LGBTQ+ Online Dating: a Historical Overview

Nov 17, 2023
12 minutes to read

LGBTQ+ online dating has evolved to serve a wide range of needs, from casual encounters to friendships to meaningful relationships. When I began messaging my wife on OkCupid in 2014, I was unaware of the rich history of LGBTQ+ online dating that dates back to the early 1990s. My initial motivation for using dating apps was to find a romantic partner and simplify the process of connecting with women in real life. However, I later discovered that queer online dating had its roots in the need for solidarity among gay men during the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Andy Cramer, who currently serves as the CEO of Caregiving Network, played a pivotal role in this history. In December 1993, Cramer launched Gay.Net, a bulletin board system (BBS), during a time when BBSs were the primary online spaces. These BBSs were often local or regional dial-up networks, operated mainly by hobbyists and enthusiasts. Notably, numerous BBSs for gay men had already emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, including notable platforms like the Backroom and Gay.Net.

Cramer’s inspiration for Gay.Net came from his experience operating Headlines stores in San Francisco, which were hubs of gay life. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic struck the U.S. in 1981, Cramer and his employees became frontline workers, actively engaged in fundraising and public health efforts.

Recognizing the loneliness and disconnection experienced by many gay men during this crisis, Cramer decided to create an online space. He purchased a bulletin board system, launching Gay.Net using BBS software with graphical overlays. Members received diskettes by mail to install the software. In its first year, Gay.Net attracted 10,000 gay and bisexual men who paid $10 a month for access, despite initially running on just 16 modems.

Unlike mainstream online services like Prodigy, AOL, and Compuserve, which were heavily censored, Cramer aimed to create a space where individuals could be authentic. Users initially used fake pictures, then avatars, and eventually real photos that represented their true selves.

Cramer’s journey with Gay.Net also led to a personal connection; he met his husband of 27 years, Al Farmer, through the platform. Farmer’s initial challenge was gaining access to the platform due to its popularity and busy modems. As Cramer transitioned Gay.Net to the web, Farmer, an IBM technology expert, played an essential role in improving the site.

Gay.Net later merged with Gay.Com, experiencing significant growth from 1 million to 4 million users in 1999. Cramer eventually left the company in 1999, and it went public in 2004. The site underwent various leadership changes before being sold to the Los Angeles LGBT Center.

Cramer reflects on his role in this history with pride, as Gay.Net served as a pioneer in bringing together lonely and uncertain individuals, ultimately facilitating meaningful connections. He continues to receive gratitude from people who attribute their marriages and relationships to the platform, highlighting the profound impact it had on the lives of millions.

Sites for lesbians

During the early to mid-1990s, Andy Cramer, despite having lesbian friends, faced the challenge of fostering a similar sense of online community for queer women as he had for gay men. However, it’s important to note that digital spaces for lesbians did exist during this period.

One significant development was the emergence of email lists that became popular within the lesbian community even before email became mainstream. Jean Marie Diaz created “Sappho” in the United States in 1987, which served as a pioneering platform for lesbian email lists at the time. This initiative played a pivotal role in connecting and providing support to lesbian individuals.

However, it’s worth mentioning that the creation of lists exclusively designated for lesbians led to discussions and debates within the LGBTQ+ community. These conversations revolved around whether these spaces should be inclusive of bisexual and transgender women. Amy Goodloe, a key figure in the LGBTQ+ community, was involved in running numerous LGBTQ+ email lists and was the creator of “” in the mid-1990s. was one of the earliest major lesbian websites.

In a NetCafe video interview archived on, Goodloe explained her motivation behind building She aimed to provide a platform for women to find each other, communicate about shared experiences and challenges, connect with lesbians in their local areas, and seek information related to coming out, support groups, and the experiences of being a lesbian mother. The primary goal was to create a safe and supportive space where a group of people who often lacked visibility in mainstream culture could come together, find each other, and realize they were not alone.

