Op-ed: Phone Dating, Shame, and Healing
I self-righteously avoided dating via mobile phone apps for more than two years before finally giving up and logging in to one a few months ago. It was ultimately a mix of curiosity, “why limit my options?”-ness, and — yes — loneliness that pulsed through my smartphone-sliding thumbs as I clicked “install” and started my trek into the wild of torsos, egos, and fleeting validation-filled red dots that characterize the now-infamous hookup application.
My findings were multifaceted — hopeful yet depressing, expected yet unexpected at the same time. But perhaps the most glaringly disconcerting thing I encountered was the overwhelming gender policing that dominates the app's grid.
“Masc only,” “no queens,” “straight-acting”: these phrases are by far the most ubiquitous of any on the app.
I realize this phenomenon has already been discussed at length, with speculation that it originates in internalized homophobia, deep-rooted shame, closet-fueled fear, and even a certain element of legitimate preference. None of this is news, and I had long stopped giving a shit about it, after having reconciled my own feelings on these issues several years ago. This occurred when I read Alan Downs’s seminal book The Velvet Rage and cracked myself open, releasing what I thought was left of any lingering gay shame I might have still harbored at the time.
But the app took the gay shame of others and shoved it right back into my face. It made it feel personal again, and made me realize that overcoming shame is an ongoing struggle for all of us – myself included. No one heals overnight.
This revelation began with my initial profile picture, which I admittedly chose because it vaguely obstructs my face:
As my grid blew up with tiny red dots opening doors to everything from to-be-expected hookup solicitations to actual, thoughtful conversation starters to painful-yet-plentiful old “hey’s” to messages simply saying “the Mets suck” (as if I wasn’t already aware), I eventually started to engage in conversations with five of the least creepy guys who reached out.
They all inevitably asked if I had another, more complete picture of my face, so I sent each of them the following photograph:
Three out of the five men stopped talking to me altogether, despite my (haphazard, but still) efforts to continue our conversations. One of the remaining two men kept talking to me, continuing to show interest. And the other dude who stuck around? “Huh,” he wrote. “I didn’t take you as the fruity drink kind.” Our correspondence ceased shortly thereafter.
It seems to me that my switching from beer to sangria, from a crooked laugh to a gleeful smile, and from a sloppy button-down shirt to a tight Banana Republic tee effectively killed the fantasy. I mean, it made four out of five users lose interest. I imagine they saw the second picture, sighed disappointedly, and thought, Damn, he’s actually gay.
I tell this story not out of bitterness or disappointment — I’d probably have little in common with someone who can’t appreciate a nice glass of red sangria, anyway — but rather as a compassionate reminder of the fact that for many gay men, there still exists a very real need for fundamental healing. We need to look inward and reach for authenticity. We need to learn to be comfortable with and accepting of all our gay brothers, and strive for a gay culture that places absolutely no value in being perceived as “straight.”
Don’t get me wrong; I think masculinity can be a beautiful, necessary thing, and I believe we should certainly claim it as ours and be proud of it. But we should also claim the fact that we are, in fact, gay. And we should be genuinely proud of that as well. To do this, we need to work on our shame — both on and off of the likes of Grindr or Scruff or GuySpy other dating apps, where it seems that rather than being worked on, it simply gets paradoxically reinforced.
In The Velvet Rage, Downs writes, very simply, that “gay men start at [a] place of being overwhelmed with the shame of being gay in a world that worships masculine power.” This sucks, yes, but it’s OK. It is expected and inescapable and — oh? Totally healable, if we’re willing to do the internal work and learn to separate masculinity from heterosexuality. So let’s do the work. Let’s move forward from that starting place.
And if you’re one of many who already has done the work and moved forward? Take a moment to recalibrate and think about what authenticity means to you. Think about how you can help someone who may not be totally there yet — a gay man who is close to loving himself but might need one last understanding, nonjudgmental, motivational piece of inspiration. Gift him a copy of The Velvet Rage, maybe. Just treat him like a brother.
And as far as phone dating is concerned, I’m grateful for the thought-provoking and introspective experience it has afforded me, but I’ll be logging off for the time being. While I absolutely love the idea of a location-based app that can help bring us together and meet other local gays (especially in nonurban areas) for friendship, dating, and maybe even community, I have come to accept that there isn't an “app for that” right now.
Right now these apps are where “straight-acting” is still a thing. And at this point, for me — for us — that feels like a big step in the wrong direction. Backwards.
NICOLAS DiDOMIZIO is a writer from Connecticut. He blogs at KeyChangesBlog.com, tweets @ctnicolas, and is currently finishing work on his debut book. He holds a master’s from New York University and a bachelor’s from Western Connecticut State University.