One might not think the story of a closeted antigay Republican mayor in Spokane, Wash., could be instrumental in destigmatizing online romance, but that’s exactly what’s happening in When Strangers Click. Instead of tracing the familiar Internet cautionary tale, the new HBO documentary looks objectively at five people who have had varying degrees of success searching for meaningful relationships online.
“We wanted to look at the impact of the Internet on something as old as humankind itself—how people find love, companionship, or support,” producer Marc Weiss says about his film, which premieres Valentine’s Day. “These five stories, selected from hundreds submitted through our website, represent a cross section of surprising answers to that question.” As revealed, when these people went online, their lives changed forever.
The most compelling — and certainly darkest — story in the film belongs to Ryan Oelrich (pictured). During the summer of 2003, Oelrich was in a Gay.com chat room when he began receiving flirty, then sexually suggestive messages from a user called “Rightbi-Guy.” Months later, and as the chats continued, Oelrich, then 24, was appointed to the Spokane Human Rights Commission by Republican mayor Jim West. It wasn’t until West started making inappropriate advances to the new commissioner—cash if he’d swim naked with him—that Oelrich realized the mayor and Rightbi-Guy were one and the same. An ensuing newspaper investigation and Internet sting revealed that the otherwise antigay mayor had eyes for more guys than Oelrich. West was booted from office in 2005 and died of complications from cancer surgery the following year.
“There are two things I found moving about Ryan‘s story,” Weiss says. “First, how Ryan came to terms with who he was and turned to the Internet for support, and second, how the contentiousness and distortions of our sexual politics forced the mayor to deny who he was.”
While both Weiss and Oelrich admit there are risks involved in meeting people online and a certain stigma attached, the two men hope to help ease the latter with the documentary. “It’s such a new relationship-building frontier that social norms largely haven’t been established,” Oelrich says. “As a gay man, I was especially appreciative to have the opportunity to hopefully help folks understand why the Internet is such an important resource for minority populations. It helps us connect and find one another like nothing else can.”
“Sharing my story was a difficult decision; however, if a few people can learn from my experiences and mistakes, then I hope it will have been worth it,” Oelrich adds. “I also hope people won’t be scared away from meeting online but will simply take precautions. I‘ve met some amazing people online that I wouldn‘t have met otherwise.”