from the New York Times Magazine (Cover Story)
In the summer of 1999, when he was 15, a youth I will refer to by only his first name, Jeffrey, finally admitted to himself that he was gay. This discovery had been coming on for some time; he had noticed that he felt no attraction to girls and that he became aroused when showering with other boys after physical education class. But Jeffrey is a devout Southern Baptist, attending church several times each week, where, he says, the pastor seems to make a point of condemning homosexuality. Jeffrey knew of no homosexuals in his high school or in his small town in the heart of the South. (He asked that I withhold not only his last name but also any other aspects of his life that might reveal his identity.) He prayed that his errant feelings were a phase. But as the truth gradually settled over him, he told me last summer during a phone conversation punctuated by nervous visits to his bedroom door to make sure no family member was listening in, he became suicidal.
“I’m a Christian – I’m like, how could God possibly do this to me?” he said. “My mother’s always saying, ‘It’ll be so wonderful when you meet that beautiful Christian girl and have lots of grandchildren,’ and every time she said that, I was like, That’s it: my life is going to be hell.”
He called a crisis line for gay teenagers, where a counselor suggested he attend a gay support group in a city an hour and a half away. But being 15, he was too young to drive and afraid to enlist his parents’ help in what would surely seem a bizarre and suspicious errand. It was around this time that Jeffrey first typed the words “gay” and “teen” into a search engine on the computer he’d gotten several months before and was staggered to find himself aswirl in a teeming online gay world, replete with resource centers, articles, advice columns, personals, chat rooms, message boards, porn sites and — most crucially — thousands of closeted and anxious kids like himself. That discovery changed his life.
“The Internet is the thing that has kept me sane,” he told me. “I live constantly in fear. I can’t be my true self. My mom complains: ‘I can see you becoming more detached from us. You’re always spending time on the computer.’ But the Internet is my refuge.”
Jeffrey and I met when he responded to an online message I posted, seeking gay teenagers willing to discuss their online lives. When we were first getting to know each other, he made it clear that he could allow no overlap between his online gay life and the life he led in the “real world.” He explained, “In our town, everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows everybody’s business.” He feared that if word of his sexual orientation were to reach his parents, they might refuse to support him or pay for college. From his peers at school he dreaded violence, and with good reason: according to a 1996 study of the Seattle public schools, one in six gay teenagers is beaten so badly during adolescence that he requires medical attention.
Jeffrey’s computer is in his bedroom, garrisoned inside a thicket of codes and passwords. While he uses the Internet to communicate with high-school friends — Jeffrey is now 16 and a junior in high school — and to pursue his avid fandom of the group ‘N Sync, he has separate screen names and “instant messaging” services for these activities. (An instant message, or I.M., allows two or more people to engage in a real-time dialogue onscreen.) This way, no one from his “straight life” can track his forays into the online gay world using the “locate” feature on America Online, for example, which allows subscribers to find online “buddies” in whatever public chat room or other AOL area they happen to be visiting — a potential disaster for gay teenagers. A brainy, ebullient kid, Jeffrey is an excellent student, active in high-school government, with a number of close friends. He took a girl as his date to homecoming earlier this fall. But his free time belongs largely to the disembodied gay life he pursues online — from 8:30 p.m. to 2 a.m. during the school year, and for even longer stretches in summertime.
Jeffrey was hesitant to explore the online gay world at first, he said, certain he would somehow get caught. “I thought, Somebody’s gonna get in my computer and find out,” he said. “The paranoia was that bad.” So he did the obvious thing — the thing many Web pundits advise as a matter of safety when communicating with strangers online: he employed an alias, changed the town he came from and then threw in a few other “improvements” on his real identity. He said he came from a rich family, drove a BMW, had killer good looks and was 18 — old enough to cruise the adult gay chat rooms.
But as his online friendships deepened, the phony elements of Jeffrey’s story began to oppress him: “I was like,I can’t be myself in real life, and I come on the Internet and I still can’t be myself. Yeah, I’m gay, but it’s a lie.” In June of this year, he mustered his nerve and began telling his online friends that he was not quite the person they had believed. “One of my really good gay friends has nothing to do with me now,” he told me sadly one month after “coming out” online as his real self. “He has totally changed his e-mail, his screen name, everything. He was very protective of who he let close to him. He let me in, but he let in this false identity. When he found out, he blocked me.” (To “block” someone is to preclude their being able to see whether you are online or send you instant messages or e-mail.)
