Jared had just locked himself out of his Brooklyn apartment. As he stood on the street waiting for his landlord, he launched a new app on his iPhone. Minutes later, the blond-haired, blue-eyed grad student was pants-down in a nearby courtyard with the proverbial Boy Next Door. Thanks to Grindr, a GPS-based mobile dating service, the savvy stud was back on his stoop in time to meet the landlord.
"The streets were empty, Grindr was full," says Jared (who asked that his last name be withheld). "I didn't think it would be that easy." Ever since the long-forgotten days of the 300-baud modem (24,000 times slower than your iPhone), guys like Jared have been hunting for the ultimate gaydar—high-tech devices that streamline the search for sex. Grindr is the latest incarnation. When you open the application, you're greeted with 100 Chiclet-size photos, each representing a nearby John Doe. Sorted by proximity, they include names, ages, and short bios. See someone you like? Text him to arrange a rendezvous. "The first guy I talked to was 1,000 feet away, which seemed close," jokes Jared, "until I saw someone 602 feet away." Released a year ago on iTunes, Grindr was an instant success. "We're at a little over 300,000 users and adding about 1,500 every day," says creator Joel Simkhai. The service is now available in 77 countries, including Iran, Israel, and Kazakhstan, proving that wherever you find gay men in search of companionship, you'll also find the latest in technology.
On a balmy October afternoon in New York City's Greenwich Village, a trial run on Grindr produces a UN diplomat between sessions, a retail clerk on his lunch hour, a graphic designer working from home, an on-shift bartender, and dozens more predominantly young, affluent iPhone owners all looking for a mand8t. With their 24/7 connectivity, their fondness for tailor-made software, and even their own porn site (GuysWithiPhones.com), they are nearly a culture unto themselves. Now, with Grindr, they have a safe, easy way to hook up at virtually any place and time.
It is, one might say, a giant leap forward from the mid-eighties, when AIDS hysteria had shuttered many gay bars and sex clubs. Back then, the dial-up modem seemed like a godsend. "This was a revelation, that you could use your computer to connect with other gay people," recalls Jon Larimore, who created an early online social network in Washington, D.C., called the Gay & Lesbian Information Board. In 1986, the year after Rock Hudson died from AIDS, GLIB had thousands of subscribers dialing in from the comfort of their homes, many from inside their closets.
AOL took the success of boards like GLIB and stretched it coast to coast. "I was able to type I'M GAY before I could say it," says the 33-year-old Simkhai, reminiscing about his early forays into the company's M4M chat rooms. In 2000, Time reported that 20 percent of the service's 21 million subscribers were gay.
In the decade that followed, Simkhai and his AOL "buddies" became digital-age pioneers, boldly going where no man had gone before. They built websites (PlanetOut, Gay.com, Manhunt), invented shorthand (BTTM, BBBJ, PnP), explored the full potential of the Craigslist personal ad, and quickly mastered the use of instant messaging, emoticons, texting, and video chat.
This is not to say that they left their heterosexual brothers in the dust. Today, of course, there are matchmaking sites for every conceivable taste (not to mention a vast smorgasbord of online porn). In fact, Simkhai has fielded so many inquiries from salivating straight guys that he's thinking about developing a Grindr-like service for them.
And so, with smartphone dating apps like Grindr, Boy Ahoy and Twinkleboi, gay men have charged ahead into the world of mobile. Is it the male sex drive alone that makes them such early adopters? Not really. Is it the means to spend lavishly on new gadgets—the lusty, inveterate-trendsetter consumerism you see on the shopping strips in Dupont Circle, Chelsea, and the Castro?
Not exactly. Contrary to public perception, gay men earn less on average than straight men. But they are more likely to vote with their wallets, and technology firms have often led the way in their support for gay rights. In 1993, Apple flexed its muscle in Texas to preserve the domestic-partner benefits for its employees. Ten years later, gay men were twice as likely as straight men to own the company's computers. But Josh Rubin, founder of the Cool Hunting website, posits yet another theory. "Out gay men are familiar with taking risks," he says. "Trying a new phone is pretty easy compared to coming out of the closet."
Not long ago, it was enough to dream of technology that could help a man take that brave first step. Today the goal is to free him from the tyranny of the computer terminal. Wi-Fi-enhanced sex toys may let you stimulate partners thousands of miles away, but you can't as of yet e-mail pheromones, which makes the guy in the lunchroom far more appealing than the hottie halfway around the globe. "In the firm I was working in, I couldn't figure out who might be gay," says Antonio, a twentysomething grad student at the University of Arizona. "So I'd turn Grindr on to see if I could find myself another homo in the building." Alas, the pickings were slim. "In Tucson," says Antonio, "it starts loading people in Phoenix." Give it a few months—there aren't a lot of dance partners when you're early to the party.