This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
Contact with gay sexuality used to look very different for closeted gay men: parks at night, porn stores, and rest area restrooms that bore the signature punch-out between two stalls just big enough to fit one’s dick through—the storied “glory hole.” More recently, instead of cruising in these secretive physical gay spaces, they have become able to scratch their itch online. Any number of hookup apps afford them the safety of an anonymous, blank profile in the same sexual ecosystem as the most out-and-proud among us. In general, this mixing is fine: Ignore the closet cases if you’re not into that. But in rural regions of the country, the faceless profile—calling card of the forever “discreet”—takes up an unavoidable amount of real estate. I should know: As an openly gay man living in central Illinois, blanks are a troubling constant of my daily life.
For those who’ve never received a “sup” at 2 a.m., a bit of background: The two most popular gay dating apps, Grindr and Scruff, feature a GPS grid that shows profiles of nearby men. In a heavily populated area, your grids will display profiles that are very close to you, sometimes within 20 feet, with the breadth of your grid stretching out perhaps one to five miles at most. In less-densely populated areas, the profiles displayed will have greater distances between them. Your top row may be two to 15 miles away, second row 30–45 miles. In rural areas, at certain times of day, your grid may display profiles from 200+ miles away.
In bigger cities, faceless profiles that only feature someone’s torso are pretty common; completely blank ones may pop up 1 out of 50 times—so uncommonly, most guys probably don’t even interact with them. But in places like where I live, they’re the norm. When I open Grindr, I count 56 out of 100 with no face pic, 48 of those with absolutely no pic at all. My Scruff is a little better, with 25 out of 150 showing no face, 10 of those having no pic at all. I cannot look at those darkened spaces on my grids and not think of them as relics of our gay past. Apparently, this is what rural gay life looks like in 2019: a smartphone screen pocked with digital glory holes.
To try and make sense of this—decades after the queer liberation movement was supposed to bring us all “out of the closets and into the streets”—I wanted to hear from out guys in different parts of rural America about their experiences dealing with closeted gay men on the apps. And hopefully, from the closeted gay men themselves. How should we relate to each other? Is being closeted (or joining a dude in there for a night) totally retrograde, or is it more complex than that? Has the dynamic between the out and the closeted evolved in our “looking for now” age, or is it the same as it ever was, back in the “glory hole days”?
My editor and I agreed that of the two most popular apps, Scruff would be more conducive to finding men to survey as its design invites users to have more open conversations. Grindr is less encouraging of, let’s say, non-carnal purposes. Scruff allows you to search by location, so I came up with a list of large towns/small cities in all 50 states and cast a wide net, “woofing” at guys and letting them read my profile, which stated the purpose of this essay. After that, it was just a matter of seeing who would respond.
I began by asking respondents why they think men choose not to have face pics in their profiles. While I had assumed these blanks were all closet cases, many respondents begged to differ. They explained it was the small-town atmosphere, rather than the closet, that kept some men in the dark. As Russell, 25, from Ocean Springs, Mississippi put it, “People talk! The community is so tiny and everyone knows everyone … just because you’re the neighborhood cum dump and everyone knows, that doesn’t mean you’ve explicitly told mamma either.”
So as it turns out, some percentage of faceless profiles on the grids in small towns are actually openly gay men. In fact, when I told one of my local gay friends about this assignment, he explained that he doesn’t have a photo on his profiles for this very reason. Once, a man approached him at his job and said he recognized him from Grindr—and this creep took that to mean my friend was game to hook up. That put an end to his feeling safe having his photo where any stranger could log on and see it. In a big city, this is different because with several million people, how often is anyone going to recognize you from your profile pic?
Some responders did, however, back up my own closet-case assessment of faceless pics. Ryan, 36, from New Salem, Massachusetts offered some reasons from his experience: “Some are married men, some are bi, things like that.” Russell went into generational differences that he’s noticed. He said that when it comes to younger guys, they are using the apps as “a way to push open the closet door.” When it comes to older gentlemen in the South, Russell explained, “It’s definitely a lot of society trapped them/Southern culture prevented them from exploring their sexuality and they’re using apps to finally explore that piece of themselves.” He then added, “And then a lot of people are just trying to get something they can’t get at home.” I asked him if he meant from their wives at home. “From their wives,” Russell confirmed. “I’ve also discovered there is that element of not knowing how to ask for something in the bedroom. I feel some guys would delete the apps if their wives would just play with their prostates.”
Yeah … their wives. We should probably talk about that.
A handful of the openly gay but “discreet” men I surveyed admitted that, on occasion, they have hooked up with men who are married to women. Each of them expressed remorse. (In one case, an openly gay man I interviewed got to know the wife of his closeted “fuck buddy” incidentally through his job, so he broke things off.) They all said that ideally, they wanted to date other openly gay men, but when you’re in a small town beggars can’t really be choosers. It’s also worth considering that if you are one of those men who mentioned they don’t want everyone in town to know how promiscuous they are, then hooking up with a man who has a wife and kids is a guarantee he’s going to keep your secret safe.
I’m just giving you slivers of some of the conversations I had with these rural gay men. Indeed, some of them went on for hours, spanning over several days. These guys had a lot to say, and I tried giving each of them time to speak their minds about what it’s like being gay in small-town America. For the most part, they all truly love living where they are. Dealing with the “closet case thing” is just an irritation that comes with the territory. Considering that, I tried to nail down a consensus about why they think men in their areas choose to remain in the closet.
JJ, 42, is out publicly in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, where he resides now, but he isn’t fully out back home. “I had no option of coming out in my hometown, which is around 1,900 people,” he explained. “I’m not sure if it is safe even to this day there.” He speculated that if he had come out back home, he “wouldn’t be here today.” He then described a beating he once took from a group of guys that left a scar on his head. “That was what they did when they just thought I was gay. Imagine what would have happened if they knew it for a fact.”