By last summer, Jeffrey also had an online boyfriend, whom I will call C., the first initial of his first name. A fellow Southerner a year older than Jeffrey whom Jeffrey called his “true love,” though the two had never met, C. forgave him his online fabrications but pointed out that they complicated things. “After I told C.,” Jeffrey explained,” he said, ‘I still love you, but I don’t know you.’ ”
For homosexual teenagers with computer access, the Internet has, quite simply, revolutionized the experience of growing up gay. Isolation and shame persist among gay teenagers, of course, but now, along with the inhospitable families and towns in which many find themselves marooned, there exists a parallel online community — real people like them in cyberspace with whom they can chat, exchange messages and even engage in (online) sex. The popularity of “cybering,” as online sex is called — masturbating in real time to sexually explicit typed messages — has lately been supplemented (among boys, especially) with a mania for Web cams and microphones, which allow them to see and hear each other masturbate, using programs like Microsoft’s NetMeeting. But this is only as important for gay boys as it no doubt is for the countless straight youths who flock to Internet sex sites. What was most critical to the gay kids I spoke with was the simple, revelatory discovery that they were not alone.
Indeed, gay teenagers surfing the Net can find Web sites packed with information about homosexuality and about local gay support groups and counseling services, along with coming-out testimonials from young people around the world. Gay pornography, too, can be a valuable resource; a number of youths I spoke with, male and female, said that the availability of online porn had proved critical to their discovery of their sexual orientation. Kyle, a 15-year-old youth from Florida I met online, wrote me in an e-mail message: “What I did was go into gay chat sites on AOL and ask where I could find free gay porno sites, my first gay porn I had ever seen. The pictures turned me on soooo much, and I loved it. It was just so clear to me, I am gay and I like men.” I asked him how old he was when this happened. “I was about 11,” he replied.
Parents’ attempts to restrict their children’s access to hard-core Web sites are rarely a match for their kids’ surpassing computer skills. (Several teenagers I spoke with said they had accessed gay pornography on computers at school.) Which means that a curious teenager not only has ready access to graphic material, but also can engage in sexual experimentation with peers that would be next to impossible in everyday life. As one 13-year-old put it in an e-mail message, “I could say that the Internet made my life a living hell. … It made me realize I’m different. I hated it … but then I realized the Net helped me realize I’m gay. … I’d rather find out now than when I’m 30 and married to my wife with two kids or something.”
Recent studies suggest that kids are identifying themselves as gay at much younger ages; among males the average age has dropped from 19-21 to 14-16, and in females from their early 20’s to 15-16. Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker and the author of “Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care and Counseling,” says, “Today, youths are coming out right in the middle of high school or earlier, and I think the Internet is playing an important role in that because it’s providing information to help them label those feelings and figure out who they really are.”
One might reasonably ask whether such heightened early awareness of sexual orientation is always a good thing. And for all the educational resources the cyberworld can offer gay youth — articles and studies and hot-line numbers and so on — the gay-sex cyberworld, like the much larger straight-sex one, is not an especially wholesome environment in which to tease apart one’s sexuality. Type the words “gay” and “teen” into virtually any search engine, and you’ll find yourself circling among interlocking porn sites, some featuring “twinks,” or boys of allegedly legal age who appear to be younger (and in some cases obviously are), and other sites hawking lesbian scenes that clearly cater to heterosexual men. And of course, there is the simple fact that cyberspace is an incorporeal world, a world without flesh-and-blood people, and thus a peculiar realm in which to become one’s “true self,” as Jeffrey put it.
“The Internet is an inferior substitute for real-live human beings,” says Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, a national organization working to end antigay bias in schools. “But it’s frankly better than nothing, which is what gay youth have had before.”
Late last summer, Jeffrey returned from a family vacation and wrote to me in an e-mail message: “We had such a great time, yet I missed my Internet so much. I had “withdrawal’ symptoms, you might even say … LOL.” (The abbreviation “LOL” is cyberspeak for ha-ha-ha, i.e., “laughing out loud.”) “I did contact my boyfriend, and using eVoice we were able to set up a time where I could call him or vice versa.” (EVoice is an online voice messaging system.)
Online boyfriends and girlfriends were common among the gay teenagers I spoke with. In some cases, the relationships had a sexual component, but what startled me was the level of closeness and intimacy teenagers derived from these cyberrelationships. Jeffrey explained how he and C. sustained that intimacy without ever meeting. “We were in search of things we could do and share that were very personal and very intimate,” he said. “We’d come up with little nicknames and little jokes between ourselves.” They planned to attend the same college, he said, and had even discussed marriage and the adoption of children.
Like Jeffrey, many of the boys I talked to described themselves as “addicted” to the Internet. Girls, who responded in smaller numbers to my postings, seemed more aware of the Internet’s limitations. They were also more likely to have at least one off-line confidante — a parent, a friend, even several friends — who knew about their sexual orientation and accepted it. In the case of Jane, a 13-year-old African-American girl I met online, her mother knows, but with one exception her friends don’t, and she’s quite lonely in her eighth-grade class.
