04/16/2013 06:38 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Beyond the Orange Glow: How We Gay Men Use Grindr

It's Saturday night, and I'm at a Silver Lake gay bar with some friends. Despite the packed room, my friend Zack is fixed to his iPhone. Our friends' nudges and pokes can't shift his eagle eyes from the warm, orange glow. He is determined, as he is every night, to meet the right guy to fill any of an infinite number of sexual fantasies. We roll our eyes and try to get Zack's attention, with one friend going so far as to steal his phone and hide it in his underwear. What bothers our group is not Zack's sexual openness but his inability to interact with his surroundings on nights like these. For Zack, Grindr has come to life; the flesh-and-blood reality of the gay bar itself does not interest him and does not provide the endless possibilities that the digital world promises. It's an issue that we've ribbed Zack for time and time again. How do we get him to realize that at a bar filled with gay men, he is already in a space with such promise, the original, analog Grindr?

This frequent scenario marks a shift in the contemporary gay experience. Historically, the gay community formed first in the shadows, and later in public bars and clubs, in order to provide support, solace and sex to men who didn't fit in anywhere else in society. Now gay bars don't play this pivotal role. There are more and more ways to consume gay culture. A young gay man doesn't have to walk into a gay bar these days to find sexual validation: TV has endless gay characters, the Internet provides endless gay porn, and apps such as Grindr and Scruff allow you to talk (and type), endlessly, to people just like you.

So which is the "right" way to be gay? Should my friends and I expect Zack to pocket his phone and meet people the old-fashioned way? Are we chastising him for his bad behavior in order to make ourselves feel better about our own sketchy Internet liaisons? Are we unable to let go of the bygone gay era, a romanticized time when sex was risky, novel and political? Do we refuse to embrace the present, a highly technological and revolutionary time, in favor of the antiquated, shadowy past? Are we the ones unable to interact?

It seems that Zack's experience and that of my other friends aren't that different. We all take emotional risks by putting ourselves out there, be it digitally or in "real life." We all strive to make real human connections among other people who have historically been made to feel different or unwelcome. We all seek ways to feel less alone in the world, even though these ways might take different forms. The line between the imaginary, fictional or artificial and the historical, physical or tangible is becoming increasingly blurred. Perhaps we should find ways to be more tolerant of people like Zack, our carpal-tunneled friend, and of others who experience and consume gay culture in different ways. Who are we to say which is right?