The Writing Life: Field Research
Not too long ago, homosexuality was considered a mental illness. Sexual acts between two men, even consenting adults, were illegal in all fifty states. Institutionalized homophobia and the risk of physical harm combined to make meeting someone a challenge. Out of necessity, gay dating practices evolved to fly beneath the radar.
Imagining this reality is difficult for straight people. Staring at an attractive member of the opposite sex across a crowded room rarely leads to an ass-whupping. Whether or not the object of your affection feels the same way about you is one thing. Worrying he might beat you up or even kill you if he knew is something all together different.
Being straight gives you the opportunity to select a life partner from a very large pool of prospects — essentially, everyone you know of the opposite sex in the appropriate age range. Even now, depending on where you live, meeting one gay person can be a challenge. In this context, the search for Mr. Right more often turns up Mr. Good Enough or Mr. Right Now.
When I first came out, gay bars were just about the only place to meet someone. Sure, I could have hung out in city parks, public restrooms, bus stations, dirty bookstores, and other equally appealing venues. But they didn’t come with dance floors and serve cocktails, so I did all my fishing in the barrel we called The Bar.
Classified ads were the only other option. Hundreds of explicit, text-only ads filled the back pages of a handful of gay magazines. A friend placed an ad in a single issue and ended up with a shoebox full of letters from around the world. Many included Polaroid pictures of the sender — or parts of him — in his birthday suit. My friend looked up interesting prospects when he travelled and met many of his correspondents in person over the years. And yes, it was a friend. Placing an ad and waiting weeks for replies required too much advanced planning for my spontaneous spirit.
Now, thanks to smartphones, hook-up apps are the rage. I didn’t realize until I heard a story on NPR that they haven’t developed a successful model for straight folks, mostly because of safety risks for women. Men are such animals. The same risks exist for gay men, but most of us — especially those who’ve been around as long as I have — learned to be cautious and avoid putting ourselves in risky situations.
Curious about this new development in the world of dating and how I might incorporate this technology into my novels, I decided to investigate. For the last six months, I’ve conducted undercover field research into the high-tech world of modern gay dating. In the weeks ahead, I’ll be reporting on what I’ve learned as a participant-observer.
Oh the sacrifices we writers make for our craft. My readers demand it, right? (Please say yes.) Stay tuned for details that promise to be true enough for government work.