A place where no one knows your name.
As he settles in, a dozen other people say hello. Most know him only by name and from his passing reference to an interest in the rugged, burly set of hairy gay men who call themselves bears. Still, that's all it takes for a couple of men to sidle up to Sammy and whisper in his ear. "What's yer phone number?" asks one suitor. Another guy isn't quite ready for that. "Stats?" he inquires.
Sammy ignores the first question -- "Too forward," he insists -- but answers the second in a Tarzan-like lexicon. "Me: 6' 2", 39 y/o, 190 lbs., blond hair, blue eyes, 8 inches cut. You?" Then he waits, trying to discern how the guy who cruised him is reacting to the information. Sammy calls out for a response, only to find that the mystery man has vanished from the room.
Now Sammy is frustrated and not feeling very sexy. He turns to a buddy, who's not having much luck himself, and laments how flaky some men can be. "I'll tell you, some relationships can be cold, nasty, brutish, and short," Sammy offers, suddenly invoking Thomas Hobbes and reflecting his credentials as an English professor. Then he notes to his comrade-in-disappointment with a tinge of despondency, "Men suck, don't they?"
A Saturday night in the East Village? As a matter of fact, it is. But Sammy (who declined to use his real name for this article) isn't actually hanging out with the guys in the midst of Manhattan gay nightlife. Instead he's holed up in his studio apartment, where he can forgo thumping disco music and spin vinyl Neil Diamond albums. He doesn't have to worry if the white polo shirt and black jeans he's wearing are stylish enough, and the heat glowing from the color monitor of his computer is far less intense than glaring club lights.
SexySammy is glomming on to a red-hot gay scene. At 11 p.m. that night, approximately half of the 629 America Online chat rooms existed for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and the made-for-cyber-space "straight-curious." An average of 20 users in each room adds up to at least 6,000 gay chatterboxes, making AOL -- with its $19.95-per-month cover -- a popular gay hangout. AOL doesn't mind its large gay clientele, although it does not market specifically to gays. "We're open to anybody who wants to chat, and anybody is welcome to create a chat room as long as it's within our terms of service," says AOL spokeswoman Janine Dunne.
For many gay people, chat rooms provide a place where they can be themselves without really having to open the closet door. A person's online name, or handle, can be anything, keeping their real identity a secret. And chatterers can create identities by tinkering with their on-line "profiles," short autobiographies that other people on-line can access with the click of a mouse, regardless of whether a person is in a chat room.
A high-profile case last fall involving a naval officer in Hawaii proved the Internet is not completely anonymous, however. Timothy R. McVeigh (no relation to the Oklahoma City bombing suspect) is facing the end of a distinguished 17-year career for using the word gay in an AOL profile. The Navy is moving for discharge under the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, saying McVeigh voluntarily revealed his sexuality on-line. McVeigh, who has declined to comment on his sexual orientation, said neither his on-line handle nor his profile gave away his identity. And, he says, he never went into chat rooms.
While some gay men and lesbians say they don't like the idea of not seeing whom they're talking to, the vast majority of on-line denizens say rubbing elbows in a chat room is just as "real" -- if not more so -- as lolling around listlessly in stand-and-pose bars. Aside from AOL and other for-pay private services, hundreds of free chat rooms dot the two-dimensional landscape of the Internet and allow anyone with an electrical outlet, a telephone line, and the most modest computer equipment to click and type away with glee. (One company, WebTV, even sells the ability to use your television to access the Internet.)
"It's definitely a new meeting place for people," says Phillip Blackmon, a 38-year-old property manager from Kensington, Md., who calls himself Worley1 on-line after his cat, who's named for Laugh-In comedian Joanne Worley. "It's a meeting of the minds. You can explore personalities much better, see how another person's head works. "
Gay culture is so pervasive on-line, David Leavitt, among other writers, mentions it in his book Equal Affections, in which the main character's boyfriend gets so high from cybersex that it nearly wrecks their relationship -- not unheard-of in real life.
Nowadays, clubs form in cities across the nation to discuss the discussions in various chat rooms. One on-line doyen, Larry Peery of San Diego, even publishes a frequent on-line magazine in which he offers his impressions of the dozens of gay chat, sites across the Internet. "I sent out 1,700 cyber-greeting cards today," he said a few days before Christmas as he hung out in The Advocate's neighborhood-tavern-style chat room.