“The only word I can think of to describe it is small,” she wrote in an e-mail message last summer. “People seem to be pretty narrow-minded. … It’s hard finding a niche anywhere. Even so I mostly hang around with the popular crowd. … I’m not trendy. I mean I don’t wear sweater sets. LOL.”
Online, Jane, who says she has known she was gay since the fifth grade, has been able to find a number of lesbian girls her own own age. “I have at least five people on my buddy list that are 13,” she said. “The longest going thing I have is with my girlfriend. We’ve known each other online for 9 or 10 months.” Like Jeffrey and C., Jane and her girlfriend, who lives four hours away, had not met. “In ways it’s the same as a face-to-face relationship,” Jane explained in one e-mail message, adding, “The only difference being that we don’t see each other.”
When I asked Jane whether having an online girlfriend — whom I will call S. — would keep her from pursuing a relationship with someone she met in person, she wrote, “I would probably be at a crossroad because S. means so much to me. Ya never know tho.”
A week later, Jane mentioned in an instant message that she and S. had broken up.
Q: You’ve broken up? Jane: Yes. LOL. … We fought a lot and I guess we both just lost interest. Q: That’s funny. I never had the impression you were fighting. How do you fight by e-mail? Jane: We fight through instant messaging, it’s quicker that way. LOL. Q: Can you give an example of something you would fight about? Jane: We would fight about no trust in the relationship, not talking, etc. … We never had anything to say to each other.
Soon after, Jane mentioned in another instant message she sent that she and S. were still talking nearly every day.
Q: Then it sounds the same as before. Jane: Before … meaning? Q: Before you broke up. Jane: No, we really didn’t talk then. We never had much to say to each other. Q: Do you think you might get back together? Jane: Oh, heavens no. … It didn’t work the first time. I don’t know how it could a second. Q: But it seems as if part of the problem was that you weren’t communicating, and now you ARE communicating. Jane: True, but neither I nor she is interested.
Two months later, as school began, Jane wrote to me: “S. e-mailed me earlier today saying she didn’t think she was gay and that it was probably just a phase. Where does the drama end?”
The drama doesn’t end, of course; these are teenagers. 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. “Now that we have youth who are coming out during adolescence, that means they can experience the normal developmental milestones in time as opposed to off-time,” says Caitlin Ryan. “If you have to delay being an adolescent until later in life, I don’t think it’s a healthy thing.”
Jeffrey told me once, speaking of his relationship with C.: “I think it’s almost like an accelerated relationship. You can’t go out to the movies, so there’s nothing to fill the space. You have to talk. It creates this intimacy between you; it draws you closer. Our relationship isn’t based on looks or financial status or anything physical. There’s no space fillers, because you can’t just sit there for 15 minutes and not say anything.”
And while language itself seems to buckle against the vagaries of online experience — phrases like “I met. …” and “I talked to. …” are too easily confused with RL (real life) — there is something of the schoolyard and the mall in the hours of hanging out that many teenagers, gay and straight, do on their computers each night. To understand the texture of this online loitering, I got in the habit of asking gay teenagers what they had on their screens at a particular moment — it was usually some combination of homework, e-mail, games, browser searches, chat rooms and, most of all, instant-messaging sessions — often several at one time. The resulting dialogues tend to be fragmented and desultory, like a hybrid of a telegram and an overseas phone call.
At 10 o’clock one evening in October, I was in an instant-message conversation with P., a 13-year-old Latino boy from the Midwest, and asked him what he had on his screen. “Umm,” he typed, “a naked pic, couple I.M.’s and a private chat room.” Which was nothing, he hastened to assure me, compared with the feats he’d performed soon after discovering the online gay world a year ago. “The first few weeks I went sex-crazy,” he typed. “I cybered every night, with like five guys at once.”
P. is a palpably lonely kid who admits that in the real world, he speaks in such a soft voice that people often can’t hear him and spends the better part of his weekends asleep. “About three-fourths of the people my age don’t like me because I act gay and stuff,” he wrote me in one instant message. “I have no male friends whatsoever.” Two years ago, when he was in the sixth grade of the public school he still attends, P. fell in love with another boy who briefly reciprocated his feelings then moved away, leaving P. feeling suicidal. Soon after, he discovered the online gay world, which he explores clandestinely on his mother’s computer, carefully deleting his “history,” or the list of sites he has visited, along with the pornographic pictures he trades with other boys. Now an eighth grader, he is online several hours each day.
Early on in our correspondence, P. told me by e-mail, “Well, right now this 40 y.o. guy says he loves me so much. … He keeps pestering me to meet him, he just doesn’t get the hint, but I don’t like using the ignore button so I just put up with it. … He said one day in the future he wanted to drive over here and take me to some hotel and spend the night together. I refused his offer. You can tell that I feel sorry for him.”
