South Dakota’s only gay club is dead when I show up on a Friday night. A Katy Perry song thumps on a dance floor so vacant it looks fit for an open house. There’s a lone lesbian chain-smoking outside and two guys slurping vodka near a row of empty bar chairs.
The place, Club David in Sioux Falls, is one pit stop I’m making on a road trip from Brooklyn to Portland. The three-level nightclub is supposed to be a popular hub of queerness and diversity in a sea of churches and cornfields. So where are all the gay people?
“Well, it’s not exactly ‘gay’ anymore,” the DJ tells me. “It’s gay-friendly. The owner changed the business model. Not enough gay people were coming out.”
Many country-living gay folks I talked to on my trip share the same feeling. Landlocked areas are home to fewer gay bars and LBGT people than coastal cities, data shows. Add long rural drives to the equation and it can be really tough for queer people to find each other. For a city girl, finding the queer scene in the American Heartland feels like searching for a sunbathing club in Siberia.
Maybe that’s because there’s no need to drive hours to a gay bar to find a date, when you can hand-pick the date and the closest bar on your phone. And people living in the country say LBGT support groups feel too formal–especially when apps promote fun social networking events like gay BBQs, “proms,” and brunch meet-ups. Backwoods cruising spots—where gay men used to meet for anonymous sex—are mostly dead, people told me. The apps have nearly eliminated the need for them, allowing users to pick potentially any spot to meet for a hook-up.
(Image: Club David in Sioux Falls, South Dakota)
Unlike in New York and San Francisco, dating apps are just catching on in states like Ohio, Iowa and South Dakota. But they’ve already sparked a cultural shift in the way gay people meet up and hook up. The technology is making sex, love, and gay community possible in places it never was before.
Location-based apps like like OKCupid and Tinder — along with newer apps like Her, which launched four months ago, and Lavendr, which launched last year — are helping queer people connect in the middle of nowhere.
In the Corn Belt, the Tinder term “near you” may mean 30 miles, not 30 blocks away. But finding a potential partner within driving distance is an option some gay people never had before. “For rural people, this is huge,” says Maren Braaksma, 34-year-old lesbian from Iowa.
Paul, a 34-year-old transgender guy, has a bloody knee when he meets me at bar in central Ohio. The watering hole is near a cornfield and frequented by farmers — not place you’d want to wave a rainbow flag. But it’s close to the baseball field where he scraped his leg, so he cleans up and orders a beer.
“I live totally stealth, none of my coworkers know,” he says in a low voice. “Ohio is scary. People in Ohio are scary. There are a lot of hillbillies. It’s not like the coasts.”
He may be right — but tonight the place is our own incognito gay bar. (I’ve been called a “straight-looking” lesbian and he “passes” as a man with a beard and Pabst Blue Ribbon cap.) Our secret queer party of two is possible, even in the boonies, thanks to an app I used to find the most interesting-looking person to interview near my hotel in Heath, Ohio.
Paul hates to think about it, but Boys Don’t Cry-style violence is never far from his mind. He’s not “out” and only a few of his friends know he’s trans. For a long time, he didn’t even consider a relationship an option. It was too risky.
But meeting people through apps is one way to weed out potential scary bigots, he says. Since he mostly dates guys, he uses a feature to block straight men from seeing his profile. He’s also careful about giving away exactly where he lives and spends time.
Before he signed up for OKCupid Mobile, he used Casual Encounters section of Craigslist to meet F to M-friendly hook-ups. But that didn’t always feel safe. The site has no filter-who-sees-you option and users often don’t include photos — so it’s hard to tell who “has crazy eyes,” Paul says. Plus, it was usually a longer drive for a date.
Now, his profile lists him as “Trans Man, Genderqueer.” It helps him break the ice and avoid potentially nerve-wracking conversations about his gender identity. The app has no write-in option but features roughly two dozen gender and orientation categories to chose from, including, asexual, demisexual, heteroflexible, pansexual, agender, intersex, transfeminine.
“It makes it easier for people to figure out who you are and what you are,” Paul says. No jerks and no surprises.
Maren, a 34-year-old lesbian truck driver, backs her rig into a loading dock near Des Moines. She says, “There used to be a lesbian bar here but it closed. Nobody bothered to open a new one.”
Left Tackle Bar in Shoshoni, Wyoming, where the closest lesbian dating app user was 53 miles away.
The disappearing gay-lady scene has made it harder for her to find a girlfriend. Or even just a nice gal she can talk to on the phone during her long overnight shifts. So she turned to technology, even though she grew up dating the old fashioned way.
