Spoiler alert: it’s led to cross-country love affairs
It is not news that, when it comes to online dating, LGBTQ women have drawn the short straw. Tinder is overpopulated with polo-wearing straight couples looking for “a third :P”, while most women-oriented apps have utterly flopped and gone to the app store graveyard, never to be seen again. And with IRL female queerness being historically either dismissed or only accepted when shown in a palatable way (gal pals, anyone?), most of us end up dating only within our own small communities, stuck in a despairing limbo of limited clubbing options, exes, experimentation and exes’ exes, with very limited ways out.
But for Kelly Rakowski, the curator of the wlw image archive @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, it doesn’t have to be that way. Inspired by the raunchy lonely heart ads featured in the pages of 80s female-gaze erotica magazine On Our Backs, she started @herstorypersonals back in early 2017 – a platform that (finally) sought to welcome with open arms all queer women, trans, and non-binary people who find themselves ostracised, both in the mainstream dating world, and sometimes within their own community.
Stepping away from the boring and formulaic nature of dating apps, the personals are follower-submitted and come from all over the world – from Vermont to Essex and all the way to Buenos Aires. During a monthly two-day call-out, Rakowski receives up to 200 digital letters looking for love, lust or friendship, all of which she single-handedly sifts through, sets in either yellow or pink backgrounds, and, like a modern day cupid, sends off into the internet, to go find another lonely heart.
How did Herstory Personals get started?
Kelly Rakowski: I found these personal ads written in the back of On Our Backs magazine – the ones I loved were posted on the 80s and 90s, and they’re what inspired me to start the Herstory personals. They were just so hilarious and so well-defined, and they’re so out about their desires and what they wanted, always hypersexual. It was an erotic magazine, so it was definitely sex-focused.
As I was boosting these vintage personal ads, it got me thinking “why don’t we try this again”, and I could just do it on Instagram. So I did it. When I have people write their personal, I direct them to read those (original ones) for inspiration. To be like: Here’s how it’s done, how to be fucking hilarious and sexy.
What did you find inspiring about the format of old-school personals?
Kelly Rakowski: I love the way people could be so direct about who they are. It felt like they knew themselves really well, and were able to express their desires in a clear way. Just in words, you can express yourself, be funny and show your personality more than say, a picture, or a selfie. I think that’s what interested me about the old-school ads.
I also love the anonymity of it – even though with the Herstory Personals you’re linking to your Instagram, so it’s public. But what I thought was really interesting was being so anonymous in the newspaper ads – you don’t really know who you’re writing to, and you can’t have anyone comment on your attraction, which I thought was really important.
It feels like LGBTQ women have, historically, never had any luck with dating apps. Why do you think that’s the case?
Kelly Rakowski: I think it’s because women and queer people are always almost like an afterthought, in a way. Maybe we’re just a little more under the radar. But at the same time, everyone I know is looking to connect with people, in all sorts of ways – so it seems like an untapped “market”. Once people started posting ads (on the @herstorypersonals account) it was clear people want to talk and connect – especially queer women. It becomes very social, fast.
Especially because it helps with breaking out from the whole dating within a fishbowl stereotype that ends up being true.
Kelly Rakowski: Absolutely – Herstory Personals is so international that you get to see people from all over the world, whereas with say, Tinder, it’s just your local people. So you end up swiping on exes or friends.
When I asked for feedback, I heard that a lot of people that are connecting don’t live in the same place. I know of someone who’s going to fly to Romania to meet someone – people are down to do that. Maybe queer women especially – they’re like, up for it.
“I know of someone who’s going to fly to Romania to meet someone – people are down to do that. Maybe queer women especially – they’re like, up for it” – Kelly Rakowski
So people are down to cross borders for love?
Kelly Rakowski: Yeah! One of the stories that came out last year – a couple got married. This transmasculine person in Los Angeles met someone in Sweden, and they got married.
Do people get in touch often to tell you that they found someone?
Kelly Rakowski: Not often, but if I share a story that someone DM’d me, someone else will DM and say their own story, and that ends up trickling. Recently, I put out a call out to hear people’s experiences, and in about ten minutes I got so much feedback about connections people have made. I’ll hear it through word of mouth – my friend in LA said: ‘I was just at a dinner party and someone’s date had met through Herstory personals’. I’ve had friends meet up with people and have hookups. So it seems active, but I don’t totally know what’s happening after I post. It’s hard to follow the trail.
Have you ever received any Lonely Hearts that were a complete no-no?
Kelly Rakowski: Anyone that says something that they don’t want or that they’re not into. So if they say ‘no stone butches’, then people can react really badly. If you say ‘no geminis’, all the geminis get really upset.
During the one year that the account’s been up, have you realised any patterns?
Kelly Rakowski: The big words are intersectional feminism, being ‘woke’, being tender… a lot of poly, non-monogamous. Recently, it’s gotten more focused on friends and pen-pal people. So it made me rethink even what the personals are. Because at first I thought ‘it’s just going to be sex’, but now I see that people are really looking for friends even – community.
In the spirit of Valentines, and inspired by both history and all the personals, what would be your advice for young girls who are scared of coming out or dating?
Kelly Rakowski: I think you have to come out in your own time, when it feels right to you – don’t let anyone pressure you into it. But also know that there is a community there that totally wants you, and wants to love you and be your friend. And also, once you do come out, it’s so so much better.