His reviews can be glowing or merciless. Of the PlanetOut chat room, Peery raves, "It seemed like a cozy spot." By contrast, the Alamak chat room, with more than 60,000 registered members, "reminded me of a shopping center on the Saturday before Christmas!"
Blackmon, like 10 million others on-line, gay and straight, prefers the user-friendly icons of AOL. Admittedly shy and single, he logs on for about 90 minutes a day, a significant drop from a few years ago, when he hung out for 30 hours a week and spent nearly $400 a month, when AOL charged by the hour instead of a flat monthly fee. For all that effort he failed to meet a boyfriend but did link up with a New York man who is now a "lifeline to me," he says. "When I went on-line it was the first time in my life I was popular. I think quickly, I'm reasonably well-read -- all those things that should come out face-to-face but hadn't."
Blackmon was out when he started his cyberlife, but many others use the cover of on-line anonymity as an ultrasafe first step toward opening the closet door. "I had questions about gay things, but in a small-town area everybody knows everybody, and you can't talk about it with anyone," says Chris Huffman, 28, a former computer specialist at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. "When our school got hooked up to the Internet, I was able to get on IRC [Internet Relay Chat, a free Web chat service]. I talked to gay people I didn't know and told them what I was feeling. I came out with their support."
It's also how he met his partner. One evening four years ago, he spotted Will Grant, 25, across a crowded chat room and noticed that Grant was on-line through the Internet service at Washington and Lee University, also in Lexington. The coincidence of finding another gay man in the college town of 10,000 people amazed them, so they chatted for weeks and finally met at a restaurant for dinner. Huffman had never met an openly gay person before. The couple now live together in St. Louis, where Grant attends law school and Huffman runs a gay E-mail club.
Carrie Stoner of Charlotte, N.C., also met her girlfriend on the Internet. Stoner, 21, who wears mostly black and listens to Depeche Mode, says she likes to meet women on AOL because "people think I'm pretty scary" in person. Her on-line profile so intrigued another lesbian that she sent an instant message saying, "19f - les. Wanna talk?"
For a whole slew of marginalized communities -- people of color, older people, the disabled, the overweight, people with HIV -- the on-line world provides slightly more equity in the dating game. At any given moment chat rooms spring up specifically geared toward men and women seeking dates of specific races, ethnic groups, ages, and physical conditions -- from Over60M4M to BlackBoyz4WhiteBoyz. "On-line, in general, people are less racist," notes Adrian, 25, a closeted Asian man in San Francisco who declined to give his last name. "People on-line are often a little more educated and not as narrow-minded. Also, what they don't see doesn't affect them."
Yet as often as those kinds of connections are made, something far more fleeting occurs on the Internet. For all the virtues of meeting people without the pretense of appearances, anonymity also allows users to invent and reinvent themselves to fit various purposes. In many cases the purpose is sex-either in real life or in the cyberworld.
Charles Michael, 39, of Rochester, N.Y., enjoys both. Michael, who works a split shift as a restaurant manager, is usually on-line from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m. His handle is BFD9in -- short for Big Fucking Dick nine inches. "Yes, it's true," Michael insists. "I have a GIF [Graphics Interchange Format, an on-line picture] I send people to prove it." He also admits something no other source is willing to acknowledge on the record -- that he "really gets off doing cyber sometimes." One morning he pretended for a married man from California that he was alone in an office waiting for a gay maintenance man to arrive for oral sex. "I don't know if he believed me or not, but he really got into it," Michael says.
Such hubris -- boasting of an enormous penis, for instance -- usually elicits snickering from other on-line residents. "If all those people were telling the truth, the world would be populated with people with ten-inch dicks, and size queens would be delighted," Grant quips.
