“The Gaydar Diaries: Manufactured scandal and online sex”

Gaydar Photo

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Independent in July 2007

The Gaydar Diaries: Manufactured scandal and online sex

It was Malcolm Byrne’s worst nightmare. The young Fianna Fail councillor from Wexford awoke one morning in January last year to see his face splashed across the front page of a national newspaper. The headline screamed ‘BERTIE’S BOY BOASTS OF MEMBER SIZE’ and the story inside revealed that Malcolm had a profile on the gay personals website, Gaydar. Byrne had been publicly outed and was forced to tell some of his family and friends of his sexuality. He protested that he had done nothing wrong, had no problem with being gay and had not done anything illegal, but the sleaze allegation seemed to stick. Although there were public expressions of support and much hand wringing at what was reckoned to be a smear campaign by political rivals Byrne’s progress through the ranks of Fianna Fail was checked and he was not, as had been previously expected, chosen as a candidate for the party in the general election.

The story sent shockwaves through Ireland’s gay community. Since it’s introduction to this country some 7 years ago Gaydar has become something of a phenomenon. Some including British billionaire Ivan Massow have called it ‘the online equivalent of the public park’ and of ‘walloping the cottaging industry (i.e. meeting people for anonymous sex in public toilets) into the techno age’ (The Guardian). But Gaydar has also been a valuable communication and networking tool for a minority that make up only a small percentage of the population – especially for those who, like Byrne, live far from Dublin’s bars and clubs. For others, still in the closet or uneasy with the icy superficiality of the gay scene, it provides a safe, comfortable outlet.

Gaydar now gets nearly as many hits as sites like Google and Yahoo – it is the third most popular site of all in Britain – and its own statistics show that whether they’d admit it or not over 3⁄4 of this country’s gay men have a profile on the website. Ironically Byrne’s one lay at the very innocuous of the scale. In it he had written not of fisting or rimming but of wanting someone to enjoy a bottle of wine with someone, walks on the beach; the usual soft focus personal ad stuff. His only mistake had been to fill out a field contained in all Gaydar profiles entitled ‘dick size?’ which in turn was seized upon and used for the headline. His exposure left some people, including the many gay Irish celebrities and politicians who use Gaydar, wondering who was next. The whole thing smacked of a sexual witch-hunt and a new, insidious form of homophobia.

Insidious it may have been but Gaydar exposes are nothing new. In fact a mini-scandal involving an Irish user of the site was long overdue. In Britain, where Gaydar was started in 1999 by a pair of South Africans (who were apparently tired of listening to a friend of theirs moan of how difficult it was to find a boyfriend) there have already been a slew of Gaydar outings of high profile gay people. In the digital age being caught with photographs of yourself with your pants down on Gaydar has superseded getting caught with your pants down on Clapham Common. In 2003 Labour MP and ex-vicar Chris Bryant, who was living with his male partner at the time, was revealed to have used the site to look for sex. His profile showed him wearing a pair of underpants in a series of provocative poses.

Popstars too have found the lure of easy online hookups irresistible. The 58 year old pot-bellied van driver with whom George Michael was reported to have ‘courted’ in the dark of a London Park later told the press that the singer had used the website as part of his chat up line. ‘He told me I could contact him on Gaydar and we just started kissing’ Norman Kirkland later said.

Boy George used to wish he could get involved in a sex scandal and when it was revealed that he too had a Gaydar profile he took it with good humour, even reproducing the pictures from his profile in his autobiography together with new, self-mocking captions (‘available for weddings and bar mitzvahs’). With characteristic cheek and wit he later thanked the website which had exposed him, telling them his sex life had perked up immeasurably since they had printed his profile name.

In America a candidate in the election for mayor of San Francisco, Jim Reid, was revealed to have had a Gaydar profile which contained photos of him shirtless. Reid tried to play down his usage of the site, hilariously claiming that he was receiving party donations rather than sexual come-ons through his profile. San Fran’s gays didn’t get the joke, however, and Reid lost the mayoral race.

