Image Sources: Getty / Spiderstock, Flashpop, Mensent Photography and Photo Illustration: Aly Lim
POPSUGAR presents: Pride Revolution - a series celebrating the beauty, brilliance, and resilience of the queer community. LGBTQ+ Pride has always been revolutionary in nature, pushing society's boundaries to be more accepting, more affirming, and more inclusive. As pride grows to permeate pop culture, revolution is as necessary as ever to ensure that safety, equality, equity, and inclusivity remain at the center.
Very soon after I downloaded TikTok, its algorithm deduced that I am queer. Today, my For You page is filled with other tattooed bisexuals donning their thrifted outfits, the latest queer events happening in my hometown of New York City, and, of course, queer thirst traps.
I'd be lying if I said that the thirst traps don't sometimes catch my eye. On one of my nightly FYP scrolls, I was recently swept up by one - a thirsty TikTok of a blonde, more masculine-presenting queer woman - using the ~I'm so shy, I'm so shy~ audio with a text overlay that read: 'i'm so shy i hope tiktok doesn't put this on bottom femme tok that would be bad 🤥' with a caption that said 'if you're in brooklyn, let's hang 🌷'
The TikTok, which had thousands of likes and comments, left me feeling intrigued. I found myself thinking that I fit the description: I live in Brooklyn; I'm femme. With nothing to lose and zero expectation that I'd get a response, I commented 'Brooklyn girl', and then went to sleep.
When I woke up the next morning, I logged onto Instagram and saw that I had a new follower: the "shy" woman from TikTok. She'd commented on my newest photo: 'brooklyn girl <3'
The next day, we started DMing. The interaction got me thinking: "Is it really that easy?" In this day and age, it can be. With the advancements in technology - like the availability of dating apps and queer representation on TikTok and Instagram - dating as a queer person may be easier than ever. And it sure looks a lot different than it used to.
The History of Queer Dating, Explained
It wasn't always this way. In fact, we know that queer dating has evolved tremendously over time.
Even so, it's clear that queer people have always found ways to meet, date, fall in love, and build lives together.
Queer people have always existed, but until recently in the US, the community's collective dating lives have been marked by secrecy. In the 19th century, it wasn't uncommon for women to form committed life partnerships, called "Boston marriages." These relationships were supposedly platonic, and while some likely were, others were covertly romantic. Similarly, Netflix's popular documentary "A Secret Love," released in 2020, tells the story of two elderly lesbians who remained together for over 65 years under the guise of friendship. When the couple came out in 2013 as the documentary was being filmed, their family was shocked to learn that they were actually life partners in love.
Today, this type of relationship has become a meme: "history books will say they were roommates." But the frank reality is that these partnerships existed, and exist today, because it wasn't safe for people in same-sex relationships to be publicly out.
Even so, it's clear that queer people have always found ways to meet, date, fall in love, and build lives together. But when their very lives were at risk if they were outed, how did they manage to do it?
Gay meeting spaces played a key role in the history of queer dating. In "A Secret Love," the couple shared stories about their early life together as a queer couple in the 1940s in Chicago, including meeting at places that were sometimes known as "molly houses" - secret spots where gay people were free to socialize and connect; they were often raided by police or targeted for attacks.
Before the invention of the internet, many queer folks would also place covert personal ads in newspapers or magazines in an attempt to find a partner. There were queer magazines that ran these ads, but when posting in more mainstream magazine or newspaper, queer people would often use discreet or coded language meant only to be understood by other queer people, to avoid the risk of being targeted.
Carol Queen, a queer sexologist in her 60s, shares her experience dating after coming out in 1974. "You had to figure out who was queer in the first place," Queen says. "Unless you were meeting in a very queer-specific place, it wasn't always immediately easy to know who was who. We could rely on grooming and clothing cues, how we spoke, made eye contact, and carried ourselves, but there was still some element of surmise involved. For many of us, those cues had to be subtle enough not to be recognized by straights, for safety reasons."
Teresa, 68, and her wife Thereza, 60, have been together for 26 years. On June 6, 2021, the two got married on their 25th anniversary as a couple. The pair met in a time when openly lesbian women were few and the societal judgment was palpable. They met quite unconventionally, at a rehab facility; at the time, both women were married to men. "When I saw her for the first time," Teresa said, "it was like love at first sight. At least for me. She grew to love me."
