From casual hook-ups to friendships to meeting the love of your life, LGBTQ+ online dating was created out of a need for community.
When I first messaged my wife of six years on OkCupid in 2014, I didn’t realize I was taking part in an online LGBTQ+ culture that first manifested in the early 1990s. I turned to dating apps specifically to find a romantic partner and to take the guesswork out of flirting with women in real life. But little did I know that the world of queer online dating and connection was born in part out of the need for solidarity between gay men during the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
Andy Cramer, currently the CEO of Caregiving Network, launched the bulletin board system Gay.Net in December 1993. Bulletin board systems (BBSs) were the major online spaces. They were “local or regional dial-up networks –– often running on a single computer or a handful of them –– operated mostly by hobbyists or enthusiasts,” writer and software engineer David Auerbach wrote in the Slate article When AOL was GayOL. A lot of BBSs for gay men developed in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the Backroom and Gay.Net.
Cramer came up with the idea for Gay.Net after he had been operating several Headlines stores on Castro and Polk streets in San Francisco, which were “the epicenters of gay life,” he said. When HIV/AIDS hit the U.S. in 1981, Cramer and his employees across 10 stores became frontline workers over the next 14 years.
“We had fundraisers, we sold condoms for a penny,” Cramer said. “We did everything that we could do.”
Cramer thought about the thousands of people he helped over the course of a decade and a half, how he lost so many friends to AIDS and how lonely that was for gay men who felt disconnected from the community.
“I went out and I bought a bulletin board system because at the time, there was nothing online,” Cramer said.
Cramer launched Gay.Net using a BBS software with graphical overlays, and mailed out diskettes that allowed members to install the software. In the first year of its existence, 10,000 gay and bisexual men paid $10 a month to access Gay.Net, which was initially run on just 16 modems.
“We had Prodigy, we had AOL and Compuserve,” Cramer said. “They were all heavily censored. I wanted to open up a site where people could be who they were. People first put on fake pictures, then they put on avatars and then they put on real pictures, but the real pictures contained all kinds of things.”
Cramer even met his husband of 27 years, Al Farmer, through Gay.Net. Farmer initially couldn’t log onto the platform for a month because it was so popular and its modems were always tied up. After Cramer eventually took Gay.Net onto the web, Farmer, a technology expert who worked for IBM at the time, would sign on every day and help Cramer improve aspects of the site.
Cramer later merged Gay.Net with Gay.Com, which grew from 1 million to 4 million users in 1999. He left the company later that year, and it went public in 2004. The site went through numerous leadership changes before it was eventually sold to the Los Angeles LGBT Center.
“I'm proud of it to this day,” Cramer said. “We created the first site where people can go who were lonely and unsure of themselves to be able to go meet each other. Some people met each other in many different ways, but it really was the first dating site. Even to this day, I get
people walking up to me saying ‘thank you, I got married because of you.’ And ‘thank you, I got my first boyfriend.’ I was very happy to bring four to six million people together.”
Even though Cramer had lesbian friends at the time, he didn’t know how to foster the same sense of online community for queer women, he said. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t digital spaces for lesbians in the early to mid 1990s. Even before email became mainstream, email lists became very popular for the lesbian community. Jean Marie Diaz created Sappho in the U.S. in 1987, which was ground zero for lesbian lists at the time, Auerbach reported in Slate.
However, lists that were designated as solely for lesbians sparked “debates” regarding whether users felt comfortable with bisexual and trans women taking part, Amy Goodloe told Slate. Goodloe ran numerous LGBTQ+ lists and created lesbian.org in the mid 1990s, one of the first big lesbian websites. In a NetCafe video interview housed on archive.org, Goodloe said she built the site “for women to be able to find each other; to be able to communicate with other women going through similar issues that they might be going through; to find other lesbians in their area, or women just struggling with their identity.” She made the site for “people who want information about coming out; people who want information about support groups in their area; what is it like to be a lesbian mom?”
She added, “I wanted it to be, more than anything, a place for a group of people who [don’t] have much visibility in the culture to come together and find each other and know that they’re not alone.”
