The other night, while at dinner with my roommate and a friend, the subject of Lena Dunham's show Girls came up. At the time, I had not seen the show, which has caused quite the ruckus this past year, but I told my friend that due to her deep infatuation with it, I would give it a chance. The next night I began watching it and, regretfully, became hooked. I am not going to turn this piece into a review of Dunham's work, but after watching it, specifically episode 8, in which she reads a horrible story about her Internet boyfriend, a memory I have kept locked deep, deep down in the dark corridors of my mind has come to the surface. A memory named John.
John and I met in an Internet chat room when people still used AIM like we now use Facebook. During my early teen years I would spend hours upon hours on AIM, talking to friends during the day and evenings and, once it hit night and my family was asleep, talking to gay men in chat rooms, where I first learned how to be gay. Ask most gay men in their 20s about the first time they interacted with another gay man, and they will cite the Internet. The Internet was the first place I could try out different aspects of myself that I had yet to really understand. Some days in the chat rooms I would be super-masculine Zach, who played lots of sports and really wanted to just chat with other dudes about dude stuff with dudes who liked dudes. Other days I was Zach the stereotypical gay, who would lie about having tons of sex and dating tons of boys in my town, which was so not true at all.
Eventually, I would become Zach, the AIM user who was looking for love -- well, love as we imagine it at 13. But the problem was that I was a gay boy who could not even begin to experience the kind of teenage love that my hetero friends got to experience in junior high and high school. This is why I stuck to the chat rooms. I could make my own love story from the comfort of my home and not have to worry about getting my face pounded in by some random redneck if I'd gone on a real date with a real boy in a real place. In this place, this place of fear, this place of wanting to meet a boy, this place of wanting to really understand myself, I found John in a chat room one summer night.
I don't remember the specifics of how we moved our interaction from the main chat room to the more private and romantic area of private chat, but it did happen. What I do remember is the first conversation:
That's how digital love starts: picture sharing. I didn't send him a picture of myself, though; instead, I sent him picture of my best friend at the time, who played football. And he sent me a picture of a boy I assumed was he -- blond, athletic for a 16-year-old, tall, and all those stereotypical things -- but now I know it was probably some photo he jacked from the "hot dude" at his high school. Great minds think alike.
We would talk for hours upon hours. This was around the same time that AIM became mobile-compatible, which meant that you could receive messages via SMS (this was long before iPhones and apps that facilitate instant messaging). One moment that stands out to me most during our two-week relationship was when he first sent me a message that just said, "I love you."
I was in the car with my mom, who was driving me home from tennis practice. I guess upon reading the message I began to glow or do something that caught my mom's attention. She asked me, "Why are you smiling so big? Who just made you this happy?"
I remember nervously giggling and squirming in my seat, "No one," I said. "A friend just sent me something funny."
She saw through this lie and said, "I can't wait for you to fall in love. I remember my first love when I was your age. It was the best feeling in the world, I can't wait to meet this person that makes you that happy."
I remember feeling comfort from those words, feeling love not only from the message that had appeared on my LCD screen but from my mother's words. It was one of the few moments during those confusing times of being a teen in a world I didn't really understand that I felt truly happy.
Over the next few days our relationship would begin to run its course. I feel that the Internet speeds up human emotions and interactions to a speed that isn't sustainable. As a result, love, or what I thought was love, could not last more than a few weeks online. We eventually broke up in this melodramatic way that involved his supposed brother getting on his AIM account and telling me that John was in their hot tub making out with some girl whose name I have blocked out. I didn't cry when I found this out; instead, I blocked him immediately and stared at my computer screen for a good hour before finally going to bed. We never spoke again.
As I get older and try to have relationships with people in the ways that are more socially acceptable, like going to movies or dinner, I think back to John. I think back to that moment when he said "I love you" in a message on my phone one summer afternoon as I was on my way home from tennis. And most of all I think about how happy I felt. In those two weeks of Internet dating, I learned the basics of dating and liking someone in an open and honest way, the basics you learn at 13 when the world is confusing and your hormones are raging. I learned them in a space that I felt safe.
When remembering my Internet boyfriend as a now-single 20-something gay man, I think about how important the Internet has become to LGBT folks, especially young ones. For the first time we have been given total access to one another that doesn't rely on geography or time. The Internet allows us to facilitate conversations with people from multiple backgrounds, multiple experiences, and multiple views. But most of all, what I found so important back in my early teens was that the Internet helped me feel empowered and legitimate. Online, I met so many men like me who were asking the same questions I was asking and wanting the same things I wanted. I felt right, and I felt that I was going to be OK.
So, I would like to say "thank you" to John. Thank you, even if you weren't "John" but someone else posing as this person you presented, because in the end you showed me that boyfriends, whether online or offline, are something I deserve, and that feeling loved is something I deserve even more. And most of all, you showed me that I was a normal 13-year-old boy.