Indeed, 28-year-old Chris Carroll of Los Angeles says he has met several people who have lied about their age, habits, or appearance. One night Carroll, who says he has met about a hundred men on AOL and has dated about 15 of them since 1994, went to the apartment of a man in his late 30s. "I get inside, and I realize right away that he's much older than I thought he was and that he's a smoker," recalls Carroll, whose profile not so subtly tells puffers and the not-so-young to stay away. "All of a sudden I say, `Know what? This is not going to work out.' I get up to leave, and he gets between me and the door and starts to grab me and stuff like that." Carroll managed to slip away, but he resolved to be more careful.
Safety issues surrounding chat-room conversations and the meetings that often result from them are cause for as much concern as leaving a bar drunk and getting behind the wheel. News reports of on-line flirters who turn out to be sexual predators or even minors lying about their age has much of the cyberworld on edge. A common rule of thumb is to meet up with on-line mates in crowded public places.
Still, for those who decide not to hook up with the man or woman behind the mouse, cybersex is a safe convenient way to indulge in fantasy without actually touching another person. Mike Chaney, a 26-year-old restaurant worker who goes by the handle The_Snugglebunny in Internet chat rooms, has an agreement with his partner, Matt, who calls himself The_Hunnybunny on-line. The pair live in Prestonsburg, Ky., a rural backwater of 2,500 people about 160 miles from the nearest city, Huntington, W.Va. "As long as it doesn't get too involved, too personal, cyber is all right," says Chaney. "Heck, we love to print the messages out and have a big laugh over them."
Such a sex-charged atmosphere on-line isn't much different from that of many gay bars, but it strays dramatically from the lowkey, clubby scene common at most lesbian hangouts. "I'm amazed at some of the things other women say to me on-line," says Rose Kurz, a 41-year-old high school English teacher in the Seattle area. One of her problems may be her on-line name, RRRose, which refers to her interest in railroad trains but is often mistaken for a come-on. These days she prefers chat rooms such as the one attached to a Web site dedicated to lesbian rock star Melissa Etheridge. The chat room, called soc.women.lesbian-and-bi, features more-serious talk, and Etheridge even logs on occasionally. "I wanted to talk to other women about women's issues on AOL," Kurz says, "but they just want to talk about Jodie Foster fantasies." Of course, there's no way to tell whether Kurz was talking to women or to heterosexual men playing out their fantasies.
Indeed, gays aren't the only ones uninhibited by the medium. Every night someone barges into a gay chat room to spout off biblical condemnations, slurs, even physical threats. Sexysammy calls that cowardice: "A bigot who walks into Splash [a New York City nightclub] and starts screaming about Sodom and Gomorrah would be run out."
And as the rising New York sun begins to peek through Sammy's window, casting a glare on his monitor and reminding him that he's been on-line all night, the number of AOL chat rooms increases rather than declines. "It's really great to be with other gay people whenever you want to," Sammy says. "And, no, it's not too different from a real gay bar in one way. Even here we all stand around and say to one another, `Don't you just hate these places?'"
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
Even the varied hangouts of New York City and Los Angeles are no match for the strip of gay haunts on America Online. Here are a few we ran across on a recent check.
hot bi jocks m4m bimoms marriedclosetedm4m m4mminofficealone shemale4female str8guysforgays BLK GUYZ 4 WHT GUYZ husky and stocky M4M m4m in lycra barely legalm4m DomBLKM4subwhtm Do your Coach M4M m4m in unionsuit big guy 4 thin guy Cyber Male Virgin SheMale4BisxualMen fatandgainingm4m DarkAdultTheaterm4m M4M my place now
Folks who hang out chat rooms speak a language of their own, using symbols and initialisms intended to save keystrokes when the instant messages are coming fast and furious. for example:
AFTK away from the keyboard BRB be right back LOL laughing out loud ROTF rolling on the floor (laughing) ROTFLMAO rolling on the floor, laughing my ass off IMHO in my humble opinion IMNSHO in my not-so-humble opinion RTW by the way GMTA great minds think alike F2F face-to-face TTFN ta-ta for now :-) I'm smiling :-( I'm frowning ;-) I'm winking :-X My lips are sealed :-D I'm laughing :-* I'm giving you a kiss :-P I'm sticking my tongue out :-I I'm bored
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|Title Annotation:||online chat rooms|
|Publication:||The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)|
|Date:||Feb 3, 1998|
|Previous Article:||On the set with John Waters.|
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