News - March 1996

Beyond the lies: How bad it really is online for gay teens

By Richard Harrold
Special to Oasis

There has been a lot of discussion in Congress over how to "protect" children from "harmful" material on the Internet. The primary concern appears to be pornographic material, with a great deal of attention paid to illicit images with child subjects. But there is also concern over pederasts roaming the Net and cruising for boys.

Even the Associated Press has hopped on the child predator bandwagon with stories written by journalists who allegedly have gone under cover and posed as young teens only to be reportedly ravaged in hyperspace by vile gay men.

Whatever happened to straight forward investigative reporting when journalists posed as no one but themselves and simply asked direct questions?

That is what this writer did -- logged onto the Internet and asked gay teens what life in cyberspace was like for them. The response was virtually unanimous. Gay teens across America said without Internet access, many of them would have no access at all to gay culture, information, or material on AIDS and safer sex practices.

Always identified as a gay journalist writing an article about gay teens on the Internet, I asked teens what the Internet meant to them and did they experience problems with adults trying to cajole them into cyber sex or even into face-to-face meetings.

What I found was that teen who use the Internet are generally fairly intelligent, know the perils of cyberspace, deserve more credit than they receive, and are generally more bold in some respects because of the anonymity the Internet offers them.

"After about a month of playing around on the (Internet Relay Chat) I found the (gaychat) channel on the channel list," said Yo, a 17-year-old in northern Indiana.

All of the teen names used in this article are "nicks" they use on the IRC.

"My reaction was -- Cool, I finally have someone to talk to!" Yo said.

That sensation of relief, of "I am not alone!" is one felt by many teens when they find the gay oriented channels on the IRC, a system of live talk Internet channels that connect Net users from around the world.

In Yo's case, that sense of isolation was fairly acute. Living in a small Indiana town of about 15,000, the teen said he was raised in a Catholic family and attended a small high school.

He recognized his first attractions to other boys at age eight, and learned to put a name to that attraction by age 11.

But in his hometown, there are no gay magazines, no materials available in his school, and when the townspeople talk about gays, it's generally in derogatory ways, Yo said.

"When I realized I was gay, I wanted to change myself," Yo said. "I dated girls a lot to try and fool myself. Now I still do, just so others don't see anything wrong with me."

But not every teen in a small, rural community had negative experiences to relate.

Michael, 18, grew up in a rural Oklahoma community of about 10,000. He told his high school counselor (the student population there was 500) he was gay when he was a freshman. By the time he was a junior, he had told most of his friends and his mother.

"I knew I liked boys from the time I was a little kid," said Michael. "I put a name to it when I was 12. I figured if I wanted to be happy, I better accept it."

Now attending college in Kansas, Michael said he uses the IRC to communicate with other gays and has even established some transcontinental friendships.

The belief that teens in urban areas have it easier when it comes to coming out, or that they have greater access to materials on gay life and issues, is a myth debunked by the teens themselves.

OhioBoy17 lives in a small community near Toledo and is a senior at a vocational high school.

"I am very much in the closet," OhioBoy17 said when I first talked to him on the IRC. "I don't want to be gay, I want to be normal."

The teen said he was trapped in the closet because he feared he would lose his friends and be rejected by his family. But after a month of talking on the IRC, something happened to OhioBoy17.

The next time I saw him on the IRC he told me he had come out to most of his friends and to some people in his family.

"It's such a relief," he said. "I feel a lot better now."

A great deal of media hype has been focused on pederasts using the Internet to manipulate teens into face-to-face meetings. While it is true instances of adults conning youths into meetings have occurred (a man is currently charged in suburban Detroit for meeting an 11-year-old on line and molesting the boy), reporting on the issue has often transcended fairness into the realm of outright fabrication.

The most famous example is of the Oregon youth who met another boy in San Francisco. When first reported, the media portrayed the situation as the Oregon boy of 16 went to meet an adult man. But when the truth was revealed that the 16-year-old went to meet another teen, none of the fallacious stories were retracted and readers were left with an impression the Internet was filled with child predators.

The Associated Press sent the following over the wire Aug. 29 regarding a 15-year-old girl lured by a man to a Miami motel where she was raped:

"The arrest is one of the latest in a series of cases involving adults allegedly cruising cyberspace, looking for children for sex ... The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has recorded more than a dozen cases of cyberspace courting by pedophiles in the past year"

More than a dozen cases? The latest in a series? The fact is anyone who goes to their local district court to see the docket will find the majority of adult/child sex crimes are committed by heterosexual men against females victims, and most often the victim was related to the perpetrator, or the perpetrator was a member of the victim's household. And in any single county, more than a dozen such cases happen every year. In some counties, hundreds of the cases happen every year.

