By Stuart Haggas | @getstuart
Photography: Chris Jepson www.ChrisJepson.com


Has there ever been a better time to be young and gay in Britain?

Same sex couples in England and Wales will soon be able to legally marry their chosen partner, many schools are doing effective work to promote awareness of LGBT issues, and medical advances mean that HIV is not the death sentence it once was.

However, as the gay marriage debate demonstrated, there are plenty of homophobes, bible bashers and right-wing politicians who still don’t support gay equality. Then there are questions about the gay scene itself: is a scene that places a great deal of emphasis on sex, body image, alcohol, illegal drugs and obsessions with the likes of One Direction and Tom Daley really a healthy environment for an impressionable gay teenager? Is the next generation of young gay men better prepared for the big, wide world? 

OUT ONLINE

Thanks to the internet, young gay men needn’t feel isolated any more. Today, questioning teenagers can go online for answers – and when a Google search for “am I gay?” returns about 1,260,000,000 results, it also provides reassurance that you’re not alone.

Arron is 21 from Leeds. He explains how he came out when he was 14 and first experienced the gay scene online.  “I was quite young when I came out, so it was through Googling I discovered what was out there.” 

James, 22 from London also started out online via websites like Gaydar and Fitlads. “I saw myself as fairly ‘straight-acting’ and thought gay bars would be all screaming queens and dirty old men,” he says. “It was also much easier to browse profiles online than strut into a gay bar and start chatting to guys.”

“My first experience was chatting to guys on websites when I was 15,” says Daniel, 23 from Worcester. “Chatting progressed to ‘camming’ (webcam sex) – which when I think about it was both awful and tragic, but also a good formative experience, exploring sexuality in a safe setting and all that.”

The internet can be a safe space for young gay men to discuss topics like sexuality, sexual health and relationships, helping to boost their knowledge and self-confidence. The largest online community for gay and bisexual teens and young adults is gayteenforum.org, comprising hundreds of active topics on all sorts of subjects.

A post from a British teenager in August 2013 asked if the gay community is too dependent on dating apps like Grindr and Hornet, wondering if we’re headed to a future where online is the new way of meeting a boyfriend. Replies to his post included ‘Naterion’ in Birmingham who posted: “It has the widest selection pool and is the most convenient/cost-free form of finding a guy,” and ‘CJP’ in Devon who posted: “Although meeting by dating app might seem less meaningful, it’s the person and not the way you meet them. OK, you need to wade through all the dicks first, but it’s a teeny weeny bit less lonely that way”.

Another British teenager asked for advice on using Grindr. Replies included “There are a few gems but mostly 50-year-olds. It’s really creepy. Just know that the block button is your friend,” and “You can never be sure whether it’s a real hottie or just a creep in disguise”.

FIRST TIME

“My first experience in the gay scene was anonymously chatting to guys on Grindr,” says Jason, 18 from London. “Never meeting, just conversation.”

Kyle, 22 from Coventry, also experienced the scene first via Grindr: “It was an odd blend of guys who were genuinely quite friendly, and those who were clearly just looking for sex.”

“I’m 23 and I’ve only been publically out for about a year, so it was definitely easier to see what was out there via Grindr, where I could keep a safe distance from any potentially awkward situations,” adds Nathan from Winchester.

“The majority of young gay men meet their first sexual partner online,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “This has been true for the last decade, possibly longer.”

Arron was 16 when he first had sex. “Personally I think I was too young,” he explains. “I really wasn’t prepared, but I think it depends on the person and their mental maturity. I know people who were more than capable at 16 of knowing what they were doing.”

“I had just turned 17 when I first had sex with a guy,” says Jason. “It couldn’t have come at a better time for me – it helped me secure in my mind who I was.”

“I was 17 years old and it was with my boyfriend,” says Jack, 18 from Harrogate. “I think it all depends on how you and your partner feel. My boyfriend didn’t rush me and we waited until we were both ready.”

“I was 18,” says Kyle. “I don’t feel that was too young. It was a considered choice and wasn’t rushed.”