P. met this older man in a chat room — he can’t remember if it was a teen room or an adult one. It could have been either; teenage boys often visit adult chat rooms to meet older men (a number mentioned to me a wish to find an older gay man who would serve as a mentor or a role model), and older men notoriously troll the teen chat rooms, sometimes pretending to be teenagers themselves. Among the most popular chat rooms are those at Gay.com, a massive site offering hundreds of virtual “rooms” for gay men and lesbians around the world (there are 122 chat rooms on the “youth floor” alone), with regional rooms for every state in America. The youth rooms are supposed to be restricted to those 17 and under, but in fact anyone can enter a youth room – I’ve done it numerous times — and unless older visitors blurt out something overtly abusive (which “bashers” sometimes do) or announce themselves as pedophiles, there is virtually no way to spot and block them.
There is plenty of frank sexual talk, which at times — evenings especially — makes up the bulk of conversation in the male teenage chat rooms, and to a much lesser extent in the lesbian teenage rooms. Chat-room occupants wishing to cyber together will usually switch to a Pvt., or a private chat session. There, they generally trade basic A.S.L. (age/sex/location) information, and then one or both will masturbate while typing messages to each other. Not all gay teenagers are into cybering; a number of the boys I met online complained that the pervasive sex talk eclipsed more substantive conversation. A 15-year-old named David wrote to me in an e-mail message, “There are thousands of nice, intelligent gay kids who hang back and don’t talk much, while the small minority of people who are sex-crazed maniacs are also the loudest.”
And even boys like P., who seem quite interested in cybering, tend to place it in a separate category from real-world relationships.
P.: I just made another online boyfriend yesterday. He asked me if I wanted to have a relationship with him. Q: And what does “have a relationship” mean exactly? P.: Um, cyber with him, support him. Q: And what made you answer yes? Did you like him particularly? P.: I don’t care for him, so I won’t care if I get dumped. Q: But how can you have a relationship with someone you don’t care about? P.: It doesn’t matter to me. It’s just online anyway. I don’t view it as real.
When I asked P. what he did view as real, he mentioned the boy he’d loved in sixth grade who moved away. P. has never seen that boy since, but they have communicated sporadically by phone and fax. “He’s 99.9 percent of my life, everything else is that 1.1 percent,” he typed. “Everything is microscopic compared to him. I think about him every day.”
The prospect of older men preying on teenagers is a very real issue in the online gay community — though the problem is by no means limited to gays. Jeff Edelman, president of the Student Center, a Web community for college students and high-school students, straight and gay, says that he worries equally about the danger of older men preying on young girls in the heterosexual chat rooms. And in lesbian teenage chat rooms, there is are current suspicion that fellow “teenagers” might actually be straight men seeking out lesbian fantasies.
Among gay teenage boys, the attitude toward older men (known as oldies or sugar daddies) ranges from amusement to weary frustration over the fact that, rather than serving as friends and guides, the men seem to care only for sex. One boy I spoke with told me about an older man who’d tracked him down in his hometown after a conversation on the Internet. The boy eventually filed a restraining order against the man and still worries that he will be stalked again.
But most of the run-ins I heard of between teenage boys and older men were less aggressive than that and ranged in tone from consensual to creepy. Kyle, the 15-year-old from Florida, told me about an online relationship of several weeks he had with a fellow 15-year-old who later admitted he was actually 30 and married, with three children of his own. “He even had a picture of himself,” Kyle marveled in an e-mail message. “Come to find out, that picture was his godson, really sick! He seemed to know everything about teen life, like he knew what clothes were popular, and how we talked, stupid abbreviations like Phat for cool. … He seemed so real, I would have never guessed.”
Ultimately, the man confessed. “He told me he had been lying to me about a FEW things,” Kyle wrote. “When I read that, my stomach about dropped to my knees. I flipped. Here I was trusting him with every word I typed, and he LIED about everything. It was a huge shock.”
Unlike most of the kids I met, Kyle is out to his parents and his peers. Online, he impressed me as a cheerful and well-adjusted kid — in a picture he e-mailed me, I was struck by his broad grin and sharp, all-American looks. His mother, while accepting his sexuality, has been adamant that he not become involved with another boy, Kyle told me. “She was always fine with me seeing girls, but after I came out, she told me no boyfriends until I was 18,” Kyle wrote. “I love my mom more than anyone in the world, but I will go behind her back.”
After recovering from the shock of the 30-year-old’s posing as a teen, Kyle began an online relationship this past summer with a 16-year-old named Brad, whom he described to me as “the sweetest, nicest guy I had ever met online.” He went on to write: “It’s weird, we were talking the other day about what we thought was really hot. We both agreed that we thought sitting home and hanging out watching TV or playing board games was a really big turn on.”
