The other night while at dinner with my roommate and a friend the subject of Lena Dunham’s show Girls came up. I, at the time, had not seen this show, which has caused quite the ruckus this past year, but told my friend that due to her deep infatuation I would give it a chance. The next night I began watching it and became regretfully hooked. I am not going to turn this into a review of Dunham’s work, but through watching it, specifically episode 8 where she reads a horrible story about her internet boyfriend, an experience I have kept locked up deep, deep down in the dark corridors of my mind came to the surface. A memory named John.
John and I had met in an Internet chat room when people still used AIM like we now use Facebook. During my early teen years I would spend hours upon hours on AIM talking to friends during the day and evenings, and once it hit night, and my family was asleep, I would log onto the chat rooms where I first learned to be gay. Ask most gay man in their 20’s about the first time they interacted with another gay man and they will cite the internet. The Internet was the first place that I could “play,” or better yet, try out different aspects of myself that I had yet to really understand. Some days in the chat rooms I would be super-masc Zach that played lots of sports and really wanted to just chat with other dude about dude stuff with dudes who liked dude. Other days I was Zach the stereotypical gay that would lie about having tons of sex and dating tons of boys in my town, which was so not true at all.
Eventually, I would become Zach, the AIM user who was looking for love — well love in the ways we imagine it at thirteen (see: Taylor Swift). But the problem was that I was a gay boy that could not even begin to experience the kind of teenage love that my hetero-friends got to experience in Jr. High and High School. This is why I stuck to the chat rooms. I could make my own T.Swift love story from the comfort of my home and not have to worry about getting my face pounded in by some random redneck if I’d gone on a real date with a real boy in a real place. In this place, this place of fear, this place of wanting to meet a boy, this place of wanting to really understand myself, I found John in a chat room one summer night.
I don’t remember the specifics of how we moved our interaction from the main chat room to the more private and romantic area of private chat, but it did happen. What I do remember is the first conversation:
Zach: 14/m/Tennessee (note the 1 year added to my age)
That’s how digital love starts: picture sharing. I didn’t send him a picture of myself, but rather a picture of my best friend at the time who played football. (Sorry, Ethan.) And he sent me a picture of a boy I at the time assumed was he — blonde, athletic for a 16 y/o, tall, and all those stereotypical things — but now I know it was probably some photo he jacked from the “hot dude” at his high school. Great minds think alike.
We would talk for hours upon hours. This was around the same time that AIM was mobile compatible, which meant that you would receive messages via SMS, unlike the current high-tech iPhones that allow applications that facilitate instant messaging. One moment that stands out to me most during our two-week relationship was when he first sent me a message that just said, “I love you.” I was in the car with my mom who was driving me home from tennis practice.
I guess upon reading the message I began to glow or do something that caught my mom’s attention. She asked me, “Why are you smiling so big? Who just made you this happy.” I remember nervously giggling and squirming in my seat, “No one, a friend just sent me something funny.” She saw through this lie and said to me, “I can’t wait for you to fall in love. I remember my first love when I was your age. It was the best feeling in the world, I can’t wait to meet this person that makes you that happy.” I remember feeling comfort from those words, feeling love from not only the message that appeared on my LCD screen, but also by my mother’s words. It is one of the moments during those confusing times of being a teen in a world you don’t really understand that I felt truly happy.
Over the next few days, our relationship would begin to run its course. I feel that the internet always speeds-up all human emotions and interactions to a speed that isn’t sustainable, thus love, or what I thought was love, online could not last more than a few weeks. We eventually broke up in this melodramatic way that involved his supposed brother getting on his AIM account and telling me that John was in their hot tub making out with some girl whose name I have blocked out. I didn’t cry when I found this out, but instead blocked him immediately and stared at my computer screen for a good hour before finally going to bed. We never spoke again.
As I get older and try to have relationships with people in the ways that are more socially acceptable like going to movies or dinner I think back to John. I think back to that moment when he said “I love you” in a message on my phone one summer afternoon on my way home from tennis. And I think most of all about how happy I felt. In those two weeks of Internet dating I learned the basics in dating and liking someone in an open and honest way; the basics you learn at thirteen and the world is confusing and your hormones are raging. I learned them in a space that I felt safe.
When I was thirteen in a town outside of Nashville I was not allowed to interact with my love interests like my straight peers. Friday nights at the movies were constant reminders that Peter and Jill got to hold hands throughout the movie, but Peter and Zach better not touch in a way that challenges notions around what being a real boy means. At thirteen I could never tell a boy in real life that I loved him, and expect him to say that back and the world to understand. At thirteen I couldn’t be me in real life, so from my metaphoric closet in the hills of Tennessee, I found myself by peering through a window in that closet, a chat window at a boy named John, who I have yet to forget.
Remembering my Internet boyfriend as a now single twenty-something gay man I think about how important the internet has become to LGBT folks, especially young ones. For the first time in the world we have been given total access to one another that doesn’t rely on geography or time. The Internet allows us to facilitate conversations with people from multiple backgrounds, multiple experiences, and multiple views. But most of all, what I found so important back in my early teens was that the Internet helped me feel empowered and legitimate. I met so many men online like me who were asking the same questions I was asking and wanting the same things I wanted. I felt right and I felt that I was going to be okay.
So, I would like to say thank you to John. Thank you even if you weren’t John but someone else posing as this person you presented. Because in the end you showed me boyfriends, whether online or offline, are something I deserve and feeling love is something I deserved even more. And you showed me that I was a normal thirteen-year-old boy just looking to be liked, just like everyone else.