The youths I interviewed on the Net said they had encountered some "persistent" men, but in most cases they are easily dealt with. Yo said he thinks come-ons from older men are funny. He reacts by being polite, but ignores them.

The IRC allows users to type in commands that screen unwanted messages. Users may also log on without showing their e-mail address, which prevents unwanted e-mail as well.

But despite some risks, the teens interviewed were willing -- even eager -- to tell their stories. Todd, a 15-year-old from an upstate New York city of 35,000 was so eager to be interviewed, he requested I call him at home.

When I reminded him he knew nothing about me and was about to give a complete stranger his phone number, he typed in:

<Todd> Well, if you try anything funny, I'll kill you...:)

Todd told me he began his own bulletin board service (BBS) at his high school and through that he met his first gay friend. Now he logs onto the IRC almost daily because it provides him a great avenue for expression.

The role the Internet plays in his life is very significant because as far as he knows, there are no gay youth organizations in his community, Todd said.

"It would definitely close up a chunk of my social life if I lost the Internet," he said.

Dealing with overly-eager men on the chat channels is the least of the worries expressed by these youth. Primary issues they expressed were safety and availability of information.

Jason16 of rural North Carolina said he finds the IRC to be his sole access to information about gay life. The 16-year-old said he lives in a "very redneckish" community.

Still dealing with his own sexuality, Jason16 said he's not out and not about to come out.

"I know of two men that were beaten up, one of them was killed," Jason16 said. "I don't go anywhere alone anymore."

Mixed messages and negative attitudes are, perhaps, the single most cited reason for remaining uncertain about one's sexuality, these youth said.

"Of course it's an issue," said Rafiki, an 18-year-old from rural West Virginia. "I'm living in a world where I have to keep parts of myself secret."

"I'd kill to be normal," said LuNaTiC, a 13-year-old from an upscale Massachusetts community.

In most cases, older teens said it wasn't until they reached college that final acceptance was achieved.

"I was very scared of how I would handle everything," said limbo, an 18-year-old now attending the University of California-Davis.

Self acceptance came to limbo, he said, through support from friends, and a lot of thinking "about myself and how I wanted to live the rest of my life."

Use of the Internet helped, but limbo said it would have been much easier if his family had been more educated about gay issues and had material and information been more openly available at his high school in San Jose, Calif.

"High school and gay society?" said TomCrew, an 18-year-old who lives near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC. "The two definitely do not mix. I don't know a single person in my school that is gay, and it's taboo to mention unless you have close friends you could tell."

"My uncle died of AIDS," said Syd, a teen who would not identify his age or location. "Dad says that if I ever bring a boy home, I will be disowned."

The sincerity of some of the expression that goes on over the IRC between the teens themselves is at times admirable.

"It's really the only outlet for being my true self," said Escavalon about the IRC.

Despite living in Philadelphia, the 17-year-old Escavalon said he was unaware of any gay youth support groups, and even if he did, he would be fearful to attend them.

"Suppose you did run into someone you knew at one of these groups?" I asked Escavalon. "Aren't you both there for the same reason?"

"Oh yeah, you're right," he responded. "I never thought of it that way."

Unfortunately, I didn't find many young women on the gay chat channels, as most of the users are men. And those women I did find were reluctant to be interviewed. But regardless of that, there is a world out there on the IRC filled with young people who are searching, asking each other questions, and dodging the self-centered advances of self-absorbed older men.

Meanwhile, the debate continues in Congress over how to regulate the Internet, which is probably impossible given the international access it provides.

The personal computer has allowed gay society to make tremendous strides not only with the chat channels that are available, but with the news groups and other discussion groups. Information on incidents and organizations can be transferred across the nation for virtually no cost and instantaneously.

Protecting that access and its full potential is something we need to pay attention to. Consider these final remarks by Infinite, a 15-year-old in southern Texas.

"I live in homophobe city," Infinite said. "Where I live there is no information on lesbigay topics. And if there ever was, I'm sure people would make a big commotion and get the material banned."

Richard Harrold, 37, is a staff writer for the Morning Sun, a daily newspaper in Mt. Pleasant, MI. He's also been published in Grand Rapids Magazine, Liberty: A Magazine of Religious Freedom, Bozeman Daily Chronicle (Bozeman, MT), The Bozeman Free Press (Now defunct), The Ruidoso News (Ruidoso, NM) and Out Spoken (gay weekly publication in Detroit area, but now out of circulation). He lives with his spouse, Alan, who is 21, and is working on a novel. Reprinted with permission.
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