Kyle and Brad moved from instant messaging to the telephone, and Brad, who lives 10 miles away, was pushing for a face-to-face meeting. Kyle was reluctant. “I can’t figure out why I don’t want to meet him,” he wrote to me. “Maybe I am so afraid of him not liking me. It would be my first physical relationship.”
In fact, there are excellent reasons for Kyle’s reluctance, and Web sites geared toward gay youth abound with precautions for those who insist on meeting face to face with people they know only through the Net: be sure to meet in a public place; take a friend along or make sure someone knows where you’re going; never get in anyone’s car. Nonetheless, a majority of gay teenagers I spoke with had met at least one person they had gotten to know over the Internet. (Among lesbian teenagers, real-world meetings seem to be less common.) Some had formed permanent relationships; others had hooked up with older men and had sex — sometimes safe sex, other times not.
A young man I corresponded with who advises gay teenagers through the Gay Student Center Web site recommends viewing multiple pictures of a person before actually meeting, and ideally, speaking to them via Web cam to make sure that picture and person match up. “This I learned the hard way,” he wrote in an e-mail message. “I was about 17 and decided I wanted to meet this ‘kid’ that I met online. I went to the local coffee shop to see my 17-year-old 5-9 blue-eyed stud turn into a 49-year-old, 300-pound dud. … He definitely passed himself off as a teen online, he was into the teen scene and was up-to-date. I walked out without speaking to him.”
Of course, there is no way to make sure that the picture you’ve been sent is of the person you’ve been talking to; pictures of cute teenagers are floating all over the Net, and even some teenagers themselves admit that they’ve co-opted pictures of total strangers and pretended to be those people for online sexual encounters. According to the Gay Student Center adviser I exchanged e-mail with, plenty of pictures are simply fake. “If the picture looks too good to be true, then it probably is,” he said, “especially if they only have one picture and it’s really high quality.” He also urges teenagers to pay attention to typing and spelling skills; “oldies” (whom he defines as over 40) are usually better typists and spellers than teens.
Adviser: If you don’t mind me asking. … How old are you? LOL.:). [:) and :o) are smiley faces; and :o( are sad faces.] Egan: 16 – can’t you tell? Adviser: LOL :). Adviser: Nah, I would say about 26 (seriously). Egan: Actually, 38!! Almost an oldie. Adviser: WOW! I was off. See how the Net hides that? Egan: Yep. Adviser: Could have got me out on a date. … LOL :). Adviser: Except I am gay! LOL :). Adviser: Of course for all I know you’re a man!
When Kyle finally met Brad at the beginning of October, after months of online conversation, he encountered the person he’d expected to encounter, sort of. He sent me an instant message that same day:
Kyle: I met Brad today, it was cool. Q: Were you nervous? Kyle: Oh, yeah, very! I tried to be perfect in every way. I don’t think I have ever spent so much time styling my hair, LOL. We arranged it at a restaurant near me. It was walking distance. Q: And did he look the way you expected? Kyle: Ummm, he was definitely a little different from his picture. He had a different haircut, skinnier than I expected, and his face looked a little different all together. Q: Did he seem more attractive or less so, at first? Kyle: At first, he seemed less attractive, but as time went on, he started to look more attractive to me. Q: And what did you talk about? Kyle: Just about everything. Clothes, back-to-school, friends, parents, the food, the restaurant, anything really. Q: What did you think of him, in the end? Kyle: Before I met him, I had a list of the pros and cons of him. Cons: He seems very stuck up, rich, and has an attitude, and can be rude sometimes. Pros: Nice, good-looking, good sense of humor and a good personality. But when meeting him today, I had one more con: he was a somewhat femmy gay. Q: Hmmm. So how does that change your feelings about him, if at all? Kyle: Ummm, I think of him now as more stuck up than I thought originally, and the way he dresses was COMPLETELY different than what I thought. Like he wore a DKNY shirt that was very gay-looking with the buttons starting way down, so you could see some chest. Q: Now what’s this about him being rude and stuck up? In what ways? Kyle: Like he feels that if you shop at Old Navy, you are a lower class. And he isn’t very nice to strangers. He was somewhat rude to the waiter. I don’t recall him ever saying thank you. Q: Are you still interested in a relationship with him? Kyle: Ummm, I don’t really know. My immediate reaction when I saw him was a HUGE flamer and somewhat rude, but I still was interested. As these hours go by, I seem to be less and less interested.
A week later, Kyle wrote in an e-mail message: “Brad and I haven’t called or talked since the meeting. When we are online, we don’t chat either. I honestly don’t know if we’ll ever talk again.”
They didn’t talk again. But shortly thereafter, the indefatigable Kyle placed a personal ad on PlanetOut, a gay and lesbian Web site, seeking male teenagers in his region of Florida for a relationship. “I am really hoping that by the end of sophomore year, I will at least have kissed a guy, LOL,” he wrote. “I am just so tired of being lonely.”
