I don't know whether Dawson's Creek was ever thought a particularly profound programme. For those who don't know, it was a television series about teenagers growing up in a small town in New England. I didn't watch it when I was younger, but I picked up the box set in a sale a few years ago, and there's a line in it that's stuck with ever since. One of the characters, Jack McPhee (played by the beautiful Kerr Smith, pictured), comes out as being gay some months after joining the show in the second season, having initially had a short romance with the female lead. Asked why he hadn't told her before, Jack says that he hadn't wanted to accept that he was gay:
"I guess the thought of being gay just seemed like such a lonely thought."
I remember the first time I heard him say that, my heart just stopped. That single sentence hit me in a place that I hadn't even realised existed, and summed up so many of my own worries about being gay. But what is it that makes being gay a lonely idea? After all, plenty of people, gay straight and other, are lonely at times; but somehow the very idea of being gay can carry a connotation of loneliness.
Is is a prejudiced societal expectation that homosexuality goes with promiscuity (especially for gay men) and therefore runs contrary to a stable, committed relationship? Is it the (again) prejudiced societal expectation that being homosexual implies that a person will not raise children (again, especially for gay men)? Is it the (potentially hidden) 'otherness' of being gay compared with the expectation of heterosexuality? Or some combination of these? Or something else entirely?
I'm very aware in writing about this that there is a huge body of academic literature that already exists, and that I'm really fairly ignorant of most of it. But this isn't an academic analysis - it's just some personal musings.
Why am I thinking about this? There's a number of reasons, some of which are too personal to share with the blog, but some of them I'll offer up. One is an awareness of how long it's been since I went on a date (last July, since you ask). Another is the connected awareness of how hard I've always found it to meet other gay men for dates without running into the highly promiscuous side of gay life that, while something of a stereotype, is nonetheless very real. And a third is the odd world of online gay dating that I occasionally venture into, and that's what I thought I'd say a few words about.
Welcome to the world of gay men
The world that I'm about to describe will be alien to most heterosexuals, but all too familiar to most gay men. (I don't know whether lesbians have similar experiences, so I don't claim to comment on that.). So let me take you to www.gaydar.co.uk, self-styled with this on its home page:
"The premier gay dating site. Home to millions of men. Free to cruise, chat and search. With over 6 million members from over 140 countries you're never far from what you want, when you want it."
So it's a dating website? Well, sort of. Some people do indeed use it for dating, especially if you want to use that term in a broad sense (drinks followed by sex, perhaps), but it's main function is better described in the third sentence of its self-description - it's about chatting (sometimes), searching (often) and cruising (a lot). People set up profiles, though often with little or nothing on them, and then they search through other people's profiles, usually focused on those who are online at the same time. You can search by town, region, profile name, and so on. There's an email function, and a chat service where rooms are arranged by location or theme.
Anyway, that's all fine. I'm not here passing judgement on people who want to find sexual partners online - whatever floats your boat really. The thing that interests me about this is more subtle, and it's the strange interpersonal interactions that you find on the site itself, separate from any actual meetings that might take place. This is just my experience, but having spoken to a number of gay friends it seems to be fairly common. (Compare my post on anecdotes!)
So here's what happens. You send a message to someone whose profile makes you think, for whatever reason, that you'd like to know them more. And you get no reply. (Obviously there are exceptions.) You go in the chat room, and you invite someone there to chat with you and, after a moment or two, they decline the offer (or they ignore you - I can never work out which is more annoying).
If you do manage to get into a chat with someone, there are a few standard scenarios. One is that the first thing they say is something like "Hey mate, where are you?" - subtext: how long will it take me to meet up with you, and therefore will you be convenient for sex? Another is that, after a very minimal amount of small talk, you get asked "are you looking to meet?", "what are you into [sexually]?" or, more subtly, "what are you looking for?" Any answer not relating to sex usually ends the conversation.
A third option is that you get asked, in fairly short order, if you have some, or some more, pictures of yourself. If you don't, that often ends the conversation; and if you do, and you send them, then the conversation also often ends abruptly when the other person receives them. (Judging from my straw poll of friends, this seems to happen regardless of whether you are good-looking, sexy, average, ugly, blonde, brunette, red-head or what - so I think it's not wholly a judgement about my attractiveness.)
Finally, and most rarely, you find someone capable of, and interested in, having an actual conversation. These people are sometimes also looking for sex, but hey, at least they've developed a slightly more sociable way of going about it. These are the only people that I'm not talking about here, but they're sadly few and far between.
For people more technologically up-to-date than me, there's also the express version of this experience - grindr:
"Find local gay, bi and curious guys for dating or friends for free on Grindr. Meet the men nearest you with GPS, location-based Grindr."
This is a smart-phone app which performs much the same function as gaydar, but with less pretence that there is any aim other than cruising. (Its claims of "dating or friends" bear precisely no resemblance to the experience of anyone I know who has used this app - it's about sex, and it's fairly up-front about that.) According to my friends, the same thing happens here - offers to chat are routinely ignored, and the whole experience sounds like a meat market based primarily on your attractiveness, your body shape, what you like doing sexually and the size of your cock. (No shying away from the truth here.) Oh, and proximity. This is GPS-controlled, remember, so guys appear on the screen in the order of their physical proximity to you - all the most convenient for a quickie.
A friend of mine tried to set up a group on grindr for non-promiscuous gay men who were interested in making friends and finding relationships, rather than sex. He got a lot of abuse and piss-take, but no actual support for this idea. Maybe it was a pipe dream and he was playing to the wrong crowd, but that leaves me with the question: where is the right crowd?
Why does this matter?
The problem with this experience is that it is unbelievably draining, undermining your self-confidence and sapping hope. I've deleted my gaydar profile a number of times when my ego just can't take the constant beating any longer, and I'm currently quite glad that I don't have a smart phone so that the additional masochism of grindr isn't an option.
The gay community, so called, in its online format can be a bitchy and hateful environment, characterised by an unsupportive and casual disregard for anyone else's feelings or experiences. There are many possible aspects to the loneliness of the gay lived experience, but one thing that's been making a mark on me is just how much we don't help ourselves. Gaydar, grindr and other similar things seem to me increasingly to be more destructive of gay men's self-images and of positive life experiences than they are creative of meaningful opportunities. But of course, it's not the sites themselves that do this - it's us, the users.
The thought of being gay was, and is, a lonely thought for many of us. The sad thing is that at least some of that loneliness seems to be self-inflicted. We need to find an alternative, affirming way of meeting, dating, living and loving.