The cautionary tale of ‘Personals’: The queer connection Instagram with a white privilege problem

When an Instagram account called QPOC Personals popped up late last week, it had an obvious purpose. It was a space for queer people of color from around the globe to submit ads seeking love, friendship, or other connections. Think personals ads like those that used to appear in newspapers—a few sentences about who you are and what you’re looking for, even a mention of physicality, like age and body type, since photos aren’t included—but with a prideful proclamation of race and sexuality. Instead of mailing in a hand-written response or calling a 1-900 number, though, you slide in the poster’s DMs.

On QPOC Personals, there is only one clear guideline: White people are not to follow, engage with, message, or otherwise interact with the account.

That rule was quickly violated by Kelly Rakowski, the white founder of the popular queer page called Personals, who felt her idea for an Instagram account connecting queer people through personals ads had been stolen. She was particularly concerned that her logo and layout had been mimicked on the new account.

Rakowski messaged QPOC Personals, demanding the owner “take time to find a new logo and name to clear confusion.”

“But like not much time,” Rakowski wrote in a second message. “Thank you.”

Her message, assertive and even threatening in tone, launched an explosive dialogue among the founders and followers of both accounts about race, privilege, and the ownership of concepts. Over the course of a few days, hundreds of people of color, along with white allies, voiced their concerns in the comments of posts, noting feeling underrepresented on Personals and isolated by its overwhelming whiteness.

Following the backlash, Rakowski posted a statement to the account admitting she “should have been more welcoming” but “reacted possessively.” Then, the Personals account went silent. That is, until someone named Jen, who described themselves as a lesbian of color, posted an Instagram Story to the account saying she was a co-founder of Personals (even though there had never been a mention of co-founder before). Jen said they had reached out to QPOC Personals without response and instructed followers not to discuss “these issues” on posted ads. Then, suddenly, the entire account vanished in the wee hours of Thursday morning, before reappearing that evening.

message to the community

Ultimately, each defensive step and non-step made by Personals in the past few days seemed to result in only more confusion and anger from followers. It also did much to undermine the original goal of Rakowski’s Personals page, which up until last weekend was lauded by many as a beloved bright spot in the queer community. Reading the ads that popped up in your Instagram scroll had felt like a return to the fundamentals of human connection, with demands for kink alongside promises of hand-holding.

“Your attempt at building a sustainable platform for community has now failed simply because you did not take the time to think about your actions and the space you’ve taken up and created for other white queers specifically,” wrote Lauren, a queer person of color who commented on Rakowksi’s initial attempt at an apology.

What had seemed like a fun, safe space for some had become a mirror of blind spots and cracks long felt in the queer community. It was a reminder of how much more work was still needed to be done to make LGBTQ people of color feel as safe, accepted, and represented as white people do in queer spaces.

Rakowski’s Personals began, as things often do, with a riff on an already established idea. A photo editor based in New York, Rakowski initially gained a significant following by posting materials from the Lesbian Herstory Archives under another handle, h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y. While not officially affiliated with the archive center, Rakowski’s self-described “obsession” with lesbian history and digital collections tapped into a larger desire for queer people to connect with their pasts.

Rakowski invited followers of Herstory to submit their own personals to @herstorypersonals in 2017, as she was inspired by the classified ads in On Our Backs, a 1980s lesbian erotica magazine that was the first of its kind in the U.S. The ads in the original magazine were sexy, bold, and often witty. The Instagram ads adopted the same tone—and there was an overwhelming number of them.

In fact, so many LGBTQ+ people submitted ads looking for love or other queer connections that Rakowski opened a separate account, Personals, six months later. More than 4,200 ads had been posted since, with the account attracting more than 53,000 followers.

“These people are really serious about connecting, whether that means being in relationships or being lovers, being friends,” Juniper, a white nonbinary person who submitted an ad to Personals last year, told the Daily Dot. “It felt very authentic in the same way these old lesbian personals felt so authentic to me, that people were so unabashed and unapologetic about wanting love and community.”

