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Feb 05, 2008 Commentary: Gay Space Goes Online
By Brad Ruting

Technology has undergone big changes in the past twenty-odd years. Computers, mobile phones and consumer electronics are now integral parts of our everyday lives. Technology has also become more affordable as it has progressed, and is gradually changing how we work, play and live.

The internet has been one of the most significant inventions. It allows anyone, anywhere to connect to a truly global information network and get in touch with people next door, across the city, or on the other side of the world.

This compression of space and time, not to mention the huge volumes of information and socialising opportunities the internet provides, have produced big effects on Gay populations, communities and urban spaces. It’s broken down boundaries: the physical (the exclusionary nature of some Gay venues), social (friendship networks) and individual (closet doors).

Generally speaking, the internet is accessible, anonymous, affordable and available at any time. For Gay men and Lesbians, it’s possible to go online and meet others (including for sex), chat with friends or gather information on social events and health matters. Membership of Gay dating websites has grown astronomically in recent years. As time goes by, Gay and Lesbian culture and community are going electronic.

This is best represented through the dating site profile. In your profile, you can emphasise your good qualities, say as much or as little about yourself as you want, or even be someone else. You can display a photo and let a picture speak a thousand words.

These profiles are very much a democratised form of internet use, where the user is in control of how much they reveal about themselves, and what to say or show. They are becoming increasingly essential badges of identity for Gay people.

More generally, the net may be a new way to express queer pride, politics and diversity, in an interactive and participatory manner. It brings many benefits: it allows socially and geographically isolated Gays to interact and form communities, and provides the (cyber)space to do so.

Meeting someone online is also easier and more convenient than in the bustle of a noisy, overcrowded bar where the drinks are overpriced and you can’t hear the person standing next to you. Whether for friendship, sex or whatever, the net has reduced the hassle and cost of meeting other Gays in the Gay precincts of cities.

Maybe this is all the better given recent reports of increased homophobic violence in the Oxford Street area, and the growing number of straight clubs along the Strip.

Of course, there will always be a tangible Gay culture, such as Oxford Street and King Street, Gay bars and clubs, and important publications like the Observer. Older generations within Gay communities will still rely more on Gay precincts, and adopt the internet less, than their younger counterparts. Many (although not all) Gay people still enjoy a night out in the Gay part of town every now and then.

Yet one of the most interesting effects of the internet is its use by younger generations generally, who are growing up without experiencing widespread homophobia and are strongly influenced by popular culture, where Gay characters and themes are popular in TV shows and movies.

This is the age of virtual social networking, of MySpace and Facebook, where personalised, online profiles are used to construct an identity, communicate with friends and meet new people from an enormous variety of backgrounds. The Gay members of this generation are perhaps more entwined in the social practices of their peers, not to mention accepted by them, than their predecessors were.

In online spaces, not only have multiple opportunities arisen for Gays and Lesbians, but they are also engaging in more diverse relations with wider society.

Yet these opportunities have affected the relationship between Gays and cities, and not always for the better.

The attractiveness of participating in the mainstream Gay social scene has been eroded as other alternatives have become attractive and viable. Websites have been used by Gay youth to discuss their sexuality and seek social support, reducing the need to make life-changing decisions, like a migration to Oxford Street or shunning childhood networks of friends.

Indeed, as increasing internet use by Gays has combined with other phenomena—such as gentrification and the ‘mainstreaming’ of retail around Oxford Street, disillusionment with the Gay scene, and greater tolerance of homosexuality—offline Gay space has come under threat.

Furthermore, with the AIDS crisis having diminished a lot as an existential threat to Gay men since its heyday in the early 1990s, there’s no longer such a strong need for Gay people to live in physical proximity to each other anymore, whether for community support or access to specialised health services.

Oxford Street, as has become apparent for several years now, is in decline. It’s no longer cheap to live in or visit this Gay enclave, and it’s become easier for visibly Gay people to live Gay lives in other places. The net might not be as good or as authentic for many things, but often it’s easier, quicker and more anonymous.

In a sense, Gay space has begun to shift away from the physical urban spaces of bars, clubs, shops and cafes, and towards the online virtual spaces of the internet. Perhaps tangible Gay space is being partly foregone for its virtual equivalent as many of the social functions served by Gay places go digital. Is Gay culture now an online culture?

Still, for many, the internet is no nirvana. It’s great for meeting others, hooking up or locating services if you live in the inner city, but what about those Gays and Lesbians out in suburbia or in rural areas? As a facilitator of face-to-face social interaction, the internet is very much dependent on the geographic concentration of its users. Where the users are, the action is (no pun intended).

Maybe it’s possible that, rather than harming Gay bars, the internet will make it easier to meet up with newfound friends for a drink or coffee in the Gay district. Maybe it will make more homosexual people aware of what’s on offer in these places, such as services, counselling, community or entertainment.

Or maybe not. But either way, the net has enhanced diversity and participation in the Gay community. Undoubtedly that in itself is a good thing, even if Gay urban space is adversely affected. Besides, although many Gay men and Lesbians love a big night out or a spot of shopping in these places every now and then, the Gay district isn’t so central to the openly Gay existence anymore.

When you can live almost anywhere in the city, shop and go out wherever you like and meet new people online, perhaps the erosion of the once solid Gay political and cultural territory is a small price to pay for technological and social progress.

Brad Ruting is in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney. Email: br@student.usyd.edu.au

This article was originally published in two parts in the Sydney Star Observer.

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