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Out in Cyberspace

The Modem as a Tool of Cautious Self-Discovery

March 11, 2001|WALTER G. MEYER | San Diego writer Walter G. Meyer is working on a book about his onlinecoming-out experience. He can be reached at WalterGMeyer@aol.com

I didn't plan to start the most important journey of my life on crutches. Actually, I didn't plan the journey at all.

It began the day of my knee surgery, when my friend Brian brought over pizza, beer and an AOL "free hours" disk to give me something to do while I recuperated. It was Feb. 29, 1996, an easy date to remember. Leap year.

Brian installed the software and showed me the basics.

"The chat rooms are great for scamming chicks," he said. He also warned me about the M4M rooms, where men looked for men. With that simple gesture of friendship, Brian unknowingly nudged me toward a destination I had longed for and feared: the gay world. I couldn't wait for him to leave.

My knee pain was small compared to the pain that had plagued me for most of my life. Growing up Catholic in a conservative Pennsylvania town, I recognized that I was attracted to boys in a way that the rest of my playmates were not. Not just in the sense that they were not yucky and did not have cooties, but that I liked them better.

I had my image as an altar boy to protect, and my fear of being different colored everything I did. Afraid even to glance at a boy too long, I learned to pass for straight and lived for 3 1/2 decades like a sentry, careful not to let my vigilance fail for a second. I seldom slept well--what if I mumbled something that gave me away? Remember, this was before Ellen DeGeneres made coming-out a prime-time television event.

I wasn't just naive. Even after I graduated from college and moved to Los Angeles, my head was stuck so deeply in the homophobic sand that I tried not to show the slightest interest in the gay world. I missed countless opportunities to end my isolation. I used to drive down Santa Monica Boulevard through West Hollywood, looking at the men on the sidewalks, wondering if they were homosexuals and if they might understand my misery. The only gay men I knew were nothing like me, including the very effeminate man who lived down the street from my family when I was growing up. He wore platform shoes, full-length bright red coats and carried a purse.

I like to play sports, hate the Miss America pageant and can't name a single Tony Award winner. Feeling too gay for the straight world and too straight for the gay world, I felt like a man trapped on the ledge of a burning building, terrified of the flames but even more afraid to leap. The derision reserved for "queers" was not something I wanted in my life; I dreaded the thought of being a target of such disdain.

I knew there had to be other men like me, but contacting them seemed as daunting as contacting life on another planet--until Brian handed me that AOL disk. Here was my ticket to an alternate and anonymous universe where I could be anyone I wanted--even the man I was meant to be.

Soon I was staying up all night and running up hourly charges, which by the end of the first month totaled more than $400. I spent bleary-eyed hours exchanging Instant Messages (IMs) with others who were traveling or had traveled the same road that I had just begun. In my computer, I saved copies of those electronic conversations with anonymous voices in the night.

*

Me: are you gay or bi or curious?

IM: I went from curious a year ago, to bi about 6 months ago, 'til now, where I think I am gay. confusing for me because until very recently, I didn't know masculine gay men existed. I am very masculine, but I also think I am gay. I am looking for other gay friends like me.

Me: You sound like you are going through just what I am going through.

*

My fellow explorers in this strange territory spoke in a language of their own.

Me: been str8 up 'til now.

IM: that's cool with me, I have only been accepting this for 3 years.

Me: how old are you?

IM: 36.

*

So many men like me were baring their souls to faceless strangers along the way. Some messages read like the roadside flares of travelers in distress . . .

IM: I guess I was looking for someone to talk with.

*

. . . and echoed with themes that became as familiar as fast-food restaurants along an interstate. Just as you can tell a waitress at a diner things you wouldn't tell your best friend, I was one of countless men online sharing my most private thoughts with other lost souls. There is freedom in knowing you'll never see this person again.

IM: I've fantasized, curious but nervous about it.

Me: why are you just thinking about trying it for real now?

IM: I don't know. probably because AOL provides the opportunity for increased curiosity . . . I'm not sure. I guess because the forum has presented itself.

*

And there was one recurring question as common as mileage markers: Are you str8-acting?

I heard plenty of harrowing tales.

IM: I'm 32. I have a 6 y/o son.

Me: so you weren't always gay.

IM: I was married for 51/2 years. I thought it was the right thing to do. at that time. Are you str8? Coming out?

Me: I wouldn't say coming out. experimenting at this stage, I would say.

IM: Oh, that's scary.

Me: what is?

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