Craigslist, AOL chatrooms, and Gay.com were something today's apps aren't: fun.
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
In the 1990s and in the midst of the intifada, Sam* was going to school in Jerusalem by day and meeting men from online chat rooms by night. In the holiest city in the world, finding eligible gay bachelors wasn't a cakewalk, but gay spaces provided a vibrant refuge. "There were Muslims, soldiers, people from all backgrounds in these chatrooms," he told me. "Because the clubs only had gay nights once a week, chatrooms were sometimes the only method for meeting gay people."
For gay men, the birth of online chat rooms changed everything. Suddenly, an AOL screen name granted you access to a world that had hitherto been shrouded in mystery and misinformation. The gay-friendliness of your hometown didn't matter; all that mattered was that you had a stable dial-up connection and access to a keyboard. And in the burgeoning world of cybersex, you could have sex with strangers without revealing your face or lilting cadence. It's all old hat in the age of Grindr and Scruff—but back then, it was a revelation.
Chroniclers of the early internet praised its power to provide young sexual minorities with support, sex, and even love. In a New York Times Magazine feature in 2000, Jennifer Egan wrote glowingly of the rowdy chat rooms that allowed gay teens to become mired in the same drama as their straight compatriots. "The remarkable thing is that via the Internet, gay teenagers are now able to partake of the normal Sturm und Drang of adolescent life, which before was largely off-limits to them," she wrote.
But they didn't just change the lives of gay teens—these proto-Grindr sites impacted the lives of gay men of all ages. When compared to the mindlessness of chatting on Grindr today, these early online communities seem downright enriching.
Of all the websites that Egan chronicled, Gay.com was arguably the largest and most vital. Comprised of hundreds of virtual rooms—there were 122 chat rooms on the "youth floor" alone in 2000—it was a bawdy, freewheeling site that attracted kinky daddies, lonely teens, and the serially monogamous who'd "accidentally" stumbled into a phone sex room.
In its heyday, Gay.com was so popular it attracted more than a million users a day. "We had a community of around 250 chat room monitors who were in there every day, just trying to keep the bashers out and ensure the chatrooms were safe for people," Mark Elderkin, the site's founder, told me. Today, Elderkin still hears from people who met their forever partners on his site. "It happens all the time," he said.
Sam looks back on the connections he made on Gay.com with a sense of wistfulness. Compared to Grindr, he says, his anonymous chatrooms interactions were much more intellectually stimulating. "Chatrooms were less about trading pics and more about being witty and having a back-and-forth banter with people," he says.
The buffet of low-tech options in the late 90s and early aughts also granted the hookup-minded a level of anonymity we regard with suspicion today. "No pic / no chat" was yet to become a ubiquitous bio addition on Grindr; instead, the less-demanding "a/s/l" reigned. Pixelated avatars were acceptable digital identities, and chatrooms arguably served as an extension of the anonymous cruising culture that gay life had yet to abandon.
Perry Miller, now in his late 40s, remembers when Craigslist was the premiere spot for finding hookups. Chaotic and convoluted, it nevertheless provided him with a steady stream of dick. "For me, it was a pain in the ass because I had to have a separate email address and copy and paste the sender's address, attach my photos, and send it from my email," he said. "It was just a mess."
But he says he misses the freewheeling opportunities for fucking. "On Craigslist back then, you could find more group sex parties than you could ever find on Grindr or Scruff. There were guys who had these things every once in a while where everyone would get naked and fuck around with each other. On Grindr, [there is] all this back and forth for group sex, but on Craigslist, it was just there for the taking."
It wasn't all about sex, either. As sites like LiveJournal increased their user bases, the public became enthralled by the concept of blogging (though not without a whiff of judgement about the possibility of "oversharing"). Michael Davis, a 30-something gay guy, told me he met "a quickie that turned into an ex" on LiveJournal back when it was the kind of place where you'd unload your subconscious. "He was more of a lyrics poster, while I was the guy who posted my thoughts of the moment, as if I was on Twitter," he said. "It was strange but flattering to learn that my innermost feelings could attract a tryst."
But the lack of social mores on the burgeoning platform sometimes led to embarrassing scenarios. "Once I met a guy in a club around 2002, when blogging was still in its infancy and there was no real etiquette," said Matthew*, a gay guy from Malta in his late 30s. "We got nasty in the club, and I was a bit over the top on pills making a holy show of myself." A few months down the line, a friend suggested that Matthew Google his name; he promptly found a comprehensive account of his wild night, including the detail (which Matthew had forgotten) that he'd blown his dancing partner in front of everyone in the club. "I wanted to die," Matthew tells me. "But he was nice enough to redact my name when I asked him."
While it's easy to wax nostalgic about the relative intimacy of the early gay web, it's also worth remembering that everything that happened online went on against a backdrop of intense homophobia. Many of those who fled to AOL chatrooms, Craigslist, or Gay.com's teen forums had to keep their online lives secret because of the stigma that swirled around homosexuality. When I was in high school, for example, I maintained a relationship with an older guy I'd met off Gay.com. We first met in a Starbucks' parking lot and had sex—my first—the day we met, which felt illicit and thrilling at the time, but, in hindsight, was insane. What's even more insane is that I didn't tell anyone about him until college.
Sure, the internet helped me grow up, but because I couldn't actually tell anyone what I was doing there, it also made me even lonelier. Late-night talk show hosts wouldn't have dreamed of doing sketches about gay.com, and I sure as hell wasn't in any rush to tell people I was cybering with guys I met in the "daddy" forum. Things may have been more fun, but fun came at a steep price.
*Names have been changed.