respond with a favourite travel story," Heather instructed those reading her ad. Little did Heather know that one of the DMs she received, from 41-year-old Arizonian grad student @onepinkfuzzy (aka Angie Reiter), would lead to her biggest adventure yet. After weeks of constant communication, the pair would finally meet in person for the first time in October 2018. Less than 12 months later and still living over 1,000 miles apart, the couple eloped, getting married on the California coast on 29th September.
Heather and Angie are just one of dozens of queer couples who have shared their heartwarming story via the hashtag #metonpersonals. The @_personals_ account quickly proved so popular and successful at bringing together queer communities all over the world, with over 500 submissions being received during each monthly 48-hour submission window, that a year after founding it Kell decided that the logical next step was to turn it into an app.
After a year of fundraising via a Kickstarter campaign and donations from hundreds of @_personals_ ad posters, Lex (which stands for Lexicon) went live on 7th November, becoming the first dating app in the world where "the text comes first, and the selfies second". If they choose to, users can link an Instagram account to their profile so that ad responders can see what they look like, but none of their Insta posts show up in the app itself. Instead, just like the original Instagram account, ads on Lex are text-based, with a limit of 34 characters for the heading and 300 characters for the body of the advert. With a completely blank canvas to work with, ad posters have to be charismatic, concise and honest about what they’re looking for.
Personal ads, for those too young to remember, were the precursor to internet dating. Situated towards the back of newspapers and magazines, they’d describe in as few words as possible (each character cost money!) the sort of person the poster WLTM (would like to meet). Sometimes, personals took the form of 'missed connections' when someone had seen their perfect partner but hadn’t managed to talk to them: "You, pink hair on the 33 bus. Me, blue braids, hiding behind a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale."
"Personal ads have always been successful," Kell explains over the phone. "Not just for the people writing them but also for the people reading them because they’re just so entertaining. The template was successful for decades before I made the app. People have always obsessed over reading [them], so we’re going back to an old school method, it’s just via the internet instead of in a newspaper."
While personal ads might have historically been a successful method of seeking out a partner for heterosexual people, there appears to be something particularly appealing about the format for the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly womxn, trans, genderqueer and non-binary people. "I think it’s because people are able to express themselves in such a pointed way and they really have to be sincere about what they’re looking for, how they explain their identity and hobbies," Kell explains.
Part of the reason she believes @_personals_ became such a huge success was the lack of available alternatives for the queer people it serves, who have often had pretty poor experiences using mainstream dating apps like Tinder, Hinge or Bumble, where you’re always at risk of being solicited by a couple looking for a unicorn or harassed by cis men who somehow manage to crop up even if your filter is set to exclude them. "These kind of apps are generally made by men, and are designed for heterosexual people. Our community is only ever an afterthought," says Kell.
That sentiment is reflected by dozens of the platform’s users when I put up my own ad asking to speak to them about how the format compares to other dating apps they have used. "The simplicity and the fact that all information is entirely generated by the user is the coolest; there aren't any boxes to check about who you are," explains 26-year-old non-binary New Yorker, Oliver. "You can describe yourself any way you want, and that makes such a difference for those of us who don’t really fit neatly into common categories. I don’t have to worry about straight cis people asking invasive questions about my gender or asking how I can be non-binary but still be a lesbian."
"I was drawn to the account because it felt like a small community of really interesting queer people," says 36-year-old "intense Scorpio optimist" Jill, who had tried plenty of mainstream apps but met her partner Devon via the Instagram account last year. "I enjoyed reading all the unique ways queer folks from around the world were defining themselves and their desires in one short paragraph. 'Tender techy mountain boi,' 'daddy seeks masochist muse,' 'two-spirit jungle Jew,' 'art dad for makeout': a lot of them were really clever and some were hilarious. I’d find myself in line at the grocery store, scrolling through my feed, smiling. That never happened on dating apps."
"The format really creates a safe space for our community," says one 21-year-old user in the north of England, who wished to remain anonymous. "You don’t have to post an ad if you don’t want to, you can just read and respond to other people’s ads. It removes the worry that you might receive unwelcome attention and if you’re not out like me, you don’t have to put yourself out there if you’re not ready. It also just feels like a really supportive, friendly community."
For the team behind Lex, the fair treatment of marginalized groups using the app is especially important; after the @_personals_ Instagram account was criticized for the overwhelming number of ads posted from white people, the team sought to make the account a more inclusive space, offering no submission deadlines for queer people of colour and the option to forgo the $5 ad donation for those unable to pay it. Kell is determined to make sure that the app remains a safe space for all users: "We’ve built in a way to report people’s profiles so that if there are people who behave badly we can get rid of them."
Lex’s role in building supportive and inclusive queer communities is also evident from the number of users who put up ads looking for non-romantic relationships via the app. "I love hearing about all the people traveling the world to go on a first date," says Kell, "but beyond that, my favourite story is this group in London that formed to watch The Great British Bake Off. They ended up having so much fun that they formed their own Instagram called Queerpack London. They do all sorts of things together and people from the group have started dating, but the origin was the @_personals_ Instagram which is really great."
With many queer people – particularly those living in rural areas – feeling the absence of community spaces as more of our historical venues are forced to close, Lex is a truly vital platform that provides not just for queers looking for a partner, but friendship, community and love in all its diverse forms.