By RYAN LEE
Friday, November 17, 2006
Tossed out by many who received them, those America Online CDs that maintained a ubiquitous presence in mailboxes across the country in the ‘90s helped dramatically alter gay culture, particularly the way people find romantic or sexual partners.
For almost a generation now, an increasing number of gay and lesbian youth have taken their first steps into the “gay community” by passing through an online chat room door. What often awaits them is an oasis of images and personal ads, where Mr. Right or Ms. Tonight is just one click away.
“Online is the way we meet people these days,” says Dave Singleton, author of “The MANdates: 25 Real Rules for Successful Gay Dating.”
“If you are not an openly gay man, or you don’t live in one of the major urban areas, [the internet has] opened up so many avenues,” he says.
Once looked upon by mainstream society with the same chagrin as newspaper personals — something for desperate people who are too socially awkward to meet partners in person — online dating is now mainstream enough to be featured regularly in dinnertime TV ads.
On Craig’s List, which is not a specifically gay site, the men-seeking-men personal ads are the most active dating category and show the greatest growth rate, according to founder Craig Newmark.
“Even my mom has a Match.com profile now,” says 25-year-old Ryan Norbauer, who recently launched Lovetastic.com, an online dating site for gay men looking for more than a casual hook-up.
Growing up in West Virginia, Norbauer says he routinely logged online after school to talk with friends before branching out into gay chat rooms.
“Online dating was the absolute first thing I tried,” Norbauer says. “It makes more sense for gay men … because of the inherent challenges of meeting other gay men in the real world.”
FOR GAY MEN who didn’t come of age with the internet, any reluctance to using online dating sites faded after one or two hook-ups, says David Kooy, 49, Norbauer’s business partner at Lovetastic.com.
“What broke down the wall of resistance to online personals was that they worked,” Kooy says. “People actually got to meet people, and it was a viable alternative to meeting people in bars.”
Kooy first entered a gay chat room in the mid-’90s as “Missieboy.”
“I remember going on to chat rooms in AOL in ’95 or something like that and thinking it was the biggest hoot you could think of,” says Kooy, who describes the chat room banter as random gay people making haphazard statements while “fostering a sense of community.”
Even before AOL chat rooms, gay men were using their computers to meet each other. Subscriber-based bulletin board services with names like “28 Barbary Lane” and “OUTline” — devoid of stimulating images or graphics — were the precursors to the AOL chat rooms that exploded in the ’90s.
“A lot of [the online dating phenomenon] sprung out of the AOL chat rooms,” says Phil Henricks, marketing director for Manhunt.net. “We all know gay men were the first big users of the AOL chat rooms, but … AOL embraced the gay dollar, but not gay sensibilities.”
DISSATISFACTION WITH CENSORSHIP and other issues with AOL created fertile cyber soil from which many gay-specific dating sites sprouted.
Among the early queer-centric web domains was Gay.com. Mark Elderkin created it in 1994 initially as a personal web page featuring pictures of his dog.
Gay.com quickly grew into a popular online meeting place for gay and lesbian internet users. It was so successful that it merged with competitor PlanetOut and became a public company trading on the Nasdaq National Market in 2004.
“[The company’s success] is largely fueled by the membership growth on Gay.com,” says Anne Moellering, vice president for marketing at PlanetOut. “The product on Gay.com is the most solid [branch of the company], and we have a solid and loyal membership base.”
Gay.com features more than 10 million user profiles, and more than 30,000 people are chatting at any given moment, Moellering says.
“It has always been looked upon as a blessing for the gay community more than a taboo,” Moellering says of online dating. “It’s been a lifesaver for lots and lots of people in certain areas of the country — at least it’s been a date saver.”
But while Gay.com and other hook-up sites increase access to potential partners, they far from guarantee dating bliss, Singleton notes.
“Expanded choice does not in and of itself make anything better,” says Singleton, who also writes dating columns for MSN and Match.com. “It may make meeting people easier — it doesn’t necessarily make dating better.”
Norbauer experienced first-hand how unfulfilling trying to meet guys online can be, which is what inspired him to create Lovetastic.com.
“It really grew out of my dissatisfaction with the range of options within the gay personals realm,” says Norbauer, who described many gay-themed sites as having an “atmosphere focused on passing sexual encounters.”
Filling in boxes about the size of his body parts and preferred sexual positions did not align with Norbauer’s concept of finding a partner.
“My initial visceral reaction to those things wasn’t out of prudishness, but because all the things I am as a person, and what I have to offer, were not satisfied with those options,” he says, adding that the internet’s growth has coincided with “a substantial evolution of the way gay people think of themselves and the possibility of love.”
Launched last month, Lovetastic.com is probably the only gay online dating site where users can’t post a topless picture, Norbauer says.
“Interactions among gay men can be a little different; they can be a little more high-level and substantial,” he says. “You need only to craft a site that encourages that depth of spirit, and mind and soul to come out in a profile.”
Instead of knocking traditional gay hook-up sites, the folks behind Lovetastic.com say they want to add to the options gay men have online.
“It’s an entirely legitimate thing to want what [hook-up sites] have, but if you want to express a nuanced vision of yourself, you need the proper framework to do it,” Kooy says.
ALONG WITH THE changing face of gay chat rooms, cyber space for lesbians are coming more into play. Lesbian sites are still gaining popularity, and although some users post hardcore ads looking for a hook-up, it’s “nowhere near the scale the guys’ rooms are,” Moellering says.
PlanetOut is preparing to launch a female-centric website in December after much clamoring, Moellering says.
“People are frustrated, and totally understandably, that the experience doesn’t give as much as it’s supposed to for women,” she asserts.
Gay male social networking sites like Manhunt, Adam4Adam and the recently launched DList, for “edgy gay men,” provide just as easy an opportunity for men to find a coffee date as a gangbang, Manhunt’s Henricks says.
“We’re still very much a hook-up site, but there’s a lot of people who use it to catch up with friends, or as an innocent flirtation device,” he says. “Sometimes it’s a mindless way to break-up the monotony of the day.”
And as hook-up sites morph into broader community hangouts, the rules of dating get murkier, Singleton says.
“For example, if you’re dating somebody, when do you take your profile down?” he asks.