When I was 16 it was the year 2000. We had email and chat rooms then but nothing close to what we now call social media. We had to phone up each other’s landlines and ask our friend’s parents if they were free. We had to chat in hallways or our parent’s bedrooms, as the phones had to be plugged in. It was hard for me when I came out, as I’ve written about at length before. I was really lucky to have a best friend called Chris at that time who was also coming to terms with his sexuality. When we were feeling brave after school we’d go to W.H. Smith and look at Gay Times and Attitude. At that time it was a huge deal to be that open about it. Boys from our school would see us and laugh and shout at us, the usual homophobic things they shouted at me. They got away with it at outside of school just as easily as at school.
Sometimes I was brave enough to buy my own copies. In the letters page of one edition (I think Dermot O’Leary was on the cover) there was a letter from a boy called Tom, 16. He was talking about how lonely he was and how hard it was to be gay at school. I felt the same, obviously. I was being bullied severely which caused my depression, I was a mess, my parents didn’t know what to do with me. But that little letter in the magazine made me feel a bit less alone. At this time you could only go on the internet during times when someone wasn’t using the phone line so I used to stay up late on Friday nights to go online. Feeling brave on Friday night, I wrote an email to the editor of Attitude magazine, which was sort of like this:
I saw the letter from Tom in your previous issue. I am the same age and feeling very isolated. Would it be possible to be put in contact with Tom?
After I sent it I didn’t really think about it much. When I bought the next edition of Attitude I was reading it on the train sat across from a friend called James. Suddenly this cold chill panic feeling set upon me when I saw MY LETTER and my name Ed,16 on the letters page. James didn’t really understand what I was talking about and when I went to pass him the magazine, he didn’t want to touch it (not that me being gay bothered him, of course, but he didn’t want to touch a gay lifestyle magazine, he was a great friend). I had not at all intended for them to PRINT that letter. I was lonely and isolated and then all of a sudden, everyone knew. The editor answered my letter by saying that they could not put me in touch with Tom but in a few magazine’s time they would be doing a special on isolated gay youth. It made me feel lonelier that I was in print, my little glimmer of hope, that I might be able to even chat to someone. I do feel the editor could have replied directly to the email, instead of printing it in the magazine for everyone to see. When I was 16 I was so desperate for a boyfriend, to even kiss a boy seemed so impossible. I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen. Sending that little email was another way I thought maybe it could. I felt really embarrassed that all the grown up gay men, the ones in London and Manchester who had boyfriends and flats together would see my sad little letter and pity me. It was horrible.
A few days after the magazine stuff had happened, I got an email from someone out of the blue called Tom. He said that the editor had passed on my address even though officially he’d said he couldn’t. Tom only wrote very short emails but I wrote long replies, going into my interests, my love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sheryl Crow, the film Cruel Intentions and Brian Molko from Placebo. How sometimes on Saturdays me and my friend Chris would go to London for the day to go shopping on Oxford Street and then walk around Soho. Tom only sent a few emails back and he didn’t tell me much about himself. But thatfirst moment of seeing his name in my inbox was amazing. Somehow he’d found me! I thought. I was so excited. I didn’t know what he looked like, who he was at all, but that didn’t matter because we had a connection because we were going through the same thing. After a week the emails stopped coming and then I was back feeling really down.
One evening after school I got a call from Chris. He’d called me to tell me that he was Tom. He’d set up a fake email account and started emailing me pretending to be him. At first it was such a weird revelation I sort of didn’t believe him and laughed. He’s jealous that I’ve found someone to chat to and maybe meet up with I thought. But when he said it all again, quoting some details from my replies about Sheryl Crow and Cruel Intentions, I started sweating against the phone at my ear. I was so upset and disappointed. I didn’t understand how or why someone would set up a fake email account with a different name. He said he was sorry. I was really upset and just wanted to know why he had done it in the first place. But Chris couldn’t really answer. He’d taken pity on me too. Looking back on it now, in a way it was a kind gesture that he had not properly thought through. He could see how lonely I was, and how desperate I was for a boy to notice me. And reading my keen replies he could sense I was starting to gear myself up to asking Tom to meet up and the consequences of his actions dawned on him. He was really sorry.
Chris and I were friends for a long time after this but we were, fundamentally, very different people. I was always more withdrawn and he was always the extrovert. Our friendship grew out of that secrecy we both had to keep as teenagers. Never telling our parents what was happening. Never answering questions about whether there were girls we liked.
I want to just say how glad I am that we have the technologies we have now, where we can meet each other through twitter, instagram, and dating sites. We can, if we like, hook up with people who happen to be nearby at the right time. It’s incredible. I’m not saying these opportunities are always positive, and don’t in themselves make people feel lonely in a different way but it’s better than the world I experienced.
These days there’s a whole television show about what is now called Catfishing, this is when people pose as someone else online and string along unsuspected lonely people. Catfishing is more than just a hotmail account, it’s fake accounts on Facebook full of pictures, with fake friends and family. Growing up in the year 2000, as I did, the loneliness and isolation I felt was very real and hard to live with, of course things aren’t perfect, but I’m glad things are at least different for teenagers now.