The Boston Phoenix
August 1999


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Social distortion

A writer tries to make new friends and finds that meeting people isn't what it used to be

by Robert David Sullivan

drag Shortly after moving to the northern tip of Manhattan, a 45-minute subway ride from the gay ghettos of Chelsea and the Village, I was overjoyed to find a newspaper listing for a gay social group in my neighborhood. I left a message at the contact number, and a friendly-sounding, 50-ish man returned my call late one Friday night, telling me in great detail all the wonderful activities the group had planned for the next month. One highlight was participating in a medieval fair in the local park, but since I couldn't get a word in edgewise, I didn't get the chance to ask whether we'd be playing Inquisition victims. I couldn't make that weekend's outing, but the guy called me the next Friday night to deliver an equally long-winded sales pitch for his group. He called the next week, too, and a few Fridays after that, always at about 10 p.m. I stopped answering the phone on Friday nights.

I never did meet anyone in the neighborhood group. To put it bluntly, I thought of my telephone pal as a loser. Why was he always home on Friday night? It did not escape my attention that I was always home on Friday night as well, but this unfortunate coincidence only brought home the meaning of Groucho Marx's famous line: "I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."

Other distractions, and there are plenty of them in New York, made me forget about joining any clubs for a while. But then I moved back to Boston and began working at home, a career shift that turned out to be lonelier than I expected. I had long heard about the friendly hunks in UPS uniforms, but my UPS man turned out to be a gum-snapping woman with bleached-blond hair. And my FedEx man has the disconcerting habit of ringing my doorbell, dropping my packages on the porch, and running back to his truck before I can get a good look at him. Perhaps this is what the FBI does with participants in the Witness Protection Program.

bank The last straw came when my bank informed me that it will now cost $6 each time I do any business with the cute teller -- late 20s, dark curly hair, nerdy glasses -- who used to accept all my meager deposits with a mildly flirtatious smile. My bank prefers that I use the servants' entrance, off to the side, and conduct all my business with the ATM, which doesn't demand health benefits from its employer but could sure use some Windex. I thought about continuing the visits to my financial-services boy toy, but they suddenly seemed dirty, as if I should hide my face under my baseball cap and pay the $6 in quarters through a slot in the Plexiglas. For this kind of money, I should at least be able to squeeze the teller's hand as he takes my deposit slip, but I suspect that my mega-bank has destroyed people's credit ratings over less serious indiscretions.

Clearly, the business world views human contact as unforgivably inefficient. This attitude is doubly disturbing because Americans love to apply business principles to their personal lives. I'm as guilty as anyone. I telecommute, and I've bought clothes, drugs, groceries, and, yes, even books over the Internet (despite living a mile from Harvard Square).

When I first grew alarmed at the slow disappearance of human contact, I gave thanks for being gay, for gay men and lesbians have embraced the concept of "community" as tightly as other Americans cling to God and capitalism. On the surface, at least, we queers seem to be resisting the "bowling alone" phenomenon -- a phrase coined in the mid '90s to describe the declining membership in social organizations. In Boston, there are at least three different gay bowling leagues advertising for new members, and while I'm sure there are straight ones as well, I can't find them listed in any newspaper (unless there's a secret publication that gays don't know about). Nationally, the latest Gayellow Pages contains a stupefying variety of organizations, including the Gay & Lesbian Statisticians' Caucus, Passing Twice: Gay & Lesbian Stutterers (http://www.geocities.com/WestHollywood/3323), the Foot Fraternity (http://www.footfraternity.com), and the Phoebe Snow Society (for "gay rail fans").

Glancing through these listings recently, I became nostalgic for high school and college, when I was quite promiscuous as a joiner. Political clubs, amateur theater, bowling leagues . . . I dropped in on everything but the gay and lesbian groups. (All the trouble I could have saved myself!) I found some new friends this way, but I also discovered -- in the same slow-witted manner that I finally realized I liked boys -- that most social organizations are like Potemkin villages. They've got impressive-sounding names and meeting halls and notices in the newspaper, but they don't have enough members to fill a minivan.

Many people claim to join clubs because they improve society, but this goal is never entrusted to amateurs anymore. Any charity group worth its tax-exempt status gives most of its money to professional telemarketers and direct-mail wizards who help extract more donations from the group's "members." As for political activism, all elections are settled by television advertising, so there's really no need for flesh-and-blood voters to assemble outside $1000-a-plate dinners. Have you ever received a letter from the Human Rights Campaign asking for your time instead of your money? No, and this raises the question of what happens at the twice-a-month meeting of the Log Cabin Republicans here in Boston. We know that they're not organizing rallies, at least not ones that anyone has ever heard of.

The truth is that people join clubs to meet other people who will flatter them with attention. That is why so many clubs have more officers than regular members; everyone gets a chance to vote for everyone else, illustrating the term "mutual admiration society." It is why my high-school bowling league was able to keep me paying dues for years, just by giving me a "most improved" trophy for three consecutive summers. (How bad could I have been to be worthy of that?) I'm sure it explains the existence of the Brookline-based Gaylactic Network (http://www.gaylaxians.org/GNetwork), a group for gay science-fiction buffs. There's just no other way to find someone who will appreciate your learning the name of the UPS hunk who delivers fan mail to the cast of Star Trek: Voyager.