While there were online spaces and email lists dedicated to queer women during this period, it’s notable that spaces for queer men continued to grow and evolve throughout the 1990s. Services like Compuserve and AOL facilitated online access, offering community forums and chat rooms, which contributed to the development of a vibrant LGBTQ+ online community. AOL, in particular, became known for its abundance of gay-centric chat rooms, further highlighting the online presence and engagement of LGBTQ+ individuals during this era.

 Other gay sites

The website Gaydar, launched in 1999, was one of the early mainstream gay dating sites that provided a platform for queer men to engage in chat rooms and one-on-one conversations. Gaydar aimed to cater to a broad spectrum of users seeking dates, relationships, or casual encounters. Its founders, Gary Frisch and Henry Badenhorst, both from South Africa, established the platform. It’s important to note that both Gary Frisch and Henry Badenhorst have since passed away.

As the internet evolved, more queer-specific dating apps emerged in the 2000s. During the web 2.0 era, OkCupid, which was introduced in 2004, attracted LGBTQ+ users with its innovative approach to matching. OkCupid’s matching algorithm is based on user responses to in-app questions, and it has tailored questions to cater to queer users, including various sub-identities within the LGBTQ+ community.

Michael Kaye, the director of brand marketing and communications for OkCupid, highlighted the platform’s commitment to being inclusive and welcoming to users of all identities and preferences. OkCupid was at the forefront of expanding gender and sexual orientation identifiers, offering 60 identifiers in 2021 through a partnership with the Human Rights Campaign. The platform also collaborates with GLAAD to enhance pronoun options for users.

Kaye noted that LGBTQ+ individuals have been early adopters of online dating platforms, emphasizing the importance of having safe spaces to connect and find potential partners. OkCupid’s commitment to inclusivity has led to a significant number of LGBTQ+ users on the platform, with nearly 20% of daters in the United States identifying as LGBTQ+. This percentage has steadily increased over the years, reflecting a growing openness among users to share their identities.

Dr. Timaree Schmidt, a sexologist and human sexuality consultant, believes that having a wide range of options for making connections is essential. This includes options for individuals with specific identities, preferences, and beliefs. For example, OkCupid has allowed users to choose to be visible only to other queer individuals, enhancing the overall user experience by providing more tailored and relevant connections.

In summary, dating platforms like Gaydar and OkCupid have played significant roles in the LGBTQ+ dating landscape, providing safe and inclusive spaces for individuals to connect and find meaningful relationships or casual encounters. OkCupid’s commitment to inclusivity and expanding options for users has made it a popular choice among LGBTQ+ daters.

The landscape of queer dating underwent a notable shift with the launch of Grindr in 2009. Grindr, a dating app primarily catering to men who have sex with men (MSM), is widely recognized within the LGBTQ+ community. Co-founded by tech entrepreneur Joel Simkhai, Grindr was a pioneering geolocation-based dating app and among the early third-party apps for the iPhone. Grindr was specifically designed “as a casual dating app for the queer community,” as highlighted by Grindr’s Chief Product Officer AJ Balance.

According to Balance, Grindr is an inclusive community open to anyone who wishes to use the app, with users spanning various genders and sexual orientations. Although queer men form the largest user segment, Grindr has seen a gradual expansion of its user base, with diverse segments finding value in the platform. Over time, Grindr has become a significant and vital resource for many individuals within the LGBTQ+ community. While many users utilize it for casual dating, others have successfully found both dates and long-term partners through the app.

As Grindr’s user base has grown over the years, the platform has taken on a role in providing essential sexual health resources to its users. This includes offering a comprehensive blueprint for trans and nonbinary sexual health, which covers a wide range of topics, including general sexual health concerns, social determinants of health, and sex work. Grindr also offers resources such as free HIV/STI home tests, information on doxyPEP (the use of the antibiotic doxycycline as post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent sexually transmitted infections), and connections to various support services. These efforts are part of the Grindr for Equality social justice program, which has a central focus on promoting LGBTQ+ safety, health, and human rights on a global scale, as outlined on its website.