“Without the bars, it’s the only way some women can meet other lesbians. It brings people together who wouldn’t meet normally,” she says.
In bigger cities, lesbian bars started dying off around 2009. Catty Shack in Brooklyn, T’s in Chicago, the Egyptian Room in Portland and The Lexington in San Francisco all closed within 5 years of each other. Some say they’ve shuttered because gay and straight people have integrated better, eliminating the need for a gay-only haven. Others blame gentrification, higher bar rents, and the popularity of dating apps.
Like kale chips and man buns, the trend may simply be taking longer to reach smaller cities in the heartland. As gay bars close, more women are signing up for location-based dating apps. Popular ones include Her, for social networking, Moovs for queer friends and events, and Sissr for hook-ups and dating.
It makes sense that they’re catching on in the Corn Belt. Research shows gay singles in rural areas benefit most from finding love online.
“Individuals who face a thin market for potential partners, such as gays, lesbians, and middle-aged heterosexuals, are especially likely to meet partners online,” a Stanford study claims. “Partnership rate has increased during the Internet era for same-sex couples, but the heterosexual partnership rate has been flat.”
“Thin market” is one way to put it. The entire state of Iowa — an area considered gay-friendly by Midwestern standards — is home to only one tenth the number of gay bars that New York City boasts, according to recent gay business data compiled by Slate.
The tech tools also help gay users feel like they have more options in the dating world, users say. It’s one way to avoid the “incestuous feeling” of small town gay bars, where “everybody knows everybody — and has dated everybody,” Maren says.
The technology would have come in handy when she was a teen in the 1990s, she says, back when she considered herself “the only lesbian in my small little town.”
“Now teens are coming out earlier,” she says. “I think they don’t feel so isolated.”
Logging in the first time was like pressing a You’re-Not-Alone button, says Dena, a 29-year-old lesbian from Sioux Falls. “I didn’t know there were so many gay people here. When I signed up, I was like, ‘Where have you been hiding!?” she says of OKCupid.
She wasn’t imagining it. There actually are fewer gay people living in the heartland — and even most cities in the Midwest. For example, only 4-5 percent of residents in Indianapolis, Columbus and Chicago identify as LBGT, according to 2014 census data. San Francisco, Seattle and Boston have citywide percentages roughly three times higher.
Previously Dena would drive long distances to a gay bar to connect with other lesbians. But there’s no need to burn gas when you can find the cutest, closest-to-you gay chick on your phone, she says. “It’s easier to meet because you’re like, ‘oh, you’re only 20 miles away — let’s go get a drink,’” she says.
It also helps her avoid unwanted threesome propositions from straight couples who have begun to frequent gay bars in the area. “You could go the bar and think, ‘She’s gay.’ But then her boyfriend comes out of the bathroom. At least on these apps you know it’s a woman looking for a woman,” she says, adding she has used them for both dating and making friends.
Other women are more cautious. One teacher from Springfield, Indiana told me she couldn’t be sure I was actually a journalist — and not a crazy homophobe who wanted to hurt her.
“New York is a large city and it’s very fast paced. Here is a totally different more small town mindset,” she said after backing out of a coffee date.
“I also know a couple girls who thought they were meeting up with their dream girls, except when they met up with the person it was a complete stranger with the intent to harm them for being of the homosexual variety,” she said.
Whether her story was based in fact or fear, she wasn’t alone. Other people I spoke to — even the ones who used the apps — said internet dating is weirdly stigmatized. The old-school idea that only axe-murderers and pedophiles look for love online is still alive in some small towns.
Others had more legit reasons to be careful.
“I’m a little afraid of strangers getting too much personal knowledge about my location. I usually have my GPS on my phone turned off unless I’m specifically using it for navigation,” one male-to-female transgender woman from Des Moines, IA told me. “This might seem a bit sex negative...[But] I don’t feel super safe with men who are strangers, and don’t feel I have a feminine enough face or build yet to attract people looking for women,” she said. “I have tried Tindr and Grindr. I got a lot of ‘looking to suck’-type messages so I just deleted the apps.”
In the end, she met her partner in person through friends by being open about her story, she says.
No matter how far technology comes, some landlocked users can’t seem to get over their own feelings of shame about their sexuality — and online dating.
“I hear people gossip about people who use dating apps. People think it’s a desperate thing. I don’t want people to recognize me at my shop,” says Dena, who works in a butchery.
In the future, she thinks, neither being gay nor internet dating will be considered taboo — even in small towns. Even in the Heartland. “Seriously,” she says. “We should all just get over it and hang out.”
Photos via author