Ronni Morgan, a 34-year-old living in Fort Wayne, Indiana, spent two weeks in the hospital last February. Soon after she was discharged, cities around the United States issued stay-at-home orders to stop the transmission of COVID-19. That’s when she decided to join HER, a dating app for womxn and queer folx.
“I don’t have to feel bad about the fact that I can’t really go out and do stuff right now,” she thought while recovering from her hospital visit. “I’ll just… see who’s on there, now that we’re all locked down.”
Then she came across Adriane (AJ) Johnson’s profile. Or AJ came across Ronni’s profile — it depends who you ask. Either way, the attraction was mutual, and the two started messaging back and forth.
But meeting in person wasn’t tenable. AJ, a 41-year-old living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, and the coronavirus was spreading across the country. So, on March 23, AJ and Ronni’s first date took place virtually.
“We kept trying to stop talking,” AJ says of their inaugural hangout, “but we talked until about one in the morning.”
It wasn’t long before talking turned into dating. Between texting, FaceTime, watching Netflix in tandem, and sending each other snail mail, the two spent the following three months forming a close bond from a safe physical distance. They didn’t meet in person until June 26.
Now, the two have been together for nearly 10 months. They’ve only been able to meet face-to-face on three separate occasions, but in talking to them, you’d never know it. Their connection transcends the two-and-half-hours between them. They’ve mastered the art of long-distance dating.
LDRs in the LGBTQ community
Long-distance relationships (LDRs) are inherently queer. The addition of a modifier to the word “relationship” signals that it exists outside the realm considered normal by most of society.
A recent study on dating conducted by the Pew Research Center found that over half of Americans looking for partnerships “probably or definitely would not date someone who lived far away.” But for LGBTQ folx, who defy social expectations when they come out of the closet, LDRs might not seem so scary. “Our community is so used to doing things outside the norm,” says Ronni. Queerness is par for the course.
There’s also an added practicality when it comes to searching for queer love across great distances. “I think LGBTQ+ communities, especially in the Midwest, are relatively small,” Ronni muses. If a queer person exhausts the list of possible partners in their area “… it’s very common for us to look outside of our immediate community when it comes to relationships.”
From the online message boards of the 1990s to the introduction of Grindr in 2009, queer people have a long history of pushing digital boundaries to make connections from afar. Today, lesbian, gay, or bisexual adults are twice as likely as their straight peers to say they’ve used a dating platform that connects them to people they might not otherwise meet in person.
As the pandemic continues to challenge how we interact with one another, it’s time for everyone else to join LGBTQ folx on the LDR bandwagon. With borders closed, lockdowns reinstated, and physical distancing the go-to for in-person contact, maintaining long-distance partnerships is starting to look less queer and more like the new normal.
A marriage beyond borders
When Ushi, a 34-year-old fashion designer from Manila, Philippines, met G.H. at a bar during Milan Fashion Week, they hit it off and ended up spending a romantic evening together. Ushi chalked it up to a one-night stand. The next day, he boarded a plane for work in Paris, G.H. left for his home in Switzerland, and it was assumed they’d never see each other again.
But then G.H. friended Ushi on Facebook and asked if he could visit him in France. Ushi, who was sick at the time, said he didn’t know if it was a great idea.
“I can take care of you,” replied G.H.
“Wet met [in Paris], and I extended my trip for another week,” Ushi says. “It was a whirlwind; we just connected quickly.” Still, Ushi had no hopes of continuing the relationship. He was based in Dubai at the time, and dating a man from Switzerland didn’t seem realistic. “Let’s try this for maybe three months,” Ushi thought. “And then three months became six, and six months became a year.”
Ushi and G.H. tied the knot in 2017 with a civil union but have lived in separate countries almost the entire time. (Note: Same-sex marriage only recently became legal in Switzerland; it still isn’t recognized in the Philippines.)
“It’s a weird relationship arrangement,” Ushi admits. He says both partners must be in “100 percent agreement” about the relationship’s rules for it to work. For Ushi and G.H., that means prioritizing clear communication. They make sure to talk every day — be it over the phone, text, or email — and always have a plan for when they’ll meet in person next.
