National Commentary

Anything But Straight: A Weekend Without E-Mail

Vacationing in Montreal this weekend, I had a computer glitch that made it impossible to connect online. The experience made me think about how much the world has changed since the beginning of the technological revolution, particularly for the GLBT community.

I graduated high school in 1988, which made me one of the last classes to use old-fashioned typewriters. When I came out of the closet, that same year, I had to search the Yellow Pages, where I found a hotline with a recorded message that told me where I could find gay establishments. Therewas no Internet to offer me countless options and information on what gay life was about.

When I first started going to gay bars, the first questions people would ask were, "are you out?" And, "do your parents know?" I would often hear people say that while growing up they thought they were the "only gay people on earth".

The gay bar, at the time, was an oasis of friendship and a place where tight bonds were formed, as we were a besieged minority. Upon entering such places, people would hug, often accompanied by a kiss on the cheek. On rare occasions, an older gentleman would try to get fresh, so one became adept at positioning the face where the lips were inaccessible. In any case, gay bars, restaurants and social clubs were for networking and forming lifelong alliances.

These places were also infused with a livewire of sexuality that made its way into many conversations – excessively in some cases. People also cruised shamelessly and openly, as gay bars were hunting grounds for sexual partners or potential husbands – or wives for the lesbians.

There was always a hidden "game clock" that began when we paid our cover charge and ended at last call – where we were all then thrust into the harsh outside world where it was difficult to meet gay friends, sexual liaisons or romantic interests. In essence, our official gay life ended until the next time we went out to a specifically designated gay establishment the following week.

The advent of the Internet changed the world. First, it immediately ended our isolation – as no one – even on the prairie of North Dakota – could claim they felt as if they were the only gay person in the world. Second, it ended the monopoly gay bars and restaurants had on the community. With the Internet, there was unlimited, twenty-four hour potential to meet friends and partners.

Third, as technology fueled the gay rights movement and people came out in massive numbers, being gay hardly made one part of an exclusive underground club. Indeed, most of the greeting hugs and kisses disappeared (much to the chagrin of fondlers), as people did not necessarily feel connected to people solely based on sexual orientation.

Today, we have a generation that could not imagine life without the Internet and instant connectivity. They approach socialization and activism differently. Since gay people can meet anywhere, the gay bars have lost their sense of sexual urgency and cruising is more discrete. Bars are primarily a place for socializing politely with friends, while exchanging the occasional furtive glance.  Even today's leather bars are relatively milquetoast, and feel like campy 1970's museums. Of course, growing up with the prevalence of HIV has also contributed to this reserved climate.

While things have improved on many fronts, there is a quaintness and familiarity that has been lost. The randomness and isolation of the online world is no substitute for healthy relationships, as pixels can't totally replace people. Early obituaries for exclusively gay establishments are premature, although their role as social hubs has greatly diminished.

Modern activism has also been transformed – for better or worse – into a series of electronic transactions – from sending money to organizations through PayPal, to firing off e-mails to state representatives or Congress.

We now have the most informed citizenry in our nation's history, but I question if we are able to turn this online passion into action. The Internet too often leads to quick fix activism, where like-minded people talk to each other on blogs and confuse this with genuine difference-making advocacy.

Furthermore, the Internet has afforded gay people the luxury of living in the exurbs.  This has dispersed concentrated populations of GLBT communities, making it nearly impossible to hold effective mass demonstrations – thus limiting our political power. After all, you can't send angry mobs into the streets when they end in cul-de-sacs. Sometimes, I think the Internet is simultaneously the best *and* worst thing that has happened to the GLBT movement.

When I returned home to New York, I fired up my I-Phone and wired up my computer to check my e-mail. I quickly logged on to find out what I had missed – only to find what I truly missed were the simple pleasures of a world without e-mail.