When it comes to creating and preserving multiple identities, there is no medium more efficient than the Internet. Technology has made it, logistically at least, easier than ever to have an active gay life without coming out—even as society has grown increasingly tolerant. What in past eras required a shady and intimidating trip to a bathhouse or rest stop can now be arranged while sitting at your desk at work. Sites like Craigslist and gay.com and manhunt.net—along with destinations like “Bimarried Men in NYC,” a Yahoo group to which William belongs—make it possible to tailor isolated affairs to whatever specifications you desire. (On any given day searching these sites, I found about 1,000 married, closeted New Yorkers online—certainly a fraction of the true population since most men in the closet don’t identify themselves as such, even online.) Say you want to meet someone between the ages of 35 and 50, preferably dark-haired, for half an hour in midtown, between the hours of one and two in the afternoon—a few clicks of the mouse and you’ll have numerous options. Or, as William puts it to me in an instant message: “Without Craigslist I would probably just be a normal married guy who occasionally flirted on the subway. LOL.”
He is at work as he writes me this, simultaneously scanning the ads on Craigslist. “I should be running errands right now,” he messages me. “Mother’s Day is this weekend.” He needs to find something for all the mothers in his life—his own, his wife’s, and his wife—since they are all having brunch on Sunday. But instead he finds himself drawn to the personals. He forwards me those that catch his eye, those he thinks I’ll find “interesting”—those that will help me understand that a life like his is not entirely unique.
Subject line: “… married, just out to wife.” Text: Married guy, professional at the office right now. Hoping to meet another guy in the same situation for safe, discreet play. Limited experience here. I’m a nice looking guy, fit, healthy, and just needing to occasionally explore this interest. This is compelling, William says, especially the mention of “safe” play. (William is hypervigilant about safe sex; He often suggests to a prospect that they “do something unsafe,” and if the man agrees, William rules him out.) Still, he opts not to reply to the ad. The poster sounds like a potential emotional wreck, which, William has learned, can lead to unexpected problems. A year ago, for instance, he met a man in his late twenties who lived in the East Village. After they had been together twice, he asked to borrow $500, and issued a threat when William refused: Pay or be outed to your family. “He said he had a program that could hack into computers through someone’s e-mail account. I was pretty sure he was lying—if you’re going to blackmail someone, you have to hint that you really have something that could destroy them, and he never did that.” Still, for a few weeks, William made sure to get home before his wife, looking through the mail and checking with the doorman to see if anyone had been by. “It was the ultimate nightmare,” he says. “Keeping my shit together wasn’t easy.”
Subject line: “MM looking for other MM for side romance.” Text: Are you tired of playing games? I am. I’m looking for other married men who have always wanted to be with another man. Looking for someone in the same situation that can keep their home life at home but still have a separate life with me. Much better, says William. A similar situation, with similar needs, his tone blunt without being vulgar, a rarity in the world of gay online personals. But what about this one? Subject line: “BiMWM like to form a group of regular BiMWM.” Text: 45 bi married stocky hairy ital here. would love to form a group of Bi married guys only … want a group where there are no judgments and we can hang and let our hair down in a safe discreet way. He decides to respond: gay married in the city here. i can’t host, but i’m interested …
The process is never simple. William can only meet men in the middle of the day, and he needs for whomever he’s meeting to be able to “host.” For this reason, most of his online flirtations begin and end in virtual space. It was two months ago that he last met someone in person, a man in his mid-thirties, in town on business and staying in a corporate apartment. Since William refuses to post pictures online, he prefers to meet men in public first—usually at a Starbucks or a park—to make sure the chemistry is there. But in this case, there wasn’t time for that. “We decided that if we weren’t into each other, there’d be no hard feelings,” William says. When he arrived at the apartment, they made small talk for a few minutes (“How long are you in town?” “Two more days.”) and once it was determined that they were both interested in going through with things, they discussed what they were comfortable with sexually. An hour later, William was back at work. “The whole thing was very awkward,” he says. “That’s often the case.”