Craigslist’s free classified-style personal ads are to-the-point. They begin with height, weight, and hair colour. 5’11, 175 lb, red, is how mine looked.
Many of the ads go straight into intimate details with the delicacy of a bulldozer – role in bed (top or bottom), penis length, and whether or not the guy is circumcised. Then he describes what he’s looking for – most often something quick and dirty.
That’s not what I was looking for, but when I first went online to look for a boyfriend, I didn’t know of any free dating sites. Five years ago, when I was 20, it seemed you couldn’t build a profile, upload images, and message prospective dates unless you were prepared to pay.
Craigslist assembled more gay men on one screen than I encountered during months at a time. After coming out at 18, I assumed the rest – courtship, love, relationship — would come easily. Instead, it felt like I had broken through a huge wall, only to find an empty landscape on the other side.
On Craigslist, I isolated the posts seeking more than just a shag — glimmers of emotional warmth.
I don’t remember much of the first post I created, though it was probably something along the lines of “Likes art, music, writing. Looking for a relationship.”
I don’t remember the name of the first man I went on a date with, but I remember my excitement. The guy held up a conversation on MSN chat, and he looked potentially handsome in his photo. He was Swedish, even.
For all my noble interest in finding more than just a lay, I still packed condoms in my jean pocket – the condoms that are given out at university parties and dances to encourage safe sex, which I had carefully saved.
I first saw him as I rolled up on my bicycle to the sidewalk outside the Loblaws on Rideau Street in Ottawa, our arranged meeting place. He was a bit stocky, with a wide face and dark hair.
As I would find, over years of first dates arranged online, the first glimpse is often disappointing. Often, men shrink, shrivel, flatten in real life, compared to their snapshots. The pictures have a certain glow, and I always assume, with earnest hope, that they look that way at every second. The biggest difference is perhaps posture. Men who in photographs seem to hold their chin high, meeting the world with eager eyes, seem to deflate into slumped-shoulder versions in real life – not there to conquer the world, but merely there, okay. I assume men have the same reaction when they meet me.
That first man was an exchange student studying at the elite Cordon Bleu cooking school. He proudly showed me burn marks on his arms that came from the inside of an oven, shrugging them off. We went for a walk in a park and sat at a picnic table. The grass was fully green, vibrant, and the sun was blinding.
I remember that even after I mustered up the courage to tell him I wasn’t interested, and he said he understood, he still asked me if I trimmed my pubic hair. This struck me as inappropriate.
Over the next couple of years, the internet dating scene got more sophisticated. The desperate horniness of Craigslist evolved into Plenty of Fish, with its free profiles, pictures, and messages.
The Cadillac of free online dating, OkCupid, followed, with more ways to describe yourself and a bright-coloured design that seems sharp, hip, and shameless. Plenty of Fish is a mix of seedy pale blues and greys, and Craigslist is nondescript blue-and-white text.
Suddenly, there was a whole pool of men who had interests, hobbies, careers and clichés. These men mostly seem to be looking for a relationship. The number of dates I went on multiplied.
On some, I can tell I won’t be interested before we even say hello. A tall red-headed architecture student’s first word only sealed the deal, nasal and delivered with beady eyes that stared at me intently, deconstructing.
More disappointing still are another type of date: the Queen’s student in a polo shirt, with round lips and a hesitant confidence, who met my “I’d like to see you again” with a non-committal “Find me on Facebook.” The radio host, nine years older than me, who for a short time held the record for most successful date ever: three hours where his eyes seemed trained like lasers on me, while he made sexual jokes and asked me questions. Three or four dates led to one fumbling night, after which all his interest seemed to die.
My most awkward date was with a man who had a hearing disability. We met in a coffee shop in the neighbourhood where I grew up, and at one point, he asked me how my parents reacted when I came out. As I tried to answer quietly, he kept yelling, “What?” As I projected my coming-out story across the table, I half expected to turn around and see the parents of some high school friends.
I still only rarely meet new men my age in my day-to-day life, and when I do, they’re usually straight. I’ve gone out to gay clubs, but these places feel a bit like the Craigslist meat market in three dimensions.
The dates I arrange over the Internet are less frequent than before. I’ll go a month or two without logging on.
But every time I go on another first date, as I’m walking up to the coffee shop, I feel a little excitement, nervousness, apprehension. I’ve come to temper it heavily with a thought: this is just another step in the screening process. But still — the deep darkness of possibility lies ahead.