Craigslist Personals Gave Gay Men a Place Where They Didn't Have to Feel Alone

When people ask where I’m from, I tell them I grew up in rural New Hampshire. “Rural New Hampshire” is the sort of redundancy I thought I’d have stopped using after all these years, but it still seems apt. I was alone and gay in a conservative religious house—no gay bars, no gay people that I knew of for miles. At 17, I had no point of connection to my own gayness.

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I can’t say Craigslist saved me from anything. That would be easy, and frankly, inaccurate. And while I understand the Personals section was shuttered in response to the passage of FOSTA—a bill meant to inhibit and protect people from sex trafficking—it still means saying goodbye to the place I learned to acknowledge, and start to love, my sexuality.

On those nights, the world a vacant queerless space, I would tiptoe down the wooden staircase, pausing every few seconds to be sure I didn’t wake my parents, and turn on the computer. Lowering the brightness to keep the glow from escaping the room, I would look, and I would wish. Click, click, click. Men seeking men. I wanted so badly to send a signal: Is anybody there?

It’s easy to make fun of. It seems desperate, and a lot of times, it was. Those nights of carefully poking through personals would become the norm. I learned to delete my browser history with the care of a jewel thief—wanting to lift even my fingerprints from the keyboard, if I could.

“I wanted so badly to send a signal: Is anybody there?”

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I wouldn’t even go through with meeting someone until I was 22. Living at home with my parents, after attending a school where you could count the number of out students on two hands, I was certain this was it. No gay world existed. Not for me.

One night, so frustrated by the one-way mirror I had made for myself, I posted an ad. It was brief, enticing; just enough to show I wasn’t an idiot. I hoped. Several men responded in kind. Or crassness. Many of them were very respectable by the typical professional measure—cops, teachers, security officers.

Then I got an email from Tom. He was short, early forties, and he wanted to meet me. He did some boring insurance thing for a living that, at the time, assuaged my concern he might be a serial killer. Deep down, I knew even then that none of these men had bad intentions. Perhaps they were bad men! But the intentions? Clear as the Connecticut River, where I went alone sometimes to think, to imagine a life where there were other gay people. Other men, seeking men.

I came up with a convincing excuse to meet Tom: I was going to rendezvous with a long-lost high school friend, one whose standing with my mother was good. It was an hour and a half drive, which now, living in Manhattan, feels like complete insanity. But then, it felt doable, worthwhile, for the man who sent me three blurry photos, two compliments, and the certainty that he would have a bottle of wine.

When I got to Tom’s, my breath hitched in my chest. I recall killing the engine and seeing him at the door. He was very handsome, maybe more handsome than his photo. When he smiled, crows’ feet spread from the corner of his eyes. His niece had drawn a picture with crayon, which lay on the marble countertop in his kitchen. He poured two glasses of white wine and asked to play the piano for me. I saw his penny collection on his bedside table.

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After a few months, I did not think about Tom much. I forget if I visited him again, truthfully, but that one night would remain etched in my memory forever.

In graduate school, I discovered Grindr and fell off Craigslist. At the time, I would have told you that I outgrew it out of a sense of pride. But I was really just in a place where it didn’t matter as much, where there are enough gay people to make “a mile away” and “eighty miles away” a worthy difference.

“I would have told you that I outgrew it out of a sense of pride. But I was really just in a place where it didn’t matter as much.”

Sometimes the world doesn’t let us forget what used to matter.

Unemployed in New York City after selling the same car I had driven to make that first trip—seven years later—I saw a filtered message on Facebook. It was from Tom.

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He wanted to know how I was doing. Just touching base! It was his style: kind, upbeat. And it felt good.

We chatted a bit and I asked if I could interview him over the phone. He agreed. At the time I still believed in myself as a writer, as someone who could ferret out what was important and lay it bare. What it had meant to me those years I stepped so softly in my parents’ home. The way I knew how to close the door without creaking it. To have a tab open to hide. In case.

I asked him what he remembered of that night. He said he didn’t remember much—I had seemed nervous. It shocked me, because I remembered it so clearly.

He told me about a night in winter, his own experience on a different site, pre-Craigslist, when he had perfectly timed meeting his first hookup to this guy’s mother going out for groceries. How he had to go through the window. How it was hurried and good and, well, that was that.

“Did you see him again?” I asked.

He laughed. “I actually don’t remember.”

I do not mourn the loss of Craigslist Personals as some kind of thing that meaningfully wove goodwill into the fabric of gay culture. A lot of the time, people checked it because they’re nosy, creepy, or want to feel superior. Fine. But if this thing is going away, this is my way of saying thank you for giving a young gay man a place to go where he didn’t have to feel alone.

I don’t know what I would have done without my face washed in that white light, heart beating so fast, in the middle of a house, in the middle of the woods, in rural New Hampshire. Click, click, click. Here was a man, seeking a man.

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Lifestyle – Esquire

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