Women in Search of Other Women: How Gay.com, Chat Rooms, Dial-Up Internet Made Me Gay
The website screamed “gay” that I had to make sure I had Microsoft Word open, in case someone entered my room and saw the page. It was 1998, and I was neither out nor certain if I really wanted people to know I was a lesbian
Welcome to The Internet Made Me Gay, a special series occuring this Pride Month on all the ways that LGBTQIA+ individuals have found comfort and community in online spaces. Whether it’s through LiveJournal, fan fiction, YouTube, or the great unmoderated world of internet forums, the World Wide Web has been instrumental in many queer people’s paths to figuring out who they are. In these essays, we explore that and embark on journeys to self-discovery with them.
It was almost midnight and the house was still. The chatroom was full; it was a Friday night, after all, and most people were ready to stay up late just chatting with strangers.
For those who remember what the early days of the internet was like, being asked this question either prompted you to be honest or answer with your chosen persona for the day. But that night, I decided to be completely honest: “18, F, Pasig.”
I was in the Asian Room of the Women’s Floor in what was a website called gay.com. I just turned 18—a sophomore in college—and the brand new computer was a gift in lieu of a grand debut. Back in high school, I had a relationship with another girl—a surprising twist of events for a goody-two-shoes nerd in a coed school. It lasted four years, and by the time I was in college, we had both outgrown each other. There were hardly any other lesbians in the Ateneo—much less a suspected one, like that batchmate whom one of my friends described as, “cute, like a little boy.”
I was looking for others like me: a girl who likes other girls, too. Suffice it to say, I had a feeling it wasn’t nearly “just a phase.” Prior to going online, my other source of information about gay and lesbian issues was from a Mr. and Ms. magazine column that I would cut out and keep. I scoured the newspapers and magazine articles, and by then, I had borrowed every book in the Rizal Library that I had to write the call numbers for books listed under the Library of Congress’ HQ classification at the margins of my library card (yes, it was the year before the lib automated its system). With no more books to read, I needed to get on the internet.
It wasn’t easy going online then. You needed a phone line with a modem, a dial-up connection (usually pre-paid; hello, Edsamail, ISP Bonanza, and Pacific Internet!), and a pretty decent computer that could connect you to “fast” internet with 56kbps connection. It would take a while to connect, and while waiting, your computer would be making this weird robotic sound that was music to the ears. Once connected, you can only hope that no one calls, otherwise you’d get disconnected and would need to dial up again.
After some futile attempts at chatting via IRC (internet relay chat) and ICQ (the late 90s version of a messaging software), a quick Yahoo search led me to gay.com. The website screamed “gay” that I had to make sure I had Microsoft Word open, in case someone entered my room and saw the page. It was 1998, and I was neither out nor certain if I really wanted people to know I was a lesbian. I wasn’t risking being found out.
Contrary to what might be thought of as a scary world, the Asian Room chatroom was actually a warm and welcoming place for any woman who was exploring her identity. Despite being a chatroom for Asian women, most of the chatters were Filipino; some based overseas, while a number of us were just in Manila. If my recollection is correct, I was the youngest Filipina when I joined the room, while most were in their early to mid-20s who were already working—save for one who was still in college (who later became a girlfriend). We were all looking for other women like ourselves, and without a proper physical space to actually meet other women, the next best recourse was a chatroom—a private virtual space that only a few knew about, and for those who did, shared an unspoken understanding that it was not to be spoken about too loudly, lest someone gets outed.
Several of the chatters I me there I became friends with in real life after an eyeball or two, and some I worked with on advocacy projects here and there. Mostly, it was all about making friends, connecting with others, and learning how to be comfortable in our own skins.
I’d always been an extrovert, and I’m sometimes even too outspoken for my own good, but being online made it even easier to express myself, especially when it came to learning more about being a lesbian. The internet made it easy to explore other lesbians around the world—about how they lived, why they come out, and how they get discriminated on.
When Ellen Degeneres came out on her TV sitcom “Ellen” (which didn’t air here in Manila) in 1997, I searched the internet for articles about it. The TIME Magazine issue with her on the cover wasn’t available locally, but I could search the ‘net for articles about it. There was a point where I got quite obsessive about searching for other lesbian (or bisexual) actresses or musicians (such as k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge), saving, bookmarking, and printing articles about them—anything that could I read to make me feel that I was not alone. We were not alone. In fact, there were lots of us. I just needed to search the web.
Later on, in the early 2000s, the chatroom visits dwindled, and we would all find ourselves gathered at an “exclusive party” instead, more often than not. Sometimes, the chatroom visits were only made to catch up with friends who were not in the country, and other times, we would only go online to ask where the next “exclusive” would be. There wasn’t much of a need to go to FLO anymore, as most of us either belonged to some Yahoo! Group account or had each other’s numbers. And why chat, when you can see each other in an “exclusive”? The need to come together online was no longer necessary.
It’s been 22 years since I logged on gay.com, and now, the when you type that URL on a browser, you’ll be redirected to the Los Angeles LGBT Center. But, most of the friends I’ve made there I’m still friends with until now—and we no longer need to wait for midnight to log on or even ask each other, “ASL, please?”
Background of lead art from Unsplash