The Difference between Gay Dating in New York and London

And whether anything has changed since the days of writing your phone number on scraps of paper

I’ve been asked twice in the last month what the difference is between gay dating in New York and London. It’s a hard question to answer because while I’ve lived in London for three years, I haven’t lived in New York City for 13. In the interval the Internet happened and that changed everything. Back in the day when I was in college in New York I met guys in person at bars and clubs. I used to have pick-up lines, and I learned which ones worked best by trial and error. What usually worked well was to compliment the guy on his clothes: “Hey, nice sneakers” or “Cool T-shirt.” I suppose before the pick-up line there might have been some exchange of eye contact, but more often I would just go right up to a guy before he even saw me and tell him I liked his shoes. A friend of mine told me the other day the shoe line wasn’t so great—but me, a cute, skinny 20-year old walking up to big muscle guys in their 30s and telling them I liked their shoes, that was probably hard to say no to. I should try the line again now and see how it works, now that I’m something of a muscle guy in my 30s. Or just see how often I get complimented on my shoes.

Next step after the pick-up line was to get the guy’s phone number. We’d go to the bar and ask the bartender for a pen. Then me and the guy would search through our wallets for old receipts or other scraps of paper, or maybe there’s be some flyers on the bar. Sometimes there’d even be a stack of little cards on the bar that said “Name:” and “Number:” and the bartender would smile at us like he was giving us his blessing. Occasionally the guy would write down his number on the back of his business card, but I only remember that happening with hairdressers.

There was always the option to go home with the guy too, but usually I’d just say “I have to find my friend” and head back out into the crowd and look for another guy to compliment him on his clothing. The goal was to get two or three phone numbers in one night, and over a whole weekend, at least four or five. Each number boosted my ego a bit more, and the more numbers I got the more chances I had for dates during the week. I’d choose the guy I liked the most out of the whole bunch, which was usually one of the last numbers I got, and schedule a date with him for Wednesday or Thursday. If the date was no good, of course I could go back to the other numbers I had collected (which I kept in a little mother-of-pearl box), but generally I’d just wait till Friday so I could get a new set of numbers.

After college in New York I moved to Taipei to study Mandarin and teach English. There the pick-up rules were way different. You couldn’t just go up to a guy you thought was hot. You had to send an emissary. I learned this the hard way: my first few weekends out I would just go straight up to a hot guy and ask him his name (I couldn’t compliment him on his shoes because my Chinese wasn’t that good yet), and he would act like nothing happened and not even look at me. I thought it was because I was reaching for guys out of my league, but once I started making Taiwanese friends they explained to me how it worked.

“Who do you like?” my friend Lulu (his drag name) asked me.

“That one.”

And Lulu walked over to him and talked to him for a bit. Then Lulu signaled for me to come over and introduced me: “This is my friend Brian.” From there I started talking to the guy, and eventually Lulu excused herself and left me alone with him.

“How do you know Lulu?” I asked him.

“I just met her now.”

So it was OK to go up and talk to a stranger if it was only in a friendly way, the way Lulu did. Soon enough I learned how to play both parts: the emissary and the prince he represents. While the whole arrangement at first seemed complicated eventually I saw the benefits. Walking around a bar telling guys you don’t know that you like their sneakers can be a little insincere. Also, if the guy ends up not liking you, there’s nothing really left to say. Whereas when you have a diplomatic go-between doing an introduction it makes the whole thing a social affair. If your emissary sees that you’re both into each other he’ll leave you alone together. If not he’ll stick around and make it seem like there was never any sexual intention in the first place, and you might all end up becoming friends.

Things worked the same way in Italy. You had to send an emissary. But Italians were harder, because everyone had a “grupetto,” his little group of friends who stood in a circle around him to protect him from anyone who might like him. Your emissary had to get past his grupetto, and since they’d all be talking to each other in a group, your emissary would somehow have to enter the conversation. He could only do that if he actually knew someone in the grupetto. That meant before I could start sending diplomatic representatives out ahead of me in all the bars and clubs in Rome I had to have a large enough network of friends to be able to penetrate all of the most important “grupetti” (plural of “grupetto.”)

That’s not to say that in people in Taiwan didn’t have their little groups too. I think the word in Mandarin was “qun.” After living in Taiwan for two years I had a nice little qun every time I went out. In fact I figured out that part of what made a person desirable was how big his little qun was. Having a group of people around you made it look like you were someone everyone wanted to be around. It also made it seem like you knew everybody at the bar and had arrived at that mysterious social level where you no longer met guys in bars but only at private parties and VIP-style events. Which meant that if your little qun was too big everybody wanted you but nobody came up to talk to you because they figured they didn’t have a chance. Being popular often means less scraps of paper with phone numbers in the mother-of-pearl box.