Toward the middle of August, I e-mailed Jeffrey and didn’t hear anything back. I wrote again; nothing. This is not especially unusual — one liability of Web communication is that people sometimes disappear abruptly. A number of my teenage correspondents faded away without warning — P., for example, the Latino boy in the Midwest, whose e-mail address suddenly ceased to work, leaving me to wonder, futilely, whether he’d changed it to avoid his 40-year-old admirer.
Vanishing friends and intimates are frequent laments among gay teenagers; L. B., a 13-year-old from a Middle Atlantic state, had an online relationship with a 15-year-old boy who he says provided him with enormous guidance and support. L.B. had called the boy at home several times, and had even spoken with two of his siblings. Then, suddenly, the older boy’s e-mail address stopped working. When L.B. called his house, the number had been disconnected. “I tried to look for him in directories and stuff,” L.B. said. “Couldn’t find him so I gave up.”
During an e-mail exchange with Fred, an 18-year-old student at a community college who is still closeted, I felt as if I were hearing the other half of the very same anecdote.
“I’ve had several online relationships over the past few months, and I’m not proud to admit that I broke them off rather shoddily,” Fred wrote. “It would go like this: I would set up an obscure e-mail name that I thought would have little connection to anything about me. I meet a guy online, we start to talk, and get to know each other better. Then I become afraid (I don’t know what of and I don’t know why) and simply stop talking to him. I don’t even check the e-mail address I had set up for this guy. I would then stop all gay activity on the Internet for about 3-4 weeks, then I would get a new e-mail address, and I’d do it all over again.”
In an instant message, he added: “It’s kinda depressing to open up an old account and read those e-mails. …They’re all like ‘Where are you?’ ‘Why aren’t you talking to me?’ I feel really bad about it now, especially one guy who lived close to me, and wanted to meet me. … I was afraid he was straight and was looking for some fag to beat up.”
A paradox emerges from these conversations: while the Internet provides a safe haven for countless gay teenagers who don’t dare confide their sexual orientations to the people around them, it is also a very easy place to get burned. It’s not just that people disappear — it’s that in the end, you’re never really sure who they were in the first place. And they don’t really know you. Nor should they, many people say – it’s just too dangerous.
“One of my main suggestions for anyone online is to come up with an alias, and use it at all times,” said the adviser I spoke with. “We don’t realize how much information we disclose without noticing it. A hypothetical example: ‘My name is Danny, and I live in Southern Pa. outside of a large town, and play basketball. I attend PHS. Today after class I have practice, and then we are going to “Markus Theater” to watch a movie.’ To show you how easy it is … if I were a predator … I would look up Markus Theater, find the location, then with a little thinking find out that PHS equals Pitts High School. Now all I have to do is find out the next basketball game, which player is Danny and that’s that. … ALL TOO SIMPLE.”
He has a point. By fostering intimate exchanges stripped of all context, Internet dialogue combines too much information with too little. The possibility of deception is implicit; Sherry Terkle, a clinical psychologist and sociology professor at M.I.T. who has written extensively about cyberrelationships, maintains that the very nature of Web interaction involves a kind of fragmentation of what we have traditionally called “identity’ — a breakdown of the unified self. “In the culture of simulation,” she writes in “Life on the Screen,” a book about identity and the Net, “if it works for you, it has all the reality it needs.”
And that simulation, according to many, is part of the fun. “I’m not very good-looking in the real world, so why can’t I lie a little in the virtual world?” asked Fred. “In real life, I’m very shy and afraid to really say what I’m thinking, but online, I’m bold, and I’m also a bit more … I guess the word is ‘slutty.’ ”
When I asked Fred how many different screen names he had, he wrote back, “two that I use mainly. … I have some others for special occasions. One is when I want to irritate people with horribly racist comments. I have another name which tends to be reserved more for sex talk and such. I started with my ”secret’ name, which nobody I know knows about. My secret name is for meeting people.”
This widespread juggling of names and identities, while often harmless — even prudent — can put an unsuspecting person hungry for companionship in a vulnerable position. Consider the following anecdote told to me by G., now a 19-year-old college student in Boston. When he was 16, having only recently admitted to himself that he was gay, G. struck up an online relationship with Scott, who identified himself as a gay teenager. “We talked more and more, and eventually we developed things into a pretty serious online relationship,” G.wrote to me in an e-mail message. “We planned to be together. … We had every intention of pursuing a sexual relationship later on.”
Scott introduced G. to his online circle, which included his brother, Mike, and several other friends: Kyle, Kevin, Troy. Then a crisis developed: Scott told his father that he was gay, and his father made him sever ties with G.
