Lydia and I met thanks to a quiz, the multiple-choice OkCupid personality assessment, which asks for your thoughts on matters like “Would a nuclear Holocaust be exciting?” (that’s a “no” from me) and then matches you with those you’re least likely to hate.
Our first date was for drinks on a Monday night after a workday I had spent trying not to throw up from anxiety. It would be my first-ever date with a woman, made approximately 10 days after I came out to friends as “not straight, but I’ll get back to you on exactly how much” at the age of 28.
I had sent Lydia the first message, asking to read the gay Harry Potter fanfic she had mentioned in her profile. She asked me out shortly afterward. I was excited to meet her, but it was all happening so fast (if you don’t include the 28 confused years preceding it).
Until then, I had assumed I was straight; I was just really, really bad at it. I’d never had a boyfriend or even slept with a man, and I didn’t particularly like going on dates with men or hanging out with them, but I thought that was normal — all of my friends constantly complained about the guys they were dating.
I knew I was doing something wrong but didn’t know what. Sometimes I asked my friends for help. When they weren’t available or got sick of me, I turned to another lifelong source of support and comfort: the multiple-choice quiz.
My habit started in middle school, in the backs of magazines like CosmoGirl and Seventeen and Teen Vogue, where short quizzes promised girls guidance on issues ranging from “Does he like you?” to “How much does he like you?” Each Valentine’s Day in high school, our first-period teachers would pass out Scantron forms for a service called CompuDate, which promised to match each hormonal teenager with her most compatible classmate of the opposite sex, without regard for the social consequences. I (not popular) was matched with Mike P. (extremely popular) and he was nice about it, but it was humiliating for us both.
College graduation is the natural end of most people’s association with the multiple-choice quiz, but I couldn’t stop taking them. The older I got, the less confident I felt in how well I knew myself, and the more I looked outward for anything that might provide clues.
In retrospect, maybe I should have known who I was the first time I went looking for a quiz called “Am I gay?” But I didn’t.
The selection of sexuality quizzes available on today’s internet is vast. But when I first looked, in 2010, desperate for answers to my perpetual singlehood, online quizzes were still surprisingly amateurish, often using irregular font sizes and clip art. I remember politically incorrect and leading questions, such as “When you think about the type of person you want to marry, do they have short hair, like a man, or long hair, like a woman?” One quiz took my lack of interest in driving a pickup truck as definitive evidence that I was not, in fact, a lesbian.
I remember knowing what the answer would be before finishing every quiz; it was always exactly what I wanted it to be. If I took a quiz seeking reassurance I was straight, I would get it. If I took a quiz wanting to be told I was gay or bisexual, that would be the conclusion. But no result ever felt true enough for me to stop taking quizzes.
Eventually, I gave up. And I figured that if I were anything but straight — anything but “normal” — I would have known when I was much younger.
I moved to New York, where I dated one man for a few weeks before he dumped me, and then repeated that scenario with another man. I attributed my dating failures to generic incompatibility and the inestimable shortcomings of the male sex. I vented to my therapist, and dumped my therapist, and then got my new therapist all caught up.
Throughout, I worked at BuzzFeed, making quizzes. Quiz making was a relatively tedious process, especially then, when the content management system was buggy and public interest modest. But quiz making was also empowering, meaning it made me feel like God.
Finally, I had the answers I wanted because I wrote them myself. In designing quizzes, I could elect myself the most well liked, brilliant, hilarious, hottest and most likely to succeed. My quizzes might ask, “Which One Direction member is your soul mate?” or “What type of ghost would you be?” But I already knew what I wanted those answers to be, and my quizzes simply bore them out.
Soon the power made me cynical. In the comments of my quizzes people would affirm their results as if they were scientifically proven: “Omg this is so me!”
“You fool,” I’d think. “It’s all made up.”
For years I had convinced myself that my failure to obtain a boyfriend was mathematical — too few parties attended, too few men befriended, too little time dedicated to Tinder. I assumed there was a right way to do things and I had yet to master it.
It was my good, second therapist who helped me realize that my nonexistent love life was not a quantitative issue but a qualitative one.
“What do you feel when you imagine going on a first date with a man?” she said.
“Dread, mostly,” I said. “But that’s normal, right?”
As it turns out, it really isn’t. Nervousness, yes, but not dread.
I didn’t know. I didn’t know I could try something new before knowing I wanted it.
On and off throughout my 20s I had wished I were gay because then I would have an explanation for why men and me didn’t mix romantically. I took all those quizzes hoping to be told I was gay and feeling let down whenever the answer came back that I wasn’t. Why didn’t I ever think wanting it to be true was answer enough? Why did I imbue an amateurish, made-up, misspelled four-question quiz with more authority than I granted myself?
Lost in the many hundreds of quizzes I had taken was the power of making my own choice. Finally, at 28, I realized I could, if I wanted, be different from the person I had been told I was.
So I came out, tentatively. I joined OkCupid and answered the personality questions to the best of my ability. Finally in the right dating pool, I used my old friend, the quiz, as a life vest.
When I saw someone I was drawn to, I did not study our compatibility, seeking out our mismatched traits. I just sent her a message. And when, after a back-and-forth, she asked me out, I said yes — not because I thought I should, or because doing so was the first step on the correct path forward. I said yes because I wanted to.
My first date with Lydia lasted four hours. It was not my longest first date ever but by far my best. And when we said goodbye, tipsy and starving, both of us having been too nervous to acknowledge the human need for nourishment, I didn’t consult the internet about what the next move should be or who should make it. I texted her as soon as I was in my apartment.
Six excruciating minutes later, she texted me back. We went out again a few days after that, and the next day, and soon more days than not.
A few months into our relationship, Lydia suggested we look up our compatibility on a website that gives you a relationship prognosis based on you and your partner’s birthdays.
“Sure!” I said, like an idiot.
Unsurprisingly, I was let down by the results, which stated that while my girlfriend and I were romantically compatible and complementary in nearly every category, we weren’t especially well suited to marriage.
To recap: This assessment was based on nothing more than our two birthdays. And yet it briefly derailed my life.
Lydia patted my shoulder. She had learned a lesson, too; never again would she send me a link to a so-called fun love-forecasting quiz. We both now know better.
At every stage of our relationship, Lydia and I have moved forward, and said yes, because we wanted to. There is no objective, all-knowing source of guidance on the internet that can tell you who you are and what you want.
I can tell you this: If you have a question, and especially if you find yourself asking the same question for five years or more, chances are good you already know the answer.