Since Frankie’s college in Olympia, Washington, shifted to online-only instruction in March, they’ve been trawling Tinder from their childhood bedroom. The quest for connection has been lonely, but also surprisingly romantic. “I feel like I have a better understanding of Jane Austen novels now,” the 21-year-old says. “Right now, I want nothing more than to chastely hold [someone’s] shoulder as they stare into my eyes and sweep me around the dance floor.”
Many young people in the LGBTQIA+ community had only recently waded into their dating lives when the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly put them on hold. While straight kids often begin exploring romantically in middle school, and sometimes even before that, many LGBTQIA+ folks still don’t come out until after high school. A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that the median age for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people to feel sure about their identity is 17. So what should have been a time to explore their sexuality in chosen communities of peers — especially if they come from homophobic or just heteronormative families and communities — threatens a return to the closets of their childhoods. Away from campus for months now and staring down a summer at home, their only option is to date online with their parents in the next room.
Frankie feels lucky to not have to hide who they are at home. They describe their family as “chaotic bisexuals” with whom they can talk openly about the isolation they feel not being able to date right now. They know peers who aren’t so lucky. “I have several friends who are back home and in the closet and having a really rough time,” they say.
For the last month, Frankie has been talking to someone they met on Tinder. “We Skyped a few times,” they say. “I drink tea, and they make hot chocolate, and we sit and chat and knit, and it’s kind of the gayest thing ever.” They have long phone calls, too, filled with “imaginary cuddling and cute memes and shit,” which is all a nice distraction. It only goes so far, though. “I miss being held,” Frankie says.
Online dating sites — and the personal ads that came before them — have long been a lifeline for queer daters, especially in areas where gay and lesbian bars don’t exist, or when they’re not old enough to get into them. The launch of the women-run erotica magazine On Our Backs in 1984 gave queer women their first personal ad section devoted to women seeking women. No photos, just text describing you and what you were looking for.
Later, in the ’90s and ’00s, when online dating really started to take off, LGBTQIA+ sites like PlanetOut and Gay.com popped up. Suddenly, queer people could get a sense of how many others like them existed in their geographic area (and around the world), and they had the ability to connect even if they were closeted in their families, schools, workplaces, or the community at large. If you came across someone you liked, you met up, just like that. Everything from casual hookups to long-term love was accessible, sometimes for the first time.
This access, combined with the accelerated acceptance of LGBTQIA+ identity in the United States over the last several decades, should mean that young queer people have an easier time entering the dating pool now than they ever have — but then the pandemic happened. Suddenly, crucially, there’s no meeting up.
Lakin, 25, is from a Native community in Lost City, Oklahoma, and currently lives in the small college town of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where the limited openly LGBTQIA+ dating pool made dating difficult before social distancing. She didn't fully recognize her sexuality until a few years ago and only began to “approach women and femme-presenting folk in a romantic sense” this year. Now that it’s impossible to physically go out with anyone, she says, “I kind of feel robbed of the experience of being new to queer dating.”
Since quarantine began, she has seen a significant rise in the number of queer profiles on Tinder, Bumble, Her, and NUiT (an astrology-based dating app). “We’re all stuck inside and desperate for a form of connection,” Lakin tells me. “Plus, talking online now is forcing people to have actual conversations and not just hookups.” Thanks to the novel coronavirus, in place of drunken liaisons with strangers, there is actual (online) courtship.
“I've only had one virtual date and it went really well,” Lakin says. “We made dinner together, watched a movie, and just talked for a long time. We also play the new Animal Crossing together for hours a few days a week.”
But for Lakin, too, the dates are a reminder that what she really wants is something between casual sex and screen-mediated play dates that may or may not be romantic. “I want to hold someone's hand,” she says. “[It] sounds lame, but I really miss human affection. There’s only so much you can get from a virtual interaction.”
Even sexting isn't as much fun as it was when you could follow up with actual sex. Meg, 26, who is quarantined in Yorkshire, England, says she senses that everyone she meets online is “pretty horny” and sexting more in quarantine, but these interactions are less satisfying than she remembers. “I've had a few late nights sexting a girl I met on Tinder and often wake up in the morning still feeling a bit frustrated and a little unfulfilled. Sexting is hot and fun but I'm definitely missing human interaction.”
For April, 24, who is quarantined with their mom in Tacoma, Washington, this frustration is extremely real. April, who is queer and nonbinary, says they almost slept with a cis male co-worker a month into quarantine, “just because I was desperate in these pandemic times.” As essential workers at a local bakery, they were already working in close physical proximity. April called it off after the guy “[broke] social distancing rules to have unprotected sex with a stranger, and he got a yeast infection on his d*ck.”
Nothing about beginning your dating career in a pandemic is ideal, but for some queer kids starting out, it’s at least been educational. Meg discovered she likes building relationships at a slower pace. “We're forced to have long conversations and really get to know each other,” she says. “You can't go out and just get drunk.” Quarantine has also made her prioritize the connections that feel special. The first couple of months, she was talking to multiple people on dating apps, but now she is focusing her energy on one love interest. “Speaking to one person scares me, but I'm actually really enjoying [it]. I think that's how I'm pushing myself right now.”
Frankie thinks their burgeoning relationship may last beyond quarantine. “When we first started talking it was very casual, but we really click on a lot of things,” they say. “I would love to continue to have some sort of relationship with them, whether that’s romantic or just platonic.”
No one knows when it will be safe to date in person again, but when it is, Meg says, she’ll approach it more intentionally: “This slow period has given me space to think about what I actually want from dating.”