Monogamy is also a tenant of their relationship. “As a gay person, there’s a lot of ‘food’ around that you can taste. It’s like you’re at a buffet,” says Ushi. “But if you agree that you’re exclusive, stick to it.” The same is true for those who practice non-monogamy. “No one judges you as long as you’re both happy,” he adds, and being honest about your needs is imperative for your relationship’s success.
Most importantly, Ushi and G.H. search for balance and reciprocity in everything they do. They take turns visiting one another and sending sweet messages. When things don’t go as planned, they both remember to be understanding, too.
Before the pandemic, the couple tried to visit one another every two months. Each visit was “like a honeymoon,” Ushi laughs. But with international borders closed, they ended up spending most of last year apart. “I was scared for all of 2020,” he admits. “What will happen to us if [the pandemic] doesn’t stop?”
Luckily, G.H. recently received a work visa to join Ushi in the Philippines, and after a two-week quarantine, the couple will live under the same roof for the first time in their marriage.
At first, Ushi was worried. “We’ve never been together in one place for so long — it’s a new experience,” he demures. Close-contact relationships have been Ushi’s definition of queer; distance has been integral to his life with G.H. Still, he’s excited for what the future may bring. “[Manila] is a good place to start a new decade together,” he says.
Absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder. Just ask Luiz Naranha, a 34-year-old entertainment producer from Brasilia, Brazil.
In 2014, Luiz took a vacation to Recife, Brazil, where he met Marco, an Italian visiting for work. The two men quickly fell in love and decided to continue their relationship when Marco returned to Italy.
In the coming years, “we traveled a lot,” says Luiz, “to Brazil, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal…” While each trip felt like a deliciously indulgent vacation with his best friend, the travel eventually became anxiety-inducing.
“You have to be aware of the money and the time [you spend],” Luiz says. If you’re traveling to a foreign location, “you have to book an Airbnb or a hotel; you have to schedule your free time with another person’s free time.” One missed flight or cancellation can derail an entire trip. Trying to force perfection in the small amount of time shared together can be stressful.
By 2017, Luiz and Marco called it quits — but it wasn’t only the tension of traveling that ended the relationship — it was the ocean between them. “People are changing every moment,” says Luiz, and “when you’re not together in the same city or the same country, it’s difficult to evolve with the other person.”
Although “the door isn’t closed” when it comes to LDRs, Luiz isn’t raring to jump back into international dating waters anytime soon. “I have to think about me — my goals, desires, and identity,” he intimates.
Still, Luiz is grateful for the time he spent with Marco. “I learned to be more flexible, more patient, and more open to new ideas about connecting with another person. And I learned Italian,” he laughs — the language of love.
Learning your partner’s love language
For AJ and Ronni, space has been a blessing in disguise. “There was no physical interaction to be had,” AJ says about their first three months together, “and so there’s more communication to be met, which … a lot of relationships lack because they’re so distracted with other things.”
While some might build relationships through corporeal connections, AJ and Ronni learned “how to communicate in each other’s languages” early on, Ronni says. “I think it allowed our relationship to get deeper on an emotional and intellectual level before ever meeting and getting to be with each other physically.”
“And that’s something that definitely lacks in a lot of [my] previous relationships, or with people in general,” adds AJ. “They just don’t talk.”
Today, it’s easier than ever to keep the romance alive in the digital ether. Platforms like Zoom, WhatsApp, Houseparty, and Snapchat make constant communication seemingly effortless. Their ubiquity is also vital for the current social climate. “I think this pandemic forced a lot of people to get creative in how they communicate with each other,” says AJ.
Physical distance in a global pandemic
For now, the distance between AJ and Ronni isn’t too big of a barrier. “We always laugh about lesbian miles,” says Ronni. Lesbian miles pokes fun at the prevalence of LDRs in the lesbian community. It falls into the well-worn bag of jokes where you’ll find UHauls and Lea DeLaria’s early standup routines. “It’s like, yeah, we’re long-distance, but … we’re practically right around the corner,” she giggles.
After nearly a year spent navigating digital relationships and physical distancing, lesbian miles feels like a concept worth co-opting. When the only thing separating romantic partners is an app, what do miles matter? Love is only one swipe away. That’s the kind of closeness we could all use in the time of COVID.