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Looking for love on Tinder? Lesbians must first swipe past a parade of straight men

Queer women and non-binary folks have spent many frustrating years puzzling over the men that somehow slip through our Tinder settings.
Image: Lesbian Tinder
My Great Tinder Experiment mainly reinforced the frustrations queer women feel when attempting to find safe dating spaces.Claire Merchlinsky / for NBC News

I’ve been single since my last relationship ended in February, and like many single lesbians, that means I’m back on Tinder. The dating app provides a way to expand my dating pool beyond the usual crop of friends, exes and friends of exes. But I had forgotten what it’s like to be a lesbian on America’s most popular dating app; in order to find dates, I have to wade through a veritable thicket of opposite-sex couples and cisgender men.

But why do men pop up in my feed of potential matches when my account is set to see women-identified profiles only? Anecdotally, I know I’m hardly alone — queer women and non-binary folks have spent years puzzling over the men that somehow slip through our Tinder settings. Yes, there are other dating apps, but Tinder is the one I’ve used the most, and the only one where I’ve had this happen consistently.

I know I’m hardly alone — queer women and nonbinary folks have spent years puzzling over the men that somehow slip through our Tinder settings.

And I want it to be very clear that my discomfort on Tinder isn’t based in any kind of TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) ideology; I date trans and nonbinary people as well as cisgender women. But I don’t date straight, cisgender men or straight couples. To be honest, it creeps me out to know that men can see my profile (after all, Tinder is a two-way street). As a femme lesbian who is often mistaken for straight, I get enough unwanted attention from men. I shouldn’t have to market myself to them as a potential date when I very, very much don’t want to.

Being a generally curious journalist, I set out to solve the mystery. In July, I deleted my Tinder account and signed back up on the platform for an entirely fresh start. This was the only way to be absolutely sure I’d checked off all the settings properly, to rule out any mistakes on my end. While creating a new account, the app asked me to choose a gender (male or female were the only options and I chose female) and a sexual orientation (you could pick three; I went with lesbian, queer, and gay).

I reached a mildly confusing page that allowed me to pick a second gender identity (non-binary) and asked whether I wanted to be included in searches for men or women (I chose women). In settings, I was asked whether I wanted to be shown women, men, or everyone (I chose women, and clicked a button that said “show me people of the same orientation first” in order to hopefully weed out straight women and get right to my fellow queers). With all of these settings carefully selected, I figured I was in the clear.

I was wrong. I swiped left for days on opposite-sex couples preying on bisexual women and encountered numerous profiles for — you guessed it — straight, cisgender men. I would estimate that at least half of the profiles shown to me by the app were either couples or men: a shockingly high amount. Intrigued (and because I was working on this story), I began to swipe right on men and couples. I realized that most or all of these profiles had apparently already seen me; every time I swiped right on a cisgender man, it was an instant match. I was in their pool, like it or not. Creepy.

I’m in my 40s, which means I spent a good part of my youth in the lesbian bars of the U.S. that have largely disappeared. Encountering men and straight-ish couples in lesbian spaces is an all-too-familiar experience for me. Back in the bar days, men who hung around lesbian bars were referred to as “sharks” because of the way they seemed to circle drunk or lonely prey. Though some bars refused to let them in, other lesbian bars simply charged male patrons high door fees to make them pay for the privilege of gawking and stalking.

As a young femme dyke with long hair and painted fingernails, I hated having to navigate these encounters in what were supposed to be rare safe spaces. Coming to the bar to flirt with girls and trans guys, I didn’t want to have to feel the eyes of a straight man on me all night. It’s bad enough that feminine-looking women are so often mistaken for straight women, a phenomenon known as femme invisibility. Lesbian bars were supposed to be the one place where, just by entering the room, my queerness was undeniable.

Today, the lesbian bars of yore have mostly shut down. Queer women (and their adjacent populations: non-binary folks and trans men) now meet each other mostly through dating apps and other platforms like the wildly popular Instagram account Personals. While Personals is launching its own app (currently in Beta testing), the app for queer women that seems to have attracted the most mainstream traction is HER. With limited options, queer women tend to scatter seeds across multiple platforms; I’ve known friends to use Tinder, HER, Bumble, and OK Cupid all at once while perusing the Personals feed too.

The lesbian world can feel tiny; while there is no reliable data on the number of LGBTQ people in the U.S. (we aren’t counted by the U.S. Census), a 2016 Gallup poll estimated that about 4 percent of American women identified as either lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender — meaning the numbers in each sub-group are smaller. And many in my community consistently struggle to meet potential dates that don’t already overlap with their social circles.

