Seven Inches of What? Gay Tech, Quantified Self and the New Bathhouse

Five Decades of Gay Technology and Where It’s Going Next

by Chris Dancy on May 19th, 2014

As I undressed and looked around I could tell there were a lot of guys who spent a great amount of time here.

My gym is upscale, reflective of my white privileged background, my career. It’s full of people who “got theirs” and left the fight for equality at any measurable level.

Immediately I launch Grindr, a very popular gay hookup app. Grindr shows me three guys within 50 feet. Instantly I feel the judgment creep into my head. Am I fit enough?

Do they see me and not bother cruising me?

My Grindr, now online, is a beacon for my presence at the gym. Logging off it now would still leave a trace image of my visit.

Ah, well. I head over to the cardio section, check my Fitbit, and start those steps.

Portrait of the author standing in a narrow street, holding a briefcase from which papers scatter in mid-fall. Around him are crates, traffic cones and traffic signs.

Portrait of the Author

As a 45-year-old professional gay white male I have a few demons.

Let’s start with the typical gay guy bullshit. Will I die alone, did I get infected last night, and did my last partner think I was good in bed? Am I too effeminate? Should I out myself to my co-workers?

The amount of fetishized ego I have before I open my eyes each morning is only surpassed by the memory of the people I buried between 1988-1995 for no reason other than ignorance and fear. The HIV epidemic took grasp of the gay community with force and drastically shifted the course of gay identity and culture.

Wikipedia defines technology as “art, skill, cunning of hand.” It is the making, modification, usage and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems. Methods of organization: in order to solve a problem, improve a pre-existing solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation.

Technology is more than a device or piece of software. As we explore the future of the gay male community and tech, our “usage, and knowledge of tools” to solve problems is both our greatest strength as a community, and a major weakness in the age of connected sexuality.

The media and cultural landscape is so accepting in 2014 that sometimes I forget that I don’t need to deepen my voice when meeting people, or “butch up” when at a gay bar. If we were a bit more honest we would have conversations about our history in the LGBTQAI community.

Like with the “The Waltons”, “The Cosby Show” and then “Will and Grace” the media has watered down our historic view of ourselves. Creating a sanitized version of gay life. People identify with the “Modern Family” version of a committed gay male couple, but lack the honesty to talk about the “hetero-washing” that makes these versions of ourselves so confusing for our community to adhere to. Not all of us want gay marriage and two point five children in a neighborhood boasting 40-something hipsters.

Rainbow Colored Kool Aid, the 70s

The most glorious piece of gay tech must be the gay bar.

Gay bars of the 70’s and 80’s were conditioned experiences of brick and mortar sexual art.

Gay bars in this time allowed our community to interact for and around sex. Sex at bars was allowed and in some cases expected. Gay bars used rainbow flags and discreet signage to attract busy professionals, street hustlers and “artists” in from the harsh reality of a society leaving the disco and entering an age that would remove an entire generation of gay men from the face of the planet.

One of the most amazing facets of gay tech culture in the 70’s and 80’s was the hanky code. Unlike our straight counterparts, we didn’t have adolescence to teach us how to communicate or even date. Somewhere deep in the bowels of San Francisco a visual code was adopted and took the nation by storm.

Photo of many multi-colored handkerchiefs in the back pockets of an individual wearing jeans.

Creative Commons image via Wikipedia, filtered

Gay men started sporting colored handkerchiefs in either their left or right pant pockets. These were not merely decorative accessories—they were calling cards to our bedroom habits. Light blue right pocket, you like to give head. Mustard left pocket you’re packing eight inches plus. Red hanky, right pocket, you wanted to be fisted. I sometimes wonder if the gay flag were pushed into my pocket, would I actually enjoy a night out.

In the urban playgrounds of the coasts gay men were experimenting with cock rings to stay erect longer despite the piles of cocaine and booze consumed while dancing. Amyl Nitrate (aka “Poppers”) were consumed to heighten the arousal of sex. By 1983, using poppers during sex was more common than lube, condoms or dirty talk. For many like me in a small town, “toys” and “treats” were a two-to-three hour drive away in a big city. For middle America, carefully wrapped, plain brown postage mail service brought the monthly “Advocate” magazine, where the rest of “us” could order in the accessories of the day.

Local low-cost printing organizations allowed gay men to publish our first magazines and papers to help us find businesses, bars and roommates. From the bedroom to the disco, bathhouse to the parade, gay men had adapted and created a lifestyle so intoxicating, only Hollywood could create something as dark and twisted.

But the reaper was about to show up on Folsom street.

