The Queer Issue
That thing where you're at a gay bar, and summer is new, and people are dancing, and everyone's sweating, and a guy you've been watching notices and moves closer. That thing where the two of you then get near enough that your sweat begins to commingle, and then his fly presses against yours, or maybe it was yours that pressed against his first. That thing where it ceases to matter who went first, because what's now being communicated with certainty, through both pairs of pants, is that you'd both like them off, even if that's for later and now is for sticking to each other here on the dance floor, wrapped in music and heat.
That thing where his neck cranes round so he can get his lips near your ear to say first words to you, and you take in his scent, and as his mouth moves, his lips brush your lobe, your helix, your antitragus, your concha—folds of your ear you've never had names for but that are now shooting currents through your whole body. That thing where, message delivered, you unwind your necks, eyes locking for an instant, and then rewind them a different way so that you can deliver your response.
That will simply never happen for two guys as they are meeting on Grindr. No matter how much money is raised to make Sizzr, it will never happen for two ladies as they are meeting there, either. And no matter how many people you sext on Scruff, no matter how many Facebook stalks become "pokes" and then chats, no matter what online intermediary people put between themselves and first contact with other humans, that mediated contact will lack something.
You can imagine you feel breath against your skin while alone, online, and "connected." I have imagined I felt it. And I have poked, back when people still poked, and I have chatted, and I have had letters unspool before my eyeballs that became strong sensations. But these were all imagined sensations. Not one of them was real, not in the way of a lick that slowly evaporates off the skin, an actual, physical transmutation of spit into vapor, as opposed to some virtual vapor of intimacy.
I would go online, and I would meet him—finally! Him!—but he was inevitably invented. Even when I laid eyes on him through video chat, he was invented. I created stories about him that were amazing, but they were fictions. He would tell me stories about himself, and for all I knew, they were amazing fictions, too. It's so easy to forget this while online. It's so easy to focus on the thrills of self-declaration, of manipulation with less consequence, of voyeurism, of fantasy, of the improbable relationship that's being forged with one individual out of all the possible individuals out there with internet connections (which is so many more people than could ever fit in a gay bar, and therefore so much more stunning, in its way, than a connection on a dance floor).
But when it begins in this way, it begins differently. It begins without the opportunity to inspect—up close—the cracks in his self-presentation, and for him to do the same with you. It begins without the possibility of exiting the bar together and seeing his truck, and learning he drove all the way from Silverdale, that's how bad he wanted it. It begins without seeing some other guy in the bar shake his head, warning you off the mistake you're about to make. It begins without you being able to literally smell that something's not right.
True, there are times when first meetings must be done by computer—when there is no gay space for miles and no truck to get to one in any case, or when the searcher is from a sexual sliver of the gay population. The internet is magic for rarities seeking rarities. But this is not how the majority of homos use the internet today. If it were, then Grindr would not be such a massive, mainstream homosexual success.
It's a success that seems equally about convenience and avoidance. On Grindr, you avoid the possibility of catching his eye across the dance floor and having his look say back to you, in front of all your friends: "Don't even bother." And, if all you ever do is fondle your app and nothing more, then you're at little risk of catching that new, sometimes-deadly strain of meningitis that's been spreading among gay men in New York City.
But hardly anyone uses Grindr in just this limited way, and so the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has specifically warned men who meet each other through cell-phone apps to be more cautious. It has issued the same warning, by the way, to men who meet "at a bar or party." Which is the thing about the old-fashioned way: It carries all the risks of the newfangled way, and more.
It also carries more reward, for the senses, from a kind of connectedness that only comes when one human encounters another human in physical space. I'll take that deal over any other. An arm brushed at an art gallery. A clumsy excuse made to start a conversation on the bus, or in a park, or at a cafe. An introduction made by a friend, in an elaborate and totally transparent setup. Or a collision on a soccer field, which is how I met my current boyfriend. He knocked me down. Then he scored on me. A year later, we moved in together. If I had been mediated that day, remote from physical reality, digitally screened off from the more intense forms of emotional vulnerability, then I wouldn't have been able to fall for him.
Eli Sanders (@elijsanders) is an associate editor at The Stranger and the winner of a 2012 Pulitzer Prize. For the record, he’s since scored on his boyfriend.