Digital Dating (In a Small Town)

Peter Pendergrass (Greensboro, NC)
Peter Pendergrass - blank faces Meeting people online is one of those things that everyone hates to acknowledge, but many (if not most) of us have done. There are many ways to connect with new people online, and some of them are more accepted than others. If you add a friend of a friend on Facebook, learn about them through their profile and posts, and eventually meet in person, just about everyone will agree this is normal and appropriate. But what if you’re trying to meet people out of your friend group? What if you’re interested in dating? What if, even though you’d never admit it to most of your friends or any of your family, you’re looking for sex? Welcome to the world of online and mobile matchmaking.

Until recently, looking for love online was taboo. Today, almost everyone uses some form of social networking, and whether we like to talk about it or not online dating is normal. Even if you meet a cute person you like face-to-face before connecting online, you still end up flirting with them on the Internet and mobile apps. Still, words like “desperate” and “slutty” come out in conversations about online daters, as if meeting online is a last resort, only for those who are unable to attract someone in person. Not only is this just plain wrong, it’s also a heterocentric attitude. For queer people, especially in small cities and towns with less visible community, online dating was revolutionary.

Everyone needs community. For queer people, community is more than a social necessity, it’s a crucial source of solidarity and support. In order to develop community, we have to be able to find each other. This is one of the most difficult parts of being queer, and if you think it’s tough today, imagine how things were 100 or even just 50 years ago. Not only has finding each other been a constant challenge for queers, there has always been the added variable of recognition. With online dating, the ambiguity (and risk) of cruising was minimized. If you lived somewhere cruising wasn’t even an option, the Internet provided a way to connect with other queer people near and far.

My first experience with online dating was when I was 12-13 years old. There used to be a magazine called XY. The best thing about it was its website, where users could create profiles and search for others nearby. As far as I know, XY was the first gay youth dating website, and one of the first gay dating sites in general. I befriended a good number people, a few of whom I met in person, most of whom I only interacted with on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, which is what everyone used before texting and Facebook chats). At the time, about a year before I came out, it was thrilling to connect with people who were gay and bi (queer identity hadn’t become a big thing yet), around my age, and having similar experiences. We helped each other figure things out: our selves, our sexuality, our life situations, etc. With the support of both online and IRL (in real life) friends, I came out to many of my friends and family members via e-mail and AIM. I was part of the first generation of kids to grow up with the Internet, and I was part of the first generation of queer kids to come out on the Internet.

As more people began to use online dating platforms, mobile devices were thrown in the mix and the number of sites (and apps) multiplied. Simultaneously, the culture of online dating, at least from my perspective, changed for the worse. Many online dating platforms have become impersonal, dehumanizing, and largely anonymous, especially on gay cis-men-focused platforms. I can’t imagine my first experiences with queer community being Grindr, Adam4Adam, Manhunt, Jack’d, Hornet, etc. I don’t have the life experience to speak authoritatively about online dating for female-bodied queer people. What I have been told in conversations on the topic is that it’s significantly less fucked up. That said, there are issues across the board: most online dating platforms aren’t inclusive of variant or otherwise complex gender identities, and they tend to assist prejudice, objectification, and irresponsible sexual health practices. Especially in the world of M4M (male for male) online dating, racism and body privilege are constantly occurring on a massive scale.

Many problems contribute to the greater issue. One is that online dating isn’t properly acknowledged. It’s no longer taboo, but it’s like a shadow norm. Another problem is that adults don’t teach young people how to engage with online dating like they teach them about what some refer to as traditional dating (i.e. asking someone out in person). Yet another problem is that young people today are thrown in the tank with the big fish. Even after years of online dating, I feel super weird when I get propositions from people who are 20 and even 30+ years older then me. When you’re young and don’t have any real life dating experience (which most adults who are coming to online dating for the first time do have), online dating is very real, very emotional, and very confusing.

For these reasons, I put together a rough guide to online dating. It’s aimed at young people, but it’s appropriate for any age. It’s my hope that, be it on OKCupid, Grindr or any of the other platforms out there, at least a few people will be able to use this knowledge to help them have an easier time as they look for queer love online:

Be Yourself: When it comes down to it, yourself is the only thing you can be. Don’t pretend to be someone or something you aren’t. The number one thing you can do to guarantee you won’t find romance is to lie about yourself.

Be Honest: Have a clear, recent picture of yourself, and provide your real age, etc. Be specific about your desires, expectations, and boundaries. It’s always your right not to disclose. Don’t allow anyone to pressure you for information.

Be Kind and Respectful: Slurs, hate speech, and other oppressive language is never okay. It’s common to see profiles that say things like White only. No fems. Just a preference. This is racist and sexist. Remember, there is a person just like you on the other side of the screen

If They Won’t Stop, Block: If you’re receiving messages from someone after you’ve told them that you’re not interested, do not hesitate to block them from contacting you. You can also report the user for harassment.

Stand Up For Yourself: If you get a rude or otherwise inappropriate message from someone, let them know what they said is not okay. In fact, letting those people know that what they said is not okay is an important thing to do.

Use Your Voice For Good: If you see slurs, hate speech, or other oppressive language in a profile, it’s okay to send a message letting the user know that it’s offensive and wrong. You can report such users to admins, who may be able to have the content and/or user removed.

Do Not Meet Up With Anyone Anonymously: I cannot stress this enough. Do not meet in person with anyone who won’t provide their full name, their phone number, and a clear, recent picture of themself. No exceptions. It’s more than just a bad idea. It is a dangerous thing to do.

Phone A Friend: When meeting someone in person, let a friend know who it is, when you’re going to meet up, and where you’ll be. Agree on a time you’ll call to check in afterwards. It is ideal to meet in a situation that’s with or near friends, or at least in public.

Take A Break: Online dating can be overwhelming, upsetting, disappointing, or all of the above. When you feel this way, log off, maybe even for a few months. If you want to give it another try, go for it, always keeping in mind the things above.

Do you have online dating advice or stories you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you! Send a submission to education@goelsewhere.org today!