I Want My AIDS TV, Welcome to The 80s

By 1985, we had local gay access television in many cities, small radio shows and full-fledged print magazines you could occasionally find in mainstream book stores. Gay had mainstreamed at the same time we were being eviscerated by a new disease that had emerged three years earlier: HIV.

Our community was being ravaged by this strange new disease and our peers, professionals and government had either turned their back on us or had no desire to understand.

The film “How to Survive a Plague” documents the gay community’s fight to understand, diagnose, and treat our own health issues in the late 80s. We saw the courage of people like Larry Kramer, Peter Staley, Iris Long and many mainstream doctors willing to break the law, open labs and test drugs to create treatments that could keep our heroes alive another day. Gay men and other queer people took to the streets to ACT UP and fight back.

The greatest triumphs in the modern civil rights of our community were achieved during this period. At the same time, gay tech had come into its own. We had prescription “buyer clubs” for unapproved medications, and individuals testing drugs and therapies on each other. The same energy that allowed us to emerge from the bathhouse to the disco now was used in the fight to keep us from dying week to week.

As the world looked on we buried a decade of gay men from 1985 to 1995.

Can You Keep a Secret: Managing Chronic Illness In the Closet, the 90s

Unfortunately by the mid 90’s, our fight with health tech had taken its toll on the gay community. Our strength was tapped and our spirit had been broken. We were coming out on network television with the rise of celebrities like Ellen Degeneres, Greg Louganis and folk singer k.d. lang. But in the bars, community centers and local committees, we had lost a generation. And we were lost.

In late 1996, small BBS systems like Acropolis had started coming online to unite gay men again. This new generation of gay tech was different. It created many of the companies we rely on today. Of anything you can say of the gay community in tech: today’s modern Silicon Valley was built on the rainbow blood sweat and tears of the lost generation that emerged from the 90’s.

So much of what made tech giants like Adobe, Apple, Yahoo successful in the 1990s were the brilliant minds of the gay community that had migrated to the bay area in the 70’s and 80’s. Some of the first companies with diversity programs were inside the safety of tech’s corporate campuses.

This was a double edged sword as many people still didn’t feel comfortable coming out in the age of AIDS, amidst the rise of shows like Sally Jessy Raphael which objectified gay male prostitution, and loss of civil liberties as our government worked to pass legislation that banned any type of protection.

The valley was painted pink, but the underside could not escape the national dialog of hate and vitriol that was in our living rooms every evening.

By the end of the decade, we were successfully treating and managing many new HIV infections. The advances in citizen science that defined the early 90’s had been lost in the history of a generation taken from us, and the decade ended with a new epidemic. As HIV positive gay men were learning to manage their “chronic illness,” a new generation of gay connected youth were coming online, unaware of the plague as they sat on Saturday mornings watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

Having an undetectable viral load was the new closet and organizations started to splinter around the questions it created. Was HIV something you should disclose, or something that was to be kept private? Not disclosing your status was your decision and being forced to disclose was a violation of your civil rights. In a twist of irony only matched by our lust for Liza, we managed and treated HIV so well, we allowed a new generation of young gay men to show up unprepared and start the cycle of infection all over again.

The Connected Closet: Welcome to the 2000s

Gay men by the mid-00’s were connected to more tech than ever. A new closet had emerged: the social network. We came out a second time, but to co-workers stalking us on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Our tech was yet another closet and another shame.

Browsing to, gay men could use tech to augment their height, weight, length and width. The gay social networks of this time were some of the first tech involving photos, status updates and “social” networks. We could virtually cruise, stalk and obsess over each other’s every move without ever leaving our keyboard. Scanning hundreds of profiles looking for that perfect top. Gay sites that allowed you to shop for escorts with ratings as robust as restaurants on Yelp have now. “Social sites” that allowed us to “chat,” and meet each other based on our shared interest. Usually those interests involved our drug use or non use, our position in bed and our status as nicotine users.

If there was anything the 00’s gave to the gay community it was a liquid identity. We could be any size, type and have any background. This was a far cry from the 90’s where the post-epidemic community would venture out to bars in new cities aided only by recommendation sites, GPS and the glare of reputations.

By the close of the decade gay men had so completely embraced technology, profiles were replaced with terms like “Undetectable,” “No face pic no chat.” We had become full-fledged cyborgs, only leaving cyberspace to meet a suitable organic donor to our vices.

And the quantified self was about to invade the queer community.

The Cyborg Queen and the Future of Bug Chasing, the 2010s

The rise of the smartphone gave gay men their greatest tech gift of the past 30 years: location based dating.

