Love, virtually: LGBTQ dating during COVID

By Niki D’Andrea, February 2021 issue.

You know the old joke: “What does a lesbian bring to her second date?”

A U-Haul.

Before 2020, that was a funny — and fitting — riff on the lesbian tendency to rush into relationships. But things have changed since the coronavirus pandemic. For the LGBTQ community, dating in the time of COVID has often meant forgoing close physical interactions in favor of virtual meetups and socially distanced dates. The tendency to “hook up” or get intimate quickly has shifted to a lengthier courtship. People are getting to know each other over long conversations and establishing emotional bonds before meeting face to face.

That paradigm shift, some say, is ultimately a good thing for the LGBTQ community, which has long been accustomed to living and loving outside mainstream parameters and considering health risks like HIV. Safely navigating dating and especially sex during a pandemic requires patience and precautions, but in many cases, distanced dating during COVID can lead to true love and long-term relationships.

It certainly — and surprisingly — did for me.

I was scrolling through profiles on the Facebook Dating app one last time before removing the app from my phone. It was early October, and I hadn’t been on any dates since February. I had been social distancing and working from home since April. My coronavirus concerns kept me indoors except for essential errands and walking around the neighborhood a couple of times a week. Dating didn’t seem safe or possible.

When I came across Erica’s profile, I recognized her. We were in the same LGBTQ club in college 16 years ago and had several mutual friends, but never really got to know each other. I swiped right, meaning I “liked” her, and the next day, she “liked” me back, which meant we had matched on the Facebook Dating app and could start exchanging messages.

And boy, did we. Over the next several weeks, we learned a lot about each other — everything from our favorite colors to our family histories. We had many personal conversations earlier than people typically do when dating, and soon our contact expanded to long virtual video dates. After discovering we live less than three miles apart, I began making frequent no-contact drop-offs of homemade soup and other little gifts to her doorstep.

The Facebook Dating app was our platform for reconnection, but we weren’t the only people making use of dating apps. Every major dating platform has reported an increase in use since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Hornet, which caters primarily to the gay male community, and Lex, a text-centered app for the queer community, including trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people, both reported a 30 percent increase in social engagement since the spring 2020 lockdown began.

“Lexers are finding creative ways to connect even during quarantine,” Lex founder and CEO Kell Rakowski says. “Lexers have always been open to connecting with other queers that are cities, states, or countries away. We are familiar with making deep connections — friendships, relationships, sexting — with thousands of miles between us. In a sense, quarantine is familiar — we’re used to isolation and longing.”

Stephan Horbelt, executive editor for Hornet, says the LGBTQ community has overall been very innovative in adjusting to coronavirus restrictions and having an online outlet to socialize helps alleviate feelings of isolation.

“A lack of physical meetup, a lack of physical touch during this COVID craziness, affects everyone differently and affects a lot of people adversely, and I think potentially even more adversely for members of our community,” Horbelt says. “So, I think having an outlet for connection in whatever form it takes is necessary, and the community has always been very resilient or used to this idea of having to find your family.”

HER, a dating app for lesbians and “queer womxn,” has not only seen a huge increase in use during the pandemic, but the conversations are getting longer, according to CEO and founder Robyn Exton. “Without physical spaces to meet new people in, dating apps are a core way to carry on finding new relationships during the pandemic,” she says, adding, “Nothing but video dates encouraged until you’re ready to test and commit.”

Exton says there are thousands of stories about HER users who have found love or long-term partnerships from an online connection during the pandemic. There’s a paradigm shift happening in the way people date. The courtship stage is now prolonged, with people meeting and talking online before in-person encounters.

Horbelt concurs there’s been a change in the dating trajectory. “People are having to get creative about what dating looks like,” he says. “I think that overall, the community did good with expanding the idea of dating from, ‘Let’s meet for lunch, for dinner, for coffee, in person,’ to really getting to know each other and connect in digital spaces and online.”

One of the first conversations Erica and I had was “the COVID conversation.” Of the many things we discovered we had in common, serious concerns about coronavirus and an insistence on taking every possible precaution against it was the most important.

As a full-time freelance writer, I can work from home and decline jobs that put me in public settings. However, Erica is an essential worker in a high-risk environment, so we knew we could not have any close physical contact any time soon. We enjoyed the experience of gradually getting to know each other from a distance. Meeting in person for a masked, socially distanced visit didn’t happen until we’d been talking online for almost two months. 

There were so many safety measures to consider: Our potential for individual exposure, the number of positive COVID cases in our zip code, how adamant each of us is about social distancing, wearing masks, and washing our hands (on a scale of 1-10, we’re both at 11 on those).