“I lost all concentration at school,” G. wrote. “I actually went so far as to drive to where I believed his hometown was, and I looked around there for several days straight. During that summer, I often skipped meals and felt too sick to eat. … I was constantly panicked and stressed.” Eventually, Scott got back in touch, but soon informed G. that he had to move to England for a year because his father had taken a job there. The relationship ended.
After Scott left for England, G. received an e-mail message from someone named Mark, who identified himself as a friend of Scott’s and had many things in common with him. “His attitudes and values were the same, the things he talked about were the same,” G. explained. “Mark also would occasionally feed me an ‘update’ about what Scott and his brother were up to over in England.’
But with time, the similarities between his new friend, Mark, and his ex, Scott, roused G.’s suspicions. “His typing patterns were the same,” G said. “They even often made the same typo of accidentally putting two spaces in the middle of the sentence, as if the keyboard both used had a sticky space bar.”
Disturbed, G. began to investigate. “I found out that eight screen names were all on the same account, and registered to one man who lived halfway across the state from where Scott had said he lived. The entire theater of characters Scott had introduced me to were all, in fact, the same person.
“At the time, this proved to be very traumatic. I thought I’d found what I always wanted — someone who I related to and who cared about me,” said G., who has now been happily involved for two years with someone he originally met on the Internet. “I had no support system in real life, and how could I even tell them this story anyway? It was just too weird and pathetic to ever share.”
It was the end of September before I finally heard back from Jeffrey. “I am terribly sorry that I have not e-mailed you,” he wrote. “My relationship with C. has ‘gone down the drain,’ so to speak. … I am suffering from clinical depression.” Shortly thereafter, we spoke on the phone, and I asked what had gone wrong. “I’m at a loss,” he said.
The first signs of trouble emerged when he and C. would send instant messages to each other at night. “When we first talked, he was very quick to respond, and then it became long pauses … 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 10 minutes.” Then C. stopped leaving Jeffrey regular eVoice messages during the day. “I’d leave my computer on and turn on his I.M. window, so I could see if he ever came on. … I noticed that he’d come on during lunch and he wouldn’t leave me a message, wouldn’t leave me a voice mail.”
The breaking point came during a discussion of monogamy. “From the beginning, C. told me, ‘You’re the only one. I could wait my whole life to have sex with you,’ ” Jeffrey recalled. But more recently, C.’s views on that subject seemed to shift. “He said: ‘The distance is really getting to me. What’s wrong with a little meaningless sex once in a while?’ I was completely crushed.”
Eventually, the two had it out. “He’s like: ‘You’re really running this into the ground. We never met. It’s not that hard to get over,’ ” Jeffrey recalled. “I was like, ‘It’s obviously a lot harder for me than it is for you.’ He’s like, ‘I’m sorry, things change.’ ” Jeffrey is haunted by the possibility that what changed was the fact that he finally sent C. a picture of himself. They had held off a long time on exchanging pictures — in part because Jeffrey was reluctant to set a picture of himself afloat on the Web, for fear of being recognized. But it wasn’t just that. “I’d think he had this mental image of this really beautiful guy,” he told me, “and that when he saw me he’d be disappointed.”
Eventually the two did exchange photos — by mail — and Jeffrey himself received a shock. “We’d talked for months. … He always told me, I have black hair and brown eyes. When I got his picture, I was like: Oh, my God. He was black.” C., too, seemed taken aback by what he saw. “He said, ‘You look very intimidating,’ ” Jeffrey recalls. “He’s like, ‘It’s gonna take me a long time to put the face with the voice.’ ” Still, Jeffrey’s feelings for C. remained as strong as ever, and things appeared to go on as before, until C.’s communications began to dwindle.
Jeffrey found himself casting about frantically to understand the intensity of his despair. “It’s like, Oh, my God, I’m crying over someone I’ve never seen, I’ve never touched. It’s kind of scary.”
The place where Jeffrey was most reminded of C., of course, was also his refuge: the Internet. “Whenever I get on, I check my buddy list: is he on? Is his brother on? Have my friends seen him?”
As the months of e-mail and instant messages wore on, I felt a growing desire to meet face to face with one of the teenagers I’d been speaking with online. Perhaps it’s a natural outcome of so much disembodied communication; I was beginning to understand why, despite the dangers, a lot of teenagers take their chances and try to convert the sterility of typing on-screen into the hapless vagaries of human contact.
I proposed the idea of a visit to Jeffrey, and he immediately agreed. In early November, I flew to a large Southern city and drove for several hours along an Interstate littered with blown tires and road kill before reaching Jeffrey’s hometown, indistinguishable from thousands in rural America: one-story houses lining shady streets; an anemic downtown; a tentacle of roadway crammed with chain motels and fast-food restaurants clutching at the Interstate.