Despite the existence of some online spaces and a variety of email lists for queer women, spaces for queer men continued to go full-steam ahead in the ’90s. Services like Compuserve and AOL made it easier to get online by providing community forums and chat rooms, according to Auerbach. Later in the decade, AOL became rife with gay-centric chat rooms.
The website Gaydar, which launched in 1999, was another early mainstream gay dating site. It provided a space for queer men to talk to each other in chat rooms and one on one. “Gaydar was made to broadly appeal to guys wanting dates, relationships and just sex,” according to PinkNews. Gary Frisch and his partner Henry Badenhorst, two South African men who have since passed away, founded Gaydar.
Although more queer-specific dating apps popped up in the 2000s as the internet became more sophisticated, one of the early web 2.0-era dating apps that attracted LGBTQ+ users was OkCupid, which came out in 2004. OkCupid matches people based on in-app questions, which are tailored for queer users and even vary for different sub-identities within the LGBTQ+ umbrella, said Michael Kaye, director of brand marketing and communications for OkCupid.
“I think LGBTQ+ people were always really early adopters to online dating,” Kaye said. “Speaking from experience, we are limited to the safe spaces that we have available. However, when we first launched [OkCupid] and still to this day, we've always positioned ourselves as a dating app for everyone — no matter how you identify, no matter what you're looking for.”
OkCupid was the first dating app to expand gender and sexual orientation identifiers, which they fleshed out to 60 identifiers in 2021, thanks to a partnership with the Human Rights Campaign. The OkCupid team also works with GLAAD to expand pronoun options for users.
“We are seeing that with each generation, they're becoming more and more fluid,” Kaye added. “They're becoming more open with sharing their identity. Almost 20% of daters in the United States on OkCupid identify as LGBTQ+. This was up from 18% in 2022 and 17% in 2021.” Dr. Timaree, sexologist, professor, writer and human sexuality consultant, said she thinks it’s helpful for people to have as many options as possible when it comes to making connections.
“Whether you're queer, poly, a parent, trans, have specific political beliefs, a positive STI status, a religious affiliation –– whatever –– there are advantages to putting these parts of your life front and center, even as they narrow your potential targets,” she said in an email. “An early example of this was when OkCupid let users choose to only be visible to other queer folks. If you're a lesbian who doesn't want to hear from a bunch of straight men, for example, that kind of option makes the experience of the site much better.”
The landscape of queer dating seemed to change again when Grindr came out in 2009, a men who have sex with men-centric dating app that probably needs no introduction. Co-launched by tech entrepreneur Joel Simkhai, Grindr was the first geolocation dating app and one of the first third-party apps for the iPhone. It was created “as a casual dating app for the queer community,” said Grindr’s Chief Product Officer AJ Balance.
“Grindr is a community that welcomes anyone who wants to use the app,” Balance said. “We have users of all genders and sexualities who use the app. Queer men are the largest segment but over time, we've seen more user segments adopt the app and then find value in it. Over time, Grindr has become really important to a lot of folks in the community. Many users do use it for casual dating, and users also find dates and long-term partners from the app.”
As its usership grew over the years, Grindr started to provide sexual health resources to its userbase, including a blueprint for trans and nonbinary sexual health. The blueprint includes info on general sexual health concerns, the social determinants of health, sex work and other topics. Grindr also provides resources like free HIV/STI home tests, information about DoxyPEP and vaccinations, and other connections to resources. This effort is part of the social justice program Grindr for Equality, which centers on “LGBTQ+ safety, health and human rights worldwide,” according to its website.
However, Simkhai left Grindr in 2017 after spending years as its CEO, during a time when issues of transphobia, racism and fatphobia permeated some of the app’s usership, NBC News reported in 2022. That year, Simkhai launched the dating app Motto, which he created to try to stave off the culture of “toxicity and discrimination” that has pervaded other queer dating apps, according to NBC News.
Balance, Grindr’s chief product officer, said that the team takes safety and privacy very seriously, and takes measures to ensure that users’ experiences are safe and confidential.
“We have both technology and operational processes to ensure user safety and privacy, including both proactive and reactive components,” Balance said. “For example, we have very robust moderation capabilities where users can report incidents and our team responds quickly to help address them. We also take proactive steps to help identify and prevent any negative experiences that users could face on the platform.”
