Once upon a time, gay men had few options for meeting, hooking up and dating. We could frequent gay bars, bathhouses, the men's room in the basement of a local department store, highway rest stops, the steam room at the gym, certain notorious parks, and that was about it.
Unfortunately, each of these venues was fraught with a certain amount of danger. In fact, arrests, public embarrassment and gay bashings were a semi-regular hazard of being gay. And regardless of whether we chose to keep our activities underground in an effort to avoid these problems (which was the almost universal survival tactic until the early-1970s) or to live our lives out loud (which became more common after the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and the American Psychiatric Association's removal of homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses in 1973), our venues for meeting potential dates remained the same. I mean, we couldn't exactly search for partners at church socials, work events, and neighborhood gatherings like our straight brethren, could we? So we sucked it up and faced the occasional issues that came with meeting in gay hotspots, or we resigned ourselves to life as a single person.
Sadly, that's pretty much the way life went for gay men until the Internet came along. After that, of course, the landscape changed pretty quickly. By the mid-1990s, we were meeting not in public spaces but online - in private chat rooms and, within a few years, through dating sites. Needless to say, this made the getting-to-know-you process much, much safer (though not necessarily easier). Things were further streamlined in 2009 with the advent of Grindr, the first-ever smartphone app designed for romantic purposes. (Gays were way ahead of the curve on this one.) Now, in 2015, we've got Grindr, Growlr, A4A, Scruff, Manhunt and countless other ways to digitally meet and mate - and none of these online venues puts us at risk the way old-fashioned locales once did. Honestly, hanging around in a Macy's restroom for hours on end? That sounds so quaint.
At the same time, how many people go online looking for Mr. Right but end up with something completely different -- be it a meaningless sexual encounter or a long evening with a toad? In other words, even though digital devices make meeting and hooking up easier than ever, finding a long-term relationship can still be quite difficult. And with gay marriage now legal nationwide -- hurrah for the Supreme Court -- the thinly veiled line between casual sex and serious dating is more important than ever. Yes, sometimes marriage-minded gay men will make their online profiles crystal clear, posting statements like, "I am looking for a long-term relationship. If that doesn't interest you, then we're not a good match." Unfortunately, these men often encounter sex-seeking men who pretend to be interested in more than a casual date or two when they really aren't.
In response to this, some guys are turning away from modern technology and going old-school, opting for a traditional matchmaker. One such intermediary is He's For Me, a Texas-based gay matchmaking service founded by Tammy Shaklee, a straight woman who met her husband through a similar company. About her own experience Shaklee says, "I was 35, frustrated that I was still single two years after a long-term relationship had ended. My career was thriving and I loved life, but I worked too much and dating was difficult. Sundays were especially lonely. I thought, 'There has to be a professional to help me with this,' and there was. My husband was my thirtieth potential match, but I was his third. We've been together nine years."
After meeting her husband, Shaklee, who has many gay male friends, was shocked to learn that the matchmaker she used didn't serve gay men. To fill the void, she started H4M. She says, "Offline matchmaking is the opposite of apps. We swing the pendulum away from online attractions and algorithm-based matches, back toward human interaction and compatibility based on key values and personal qualities." In short, H4M conducts lengthy interviews with clients, offers coaching on how to date, and sets up initial matches (including the date itself), along with second dates whenever that is desired. "When our clients feel like they may have met their long-term match, they go 'on hold,' " she says. "On average, a fourth to a third of our clients are on hold."
So, is an old-school yenta like H4M a better alternative than online dating/hookup websites and apps? Probably not for everyone. In truth, the majority of gay men are incredibly tech-savvy, and many are just as comfortable meeting and flirting and getting to know another guy through IMs, texts and webcams as face-to-face. Sometimes these men actually find the immediacy and controllable nature of online dating very appealing.
However, not every gay man feels at home in the digital universe. Plenty of men -- and not just older guys - are uncomfortable with digital dating. Or they simply want a more personal approach in a purely marriage-minded venue. A traditional matchmaker offers all of this in spades. Matchmaking also takes being gay out of the public realm, which appeals to some men. As Shaklee says, "Our clients are wonderful men who happen to be gay, but they don't necessarily lead with that." This is especially the case with H4M's higher-end clients. "They may be out to their family and close friends, but not professionally."
Interestingly, physical attraction seems equally important whether a match is made online or off. "Men are visual," Shaklee says. "Men are sexual. They most often look for a sexual attraction in the first five minutes. We all know that. Our job is to dig a little deeper, past the physical attraction, to find the key values and qualities that make two men who are both seeking a long-term relationship compatible." Nevertheless, most gay men are content with online venues, and that's perfectly OK. Plus, not every gay man is relationship-oriented. That too is perfectly OK. Matchmaking is not for everyone. But it appears that for some gay men seeking a long-term partner, a professional matchmaking service like H4M really can help.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. He has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Today Show, among others. Weiss is author of numerous books, including Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships (co-written with Dr. Jennifer Schneider). For more information, visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.