The pandemic has led to a surge in queer women seeking connection the old-fashioned way: the mail
People are sending Polaroid pictures and vintage Valentines — all to people they don't know and may never meet
This morning I crept through the snow in my bare feet to check the mail. Shivering, I opened the lid to find a letter. On the envelope were two stickers, a pink kitten in a pink boot and a rainbow. The address was written in pink gel pen below a stamp that said "LOVE." It was very queer.
I wasn't surprised by this, because the queerness of the letter writer was the only thing I knew about them. This letter was from a stranger who lives over 4000km away. And I met them on a dating app, where, unexpectedly, it seems like the art of letter writing might just be making a comeback.
The app is called Lex. It's a dating app that aims to create a digital space for queer, trans, two-spirit and non-binary folks to connect. But what distinguishes it from most dating apps is its lo-fi, retro approach: it's totally text-based. That's right — no pictures. Their format is based on personal ads, or "personals," that ran in queer and women-run erotic magazines during the 80s and 90s, particularly one called On Our Backs, which was the first magazine in America to publish lesbian content for a lesbian audience.
I've been on Lex for a while and recently noticed a surge of folks who were "ISO" pen pals. While the pandemic certainly has a well-earned reputation for forcing people to pursue "creative dating," I was intrigued by this trend because it didn't seem like the goal was to eventually meet in person. People were sending letters to different cities, countries, and even continents. Current travel restrictions aside, it didn't seem like a recipe for a conventional sexual or romantic relationship. Why use a dating app to make a connection with someone that you may well never meet?
Fortunately, dating apps are tailor-made for chatting up people you don't know — so I set the geographical range of my Lex account to "The World" and turned my question over to strangers on the internet.
Many folks told me that their desire to write letters started out of loneliness. Some described wanting a more "tangible" connection — something they could literally hold — in a world that was feeling increasingly virtual and remote. Most people also told me they found writing to be more intimate than messaging on an app. The act itself takes time and commitment, while details like handwriting and doodles reveal more about someone than a screen might. One person suggested that the long-form nature of letters acts as an invitation to say more rather than less.
There are downsides too, of course. Whether from postal error or otherwise, not everyone's letters get answered. But the content of the letters themselves are a striking reminder of how generous we can be in our affections. Someone from Toronto told me they are sending dime bags full of spices — tajin and culinary lavender — to an out-of-province crush, with suggestions for how to use them. In Ireland, someone is picking flowers from their own garden, drying them, and sending them transcontinentally. There are letters being sent out of Washington scented to invoke a fancy, perfumed dinner, and one from Montreal that contained confetti in celebration of the recipient's birthday. People are sending stickers, raunchy Polaroid pictures, tea bags, paintings, vintage Valentine's Day cards — all to people they don't know and may never meet.
When I think about how these letter writers found one another — on an queer app inspired by a queer magazine — it seems to me that these postal connections are less an anomalous product of this pandemic and more a part of a queer tradition. At many times throughout history, the difficulty of finding queer connections and community has driven folks to find creative solutions. I can only imagine the myriad reasons folks in the 80s wrote into On Our Backs: perhaps they didn't live in a city with a queer bar, or maybe they didn't feel safe in one. Maybe they were simply tired of not finding what they were looking for. But any barriers they may have faced didn't stop them from looking for love, or for sex — they wrote out their intangible longings and penned them in with a forwarding address. I want you, whoever you might be, and you can find me here. Write me.
And thus, we find ourselves in a pandemic with a model for how to take a leap of faith — for how to give of ourselves despite the uncertainty of what we might be given in return, how to reveal of ourselves with the knowledge that perhaps no one will even look.
But then again, someone might.
I answered the letter I was sent by a sweet baker from Maine. I wrote about how long Toronto winters seem to someone born in Vancouver. I told her that I, too, am moving to a new apartment in April, and I asked how far away she lives from where she grew up. In the envelope, I included a Polaroid picture of where I drink coffee in the morning, and one of the muffins I baked using the recipe she sent in her letter.
As I wrote, I thought about the person who might eventually receive my letter. I thought about all the people who might eventually receive letters. Maybe someone somewhere will lay out dried flowers on their nightstand to remind themselves that spring comes every year. Someone somewhere might bake a batch of cookies infused with a dime bag's worth of culinary lavender. Perhaps there's someone who will pour confetti out of an envelope on their birthday, toss it in the air, and just for a second, in their momentarily glittering apartment, feel less lonely.
Of course, there's no way to know. Mailing a letter is, after all, a hopeful gesture; for someone else to hold it, you have to let it go. You hope they receive it with as much care as you sent it. You know that they may not.
But then again, they might.