I lived in Italy for five years, and occasionally when I went home to visit New York I’d go out to a bar in the city. This is when I started to notice the difference between American guys and Italian guys. When you’re in a bar in New York, a guy comes right up to you and introduces himself:

“Hi, I’m Charles. What’s your name?”

And then he’ll keep on talking and asking questions:

“I work for Citibank. How about you?” “I live on 23rd Street. Where do you live?” “Do you have any brothers or sisters?” “Are you top or bottom?”

New Yorkers are so direct. It’s hard to be romantic when you’re direct. Italians know how to romance you. They do this by trying to confuse you. They’ll tell you everything except that they like you. In fact, they’ll tell you that they like other guys. They do this on purpose to see how it makes you react. If you get angry they know that you like them and so they keep on doing it so they can enjoy seeing how tortured you get. And if you don’t get angry they’ll keep on doing it until you finally do get angry. They call it “being jealous” (the angry person being the one who’s jealous.) It’s not very pleasant, but it keeps things tense and sexually charged.

My boyfriend Adriano was always the one who did it to me, try to make me jealous. But once when I started to feel like he was losing interest in me, I decided to pretend I was checking out other guys. Big mistake. Adriano lost his temper and accused me of being unsteady in my love for him. Then he didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day. I found this unbearable, so I apologized, told him I was joking, said that I was only pretending to check out other guys to make him jealous and see if he still liked me, and swore that he was the only guy I’d ever, ever want. Still he wouldn’t talk to me. I begged and pleaded, and got to the verge of crying. Then Adriano smiled and said, “Il mio piccolo è geloso.” [“My little baby is jealous.”] He had turned it around on me. Even when I initiated the game of jealousy, it was always him who got proof of my affection.

Another thing that was different about Italians was there was no such thing as dating. The word exists—“frequentare”—but when I used it once in a sentence and said “Sto frequentando Adriano” [“I’m dating Adriano”] my friends told me:

“No. ‘Frequentare’ means to date but we only have that word because it’s an English translation. Dating doesn’t exist here.”

“Well then what are me and Adriano?”

“How many times have you seen him?”


“Siete fidanzati.” [“You’re engaged” or “You’re fiancées.”] If you have sex with someone one time that’s just sex. If you have sex with someone a second time he’s your fiancée. Of course this thrilled me, because I had only been out with Adriano three times, and he was always making a point of how he thought every guy in the world was hot except me, which left me really confused about our dating status. But now I had confirmation from my Italian friends that Adriano and I had flown past the whole dating thing and were now, well, engaged. Suddenly I found the way he was trying to make me jealous all the time charming, because we were officially fidanzati.

After Italy I came to London. I had a boyfriend for a year and a half but he was Spanish, which perhaps puts him in the Mediterranean category like all the Italians, although actually Jon was Basque, which puts him in a category all his own. I’d like to be able to say what kind of category English guys go in but I haven’t dated enough of them to have a representative sample. There was one guy with a mustache who was really handsome. He used to laugh at all of my jokes, with a hardy, “Hah hah hah!” Every time: “Hah hah hah!” Not knowing English people very well, I thought maybe he was just being polite. So I asked him:

“I noticed you laugh at all of my jokes. I don’t know English people very well, so I thought maybe you’re being polite. Or do you really think I’m funny?”

“I really think you’re funny.”

You can’t beat that. I was ready to marry him. Of course if this had all happened in Italy we would have already been fiancées, because by now this was our fourth date. If it had happened in America my friend Ann from Bakersfield would ask whether or not we had had “the talk,” because “until you have the talk you gotta assume he’s screwing around on you, which means you’re allowed to screw around on him.” People from London, please let me know if you also do “the talk” here.

I talked to mustache guy for the first time on Scruff, a “location-based dating app.” What made me go for him was not just the handsome whiskered face, but the fact that he had his Twitter handle on there. What an easy way to check out a person’s sense of humor. From his Twitter page there was a link to his blog, and that was what really turned me on. I loved the way he wrote. If I hadn’t seen his blog I would have just thought he was another handsome guy with a mustache, and I might never have written to him. Of course not everyone puts his Twitter handle on his Scruff profile. A lot of guys put their Instagram handle. The difference between Twitter and Instagram for me is like the difference between picture books and non-illustrated books. When you’re a kid you read picture books and you think “Why would anyone ever want to read a book without pictures?” Then one day you get older and you discover the rest of the library, where the books don’t have pictures. I think the same thing happens with dating. No more picture-book guys for me. I like a guy who’s good with his words.

So I’m not sure what the difference is between gay dating in New York and London. But the difference between gay dating now and 13 years ago is that before I used to pick up guys by saying I liked their sneakers. Now I pick up guys by saying I like how they write. The Internet is good for something.

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