“I think that overall, the LGBTQ community has done a good job of staying safe and respecting best practices,” Horbelt says. Hornet recently released a guide titled, “How to Have Sex These Days: Navigating COVID When Horny.” Lex gave its users suggestions for ways they can connect virtually during quarantine, including tarot readings and recipe swapping.

HER users are being encouraged to build connections before meeting offline. “We’re strongly suggesting to not do in-real-life (IRL) meetups until you are clear on each other’s social bubbles and are ready to commit to being in a bubble together,” Exton says. “If your area is in lockdown, stick to the lockdown. Or U-Haul — your call.”

My first socially distanced date with Erica was on Thanksgiving. Neither of us gathered with our families out of coronavirus concerns. When she sent me a link to the trailer for the movie Ammonite starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, I got the wild idea to see where it was showing locally on Thanksgiving night, when theaters might be mostly empty. I found a late showing in an eight-seat auditorium at Roadhouse Cinemas in Scottsdale and bought all eight tickets to have the theater to ourselves.

We drove separately to the theater, which was indeed empty except for a few employees. I brought a box of antibacterial wipes and gripped one to open doors for her. In the theater, we wiped down our seats and tables. Then we sat at opposite ends of the back row and watched the main characters engage in some incredibly passionate love scenes that made me feel hot under my mask. Afterward, I walked her to her car (from six feet away), and we waved goodnight.

I did not bring a U-Haul to our second date. I brought antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer, and a small jar of my body lotion so she would know what I smelled like. We had a distanced dinner on her back porch, removing our masks only to eat at our individual tables (placed ten feet across from each other), followed by a four-hour conversation in her garage with the door open — again, 10 feet apart and wearing masks the whole time. We waved goodnight again.

We made plans to try to get within six feet of each other over her winter vacation. She quarantined for five days after her last day at work before getting tested. We both got tested for COVID-19 on December 22 and received our negative results on Christmas Day (Merry Christmas!). Within hours of confirming our negative statuses, I was at her door. We spent the next nine days sequestered together, enjoying the close physical contact we couldn’t have even considered for almost the first three months of our relationship. It was an ecstatic, deeply emotional experience for both of us.

We’ve talked about how the months of imposed physical distance during COVID has shaped our relationship. Had we run into each other in a lesbian bar pre-pandemic, we might have been physically intimate before developing any deeper bond or emotional intelligence about each other. Instead, we had to take our time with each other and make patience our greatest virtue as a couple. And we fell in love before our first hug.

The impacts of COVID-19 on dating, particularly in the LGBTQ community, could be long-lasting. The shift in dynamics from swipe circuitry and hooking up to seeking new skills of intimacy and building relationships is a positive trend, Horbelt says.

“COVID definitely affected dating, and I think it could ultimately be a good thing for our community to be forced to reexamine what dating is,” he says. “I think the LGBTQ community is always kind of on the forefront of societal norms like that, so if the future of dating means more than meeting up for coffee and it can take different forms, I think that’s ultimately a good thing.”

The developers of LGBTQ dating apps are coming up with ways to enhance virtual connections. Hornet recently launched a video story feature that allows users to create video stories similar to those on Instagram and Facebook. Lex has rolled out an update that includes six new customized post reactions.

Exton emphasizes the ongoing importance of continuing to use apps like HER to meet new people virtually as coronavirus vaccines slowly roll out. “We’re not out the other side yet,” she says. “There’s a few more months to go, so keep strong and get excited for IRL dating towards the end of the year.”

Erica and I are looking forward to one day being able to safely eat together inside a restaurant, take a naked-faced hike within six feet of each other, and sit next to each other in a movie theater. Until then, we’re literally virtual. She had to go back to work in a high-risk environment, and we won’t be able to have more close physical contact until her next vacation (when we can once again quarantine and get tested) or until we are both vaccinated. So, we are back to video chat dates, exchanging lengthy messages, and no-contact gift deliveries.

It’s hard, but we know once we get past this pandemic, it’s U-Haul time.

Four Tips for Dating During a Pandemic

1: Start with a virtual date. Health experts recommend video dates as the safest way to socialize, and relationship experts say it’s not as awkward as one might expect.

2: Ask your partner about their pandemic precautions. Does their job require them to be around other people? Do they go to public spaces? Do they cohabitate with others, and if so, what are those people’s risk levels? Experts agree this conversation should happen early in the courtship.

3: Check local transmission rates before meeting in person and assess the risk of your planned activity. (For example, health experts say eating outside on a restaurant patio is less risky than dining indoors.)

4: Get tested for COVID-19 to make sure you’re negative before being intimate.

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