 As Grindr’s user base expanded over time, the platform began offering sexual health resources to its users, including a comprehensive blueprint dedicated to trans and nonbinary sexual health. This blueprint covers a wide range of topics, encompassing general sexual health concerns, social determinants of health, and issues related to sex work and more. Grindr also provides users with access to valuable resources such as free HIV/STI home tests, information about doxyPEP, vaccinations, and connections to additional support services. (DoxyPEP involves the use of the antibiotic doxycycline as post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent sexually transmitted infections.) These initiatives are integral to Grindr for Equality, a social justice program with a global focus on promoting LGBTQ+ safety, health, and human rights, as detailed on its website.

Grindr was previously owned by a Chinese company but was sold to U.S.-based company San Vicente Acquisition Partners in 2020 due to national security concerns raised by the U.S., as reported by TechCrunch.However, Joel Simkhai, who served as Grindr’s CEO for several years, departed from the company in 2017. During his tenure, the app faced issues related to transphobia, racism, and fatphobia among some of its user base, as highlighted in a 2022 report by NBC News. In response to these challenges, Simkhai launched the dating app Motto in an effort to combat the culture of “toxicity and discrimination” prevalent in some other queer dating apps, as reported by NBC News.

Grindr’s Chief Product Officer, AJ Balance, emphasized the platform’s strong commitment to user safety and privacy. The team employs a range of proactive and reactive measures to ensure a safe and confidential user experience. Robust moderation capabilities allow users to report incidents, with the Grindr team responding swiftly to address any concerns. Additionally, proactive steps are taken to identify and prevent negative experiences that users may encounter on the platform.


Some creators of newer queer dating apps, like Simkhai with Motto, are taking proactive steps to enhance inclusivity for trans and nonbinary users. An example of such an app is HER, which defines itself as a “FLINTA (female, lesbian, intersex, trans, and agender) community and dating app.”
Robyn Exton, the founder of HER, emphasized their commitment to providing a secure space for queer individuals to express themselves and form meaningful connections. The app implements stringent verification processes and community guidelines to prioritize user safety.
This year, HER strengthened its stance against TERFs (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists), sending user notifications and publicly expressing its anti-TERF position on Lesbian Visibility Day.

Before the launch of HER in 2015, LGBTQ+ women faced challenges in the dating landscape. Exton noted that existing platforms either mimicked gay men’s sites with superficial modifications for women or featured straight-oriented content that was not suitable for queer women. This gap in the market prompted Exton to create a dating product tailored to women’s needs.Originally launched as Dattch, the app eventually rebranded as HER. Exton drew inspiration from Grindr, which had successfully catered to gay men’s dating needs. However, HER evolved beyond a hookup-focused model to provide users with content, events, and opportunities to connect with friends, addressing broader community needs.

Several dating apps, such as Tser, are explicitly designed for the trans community. Tser markets itself as a platform for transgender individuals and their allies to connect online and foster friendships and support.

However, user reviews for Tser on vary, with some praising its functionality while others criticize its use of potentially transphobic language and categorization of users as ‘men’ and ‘women.’

Mary Richardson, co-creator of the label-free LGBTQ+ dating app Bindr, developed the app in response to the feeling that she and her partner didn’t belong in the existing dating scene. Bindr allows users to share their sexual orientation and gender identity if they wish but doesn’t require it. Richardson prioritizes user safety and personally reads every support ticket to ensure a welcoming environment, particularly for transgender and nonbinary individuals.

With an increasing number of people identifying as LGBTQ+, a variety of niche dating apps have emerged. Dr. Timaree noted that while more choices offer opportunities, they can also lead to decision fatigue and a marketplace-like dynamic. Dating apps have shifted how people connect romantically, introducing challenges in establishing genuine connections in a world with more options but often less accountability than traditional in-person interactions.

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