Apps like Grindr, Scruff and others could tell you within a matter of seconds how many feet away your next encounter was. Link to your Instagram account and instantly have redefined pick up lines saved to the system. Even darker applications like “spreadsheets” let you track and quantify your sexual experiences — in essence, creating Klout for cock.

Screenshot from the Grindr homepage shows images of the app displayed on an iPhone, highlighting many photo tiles of men.

What if Grindr just allowed an API call to 23andMe for the HIV resistant variant? Technology has this strange side effect of making systems thinkers, hackers or technophiles start to marry ideas to create the ultimate tech experience. At the same time, the HIV epidemic has been pushed so far underground that most 20-30 year olds have never met someone that has died from HIV. Yet they now have more access to cutting edge information about their “chronic” illness than their physicians.

It was of course gay men in serodiscordant relationships that gave rise to PreEP (that is, pre-exposure prophylaxis). This was another result of gay heath tech, just as in the 80’s and 90’s gay men had experimented on themselves and each other with pharmaceuticals to find the perfect cocktail of drugs to keep them healthy. In the case of PreEP, non-infected men used a drug called TRUVADA before unprotected sex to keep themselves negative. Finally in 2012 the FDA approved TRUVADA for just such uses.

The revolution in gay tech health didn’t stop there. It continued into the bedroom and splintered our community into very dark places.

The most disturbing was the use of social networks and location-based tech to allow the bug chasing population to grow and splinter into cells of “community”. Bug Chasers and gift givers were the gay male’s community answer to tech isolation, mainstream acceptance and the big hug the media was choking us with. Note: this is a very small minority of the gay population, but I think that this is important to bring up.

In the late 2000’s positive men started meeting negative men who wanted to be “converted”. Those converting HIV negative men to positive were called “Gift Givers”. Those being converted or looking for gift givers are bug chasers. The movement is both disturbing and in many ways a wake up call to the community that battled so much stigma, hate and adaptation. Tech enabled this community to organize, find each other and eventually set up conversion “parties” in most major cities, all using tech. Why? Well, HIV in some cases could seem to represent an instant support system, health care, social security… even a community center. Many bug chasers will tell you that knowing they’re positive allows them to “stop” worrying about becoming infected. For all the acceptance given to gay men, some wanted our bathhouses, private clubs and language back. Health tech, lack of identity, fluidity of self and the absence of a core differentiator drove some to create a new gay community, one defined by “chronic illness.”

Health tech in 2012 gave gay men the first rapid HIV at home test. Now you can meet someone, swab their mouth and within 15 minutes decide to lose the condom. Entering 2014, we are seeing the rise of the HIV resistant population coming out of their closet. HIV-resistant men are genetically resistant to the HIV virus, and technological advances have allowed any gay man to be tested for this mutation in the CCR-5 receptor gene. As many get tested by services like 23andme, the new “super queers” are starting to show up in the mainstream, and may use their genetic disposition to splinter and even grow into a new community.

In the tech community entering a new bubble, “A” gays (generally with economic, class and white privilege) are living in the valley, fresh from billion-dollar startups, with access to TRUVADA, DNA testing, rapid test and a cocktail of designer drugs. They can crisscross the globe using their mobile devices and use a host of applications and sensors to measure their conquests, health, wealth and virility.

Meanwhile, tech itself is moving away from external devices to being integrated with our bodies and our experiences. Heads up displays like Google Glass will eventually bring people back out from the recesses of ephemeral media hideaways like Snapchat, where everything is as temporary as that hook-up last night. Glass and other similar technologies will bring unprecedented access for gay men to identify and bring information from their health and life directly to their line of vision. Wearable sensors in fabrics will drastically change the dynamics of meeting, dating and sleeping with men. Lab tests could be run while dancing closely with someone — maybe your pants get a little more tight to indicate a clean health score or temperature variations communicate preferences and history.

The future of the gay male may be lost now to a dystopian view of how current technology can impact a community that has battled so much and still struggles to find its identity. Gay men were defined for close to 40 years by their ability to adapt to the social, health and economic crises of a world first in, and then slightly outside the closet.

Our community is now so visible we have systems of social capital, economic disparity, technological superiority and weaponized health tech. Like any good gay drama, the future queer cyborgs have the skills, tools and history to reclaim our gay roots and it’s imperative that we do. To let forty years of tech innovation evaporate into the mainstream as we are hetero-washed will only weaken what made our community so important to technology, society and culture: adaptation.

Now more than ever society needs cultures with rich adaptation skills.

Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.

– Harvey Fierstein