Like Simkhai’s Motto, some queer dating app creators who have launched products a little more recently are making concerted efforts to be more inclusive of trans and nonbinary users. One such app is HER, which describes itself as a “FLINTA [female, lesbian, intersex, trans and agender] community and dating app.”
“At HER, we aim to create a secure space for queer folks to unapologetically be themselves and build meaningful connections,” HER founder Robyn Exton said in an email. “We have vigorous verification processes and community guidelines, all with user safety in mind.”
This year, the HER team upped the ante on its “no TERFs” policy, sent out user notifications and publicly conveyed an anti-TERF position on Lesbian Visibility Day, Exton said.
Before launching HER in 2015, dating for LGBTQ+ women had its challenges, Exton said.
“All of the online platforms for women were just reskins of sites built for gay men but turned pink, asking you how much body hair you had, or straight sites that were filled with guys asking you for a threesome. It felt crazy to me, at the time, that no one had truly made a dating product for women.”
Before rebranding the app to HER, Exton first released it as Dattch, which was solely a dating and hookup app designed for women seeking women. Exton found that Grindr was the first dating app that she thought created “an incredible experience for its users.”
“It was a huge inspiration for starting HER,” Exton said. “When we first came out, we were very similar to Grindr — very hookup-focused and it didn’t really work for our community. We learned that the experience on so many dating apps was designed to serve men, including all the straight apps. There was just nothing out there that displayed the information women wanted to see, that connected the community, that resonated with the young queer women I knew.”
Currently, HER provides users with more content, events and opportunities to connect with friends.
“We listened really carefully to what people were asking for and as we realized so many people were using the app to make friends,” Exton said. “We realized their needs sat so much further outside of dating and we wanted to be a part of the total experience.”
Other dating apps exist that say they’re designed specifically for the trans community. One such app is Tser, “a trans dating app for transgender people and their allies to meet online,” according to its website. It also brands itself as a social community where trans folks can go to find friendship and support. The app website says that trans people created Tser.
However, Tser received mixed reviews on appfollow.com. One user said that despite the app not sending them notifications, “I’ve been pretty happy with this app so far. I can actually message people and see who messaged me for free, unlike other apps.”
Another user wrote on appfollow that they found Tser to contain “highly transphobic language everywhere, both from users and creators. Putting cis people in as ‘men’ and ‘women’ invalidates trans women and trans men as women and men. ‘Transsexual’ is an outdated term that many trans people find quite offensive and dehumanizing.” Mary Richardson, who created the label-free LGBTQ+ dating app Bindr in 2022 with her business partner Brandon Teller, said they came up with the idea for it when “we felt like there wasn't anywhere that we personally belonged in the dating scene.”
Bindr doesn’t prompt users to share their sexual orientation or gender identity, but they’re welcome to include those details in their profiles. Richardson said that trans women approached her table at Pride events and told her that they don’t typically feel safe on dating apps, but they would feel safe using Bindr because they know she’s in charge of it. Richardson reads every user support ticket herself, she said.
“My main goal is for transgender, nonbinary, everybody in between, all of these [lesser] known sexualities and gender orientations to have somewhere they can go and feel safe and not discriminated against,” Richardson said.
More of every kind of niche dating app exists these days, and because more and more people identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, there are more queer-specific dating sites and apps in recent years, Dr. Timaree said.
“Whether it's better or easier now is a matter of personal opinion,” she said. “More choices mean more opportunities but it also means a dilemma of too much choice. Dating apps create a marketplace-like dynamic where we're more prone to see each other as products. We try to optimize what we get and we treat each as more disposable.
“For most of history, we met people at work, friends or family. There was an obligation to be baseline polite to each other, some accountability. Now you can talk to someone for weeks and then stop communicating suddenly without warning. It's harder to be open to real connections when we're guarding ourselves from that.”
This is a part of a special LGBTQ History Month project. View more stories by visiting outsfl.com/lgbtqhistorymonth2023.
Philly Gay News courtesy of the National LGBTQ Media Association.