Caché Owens and Cynthia Velásquez reached the same conclusion within days of meeting: they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.
The pair first started talking on Instagram in January, through a popular account that offered a contemporary version of traditional newspaper personal ads. Owens, a 29-year-old artist and professor, had never had much luck on dating apps, but the Personals page was different. It did not use photos, but instead featured a long list of bios of queer and trans people looking for internet friends, lovers or partners across the globe.
Velásquez and Owens’ DMs turned into daily phone calls, they got engaged in April, Velásquez moved from Los Angeles to North Carolina to be with Owens in May, and the two are getting married next month, just before the one-year anniversary of their first Instagram chat.
Personals, too, is undergoing a fundamental change. The service, which has posted roughly 10,000 ads since its creation in 2017, ended its Instagram service this week and on Thursday officially launched as an app. Rebranded as Lex, the dating and social app aims to provide an alternative platform to connect people who are lesbian, bisexual, asexual, womxn, trans, genderqueer, intersex, two-spirit and non-binary.
In other words, Lex is not meant for cis men.
“With dating apps like Tinder, the queer people are an afterthought. It’s not built into their kind of binary system,” said Kell Rakowski, the founder of Personals and Lex. “This is completely different than what is currently out there … and it’s run by queer people.”
The idea for Personals grew out of @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, the viral lesbian culture Instagram account through which Rakowski for years shared historic images, memes, photos of queer icons and other “dyke imagery”. The 40-year-old photo editor in New York City was looking for content for the page in 2017 when she stumbled on archives of On Our Backs, an erotica magazine from the 80s and 90s run by women.
Rakowski was particularly enamored with the vintage personal ads written by lesbians, which outlined their desires and romantic requirements: “They were just so funny and also sexy and tantalizing,” she said. She began posting them on the Herstory account, and they immediately attracted a lot of interest.
“I just started to think, why don’t we do this today?” she said.
She started with a simple format – a Google Docs form where people could submit their own ads that she would then publicly share on her Instagram. She quickly grew overwhelmed with submissions and ended up creating a separate Instagram for the ads called @_personals_.
Personals avoided the superficial and often depressing nature of swiping right and left on selfies. It also drew a wide audience with its distinctly queer lexicon. People advertised themselves with phrases like “dykefag fatty”, “shy genderqueer”, “transmasc dyke”, “power bottom”, “witchy” and other terms that would attract dismissive or abusive posts on a mainstream dating app, but were familiar and meaningful to LGBTQIA people.
“These are queer queer words,” said Rakowski. “It’s just so built into the culture.”
By 2018, the account had drawn national attention, connecting tens of thousands of people from around the world for online chats, friendships and dates.
“There are so many folks in our community who are isolated … who are far away from larger cities and other LGBTQ people. This is a great way to meet friends,” said Velásquez, an artist, noting that Personals has also offered an alternative to some queer scenes that can feel toxic or unwelcoming to some people.
Over the years, Rakowski has heard wild stories of love born on her Instagram page, often from people posting with the #MetOnPersonals tag. One person flew from Toronto, to Sydney to meet someone for a trip that ended in marriage. Rakowski also heard of a trip to a desert for a first date, which lasted 10 days.
“It’s bringing back the old-school way of reading personal ads, reading how people describe themselves, slowing down,” said Rakowski. “It’s a gentler, more thoughtful way of getting to know someone.”
Rakowski, however, has struggled to keep up with the demand, and eventually it became clear that a developed app could build upon the concept, but reach more people and be more efficient.
Lex functions like Personals, but automatically uploads posts and allows users to filter by location and search for keywords like “butch”, “bottom” or “pizza”. The app has a “zero tolerance policy towards creeps … no transphobia, no racism, no fatphobia, no ableism, no hate speech of any kind”.
Earlier this year, Personals was accused of having a “white privilege problem” after there was a public dispute between the page and a new unaffiliated QPOC (queer people of color) Personals. Rakowski, who is white, said she wanted to prioritize the safety of people who were typically excluded or mistreated on dating sites, and that she has encouraged people who are white to list that factor so that there isn’t an assumption that white is the default race.
Rakowski decided to change the name to Lex in large part to make it harder for cis men to find. Even during beta testing in recent months, cis men have managed to find the app and posted ads with messages like “looking for college girls”. In a recent post, Lex noted there were many other app options for cis queer men and that Lex was meant to be “centered around the other queers of the world”.
Alysia Brown, a 29-year-old music supervisor, said she found her first real relationship through Personals after struggling on other apps: “I was on Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Her, all the apps … and they are very boring in terms of small talk. I say ‘hey’ and they say ‘hey’ and then I never respond again. With Personals, you have a conversation immediately.”
Personals also provided a safer space for her to be more direct about her desires and state that she was a “black queer person looking for another queer POC”, Brown said.
Bee Stothert, a 26-year-old London photographer who met her partner on Personals, said it was one of the rare places on the internet that has brought people joy: “Social media can be so scary and alienating and a lonely place. And this really brings people together. It sounds cheesy, but it’s so true.”
It was refreshing for Stothert to move away from a visually based app and just focus on people’s personalities and interests. On Personals, “I don’t even think about what the person is going to potentially look like.”
Owens’ Personals post – which said “28 QPOC, PhD … Ravenclaw. Mum. Artist. World wanderer … Memes are my love language” – prompted a simple and sweet DM from Velásquez: “Hey there! Nice to know of you, I think you’re great.”
For a brief moment, Owens was skeptical that it would lead to something serious, but she said the connection with Velásquez was instant: “We are both chronic oversharers. We were spilling our life story right away.”
It was bittersweet to see the Instagram personals end, Owens said, adding that she was grateful to meet so many people through the page: “It just really became a tight-knit community even though the people are spread all across the country, and all across the world.”