For many gay men who remember life before the internet, a nostalgia exists for the days of bars, backrooms, and voicemail, before the rise of internet dating platforms that dominate the way we meet now.
We remember it as a more visceral and genuine time, and complain about how no one cruises in real life anymore, because we're all constantly looking at our screens. After all, the illicit sexual tension that hangs in the air of a gay bar can't be replicated online and doesn't quite translate to its heterosexual counterpart.
That said, I sometimes feel grateful that gay dating has gone digital. There are things I don't miss about my analog love life: asking around to see if guys are single, for example, or spending untold hours in bars trying to divine through body language and eye contact whether attraction is mutual. Today, that information about other gay men (and their bodies, and whether they're in an open relationship or single or into something like "pit smell") is at my fingertips.
Take, for example, this July on Fire Island, when I went to one of the daily tea dances. It was the first I'd attended in 15 years, since a guy I was hitting on there told me he and his date, both in open relationships, were leaving without me because "single guys are too needy."
But I steeled myself and went back, and to my surprise, noticed a cute fellow making eyes at me. "I can't figure out if I know you or if I'm supposed to know you," I told him. He said we had chatted a while ago on Scruff. My bad. A man stood firmly beside him, glowering at me, and I couldn't figure out their deal. After a while, I saw them on the beach, naked, arm in arm. I walked along the shore and sighed. But later, I checked my smartphone—a luxury I hadn't had 15 years ago—and saw them both on Scruff, listed as single. I had a nice chat with the cute fellow, and we made plans to see each other in the city.
The next evening I saw an ex—who ghosted me after five weeks of dating last fall—2,000 feet away on Scruff. I surmised he was at the tea dance (he loved it there), so I went back, and there he was. I gave him a cold hello and walked away—I just wanted to see him, since he didn't give me the courtesy of saying goodbye. Later he texted an apology for disappearing, even apologizing for apologizing via text, and I finally felt a sense of closure.
Without the internet, I wouldn't have discovered the cute fellow was single, and I would have stewed for days. And with a little forecast that the Ghosting Ex was in proximity, I could prepare myself for the encounter. (Believe me, I would have handled it much more awkwardly if it had been a surprise.) But even with the ease and clairvoyance that digital dating provides, is dating "better" or "worse" today?
There was a lot of awkwardness about how we met and dated before smartphones. "I remember seeing ads for a free phone line in the back of the Village Voice," Tim Murphy, author of the recently released novel Christodora, told VICE. He was referring to an early version of today's sophisticated sexual technology: gay party lines. "You'd call, and everyone talked in that fake voice: 'Hey, what's up… what are you into… I'm masc.' People would just hang up on you and move on. It was the beginning of that slice and dice dehumanization of digital cruising, where you could hit pound and move on to the next person. But at least back then you had to leave the house to find out what they look like."
For his ongoing documentary project Conversations with Gay Elders, filmmaker David Weissman has been recording conversations with gay men over 70 to preserve their stories. One, an 86-year-old Chinese American man, grew up in San Francisco's Chinatown. "By the time he was in his mid teens, he was cruising," Weissman told VICE. "And this is absent of any external context for being gay. Gay men just found ways of locating each other. It's pretty fascinating to realize that." As dangerous as it may seem for a young person to be exploring his sexuality at such a young age, it's also pretty heroic. Especially when you realize it all happened before bars or bathhouses—or WiFi, for that matter. And today, the latter is supplanting the former.
It's staggering to think about how quickly times have changed, and today, it's easy to take digital access for granted. I sometimes find myself flipping through profiles on apps without realizing why, feeling numb. This doesn't just apply to gay men—I've watched as my straight lady friends swipe with the same glazed expression. We assume it isn't really affecting us, but it's possible the effects are too subtle for us to notice.
As painful as it was to hear that guy say "single guys are too needy," at least I felt it, in the moment. Getting ghosted or rejected online feels suspiciously manageable; maybe we should call it a micro-rejection. Every now and then, I'll hear "sorry, you aren't my type" from a guy on Scruff, and I always feel a bit stung. It's easier to brush off, but there's emotional residue—one paper cut is nothing, but 100 can leave a wound.
"I don't think we've grasped how new and different this all is," says Weissman. "In terms of emotional and community health and self esteem. Like: What does it really mean to be gay? What is a healthy sex life? Am I really happy with the hook up world? Those are the conversations not happening in our community."
If anything, the internet hasn't made dating or sex less complicated than it was. And it doesn't make guys any less complicated, either. Lately I've noticed that cute fellow from the tea dance posts photos with the glowering man on Instagram, on intimate vacations together, with hashtags like "#alwaysandforever" and "#daddy".
Whether or not he says he's single, they're in love. Time to move on, but also to check in. And checking in with how you're feeling—and realizing our emotional lives matter, both digitally and IRL—is a truth that prevails across all ages of gay men and eras of our culture.