Feature Cover Story

By Jeff Walsh, April 1995

Viewpoint: Logging on, coming out

from The Advocate, Issue #666, October 18, 1994, page 6

I was 23 when I accepted that I was gay. I remember it being such a rush to finally talk to other gay people on my home computer. At that point I thought falling in love and living a happy life were things I could never have. I'll also never forget how alone I used to feel after I shut off my computer because that was the only place my gay community existed.

I live in a conservative Catholic closeted town and at the time didn't know anyone else here. The only media coverage of gays was about pride parades or activists screaming with queer rage about AIDS. I needed much tamer images to help me accept myself. So every night while my parents slept upstairs, I'd spend hours in the basement on my computer. Normally I spent my time attempting to write a screenplay, which was about three teenagers trying to get their lives in order. All my writings included gay characters, though I never consciously put them in to deal with my own gay feelings. They always just seemed to work well in the story.

The script I was writing featured Paul, a gay teen, as one of the main characters. Whenever I wrote a scene involving Paul, however, I got writer's block. I would normally attribute it to my not being gay. How could I know what it was like to be a gay teen in high school?

I decided to take some time off from my writing after receiving a trial membership to America Online (AOL) computer network. I didn't plan to become a member, but a trial subscription offered ten free hours on-line. I figured I'd look around, grab some free files, and then cancel my membership. The night I planned to cancel, though, I found live on-line chat rooms where up to 23 people could talk on any subject. That night, a chat room existed for "hot young gay teens." This will be great, I thought. I can ask these guys what it's like being a gay teen.

I entered the room and informed everyone that I was a heterosexual screenwriter writing about a gay teen and needed to talk about what being a gay teen is like. Everyone was supportive, but the more everyone talked, the more confused I became. I'd had many of the same feelings they did growing up, so their stories didn't seem to only apply only to gay teens. So much for helping Paul.

I then arranged to meet one of the teens for a private on-line chat. I was hoping it would lead to more revelations, and it certainly did. When we met the next night in a private room, he willingly answered my questions. Then he asked me a few. I told him I had wondered whether I was gay but had attributed those feelings to my desire to overcome being overweight. I merely wanted to have a nice body like some of the guys I admired, but that was where it ended. I knew I didn't want the guy physically because I couldn't picture anything past nudity. If I had been gay or bisexual, I figured, I would have been able to picture sexual contact.

I talked with the teen on-line for a long time that night. He initially told me he was bisexual. Five hours and many questions later, we both typed to each other that we thought we were gay. As for my screenplay, it ended up being more catharsis than fiction and is still unfinished. I did, however, do a lot of work on what it meant to be gay that summer in 1992.

Since I still didn't have anyone local to talk with, I made on-line friends with guys all over the country. However, on-line services are not free, and my chats with my new friends -- as well as calls to some of them on the phone -- ran up large bills. Within three months I was broke, my credit card filled, and my entire paycheck going to pay my phone bills. I had to leave AOL and pay off my debt.

But my time on-line had indeed been fruitful. I started coming out to my mother and my co-workers. I began making friends locally and became the cochair of my university's gay student group. And when the semester started, I wrote gay columns in the student newspaper and for a local gay 'zine.

This year I was finally able to sign back on to AOL. This time, I'm 26, I'm comfortable about being gay, and I've even lost some weight. Now it's my turn to help others. I've talked to many people who are gay, some as young as 13, and I find it rewarding to be able to help them feel more comfortable about their sexuality.

The on-line world offers a lot more than just a chance to make new friends. With even the most basic computer, anyone can tap into a wide array of services. Gays on-line can E-mail President Clinton, make new friends, talk about gay issues in message boards, get support, or contact a number of national gay groups.

Just about everything you are looking for you can find on-line. In fact, within the past few weeks, I met someone on-line who lives close to me. We've been talking for a while now, and hopefully, we'll be getting together soon. So perhaps once again my computer will help me find something that's been missing in my life.

Jeff Walsh is a reporter in Kingston, Pa., and is working on his first novel. He can be reached at jeff@oasismag.com.

Reprinted from The Advocate, with the author's permission.

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