Juniper was one of Personals’ #MetonPersonals success stories. Last year, they moved from Austin, Texas, to a rural Connecticut town, where it was hard for them to meet other queer folks like themselves—until they heard about Personals.

tenderqueer butch4butch

After submitting an ad, Juniper met Arizona. The connection that sparked through Instagram messages jumped to hours on FaceTime to a real-life meeting in April, a couple months after they started talking. It wasn’t long before the pair moved together (quite literally U-Hauled) to Northampton, Massachusetts, where they farmed and lived out what Juniper referred to as an intersection of “rural” and queer sensibilities.

In fact, many people I talked to who’d placed an ad on Personals—both white and of color—made friends or crushes or promises to meet up through Personals. They had a simple desire: to find a new, more organic way to meet other queer folks whose interests overlapped with theirs. The direct simplicity of Personals, and accounts like it, superseded many of the problems with dating apps while aligning so well with the nuances of queer connections. With queer women and queer trans and nonbinary people already limited in the ways they can find one another, and the concept of the lesbian bar all but dead, locating inclusive spaces can be difficult, even in the biggest cities. Being on a stripped-down page like Personals felt less harsh and flippant than swiping culture. Users were drawn to the straightforwardness of the ads—and also to their vulnerability.

Much of the debate that’s occurred since Rakowski accused QPOC Personals of ripping off her account has been over the concept of the “Personals” brand and who, if anyone, owns it. Personals ads were typed in serif font on a blue background and had a consistent and clean design; QPOC Personals uses a similar font and aesthetic. But many argue that’s because both are a nod to the tradition of print ads themselves, which used a typewriter font without any images or fuss. (The owner of QPOC Personals did not respond to the Daily Dot’s requests for an interview, and out of respect for their guidelines, their posts have not been shared here. The Daily Dot reached back out to Rakowski since the backlash, but she has not responded.) 

Shortly after Rakowski’s message, QPOC Personals did change its logo to look less like Personals’. But while some have defended Rakowski’s instinct to protect her brand, others say that it was never her brand to begin with. They also argue that Rakowski fighting over a concept she ultimately didn’t create is capitalistic and therefore reinforces power structures.

“The account may be hers, but the concept of personals ads is not,” Mallory, a queer person of color whose Personals ad posted last month, told the Daily Dot. “Instead of embracing a QPOC space that can coexist with Personals, [Rakowski] chose instead to gatekeep in a way that—because of who she is keeping out—is inherently tied to white supremacy.”

It’s also interesting to note who opened their gates for Rakowski and why. Rakowski has been profiled in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Forbes. Last week, Kickstarter’s new podcast Just the Beginning highlighted Rakowski and the campaign that raised $47,000 to build a Personals app.

As much as these accolades weave the tale of Personals as an inventive, even beautiful, way to help queer people find each other, they also tell a story of the white woman positioned with the resources, time, and privilege to build that platform. In a statement, Rakowski said her response to the QPOC Personals page was “knee-jerk” and “about the logo”—but many saw it as an attempt to claim ownership of the connections that formed on her page.

“To actually assert this level of privilege that you have and level of wanting to almost monopolize the community,” Lauren, a vocal online critic of Rakowski, told the Daily Dot. “It was really frustrating and really hurtful.”

After several days of quiet, Rakowski posted a statement to Personals’ Story on Wednesday night with a reworded apology and responses to commenters’ most-asked questions. “I am deeply sorry,” she wrote. “You are right: I prioritize my own feelings over the importance of creating spaces that are for people-of-color first and run by people of color.”

In the statement, Rakowski encouraged followers to send feedback emails and insisted, “We are listening.” She listed ways Personals would “center” people of color moving forward and promised to “support and not interfere with POC-only spaces.” She guaranteed refunds for anyone disappointed with their ads and said she’d be prioritizing ads for “POC, 40+ and disabled ad writers.” Jen also contributed to the Story, writing, “It is hurtful to have my status as co-founder called into question and to have my contributions be trivialized. I am coming forward now because I feel super erased from the dialogue around Personals and forced to be public.”

Just a few hours later, for reasons that are still unclear, the account had disappeared. “Sorry for the interruption, we are working to get _Personals_ Instagram back up as soon as possible,” Personals tweeted Thursday morning.