Perhaps observing this trend in the British and American media and realising in the wake of the Malcolm Byrne story that Gaydar could prove a useful source of ‘news’ in this country several papers dispatched reporters to trawl the website’s chat rooms. Earlier this year the Sunday Tribune had one of its reporters, Una Malley, pose on Gaydar as an 18 year old boy, Davey. Davey/Una would go online and tell people that contrary to what it said in the profile (you have to be 18 or over to use the site) he/she was actually 15 years old. The majority of the men contacted told this fictional male Lolita that he was too young to be trawling for sex and that maybe he should get help but of course there was a minority (as there would have been a minority of heterosexual men, had Una instead been posing as a younger, better looking woman) who wanted to meet him, presumably to have sex. Instead of pointing this out the ensuing cover story shrilly screamed of ‘OPEN SEASON ON IRISH TEENS’ and ‘ASTONISHING STORIES OF DEPRAVITY’ and dredged up that age old bigoted implication that gay men are somehow likely to become predatory pederasts, given half a chance. No gay person or regular user of the site was given a chance to make a comment and the entire impression created was that Gaydar is the type of site that Gary Glitter might like to check out. After Una completed the first part of the entrapment, the paper dispatched its security editor Mick McCaffrey to photograph the men who had agreed to meet ‘Davey.’

The Tribune’s operation Davey came apropos of another story, which involved a real boy, this time 14 years old, who had used the site to make contact with older men. To do this he would have had to fill out an online form lying about his age and actively contacted people himself. This came to light when his mother went through his mobile phone and found explicit texts from a number of men. She went to a Garda station and made a complaint. Gardai then seized his phone and computer and identified at least 8 men who had been in touch with him. Two men – a language lecturer from North County Dublin and a truck driver fro Rathfarnham were arrested and admitted having sex with the boy but denied they were ever in his parents’ house. Again Gaydar was depicted in the media as a place where paedophilic grooming of children is rife and the Tribune ran to and fro like the Simpsons’ Maud Flanders (‘won’t someone please think of the children!’). Nobody pointed out that if the 14 year old boy was actually gay he wouldn’t have been able to get involved in any of the usual teenage romantic skirmishes that heterosexual boys of his age could take for granted. Precisely because of the type of prurient hysteria we read that week his only outlet to meet other gay young people would be an adult website through which he would inevitably end up having sex. ‘From innocence to debauchery with nothing in between’, as Quentin Crisp put it.

Part of the problem with Gaydar – as revealed by the problem of teenagers using it – is that the content, as well as the interaction on it is so sexual. Its defenders may call it Bebo or MySpace for gay people but the site’s motto is ‘what you want when you want it’ and pictures of penises, arses and naked torsos are the norm for personal pages on the site. The homepage features a shirtless hunk, who seems to promise that you might find something like him if you just log in. Profiles do have some room for ‘hobbies and interests’ but this is marginal in comparison to the space reserved for sexual fetishes. Over 100 chat rooms cater for tastes as diverse and bizarre as ‘Masters and Dogs’, ‘Breath Control’ and ‘Tickling’.

‘It may seem incredibly over-the-top sleazy and there’s a perception that gay men are just like that anyway’ one user of the site told me. ‘But you have to also remember that it’s a site used only by men and most sites which have a solely male user base – be they gay or straight men – will have a greater than usual sexual element. On sites devoted to motorbikes, for instance, the avatars are often busty women wearing cut off denim shorts. Men are very visual and are generally preoccupied by sex, that’s the bottom line. There is a version of Gaydar for women and it’s far tamer. Gaydar’s sleaziness isn’t because it’s gay. It’s because it’s male.’

The string of Irish Gaydar scandals continued unabated last month as a priest in Clare was revealed to have been using the site to meet men for sex. A parishioner in the town of Feakle in the county contacted a national newspaper and told its staff that he had seen Fr. Michael Horgan using a profile with a picture of him with his trousers down on Gaydar. A team of journalists contacted Fr. Horgan through the site and arranged to meet him at the Abbey Court Hotel in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary. The journalists confronted him and eventually published an article under the headline ‘I’m Father Pants Down.’ The piece accused him of hypocrisy for breaking his vow of celibacy. In a statement Fr. Horgan later admitted his actions and apologised. He was recently granted a leave of absence but was urged not to resign by the Bishop of Killaloe.

Father Hogan’s mistake in meeting the journalists revealed another of the oft-lamented problems with Gaydar. You just don’t know what you’re getting. English red tops might compare meeting people online for sex to ordering a pizza but most users of Gaydar will testify that its never quite that easy. Stories of heavily photoshopped profile pictures or people lying about their age/height/weight/penis size abound. ‘My heart went out to him’ another chat room regular told me of the priest. ‘But let me tell you I’ve had a few pretty gruesome examples of false advertising myself. You show up to meet someone who has described themselves as ‘straight acting’ and find some quivering mass of effeminacy sitting cross-legged at the bar sipping a glass of white wine. Or they sent you a photo of themselves from 1981. Or they told you that they can only get away for an hour because their ‘girlfriend’ is home soon, but you’re actually mates with their long-term boyfriend.’