When I finally came out of the closet, I recognized social clubs as an effective way to find sexual partners. (I also recognized daily weightlifting as an effective way to stop looking like a pear, but I didn't take full advantage of that knowledge either.) This kept me interested in gay organizations -- like writers' groups and AIDS support organizations -- for a while, but then I found excuses for staying late at work, especially when my office occupied the same space as my bedroom. Then the Internet beckoned, as it often does, as a quick and easy way to get something without leaving the house. When I first signed on to America Online, I jumped into all the M2M chat rooms I could find, marveling at how I could rejuvenate my social life despite a lack of clean shirts. I even met a few online pals in person, but there was something bizarre about introducing myself to someone who already knew things scuba about me that I'd never told my best friend. (When you're trying to get someone's attention over a computer modem, it's hard to resist dirty language.) None of these relationships survived the shock of the first live encounter, when each of us decided that it wouldn't be such a good idea to see the other person demonstrate the special skills listed in his last e-mail.

These disappointments made organized social groups look pretty good again. Unfortunately, it's not so easy to move back from cyberspace to the real world. I'm out of practice at making small talk, and my ability to write an attention-grabbing headline for an e-mail wouldn't get me very far at a meeting of the Triangle Scuba Dive Club (http://www.tiac.net/users/jmcbride/triangledivers.htm). It would hardly compensate for my looking like a pork sausage tainted by botulin each time I put on a wet suit.

It's just easier in college. You can show up at a meeting full of strangers and be assured that nobody is more than three years younger than you. You don't have to worry about having the worst job of anyone in the room, or the smallest apartment, or the longest trail of broken relationships. When you're past 30, you can't help but think about such things when a moderator asks, "Why don't you tell everyone in the group a little bit about yourself?"

Despite these fears, I began to check out some of the gay organizations I had long wondered about. I called a social group that was advertised as being open to gay men "from 20 to 32." I'm 35, but I thought I could pass. Also, I suspected that this might be one of those groups whose age requirements creep upward every year so that the original members won't be asked to leave. That's the only explanation for Gen-X Bears Boston (http://www.genxbears.org/~Boston), which is open to "younger bears from 18 to 35+". I'm always going to have that plus sign, so I guess I'll always be "younger" in the eyes of what may eventually become Geriatric Bears Boston.

When the leader of this other group returned my phone call, he immediately asked my age. I hesitated and said, "I'm near the top of your range."

"Oh, if you're older, that's all right," he reassured me. "We have some members over 32."

I then confessed my real age, which proves that I have learned nothing from six years of watching NYPD Blue.

He asked a few more questions that all seemed designed to catch me in another lie. It probably didn't help that I was cagey about what I do for work, and I shouldn't have let the word "drifter" pass my lips, even as a joke.

"I'm very careful about who I let into the group," my interrogator said, before saying he would get back to me with details about upcoming activities. That was about three months ago, and I haven't even been invited to a potluck. And I can't go to the college dean with a complaint of discrimination.

personals Next I called a leather club on the theory that if I had to deal with a control queen, perhaps it would be better if he were more up-front about it. I also thought such a group might help me get over my fears of meeting new people. If I chickened out of a meeting, for example, someone might come to my house and forcibly drag me out. Also, if I looked stupid at a meeting, I could blame it on the club's strict dress code instead of my inability to figure out which colors make me look less like a cadaver.

I had to rethink my plans when the leather liaison returned my call. He was so soft-spoken that I had to ask him -- nay, order him -- to repeat everything he said. I had the horrible thought that such assertive behavior would result in my being drafted as president of the club at the first meeting I attended. This was not an attractive prospect, particularly because the leather guy indicated that the club had frequent "business meetings" to plan charitable events and the like. I didn't want to be forced to take down the minutes of these meetings; that would be real torture.

After that, I called the Long Yang Club (http://www.longyangclub.org/Boston), which is "for gay Asian men and their friends." I figured that I was as friendly toward Asian men as the next person, but, more important, the LYC seems to be the most active social group in the city. They have a couple of events a week, including movie nights and, of course, potlucks, and it didn't seem possible that they had enough members to go around.

In fact, the Boston chapter of Long Yang has more than 100 dues-paying members, only about half of whom are Asian. At least, this is what the president told me when he called me back. "We try not to be extremely exclusive," he said. "We're just a social club for people with similar interests." Given that the activities range from poetry readings to in-line skating, I figured that the only interest similar to all the members is getting out of the house once in a while. Sounds okay to me.

Of course, making a few phone calls is just a tiny step toward real human contact, and I haven't actually been to any club events of any kind this summer. It's easier to keep surfing the Net and leafing through newspapers to find the perfect group -- much like circling personal ads and then crossing them out one by one. Certainly, both activities can use up a Friday night, and I have to be home just in case my friend from New York tracks me down to tell me just what went on at that medieval fair.

Robert David Sullivan wrote about gay history for the July issue of One in Ten. He can be reached at Robt555@aol.com.

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