A 2016 study conducted by researchers from Queen Mary University of London, Sapienza University of Rome and the Royal Ottawa Health Care Group found that while 12 percent of male Tinder profiles identified users as gay or bisexual, only 0.01 percent of women’s profiles identified users as anything other than straight. Though three years have since passed, I’m not convinced the numbers have significantly increased. In the weeks since restarting my Tinder profile, I’ve swiped until there are no new matches to swipe several times (I used the app in different cities while traveling).This sense of scarcity makes it all the more frustrating to encounter people you have no interest in dating.

Matching with men and couples would normally be annoying, but it was useful for this article. I messaged several couples to ask why they marked the gender of their profile as “woman,” and whether they were aware that creating an account as a couple violates Tinder’s “One Person, One Account” rule, which says “Tinder accounts cannot have multiple owners, so don’t create an account with your friend or significant other.” Not a single one of the couples responded. But some of the men I matched with did offer helpful feedback. When I asked “Harry,” who declined to be quoted outright for this story, whether he’d mistakenly set his gender to female, he said he had not. He claimed he was a straight man looking to date women and wasn’t sure why he’d shown up in my feed. But then he said something surprising: men also show up in his feed, even though his profile was set to seek women. Other men I matched with had clearly stated their gender as male right on their profile. To be clear, none of these men seemed to be transgender; in my experience as a person who has dated trans people, the majority of trans folks do identify themselves as such on dating apps.

I knew that most of my friends had encountered men and couples, but I also decided to ask my 16,000 Twitter followers in hopes of gathering a random sample. I got about 20 quotable responses from queer women, all of whom said they’ve encountered straight cis men in their Tinder feed and had puzzled over it. Many — including bisexual women — also expressed annoyance at couples who use the app to fish for queer women for threesomes.

“I only set to women. my results are an easy 40 percent straight couples looking for a unicorn or whatever. It disgusts me,” said Sara Gregory in response to the Twitter prompt. “Also would estimate about 10 percent of profiles I see are cis men when set to only women.”

In the weeks since restarting my Tinder profile, I’ve swiped until there are no new matches to swipe several times.This sense of scarcity makes it all the more frustrating to encounter people you have no interest in dating.

“My settings are set to only show me women, but I still see men almost every time I log in,” said Mari Brighe on Twitter. “Also, it seems like there are AT LEAST as many unicorn-hunting couples profiles as queer women’s profiles. It’s ridiculously frustrating.”

Conspiracy theories have proliferated, with some queer women guessing straight men are switching their genders to try to pick up lesbians. Or maybe some guys are just too dumb to properly set up a dating profile.

So was this the result of men misusing the platform? Was it a bug? Was it a feature? Over the course of three separate phone calls with Tinder representatives who spoke exclusively on background, I was repeatedly assured that what I described was nearly impossible. The conversations left me feeling even more confused and frustrated. Tinder wasn’t purposefully blocking me, but neither did it seem like the app understood why the onslaught of men and couples makes queer women so uncomfortable, or how the rampant sexualization of lesbians that can turn predatory and dangerous at times.

In the end, Tinder gave me a statement on the record that framed the whole thing as an inclusion issue.

"Tinder is the most used app by LGBTQ women and we are proud to serve this community. Inclusion is a core value and we are constantly working to optimize the user experience,” said a Tinder spokesperson. “We have identified that, sometimes, users may either purposely or inadvertently change their gender and consequently, are shown to users seeking other matches. The only way to prevent this from happening would be to restrict users from changing their gender, which is not a product change we are willing to make."

At the end of the day, my Great Tinder Experiment mainly reinforced the frustrations queer women feel when attempting to find safe dating spaces. Despite bringing the issue to Tinder’s attention — a privilege I was able to attain through my platform as a journalist — there is still no foreseeable way to avoid cisgender men and couples on the app. The experience has made me all the more hungry for the forthcoming Personals app, which creator Kelly Rakowski said in a 2018 interview will allow queer women to filter matches according to the identifiers that are significant in our community.

Rakowski aims to create a dating app that will let users search, for example, for a "butch bottom" in the New England area or a "switchy trans femme" in Seattle. That kind of cultural sensitivity is what seems to be missing from most dating apps that weren’t created with queer users in mind. Perhaps the lesson is this: Until queers are at the helm of the companies that craft the tech tools we use every day, those tools won’t be able to fully serve our needs.