People complain about online dating all the time but rarely present solutions for improving it. Meeting in person? (Scary!) Through friends? (What friends?) At work? (Not in 2018!)
Kelly Rakowski has a new idea. Well, sort of.
Old-school personal ads — once the domain of newspaper back pages before Craigslist — are the currency of Personals, an Instagram dating community she has built for lesbians; bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual women; and gender-nonconforming and nonbinary people. (Basically, anyone who isn’t straight and/or a cisgender man.)
There, a “late 20’s glitter femme” who loves to cook summons an “andro/moc/butch taste tester.” A “sober non-binary switchy Gemini grad student” looks for a friend with whom to eat snacks. A “soft butch dapper dyke” looks for “the right lady.” Unlike mainstream dating apps, which tend to impose their own categories, the identities on Personals can be inventive and highly specific.
The page, which has over 40,000 followers, works like this: Text-based personal ads are submitted once a month. Ms. Rakowski then publishes them as Instagram posts and tags the people who submitted them. Interested parties can get in touch directly.
Ms. Rakowski, 39, is a photo editor at Metropolis magazine and the creator of Herstory, an Instagram account that surfaces lesbian imagery from as early as the 1800s.
Her most noted find was a 1975 photo by Liza Cowan of her girlfriend wearing a shirt emblazoned with the phrase “The Future Is Female.” When Ms. Rakowski posted the photograph on Herstory in 2015, it caught the eye of the graphic designer Rachel Berks, who re-created the T-shirt for her Otherwild store in Los Angeles. After paparazzi photographed the models Adowa Aboah and Cara Delevingne wearing it, knockoffs of the T-shirt proliferated.
The inspiration for Personals came from one of Ms. Rakowski’s archival searches, this time through the lesbian erotica magazine On Our Backs, which was published between 1984 and 2006 and included back-of-book personals ads, written in the R-rated slang of the era.
Ms. Rakowski first posted a call for personal ads on the Herstory page in 2016. After an unexpected deluge of submissions, she realized it had struck a chord. Ms. Rakowski launched a separate Instagram account dedicated to matchmaking six months later.
Since then, Personals has become so popular — it receives 400 new submissions every month — that Ms. Rakowski decided to move the community from Instagram to an external app that will retain the bare-bones ethos. This summer, she raised nearly $48,000 on Kickstarter for a prototype version that will still use the typewriter font and gender-neutral aqua palette. Instead of swiping, users browse a continuous feed, much like the user experience of Facebook or Twitter. The app prototype has an optional filter for identity preference, but instead of male or female designations, the filters include the categories “stone butch,” “femme daddy,” “nonbinary,” “two-spirit,” “masculine of center” and “fat.”
Ms. Rakowski acknowledges that the lesbian scenes of the past were not always open to transgender women. With Personals, she aims to create a welcoming space for anyone who is not well-served by mainstream dating communities — including gay dating apps, which tend to cater to cisgender men.
On a recent Saturday night, Ms. Rakowski and her friends hosted a party in New York to celebrate the successful campaign.
The venue was a functioning wood shop in Crown Heights, gussied up in red Mylar streamers. The unofficial dress code was L.B.T.Q.I.A.+ chic: Dickies work wear, clogs with socks, and tropical short-sleeve button-down shirts. There were speed dating booths and a volunteer D.J. named Asian Taurus Daddy.
Alex Tereshonkova, one of the organizers of New York City’s Dyke March, was working the door.
“I am on every one — all of the apps,” Mx. Tereshonkova said of her dating habits, checking the ID of a guest named Laura Poulos. “Each one draws a different kind of crowd and then I hit a point where I’m like, this is not my crowd! I’m in the wrong place right now, like everyone is suddenly a sorority girl from like, a college, with long hair.”
Ms. Poulos laughed. She had her own misgivings about mainstream dating apps. Bumble was “mostly bi-curious women with boyfriends,” she said. Tinder was a place for surface flirtation, like, “This is how tall I am … Byeeeee!”
“OkCupid is way too long,” Mx. Tereshonkova added. “You just see essays! I don’t have time for this!”
Both were hopeful that the Personals app would attract a better crowd and provide an easier way of forming connections. The use of the old-school personal ad style was part of the draw.
“How the words are put together, you’re like, ‘That’s the way I write or think,’” Ms. Poulos said. “I don’t often see that when I swipe through Tinder.”