Culture 

What Does It Take to Run the World’s Largest Lesbian Dating App?

Robyn Exton is helping queer women find love and friendship, one swipe at a time.

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“Hi how are you?”
“Not bad haha. What about u?”
“Chilling haha”

Believe it or not, this conversation eventually leads to three years of dating and culminates with an actual marriage of two people. Yes, I too am sometimes still surprised. Conducted via turquoise speech bubbles and sometimes in secret so that people wouldn’t know that I was chatting on a dating app, my wife and I met on HER, a popular dating app for lesbian, bisexual and queer women.

I used to always joke with my wife that we should write a thank you letter to HER. Whoever invented the app deserves a long and detailed message that shows our gratitude for providing us with a platform on which we can conduct an extremely awkward first conversation, go on a questionable first date watching a Tom Cruise movie, fall in love and then get married three years later. Little did I know that I would actually be interviewing Robyn Exton – founder of HER – four years later.

Our Zoom call felt more like a conversation than an interview. Exchanges of anecdotes were aplenty, sprinkled between candid discussions of what it means to be a queer woman today. From 2013 – when HER launched as the first dating app dedicated to queer women – to today seven years later, nothing has changed and yet, everything has changed. Although dating apps have shaken their taboo-ridden repute and have instead been streamlined into modern dating culture, women still search and yearn for a safe space where they can meet other women in the queer community. Whether it is to find a partner or to form friendships, there is no question that the necessity for connection is an unwavering constant.

HER lesbian dating app founder robyn exton interview queer lgbtq women womxn

When asked about why HER emphasizes such a strong link to its community and in turn, also encourages similar bonding amongst its own users, Robyn explains, “The initial reason was that often within a queer female community, there are fuzzy boundaries between friendship and dating and exes. Relationships can move from a place of intimacy to a place of friendship, or vice versa. So knowing that people wanted to connect beyond just dating was inherent within the community.” For the developers behind HER, the app is about forging long-lasting relationships that go deeper than simply queerness.

“What we found was that people want a purpose to connect around, so it’s not just, ‘Hey you’re queer, you’ll get along,’ and then we dump you into a room together,” Robyn continues. “It’s more about, ‘Let’s find the commonality in my queer + x identity, in my intersectional identity. What are the things that either make me the person I am, or the things that I’m interested in and want to connect with other people that share those same interests?” It’s about the shared experience and a simultaneous vulnerability in aligning because of those very experiences.

There was also the elephant in the room: What about sex? How do we talk about that? “It’s interesting to me that all the sex education stuff has been super popular, and just realizing that it’s so poorly catered to, anywhere,” Robyn muses. “Sex education doesn’t seem to exist properly for anyone, anywhere. But there’s absolutely nothing for queer people. You’re learning about sex through porn probably, or through really bad stories through friends that don’t actually teach you as an individual about how to find pleasure or intimacy in partnership.” Which is where HER comes in. Through specialized events such as their recent Anal August series, for example, of panels and Q&A’s (one of the sessions was titled, “A Beginners Guide to Rimming”), HER combats the taboo of sex education. As a way to normalize the conversation amongst the queer community, a discussion of topics tackles what everyone is wondering about, but too embarrassed to ask about.

HER lesbian dating app founder robyn exton interview queer lgbtq women womxn

“Plenty of women who have been socialized in a straight way have not prioritized their own sexual pleasure and have not thought about what actually gives it to them,” Robyn explains. “And I think the world in general really doesn’t have a great understanding of what builds pleasure for women. So much has been written and dictated by men, from biological books to narratives that are centered on male visual, physical pleasure.”

Asia specifically was also a strong point of interest – I am based in Hong Kong, and HER is currently working on translating the app to Japanese. Some of its largest markets also happen to be Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Excited about further expanding the app within Asia, Robyn explains why it’s so important to make HER accessible in typically more traditional countries. “What’s interesting for me is that in countries where there’s less acceptance generally amongst society, you end up with a really deep community and deeply connected physical spaces are hugely impactful,” she explains. “For some markets, it’s just not an option to be open and out like that. The risk is too high. A lot of people are still living with their parents or their families – they don’t have enough income to support themselves or housing themselves.”

Amidst a generation of gender-fluid youth who have a more curious approach to gender binaries and societal parameters, we sometimes forget that in many countries, it is still dangerous to come out as gay. Along with many LGBTQ+ youth being cast out as pariahs once their sexuality is either admitted or, in some unfortunate instances, discovered, some conservative communities still consider homosexuality to be an illegal offence. As of 2019, there are 13 countries in which homosexuality is legally punishable by death.

HER lesbian dating app founder robyn exton interview queer lgbtq women womxn

“We like to believe in the concept of acceptance and fluidity in much greater levels than it really is and the experience for most people is so different. Just because other Gen Zs accept each other’s identity doesn’t mean that everyone that they work with or their parents or their families or other folk accept each other. And there’s so much more to do,” Robyn explains when considering how HER is navigating through the tricky waters of existing within conservative countries such as Indonesia and Singapore. “At the moment, we have an incognito mode where you can browse where no one else can see your profile until you’ve liked them, and then they can see you. At the moment, it’s one of our premium features but we’re trying to make it a publicly available feature in some markets like Indonesia just because it’s needed a lot more there.”

So where does this leave us? Despite the difficulties of queer dating in some countries, it is hopeful knowing that LGBTQ+ communities around the world are finding ways to connect with one another through digital means. Whether it is through HER or other online platforms, young queer women are discovering themselves and learning about their identities in ways that feel comfortable to them. Coming to terms with one’s sexuality and hopefully, eventually being able to come out one day, is a complex journey that looks and feels different to everyone. Luckily, queer entrepreneurs like Robyn are identifying this need and providing generations to come with a medium to feel gay and proud in a way that feels right to each individual.

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