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.

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?”

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.

hen 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.

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?”

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.

First posted at: https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/sex/a19630401/craigslist-removing-personals/

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