When I was living in Shanghai, my local lesbian bar had a swear jar labelled “Ex Talk”. Despite hearing plenty of ex stories, I never actually saw anyone put money in the jar. But that might have been because we all paid for drinks with our phones – there was a lack of cash, not baggage.
At the time I was nursing a spectacular heartbreak that had sent me hurtling across the seas, so it was probably wise to steer clear of the topic for a bit, if only to give myself a breather. But usually I’m a fan and advocate of ex talk. It is not only valuable in itself but also a kinda charming feature of queer culture.
That’s why I was so surprised by a survey from the dating app Hinge which found that 79% of LGBTQIA+ respondents said they wouldn’t go on a second date with someone who talked about their ex on the first. Stranger still: lesbian and bisexual users were more likely to say no to another date with someone who talked about their ex.
For real? I am shocked. I am sceptical. Nothing human is alien to me, except this. I swear I’ve never met these opinions out in the wild. I haven’t got hard data but I reckon most lesbians and bisexuals I know would find it more suspicious if exes didn’t merit a mention on a first date, at least in passing.
I thought that treating exes as a taboo was an archaic hetero custom, as irrelevant to queer dating today as hymens. Sure, the stereotype that all lesbians are best friends with their exes is untrue but there are some solid reasons why queers talk about our exes so much: life is long, the scene is small, there’s a chance we’ve dated the same people. It’s almost inevitable that our circles overlap in some way. Charting the territory helps us get our bearings.
Ex talk is also a great way to get to know someone. Asking about your date’s backstory reveals so much about where they’re coming from, how they understand themselves, and what matters to them. In fact, Hinge’s 2023 LGBTQIA+ Data, Advice, Trends, Expertise (see what they did there?) report suggests “Why did your last relationship end?” as one of three must-ask questions on a first date.
“A potential partner’s response to this question can tell you a lot about their level of self-reflection, self-awareness, curiosity, and compassion,” a relationship therapist, Moe Ari Brown writes in the report. “If their response [blames] their ex for everything, they may not reflect on their role during conflicts and challenges.”
Of course, the past doesn’t predict the future, and focusing too much on the past risks alienating a date with less experience. But putting a blanket ban on ex talk seems to assume that the only reason to mention an ex is because you’re still hung up on them, that this is the only reason you’d keep them around. It suggests you should feel ashamed of your sexual history rather than enriched by it.
Instead, I’m reminded of what the poet Eileen Myles calls “this sweet accumulation”. The older you get, the more likely it is that you’ll have exes who remain a significant presence in your life, whether you’re co-parenting, or you’ve become family to each other, or you’ve just chosen to make something new from the ashes of your past. That’s a beautiful thing. Some of my closest friends, favourite collaborators, most trusted comrades – hell, maybe even the greatest minds of our generation – are my exes.
Obviously, straight people have exes too, even exes they call friends. But there’s something special about how queer culture understands exes. Maybe it’s because we know we can’t afford to lose anyone. That feels particularly crucial for communities like trans people of colour, a nesting bowl of minority within minority. The etiquette and conventions of hetero-monogamy aren’t good enough for us. Our commitments need to be both deeper and more elastic.
So the idea that ex talk is a dealbreaker feels contrary not just to my experiences of queer dating but to something I had thought were, embarrassingly, like shared values: a belief in abundance, transformation and care. A belief that no one is disposable. Or, as a contestant on the reality TV show Ex on the Beach says: “Exes are people too.”