Even for well-oiled Gaydar dating machines these pitfalls aren’t always apparent. ‘I’ve been on literally hundreds of ‘meets’’ another self-confessed site addict told me. ‘And even still I don’t keep to my own rules. They don’t send a photo at all which would normally but a no-no and you agree to meet them anyway because you’ve already projected your desires onto the blank canvass they’ve given you. You’re in love with them before you meet them. You presume the best instead of the worst.’

Possibly the reason someone would cheat on their boyfriend using Gaydar is because the site offers the illusion of unlimited choice and availability. 80,000 new profiles are created worldwide on the site each month and these can be searched by age, height, eye colour and sexual preferences. ‘If someone doesn’t have every one of the traits you described in your delusional little online blurb’ Augusten Burroughs wrote in his memoir Magical Thinking ‘then you just move right along.’ In a former era two gay men would have had one very good reason to stay together – nothing fosters commitment like lack of choice. But when infidelity is just a click away it’s difficult for any relationship to stay the course.

Unsurprisingly Gaydar has been linked by some researchers to sexual addiction and the spread of STDs but many users of the site describe it as addictive in and of itself. Others describe remaining logged in all day in work, running the risk of getting fired for trawling a sexually explicit site. ‘I waste an incredible amount of time’ on it’ one Gaydar user told me. ‘It’s basically all I do in my spare time. You come in in the evening from work and log on like a good zombie. You always think ‘oh maybe I’ll meet someone good tonight.’ It’s replaced reading and watching television and that kind of thing. I know loads of my friends who are the same. I’m thinking of starting Betty Ford for Gaydar addicts.’

Not only does Gaydar take people away from work but there is evidence to suggest it actually stops people socialising as well. For many, it represents a viable alternative to going out on a Saturday night – up to 700 people use the site at any given time on a weekend evening in Dublin. Others prefer the sterile, non-confrontational safety of the chat room to the rough and tumble of real life. As Gaydar has grown, gay bars around the world have seen their business affected. An article in the Economist last year attributed a downturn in the fortune’s on Manchester’s famous Canal Street directly to the impact of the website.

‘That’s not necessarily a bad thing though’ another Gaydar user counters. ‘Why should we have to go to a gay bar to meet other gay people? The scene is essentially a type of social ghetto, so anything that adds variety to that should be welcomed. People can say it’s just for hooking up for sex but the internet – not just Gaydar – is always what you make of it. I’ve met flatmates and friends and boyfriends through the site. It’s not all sleaze by any means.’

In recent years there have been some attempts to break Gaydar’s stranglehold on gay consciousness. English entrepreneur (and former Tory Boy) Ivan Massow set up a rival site jaketm.org, which hoped to cater to a classier sort of gay guy. Massow decided to deny full membership of the site to those who posted profiles with pictures showing themselves partially or fully naked. Massow feels that Gaydar has ‘over sexualised’ gay culture and, laudably perhaps, sought to provide an alternative. His site is running but tellingly it’s still nowhere near as popular or influential as Gaydar, which now also insists that users who wish to view x-rated photos have proven their age with a credit card. A magazine poll conducted last year named Gaydar’s founders Henry Badenhorst and Gary Frisch (who died earlier this year after he fell from a window at his home in Battersea) as the most powerful gay men in Britain, behind Elton John and Ian McKellan.

Their billion pound brainchild will no doubt continue to poke its head above the pop culture parapet from time to time as another pop star, priest or celebrity is caught with his pants down in cyber space. Gaydar, by it’s very nature, is always going to be a bottomless source of contrived scandal. For the site’s millions of devotees each new tabloid expose is greeted with a mixture of sheepish amusement – ‘oh dear it looks so much more like amateur porn when they put it in a newspaper’ – and a sense of there-but-for-the-grace-of god protectiveness of the embattled politician or pop star who was probably only doing what every single other gay guy in the world was doing that same week. As yet another appalled journalist reports on the sordid soul of Gaydar we can only echo the George Michael defence: ‘Are you gay? No? Then f*ck off! This is our culture.’

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~ by Donal Lynch on March 31, 2008.

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