We've come to an interesting place in the world of gay dating. Queer culture was once a vibrant underground scene that was, for the most part, all-inclusive — a consortium of gay men, drag queens, and lesbians taking refuge in the few places where they could congregate and cruise, just as long as they avoided the cops.
But that was the 1960s and '70s. In 2015, gay meeting spots have moved to digital spaces that are not all-inclusive — far from it. Most prominent among them, Grindr — a gay dating app for smartphones — and its similar cousin, Scruff, give you the option of classifying yourself into various "tribes" based on your body type and interests. Both apps allow you to filter the profiles you see by guys' age, race, weight, and other characteristics.
Still, the move to digital makes sense. Outside of urban areas, gay men are often far apart from each other. Before the Internet, they faced the daunting challenge of not only crossing great distances to meet others but determining who out there was queer to begin with. Sure, there were gay bars, but they offered the distinct challenge of having to choose among the limited patrons or going home hungry.
Dating websites came along and cut out the middleman — the bar — while simultaneously expanding the options. When Joel Simkhai, Grindr's founder and creator, brought the experience to our smartphones in 2009, a star was born. According to its website, there are 2 million active users on Grindr every day in 196 countries around the world.
I was proudly one of them. I love digital dating and have had accounts on multiple apps and websites for years. But two weeks ago I decided to pretend that Adam4Adam, ManHunt, DaddyHunt, Gay.com, AssPig (don't judge), Grindr, Scruff, Recon, Hornet, Jack'd, GROWLr, Mr. X, Tinder, and the host of others do not exist. I recently moved to Los Angeles and wanted to see if I could meet guys the way my predecessors did, when Grindr was a wooded park after midnight. Halfway through, here's what I've learned.
1. Certain bathhouses give you discounts if you're under 25. When I discovered this, I knew it was likely because most of the clientele was above the 25 age mark — which proved true — but that didn't keep me from venturing out at 11 p.m. to the nearest all-night sauna.
The reason I was researching bathhouses is that, after two days, the itch that Grindr scratches was throbbing badly. These apps do a remarkable job of keeping you horny and hunting, even when you're doing mundane, unsexy tasks like going to the grocery store, eating a burger, and doing laundry. Take that away and my hour-by-hour impulse to cruise had no vent. Forty-eight hours was all it took, which either shows their alarming addictive quality or my alarming addicion to them.
2. Don't take sips of Gatorade from anyone at a bathhouse. It's filled with G (gamma hydroxybutyrate, a club drug that is easy to overdose on and lethal when mixed with alcohol). I knew this rule of thumb from making the mistake at a gay circuit party two years ago, so I asked the dude, "Be real with me. Is it just Gatorade?" His honesty confirmed my fears: "No."
3. You notice the world around you more. Los Angeles may not be the most beautiful city in the world, but there are beautiful parts of it. There is no better place to be on Labor Day than on the Santa Monica pier, and there is no harder place to find parking than near the Santa Monica pier on Labor Day. Shirtless and sweating, I felt giddy as I joined the throng of people eating funnel cakes and riding roller coasters over the frigid Pacific Ocean. I actually lost the impulse to check Grindr for a solid two hours. It was incredible, heightened by a sense of really being there without Grindr's familiar, bubbly ping every few minutes telling me a message was in.
4. You appreciate your favorite gay bar more. I started to feel lonely. Much of my sense of community is sustained by my place in a grid of selfies on a screen no bigger than my hand. Most exchanges between me and other gay men start with "Hi mister" or "Hey boi." Without those messages, I found myself traveling to the L.A. Eagle twice (twice!) last weekend and actually starting conversations with men there.
I believe that gay men need each other. We often pursue sex as the only form of connection — and sometimes it's enough — but what we sometimes need more is just a conversation. Not to be overly sentimental, but there are parts of my life that I can only talk about with a fellow queer. Ours is a powerful shared experience that, no matter where we come from, tends to follow a common trajectory from intense isolation to sudden sexual companionship: We go from closets to the club and are forced to navigate alone through both.
The result is a brotherhood of often harsh people who cannot admit their loneliness. I realized that whatever ill the apps do, they at least provide a 24-7 reminder that even when you're sitting alone in your cubicle or closeted in your home, there are men out there who want you and need you too.
5. Cruising in person is admittedly better. On my first day in San Francisco last year, I made a stupid mistake. I was waiting for a urinal in a mall bathroom. There was only one available and one other guy in the bathroom, who was using it. But for some reason he was standing very far back from the urinal and shaking his massive member as he peed. Watching him (and his dick), I thought, Why is he standing so far back from the urinal like that? It wasn't until after he looked at me and waited by the sink before finally leaving did I realize what just happened: a tragically missed opportunity.
I was determined not to make the same mistake in Los Angeles. On the first day of my no-tech challenge, I went to a famous gay restaurant in West Hollywood and my waiter was very cute. Normally, I would have said nothing and just searched for him on Grindr, which uses the geolocation devices on your phone to find nearby users. But this was a moment where I needed to talk to a handsome, real-life stranger — with no digital safety net and no way to block him if it went badly. Calling him to the table, I used my classic pickup line: "What time does this place close?"
What followed, beautifully and awkwardly, was an actual conversation. And although I was looking for fun, what happened instead was more akin to making a friend. Yes, it did turn into a hookup, but the person-to-person exchange changed my wants a bit — something that has never happened to me online. Both of us seemed to come away from it surprised that these things still happen. All it took was a little bravery and the absence of that little orange app on my phone.
In two weeks, I'll recap the whole experience, but for now I'm enjoying the break. In the interim, I'm getting those phantom cellphone vibrations, which Wired reports is totally a real thing, and I grab my phone to check a Grindr or Scruff message that isn't there.