AOL/YouTube

Over a hundred gay men descended upon the same Manhattan hotel last week for a "Scruff meet-up" of sorts, though probably not the kind you're picturing. The gathering was held in honor of the sixth anniversary of Scruff: a geolocation-based mobile app that many gay men—as well as plenty of LGBTQ folks who don't identify as gay men—use to meet other people for sex, dating, friendship, articles they're writing, and even professional networking [citation needed].

While apps like Scruff, Grindr, Tinder, and Jack'd have been accused of everything from "ruining romance" to killing off queer nightlife, I'd suggest we consider their place within a different legacy. LGBTQ people have long used digital spaces as a means of connecting with others like themselves. From pre-AOL message boards to the deepest pockets of social media, the internet gives queer and trans people the chance to create online communities and relationships that affirm their identities in a way that the straight, cisgender-dominant world they inhabit offline does not—although racism, internalized homophobia, and other IRL biases always find a way into these supposedly self-affirming spaces for marginalized people. Scruff et al. are simply among the latest technological means through which we've learned how to make those connections.

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The Scruff partygoers at the Time Hotel's LeGrande cocktail lounge last Thursday varied in age from their early twenties to mid-forties and beyond. I wondered what kind of stories they could tell about meeting other gay people in the pre-smartphone age.

Scruff VP of marketing Joey Dubé (middle) and drag entertainer Blake Deadly (far right) pose for the Scruff anniversary party photo booth.
John Walker

"CompuServe," a man named Doug told me when I asked him if he remembered the first online tool he ever used to meet other gay people like himself. "That's how old I am!"

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CompuServe was an internet service provider that was basically the AOL of the '80s. It was later acquired by AOL, and—wait, we all know what AOL is, right? Oh, god. Anyway, Doug, who works as a system engineer at Scruff, described CompuServe as an almost "bulletin board"-like system with many chat rooms, a number of which were LGBTQ-oriented.

"This was all text-based chat," he told me. "No pictures, no photos, no Skyping, no camming, or anything like that. It was very low level. If you did exchange photos, it would take a good 15 minutes [to download]. The early days!"

ZDNet

From web 1.0 to whatever point oh we're in now, the answers I got from guys at Scruff's anniversary party told me a lot about the time period in which they each individually came out of the closet, or at least began exploring their sexual identity on their own terms. For Scruff founder and CEO Eric Silverberg and Scruff VP of marketing Joey Dubé, picture the AOL chatrooms of the mid-'90s. For a man named Chris, who works in product management at an online retailer based in New York, and another man named Derek, a performer based in New York, that space was Craigslist's M4M personals.

"I would go to [my high school's] library and have an hour and a half on the computer…to see if there was someone who was interested in meeting me," Derek told me while "Into You," Ariana Grande's song of the summer also-ran, attempted to drown him out. "The first person I ever met from the internet picked me up in his truck, and we went and saw Brokeback Mountain together in theaters."

Let's pause for a moment to silently scream in empathy at baby gay Derek's terrible, horrible, no good, very well intentioned first gay movie date.

"It was the scariest thing in the world because we didn't say a word to each other," he continued. "Just pure stress and tension… That was the first time that I ever hooked up with someone."

"Wait," he added. "We didn't even hook up."

A freelance film director I spoke with told me that in a time before Google Maps, much less gay sex apps, he once literally wandered the streets in the hopes of stumbling on a gay club. "I didn't know any gay people at school, and there wasn't any Grindr or Scruff," he said. "I think if, at that time, there had been an app [like that], that would have made my experience much more positive."

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Being able to casually scroll through an endless, four-by-infinity grid of queer dudes within a 15-mile radius at the touch of a button would have definitely made those years more convenient. Take it from Blake Deadly, one of the Scruff anniversary party's hired drag queen entertainers. At only 23 years old, Blake has been able to use apps like Tinder and Jack'd for as long as they've been of age.

"The first online dating app I ever had was Grindr," Blake, who performs at bars and clubs all over Manhattan and Brooklyn, said. "I got Grindr when I was 18, so I guess I've never been an adult in the dating world without dating apps. Like, I've never had the experience of not having [them]… I always think about that because I can't [imagine] what that would have been like to move to go to college or move somewhere new and just meet people in person. As long as I've been dating, there have been dating apps, and that's totally informed how I interact with people."

I remember one time, when I was about 10 or 11 years old, my brother had forgotten to log out of his AOL account on my family's desktop computer. He had wisely given himself our family's master account, you see, meaning that he had zero parental controls restricting his web access. Knowing this, I began frantically typing in a bunch of super literal, super sexy website names like "dicks dot com" only to be met with inaccessible paywall after inaccessible paywall plastered with the waxed and tan bodies of men doing their best Queer as Folk cosplay. You won't be surprised to hear that I—a boy who thought "dicks dot com" would be the hot website to check out—forgot to clear my browsing history before logging out of my older brother's AOL account. He brought this up years later when he discovered my gay-identified MySpace profile in 2005, the very same MySpace profile my mom also found and confronted me about while driving me home from school.

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And two years before that traumatic 30-minute car ride, most of which I seem to have blocked out of my memory, I came out on AIM to a fictional user my friends had created to catfish secrets out of me. (This was in 2003, so we wouldn't have used the word "catfish" at the time.) A few days later, I made the news public—at least for everyone beyond my immediate family—with a post on LiveJournal.

Later that summer, I met up with a guy from the internet for the first time. We found each other on a website called Gaia Online. That fact has always blown my mind. Unlike the sites I'd later use to date and hook up with people, like PlanetOut, Gay.com, XY, and DList, Gaia Online was not in any way, shape, or form a gay dating site. It was a social networking community for pubescent anime freaks who'd outgrown Neopets, where they could play games, earn coins, and buy new outfits for their JRPG-derivative character sprites.

Something about my sprite's pixellated angel wings and matching teal tuxedo must have caught this slightly older teenager's eye, and we started DMing. Eventually, we learned that we both lived in the same small Central Massachusetts suburb and decided to meet up. I walked three miles across town, Ziploc baggie PB&J in hand, to join him on his lunch break. We sat in absolute silence for about 45 minutes as we painstakingly chewed our respective meals. Three months later, I went down on a classmate after he invited me over to his place over AIM.

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As much as I hate to succumb to some normative understanding of teenage sexuality, there's a part of me that still feels kind of embarrassed about meeting strange men off the internet. Embarrassed about disregarding every possible lesson To Catch a Predator sought to impart in the hopes of finding anyone to make out with me. Embarrassed about how my teenage self reacted to my own marginalization, essentially.

But I wasn't the only one. There, standing in that hotel bar at the Scruff anniversary party, were more than one hundred other gay men who had traversed similar paths in the years before and after I joined my first queer community on LiveJournal or set the record straight on my non-straight sexuality via MySpace and Facebook's profile settings. We all might have been freaky teenage deviants forging queer identities in less than acceptable ways using whatever contemporary technology we had at our disposal, but at least we were deviants together, even if we were on our own.

Bad at filling out bios seeks same.