When William was on his way to work, he received an unexpected message from the doctor: could he come to the surgery in one hour’s time?
As a million dire thoughts raced through his mind, William, a 34-year-old teacher from Sydney, Australia, began to experience an anxiety attack. His first reaction was to call his friend Marcos in Brazil.
William and Marcos refer to one another as “the best friend I’ve never met.” The pair connected through social media and send daily messages — both voice and text — via WhatsApp. Unlike those in Sydney, Marcos understands him: the two have cried together, helped each other, but will probably never meet. It is, William acknowledges, not exactly a conventional friendship — but he believes it’s also the closest that he’ll ever get to one.
“I’m a shy, quiet person who has always struggled socially,” he explains to the writer.
As a teenager, he was bullied badly for being gay. As an adult, he experienced “the cold, distant hands of disapproval” from the gay community. The reason? “Probably because I don’t have a gym body or an attractive face,” he says with a half-smile.
Still, even someone intrinsically shy realised that he had to make some effort, still believed there was someone like him, maybe even for him, out there — probably in hiding too.
William reckons he’s lost count of all the cafes and bars he’s sat in meeting men whom he had spent anywhere from the past hour to year chatting with, never to see or hear from them again. It sounds dramatic, he admits, but in the end, he had to admit defeat.
“In the gay world, cyber friends from far away are all I have,” William says. “In a way, it suits me. It’s harder to be disappointed, or to disappoint others.”
It’s no secret that gay men are lonely.
There are no boundaries to isolation; when you’re friendless, San Francisco could be Siberia. People, regardless of gender or sexuality, have struggled with loneliness since time immemorial, and it’s a struggle that shows no signs of disappearing — certainly not as long as humans think that liking someone’s Facebook status or Instagram picture can constitute real friendship.
“Gay men are more lonely than straight men,” declared therapist Adam Blum in the Advocate. If this sounds like a sweeping generalisation, consider his (very valid) point that, as children, gays experience more rejection, and continue to encounter it through to adulthood.
A common frustration amongst gay men is that many feel punished for not having the right physique, and become prisoners of their own bodies. This is never truer than in the online world. Need proof? Founder of Grindr, Joel Simkhai acknowledged it himself.
“Looks are so important,” he told The Independent. “It’s like, you walk into a bar and you decide who you’re going to talk to based on whether you’re attracted to them. It’s the way that we are as men: visual creatures.”
So, while William and Marcos have forged a deep connection through cyberspace, there are countless others who look to the internet for a salvation, only to find themselves scrutinized by the judgemental eyes of others.
LGBT counsellor Clinton Power points out that having cyber relationships of any kind is not a black and white issue. There are negatives, of course.
“One of the most common complaints I hear about connecting with men on dating/hook up apps like Grindr and Scruff is many men feel even more lonely and disconnected after using them,” he says.
“The constant use of these apps can also contribute to low self-esteem and lack of confidence. If you’re constantly being rejected or ghosted, you can understand how it might affect someone.”
That said, he also acknowledges that “men who are geographically isolated and struggle to connect with other men may consider such apps as a lifeline to meet like-minded people and potentially form new friendships.”
Bed-time doesn’t exist for Fernando.
The 23-year-old has been struggling with depression since adolescence. Like so many gay men, his story is scarily similar: the bullies who scarred him indelibly remain in control of his life even though school has long been out. A loner, he has been unable to develop any form of friendship. He cannot sleep, often staying awake until 4 or 5 am most mornings.
“What does it matter when I go to bed?” he asks, explaining how he has no one waiting for him in his hometown of San Juan. His sole social interaction consists of conversations with two men: one in Spain and one in Japan — both of whom he discovered online. The staggering time differences are of little consequence, so long as he has someone to talk to.
Gay marriage is legal in Puerto Rico, the country where Fernando lives. Travel bible Lonely Planet has even called it “probably the most gay-friendly island in the Caribbean.” But it’s still a far cry from other countries. Openly gay Puetro Rican rapper Kevin Fret was fatally shot at the start of the year and a number of LGBT venues were amongst those destroyed by Hurricane Maria in 2017, contributing to a dearth of meeting places for the queer community.
But for Fernando, such spaces are of little use anyway. In his experience, gay men are only concerned with sex and drugs: his interest is in developing friendships, something he has found impossible when the men he’s encountered have very different priorities.
“I’m not against sex per se,” he emphasises, “but I don’t think a proper relationship can really develop when sex is the first thing to come up.”
Like William, he has contented himself with his cyber friends from abroad. But Power warns there is no substitute for real-life interaction.
“I would caution someone who is investing enormous amounts of time and energy into an international friendship as it could get in the way of developing in-person connections in your city. And these local friendships will be more valuable because you can connect with these people more readily in your day-to-day life,” he says.
“Develop a more diverse range of ways of connecting with other gay men, such as through sporting groups, interest groups, social groups, and friends of friends.”
Until then, anyone using apps who receives something other than a photo of a body part might consider at least offering a polite reply. For someone, somewhere, it could just make a big difference.
- All quotes from William, Clinton and Fernando are taken from an interview with the author.