By Thursday night, the account was restored. Instagram told the Daily Dot it had been removed in error.

The problems on Personals were hiding in plain sight: The ads themselves were overwhelmingly white. This was obvious because typically, only non-white people will specify their race or ethnicity in their ads. One post was even flagged by a user and removed by Instagram—not for sexual content but for referring to “white mediocrity.”

“Racism is such a huge problem in queer and trans spaces, and there are white people that think the world revolves around them in the sense of queerness, and it doesn’t,” the user who goes by TK whose Personals post was deleted by Instagram told the Daily Dot. “If white folks can have no fats, Blacks, Asians, femmes, etc. on so many dating apps and websites, then why did they deliberately deny a person on the margins connections and love?”

Rakowski had previously made a few small steps to expand inclusivity and accessibility. Effective this year, queer people of color were able to submit to Personals on a rolling basis rather than during the monthly windows for submissions and are waived the $5 fee required to post. Rakowski wrote on her Kickstarter page that “QPOC, people with children, 35+ crowd, rural queers, people with disabilities, people with chronic illnesses, asexuals” were all welcome.

The result had paid off in the eyes of some trans users and users of color. Serena Bhandar, whose January ad sought “platonic and romantic connections” with other trans and queer people of color, called Personals “a living global chronicle of queer/trans love and acceptance.” “[It’s] a reminder that we have always been here and will never be erased, and a resounding fuck-you to the normalized racist and transphobic atmosphere of online dating,” she said.

But for many, the tweaks to Personals’ guidelines felt like an afterthought. Many queer POC—especially Black and brown folks—still weren’t seeing themselves represented in the ads, and weren’t feeling a part of the queer community that the Personals account promised to forge.

“I can’t speak for all QPOC, but I don’t think your service really fulfills expectations,” one user commented on Rakowski’s page. “I feel outcasted as fuck on this page and have a hard time interacting with other followers.”

That’s the gap QPOC Personals—and another account called QTPOC Personals—are attempting to fill. It’s understandable that queer people of color, historically marginalized not just online but in physical queer spaces—would want more private spaces in which to connect.

“Looking to create a space for [queer, trans, and nonbinary people of color] to meet each other and flourish without the white gaze,” wrote the owner of QTPOC Personals, which was created in September as an alternative to Personals.

Rakowski could have been immediately, outwardly supportive of those spaces that existed apart from the one she curated. She could have, as many have suggested, shared with her followers information about the QPOC Personals account and moved on. In not doing so, she further alienated many queer people of color who previously engaged with her page. In failing to acknowledge her privilege, she failed as an ally. If she wants to make amends past an Instagram Story, it will take time, careful reflection, and willing dialogue with the people disappointed in her.

“Space is essentially everything right now,” Lauren told the Daily Dot. “Platforms are everything right now. We do most of what we do through social media, so if you are going to continue to have a platform, who’s benefiting from it? Who’s really gaining anything out of it?”

In her last posted Instagram Story before the account went dark and then reappeared, Rakowski made mention of a Personals app, which she originally hoped to launch in the spring. Though she first imagined the app as something “bare” and “stripped-down,” she told the Daily Dot in December, she had since expanded her vision, recruiting an engineer and tech product manager—likely, the suddenly appearing co-founder Jen—to help with the process. The new platform will have “everything on Instagram and more,” she said, noting the app will have its own private messaging system and a way to organize profiles by location.

But the more pressing question is how the app could specifically address problems of exclusion and become a better space for queer and trans people of color than the Instagram account was. Rakowski’s most recent statement on Personals said the app will give QTPOC users the option to “engage only with other QTPOC users.” Whether that’s enough will be for those users to determine.

In the meantime, it’s unclear if QPOC Personals and Rakowski’s team have exchanged any meaningful dialogue on lessons learned and how to move forward. But followers hope that something bigger and better than an Instagram account or app can come out of this upset.

“I would personally like to see steps forward addressing the situation and having it be something that they can both set aside and say, we have a bigger purpose,” Lauren said. “That is, accessibility and connection and love and all of these things that are so important and so deeply ingrained in the community as a whole.”