It was late afternoon, but as I drove to the restaurant where I’d arranged to meet Jeffrey, the sunlight felt withering. Jeffrey hovered just inside the glass door. I had imagined someone fragile and fair-skinned, but he looked nothing like that. He was nervous, and his anxiety was contagious. As we sat down at a table in the nearly empty restaurant, he explained that he had just run into a girl he knows from school. Had I walked in while he was talking to her, it would have been a catastrophe: in a town this small, no imaginable excuse could account for a high-school boy having a rendezvous with a strange woman from New York.
Mercifully, no other acquaintances of Jeffrey’s appeared, and eventually we slipped into the easy dialogue we had experienced on the phone and through e-mail. He was feeling somewhat better about C., he said, but admitted this was partly because of the fact that he had guessed C.’s password and had begun checking his e-mail.
Shortly after that, Jeffrey noticed a new screen name among C.’s correspondence and opened it. Sure enough, it was from another boy. “It said, ‘Hey there, let’s hook up sometime and we can go out and do something,’ ” Jeffrey told me, as we picked at salads served in hollowed-out loaves of bread. “So I went into my computer and put this guy’s screen name in there so I could see when he was online. I signed on with another screen name, went into Gay.com and, lo and behold, there was this guy in a chat room. It was just a wild guess. I I.M.’d him and said, ‘Interesting screen name.’ ”
Jeffrey had since cultivated a friendship with the unsuspecting boy, who eventually did mention that he had been communicating online with someone named C. In this way, Jeffrey had managed to monitor the relationship, occasionally deleting e-mail from the boy to C. that he didn’t want C. to read. He was pleased that the relationship hadn’t progressed very far and that C. and the new boy hadn’t met in person.
Jeffrey knew what he was doing was wrong, but he couldn’t seem to help it. “You can’t ride by his house and see if he’s home,” he said. “You can’t see him at school and see who he’s talking to, so you search. … You go crazy if you can’t find out what’s happening. I feel guilty, but I have to do this. I’m gonna go crazy.”
Jeffrey and I left the restaurant and drove around his town in the thick, dusty light of sunset. It took all of 10 minutes. We passed his high school, where, he said, separate proms and homecomings are held for black and white kids. We joggled over train tracks into the shell of downtown. It was such a quiet place. “I feel like an alien here,” Jeffrey said, and it wasn’t hard to see why he lunged so heedlessly at something else, or why losing it had left him feeling empty-handed.
“At one point I felt that close to C., that I would give up my life,” he said. “I would die for him. That scares me, that depth of feeling for someone you’ve never met.”
Yet the very fact that Jeffrey has had this heartbreak — so characteristic of “normal” adolescence — is a remarkable change. When I spoke with Caitlin Ryan, she cited 1993 and 1996 studies that found the average age of awareness of same-sex attraction to be 10 years old. A subsequent study has found that heterosexual attraction, too, begins at this age.
“This is happening in fourth grade, regardless of sexual orientation,” Ryan said. “If you repress normative sexual and psychological and psychosocial development for 10 years, that is not a healthy thing. And that’s historically what happened for many lesbians and gay men.” She points to unsafe sex and substance abuse as frequent consequences of that repression. “Those are some of the downsides of not being able to have a normative adolescence, not being able to go to a prom, not being able to have a boyfriend, to learn all those things that are age-appropriate when you’re an adolescent.”
When I spoke to Jeffrey at the end of Thanksgiving weekend, he had some news: he had managed to connect with a live human gay person, a 24-year-old man whom he drove to meet in a nearby city after first encountering him in an Internet chat room. They had dinner at a mall and shopped at the Gap and at Old Navy and at several music stores. At the end of the evening, they kissed, something Jeffrey had never done before.
“I had to do a double take,” he said. “Whoa, O.K. You’re gay and so am I. I’m actually here, doing this.”
He expects the relationship to move slowly, and is still busy trying to meet other people. Recently he made plans to rendezvous with a fellow 16-year-old in another town. The boy planned to take Jeffrey to a coffeehouse popular with teenage gays, and Jeffrey was hugely excited. Over time, he hopes to cultivate a network of gay friends in his region.
He still thinks of C., he said, but he has stopped hacking into his e-mail and is relieved to feel the obsession losing its hold. “There were times when I felt wonderful in the relationship with C.,” he told me. But after the date — his first — he lay in bed that night and felt the difference. “It was so incredible, because it was like, I could go back and do it all over again today,” he said. “And he’s not just a screen name, it’s not just typing and it’s not just a picture. It’s three-dimensional, you know? Reality. It was awesome.”
Copyright (2000) The New York Times Company. Reprinted by Permission. New York Times material may not be used in any manner except for personal reference without the written permission of The New York Times Company.