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What the now-defunct Craigslist personals section meant to LGBTQ people
‘It was a space to see and be seen, experiencing the rush of cruising without having to out yourself to anyone else.’
In the dystopian hellscape we currently live in, it seems nothing surprises anyone anymore. When a deluge of notifications began to light up my phone on March 23, I assumed, thus, that it must be one of two things: 1) the president was threatening a foreign power on Twitter or 2) Beyoncé surprise-released a new visual album. As it turned out, neither was true.
My reaction—intrigued and a bit disappointed—remained unchanged when I learned the actual reason for the sudden flurry of texts and Twitter alerts: In response to recently passed legislation, Craigslist was shutting down its personals section, permanently.
I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss. It was akin to the feeling you might get when you learn that a favorite after-school hangout spot in your hometown is closing down: It’s a place you would have never visited again yet can’t help but feel nostalgia for. Before Grindr or even Adam4adam, many queer people like myself found their way to Craigslist. It was a space to see and be seen, experiencing the rush of cruising without having to out yourself to anyone else.
Founded by Craig Newmark in 1995, Craigslist originally spread by word of mouth. Initially, it was intended to be an avenue used to dispense information about “cool events” happening in the San Francisco area. After CEO Jim Buckmaster joined the company, the nascent site expanded to include other features; with its personals section, Newmark’s ultimate vision was brought to life. When all was said and done, sections like “Women Seeking Men,” “Misc. Romance,” and even “Strictly Platonic” were about driving human connection.
The services gained popularity in the early aughts, just as a new generation began to both discover our own bodies and understand we may be interested in each other’s. But as a young queer kid growing up in Florida, it turned out the bodies I was interested in weren’t the ones I was supposed to be. While other students my age were holding hands and beginning to experiment with other outward expressions of physical desire with each successive grade, I turned inward. Then eventually, I turned toward the internet.
Porn was all too likely to result in a virus, and I certainly wasn’t about to Ask Jeeves for something gay from my desktop, afraid of my search history being discovered by my parents. Craigslist felt risk-free. However, if I happened to stumble into the personals section while looking for an after-school job or a used car, who was the wiser?
Personals ads have long been a way for LGBTQ people to safely express our yearnings for love, connection, or even just an afternoon hookup. In the 18th century, men placed ads in local papers using coded words to protect their safety at a time when sodomy was illegal and gay meeting houses were raided by police. The anonymity Craigslist personals provided made cruising from a distance a far simpler task than using gender-swapped pronouns in the hopes someone would be able to decode it and then respond in kind to your message.
But the spirit of the act remained the same: seeking someone (or something) otherwise unavailable to you in the open air of a less than understanding world. When I first began using the site around 2006, the U.S. was very different for LGBTQ people: Just 37 percent of Americans supported same-sex marriage, which was only legal in Massachusetts at the time. As a young queer person, the personals section provided me a glimpse into a universe I wasn’t yet able to access—a fantasy life where I could be loved and accepted for who I was.
I never had the ability to actually respond to a Craigslist ad until I was in my mid-20s and living in Washington, D.C. for work. During my second Pride in my favorite city, I met a cute boy who was taken with the overalls I wore to the parade that day. We had a sweet—but far too brief—makeout surrounded by a sea of body glitter, but when I woke up the next day, I amazed at my own stupidity. I didn’t think to get his number, not even a name.
On my way to work, like any gay detective is wont to do, I began my search: first on Grindr, then on Scruff. I figured Tinder was useless; who knows how far I’d have to set my swiping radius to even have a fighting chance? Half an hour into texting my friends to see if anyone knew him, I received a brilliant suggestion: “Have you tried Craigslist?”
I hadn’t, but thinking back to days of cruising past, I figured if there was ever a chance of finding him, that would be it. I did my best to recollect every detail I could. Aside from being generally attractive, the only discernible feature I could pull from my mind—besides our shared love of country bumpkin chic—was a forearm tattoo that read: “I solemnly swear that I’m up to no good.” Armed with that knowledge, I took to the Craigslist missed connections section, to shoot my shot.
After the news broke on Friday, I reached out to my friend, Alex*, who’d initially suggested I use Craigslist to try and find my makeout partner, to ask why he was so enthusiastic about my chances.
“I checked the personals section religiously throughout high school,” he said. “I lived in a place where there weren’t a lot of gay people. One time, someone posted about me! I couldn’t work up the courage to meet up with him, but it gave me this strange confidence boost, to know another gay person saw me and was into it, even if they only felt comfortable expressing that online.”
As it turns out, Alex wasn’t my only friend to have been so heavily invested in the personals section as a young queer with not many other places to look. “It was a kind of voyeurism, looking back on it,” Bryant* recounted. “It felt safe to look there and see that there were other people who were also looking. I never met up with anyone, but I loved seeing what was around. It feels very cliché to say this, but it was just nice to know that, in my small town, I wasn’t the only person looking for someone like me.”
A wish to feel desired, as he hints, was not the only benefits of the personals section. For many queer folks, it was a way to feel less alone.
“I actually met my first boyfriend on Craigslist,” says Patrick*. “We were just supposed to hook up in his car in this parking lot near campus, but we actually ended up hitting it off. We made out for a while, and then went to Waffle House because we were both hungry. It was my first experience with a man. It was scary, but also low-key liberating.”
In its mission statement, Craigslist states that its goal is to be “inclusive” by “giving a voice to the disenfranchised.” Our experiences are a microcosm of what was happening on Craigslist for queer people across the internet: a digital democracy in which community was made accessible to everyone. It’s unlikely people clicking away on their computers while their parents slept and using the personals section to satiate their desire for a gay bar was what Newmark and Buckmaster had in mind when they launched the site. Nevertheless, it was a welcomed result.
When news broke that the personals section was closing, I went back to check on the missed connection I’d posted all those months ago. It remained unanswered.
Perhaps it’s a sign of the times: Alex, who used to frequent the personals section daily, hasn’t looked at it in months, and to be honest, I’d forgotten about my own ad almost as soon as I’d posted it. With the advent of dating apps and the increasing visibility of the queer community, it would only make sense that we would turn to Craigslist increasingly less, the same way that coded newspaper ads of the 1700s became obsolete. In this case, though, it wasn’t advances in technology that ended the personals section—it was a bill targeting sex trafficking.
That legislation has been largely criticized for its impact on the safety of sex workers, who came to rely heavily on the site as a means of interacting with potential clients. But many of us, whether we relied on Craigslist for business or pleasure, will have reason to miss the opportunities it once provided for connection.
Whatever comes next certainly has some very large, minimalist, and exceedingly versatile shoes to fill. It’s the kind of thing I wish I could place a personal ad for right now.
This story originally appeared on INTO and has been republished with permission.