But dating was complicated. There weren't cellphones, dating apps, or the internet, really. They had to get to know each other quietly and carefully, in person. Teresa even invited Thereza to stay at her home, where she introduced her to her husband, who remarked, "Do you know that she's a dyke?"
They both divorced their husbands and have been together ever since.
All this to say: with a dearth of representation, large concerns for safety, and less societal acceptance, queer dating in the US was difficult and even dangerous. And while things have gotten better, in less-accepting areas of the country, and other countries where homosexuality was or is still illegal, the LGBTQ+ community may still have to use coded messages (through images or language) to determine if someone else is queer. "We are only 25-ish years into people connecting via the internet," Queen reminds us. "This means that in the past, we largely had to meet as humans out in the world."
The Internet Has Changed the Way Queer People Meet, Forever
But in the '90s, the internet arrived - and it changed the world of queer dating forever. "When I was coming out in the 1990s, many of us found our first dates online," author Walter Meyer, 60, shares. "AOL was a safe and anonymous way to explore the gay world, back when there was still a lot more hostility toward the queer community." The internet gave more people access to queer spaces, and the safety of anonymity allowed them to visit them more often.
As society as a whole continues to become a more inclusive space for queer individuals, online communities, dating apps, and social media are evolving as well. OkCupid, for example, was the first dating app to create a dedicated space for people to share their pronouns and the first to offer more than 40 expanded gender and orientation options.
"Many people don't fit in a singular box, so we allow you to choose up to five different identities," says Michael Kaye, the director of communications at OkCupid. "We're also one of the only nonexclusively LGBTQ+ dating apps that do not force users to select being shown in a binary context. And we have dozens of in-app matching questions that help users discover everything from how a match supports the transgender community to what pride means to them."
"As a closeted gay man, dating apps were the only place for me to discretely find other gay men when I graduated college nearly a decade ago," Kaye shares of his own experience. "I wasn't comfortable coming out of the closet, and I was dating in New York City - one of the more progressive cities in the United States."
The accessibility of online dating apps helped him explore his sexuality, get comfortable with who he was, and remain safe while he grappled with when to come out. Many queer folks who had access to the internet during this era used dating apps or chat rooms in a similar way.
TikTok certainly hasn't billed itself as a dating app, and while The New York Times has gone so far as to call TikTok "the next Tinder" for lesbians, I don't think queer people are even intentionally using the app as a means of dating. But regardless, it's becoming a fun and seemingly organic way to meet other LGBTQ+ people. There's even a trending hashtag for couples of any orientation who have met on the video app: #MetOnTikTok.
The (in)famous TikTok algorithm may make it easier for other queer people to find each other. As a person interacts with more content in a certain genre - while using your location and language, trending audio, "not interested" feedback, subject matter, and user activity - the algorithm knows to feed them more of that content. So, a queer person interacting with a lot of bisexual content might never see content that would be filtered for a straight person. That not only makes the app hard to tear yourself away from; it also means that over time, you'll start to see more niche videos from people with similar interests, backgrounds, sexualities, genders, and even geographic locations.
For some, like myself, connecting with other queer folks has been as easy as seeing a video appear on their FYP page.
Gabriella Idelisse, a 25-year-old from the U.S., and her partner Sofie Nakken, a 21-year-old from Norway, met on TikTok. The couple shared via the platform that they did long-distance for the first portion of their relationship, but got married on May 14, 2022, and are working on closing the distance.
Austin, 28, from Virginia, says he met his partner, Stephen, from Ohio, via TikTok over a year ago when one of Stephen's videos popped up on his FYP. At first, they didn't think it was worth pursuing because of the distance but couldn't stop thinking about each other. Now they have closed the distance and moved in together. They both say they have never been happier.
To me, it makes sense that TikTok is bringing queer folks together. From the beginning, the internet has provided a way for people to find each other. For people who don't know other queer people or who are questioning or exploring their sexuality, the internet - and social apps like TikTok - offers a way to find a sense of community, a way to feel seen and understood.
And if people happen to meet and fall in love while seeking out representation, community, or funny memes - well, I think that's pretty beautiful. With each step we take toward the full acceptance and love of queerness as a society, we're helping queer people feel free enough to live a life of openness and fulfillment however and with whomever they love.
So is queer dating really that easy? Sometimes, maybe. I didn't end up dating my own TikTok connection, but I made a new queer internet friend. And what a fun, odd, and thrilling way to meet a queer person you'd have never met otherwise. Maybe it'll happen to you, too.