This fear of misunderstanding and physical violence from predominately straight (well, heteronormative at least) small towns, I’ve found, is paired for rural guys with the lack of visible LGBTQ members in their communities. In many small towns this is a self-perpetuating problem: Gay men don’t come out because there are so few visible local gay men; there are so few visible gay men locally because not enough of them are out.
This is why it’s so disappointing to open the apps and find a sea of empty profiles. I’m not ashamed to show my face. I don’t hide behind a hole in the wall anymore. Why, still, do so many others? Studies like this one from the think tank Movement Advancement Project and first-person accounts like Samantha Allen’s book, Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States, suggest that rural America is queerer than ever. One would think this opening-up would negate the need for hiding, at least gradually. But there seems to be a hard backstop to some men’s psyches—wedged right up against the closet door they’re hiding behind.
I wanted to know if rural America really is getting better for gay men—if that backstop might eventually come down—and so I went back to my interviews and assessed the data. Considering my interviews as a whole, I identified three categories of rural gay men: Totally Out, Almost Out, and Never Coming Out. The majority of the men I interviewed were totally out, and I was surprised at how few men were only partially out. This mirrors a Pew study that found that 77 percent of men who identify as gay are totally out. While that isn’t a perfect score, it is significantly higher than it would have been 20 or even 10 years ago. That same study found that only 12 percent of bisexual men are out. Now take into account that a lot of those Never Coming Out consider themselves bisexual. That fits the statistic perfectly.
The Never Coming Out men were the hardest to find for interviews. Most of them politely declined. Others just straight up blocked me. Those who did reply were very short with their answers. Often, their replies were sporadic. I could go hours or even days without hearing from them.
One from West Virginia sent me a face pic in his first message and sounded very enthusiastic about being interviewed, but after our first few messages he was very difficult to get a hold of. We played tag for weeks, and he kept telling me he wouldn’t be available for another week or two. I asked how he identified sexually. He responded: “Not out, need to be discreet, married to a woman, she doesn’t know of my interest in men.” Before I could even ask my next question, he offered this tidbit: “We have not been intimate in 20 years.” All of the Never Coming Out men I interviewed said sex with their wives was nonexistent.
To be honest, it was not enjoyable for me to interview these closet cases. They all creeped me out. Some of them were fairly well-spoken, but if one showed me a photo, there was always something off about it. They were usually shirtless and taken in low lighting, like they snapped the photo in a hurry—like they were afraid of being caught taking a simple selfie. Reflecting on this, I keep coming back to that notion that closet cases are only capable of equating being gay with gay sex. Of all three categories I labeled, it was only respondents from the Never Coming Out group who asked me for some form of sexual gratification in exchange for an interview (and BLOCKED me when I told them no). It was nearly impossible to communicate about gayness or identity with any of them.
After wasting weeks and weeks trying, and failing, to get a Never Coming Out man to have a real conversation with me, I chose to instead have a lengthy chat with Andrew, 33, from Rogers, Arkansas, whom I labeled as “Almost Out.” Andrew (an alias) is not out to his family. He says he would come out if he found a long-term boyfriend. I asked if there was another side to that—whether Andrew’s never been in a serious relationship because he’s not fully out. “Yes. I’ve always kinda wondered that and thought that,” he replied.
Andrew has dated a few guys, but never for more than a few months. I asked if those guys were out, and if his being closeted ever came up. “Yeah, we discussed my family not knowing. I did date a guy who was not out with his family, either, so I guess it was a little more understanding.” But those were very short relationships, and if those guys had remained with Andrew for upward of a year, I’m sure his not being out to his family would have been an obstruction they would have continually run up against. How would you move in together if one of you isn’t out?
I asked Andrew if there was any other possible path he would take to coming out that didn’t involve him finding an awesome, Pride flag–waving boyfriend. As it turns out, his 23-year-old niece just recently came out to him. She suspected he was gay, so he was the first in their family whom she told. So for Andrew, his niece coming out could open the floodgates for his finally coming out to their family. “If my niece says something, is that going to bring me into question? Would then people want to ask me?”
“Is it like you’re waiting for … ?”
“Them to just be like, ‘Are you?’ Yeah.”
I hope the best for Andrew. He seems to be on the right path. But I still have reservations about those Never Coming Out men. Even though their numbers have decreased in recent years, I fear that in rural America, the closet door will remain shut for many of them. The forces working against them, whether external or in their heads, keep them back in a time the rest of us are moving away from in greater numbers with each day.
Still, the apps themselves offer a glimmer of hope: Prior to the technology we have now, gay sex between men in rural areas was arranged by take-your-chance walks up to idling cars in parks, the tap of a foot between men’s room stalls, or whispers through a glory hole at the local porn store. Regardless of whether they were in or out, communication between these men was brief, guarded, often nonverbal. Now, instead of the anonymous exchanges of the past, apps like Scruff and Grindr allow men like Andrew and me to actually speak to one another. My hope is that closeted guys are getting to see what life is like on the outside, woof by woof, and this might reduce their numbers even more.
As for the permanently closeted, you would think we would just leave these guys behind. And yet, they remain a part of us that can’t be shaken. For some of us who are out, when we open our apps, we can’t help but wonder what’s on the other side of that blank profile. Are they guys we know? Can we help them reconcile their identity with their sexuality? Or is it just some random we can have a really, really hot time with? In the end, the reason doesn’t really matter: Those of us who are out and those of us who are not will always be intertwined. For the time being, this complex brotherhood just seems to be a part of being gay—a shadow that trails behind even as we tread further into the light.