In this image-saturated internet age, we often succumb to the fantasy of nostalgia for a freer, pre-digital era. This fatigue with visual culture is felt acutely by those of us on the dating app scene, where the judgment-based gamification of dating often becomes tiresome, and even downright disheartening.
Enter Lex, a new queer dating app that came out earlier this month. Lex, a text-based dating app founded by photo editor Kell Rakowski, is the first dating app “where the text comes first, and the selfies come second.”
Lex’s origins can be traced back to an Instagram account called h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, run by Rakowski, which focused on images from lesbian and queer history. While running the account Rakowski discovered On Our Backs, a lesbian magazine from the 1980s. The magazine featured personal ads, which inspired Rakowski to start another account called @_personals_, where she posted some of these vintage ads.
Followers loved the idea and began asking if they could submit their own ads, so Rakowski created a new @_personals_ account for expressly this purpose in 2017. The number of personals being submitted eventually became too much for Rakowski and her small team to handle, and after gathering donations from Kickstarter and from personal ad posters, Lex officially went live on November 7th, 2019.
Lex represents both a departure from typical dating app conventions, as well as a potential way forward for the queer community in the digital age. It addresses the broader image-based dating app fatigue, while also focusing specifically on the needs of queer women, trans, and non-binary people.
The biggest difference between Lex and other dating apps (including queer-specific ones like HER), is, of course, the focus on text instead of images. One of the advantages of this text-based strategy is that it minimizes the culture of intense judgment that is a part of most dating apps. It lets users define themselves in exactly the terms with which they would like to be understood, with the knowledge that physical appearance is no longer the first thing anyone sees. This allows users to connect with one another through humor, shared interests, or intellectual connections, rather than focusing entirely on physical attraction as a basis for compatibility.
A Kate Bush fan emerges on the scene. A soft aesthetic in New York.
Of course, many users still connect their Instagram account to their Lex profile, but this still means that you must search for these images if you wish to see them. (A user’s Instagram photos do not appear anywhere on the Lex app as they do on Tinder — you must leave the app entirely in order to view any Instagram photos).
To be sure, this focus on text instead of images does not mean that Lex is an entirely judgment-free space. Users still may judge ads based on their perceived reliance on stereotypes (too many ads referencing cats, or astrology), their lack of creativity, or a number of other factors. Still, it is significant that this judgment is based on characteristics entirely divorced from how someone looks.
Lex’s focus on text also allows users to get a sense of the breadth and diversity of the queer community, something that may not be visible to us on a daily basis. While the app lets you restrict both the age and the location of users who appear in your feed, similar to most other dating apps, there is also a feature that allows you to set your location range to “world.” Looking at personal ads on Lex from users around the globe is a really fascinating way to get a sense of what the queer community looks like today (though not literally, of course).
Perusing ads on Lex might give you a sense of what kind of things queer women and trans and non-binary people are into these days (apparently, Bon Appétit videos and Hozier), the different ways that people define their gender and sexuality (“fat bicon,” “the perfect mix of butch and twink,” “buff dad-bod stone butch daddy,”), and how they define their passions and their politics. On a personal level, it makes me feel energized to be a part of the queer community when I go on Lex and see everyone’s always creative, sometimes kinky, and often hilarious personal ads. In this way, Lex provides a space for users to find potential platonic, romantic, or sexual partners, while also providing users with a broader view of the queer community.
Bon Appetit makes an appearance on the app. As does Hozier.
Because Lex is explicitly marketed towards queer women and trans and non-binary people, this means it can act as a safe space for users to freely express their sexual and gender identities and desires. While many queer women continue to use Tinder, which allows you to choose which gender(s) you are interested in seeing, Tinder has also become a place that is chock-full of “unicorns.” If you are (blessedly) unaware what a “unicorn” is, it means a straight couple that is looking for a “third” (an additional sexual partner, usually female) to spice up their relationship. For queer women this can feel very fetishizing, and has become a reason many of us have become tired of Tinder.
On Lex, because cisgender men are nowhere in sight, and because users often define their desires in such personal, specific terms, this fetishization seems almost entirely absent. (I should note that “unicorns” are mostly absent from HER as well, but apart from it’s focus on queer women, HER is very similar in form to Tinder). The app feels safe in this way because it is both an exclusive space (cisgender men are not present on the app) and an inclusive one (Lex’s description refers to several often-overlooked groups such as asexual, genderqueer, intersex, and Two-Spirit people).
Lex has a unique connection to the past. As a social media platform inspired by queer media of the pre-digital age, the app itself pays homage to the queer women who have come before us, while also creating new forms of community engagement. Lex uses digital media to bring back a pre-internet form of communication for queer women, and in doing so bridges the
gap between the past and present. Younger queer people are able to imagine what it might have been like to be queer in the late 20th century, while also taking advantage of the affordances of modern digital communication.
While nostalgia can often be a dangerous, regressive force — think Donal Trump’s famous slogan, or the recent outcry about diverse casting practices “ruining” people’s childhoods — in this case, the nostalgia associated with Lex takes what was innovative and useful about the past, and discards what was not. (Namely the trans-exclusion that sometimes, but not always, was a part of lesbian culture in the 20th century).
In this vision of a queer future, the past and present combine to create something that is both old and new. Perhaps, this vision is a way forward.