“I had just turned 19, way too old!” says James. “Looking back I wish I had really known I was gay and come out at school so I could get on with my life, rather than worrying about it and keeping it a secret for years. I don’t think it’s something you should rush into with the first guy you find, but you shouldn’t repress your sexuality.”

“I still haven’t had sex yet at the age of 21,” says Adam from Newcastle. “I have always said I am saving myself for the right guy, which I hope I have now found. I know my friends have all had sex already but they respect my view on my virginity.”

 AGE RESTRICTED

Photo © Chris Jepson, www.ChrisJepson.com

As well as providing curious teenagers with information, the internet can also expose them to a world of porn, sex, drugs and cyber-bullying.

 “There are more ways for young gays to connect with other guys, to gather information and to meet friends and new sexual partners,” GMFA’s Matthew Hodson says. “At the same time, the speed of new media and social networking means that they’re going to be exposed to some quite extreme content early on. The heavy drugs and sex scene, for example, is much more easily accessible now than it would have been years ago, and new technology plays a major role in promoting those scenes.”

Adult content on the internet is, in theory, accessible only to older users. Outside of the internet, young gay men may be asked to show ID to prove they’re old enough to enter gay venues. This of course isn’t always the case, and determined teenagers are known to be resourceful. “I went to my first gay club by myself when I was 15,” Matthew acknowledges. “It wasn’t hard to break the rules then, and it’s not hard to break them now.” It is however even easier to lie about your age online. Typically all you have to do is “click OK to confirm that you are 18 or over” to access gay porn websites and gay dating sites and apps like Gaydar and Grindr – but is this a good or bad button for young teenagers to click?

“Particularly for young men who are below the age of consent or who are vulnerable in some way, the internet can be something which exposes them to things they may not fully understand, be prepared for, or are able to consent to,” says Lucy Rolfe, Wellbeing Manager of the Lesbian and Gay Foundation. “We know that many young gay and bisexual men, due to feeling isolated, prefer to connect with others online, rather than go to a group for example. Doing everything online can make it difficult to then connect with others face-to-face. You may be good at negotiating sex online, but how confident would you feel with the person standing in front of you?”

SEX CRIMES

There have been several high-profile cases involving young gay men whose online connection led to a face-to-face encounter that got out of control.

The first Grindr-related date rape case to be reported involved a 15-year-old Vancouver boy who was allegedly sexually assaulted by a 54-year-old man he’d met via the app.

Last year the Huffington Post reported on a 15-year-old Florida boy who became infected with HIV after having sex with a 30-year-old man he met via Grindr; while earlier this year Queerty reported on two HIV-positive Florida men aged 32 and 40 who were jailed for not disclosing their status and for having sex with a minor, following a poppers, hot-tub and bareback session with a 16-year-old boy they’d met via Grindr. These two cases came to light because it’s a crime in Florida to not disclose your HIV status, and in both cases the accused men could have been charged with attempted murder.

In September last year, the Daily Mail reported on a 35-year-old married deputy head teacher in Cheltenham who was sentenced to two years in prison following an affair with a 16-year-old pupil he met via Grindr. They were said to have exchanged almost 8,000 messages, and met seven times for sex, before the boy’s sister found explicit photos and texts from the teacher on her brother’s mobile phone.

Such cases have not gone unnoticed by Grindr. “Grindr treats the age restriction very seriously,” explains Grindr’s Joel Simkhai, “and we do our best to ensure all users are a minimum age of 18 years old, while Apple requires users to be 17 to download the app from its iTunes store. To help us in our efforts, we ask all users to help us by reporting any user that they come across who has violated our terms of service by using the ‘report’ function on our app. We have a large and diligent team of moderators focused on monitoring and ensuring users adhere to our guidelines. If a user is in violation, we will ban the user and notify him of the reason for the ban. As an added precaution, we encourage parents to add parental controls to their children’s iOS and Android devices to help ensure that their children cannot access sites and apps.”

WHO’S RESPONSIBLE?

“Sites have to take responsibility to ensure that as many processes and safeguards are in place as possible, to prevent incidents such as these,” says the LGF’s Lucy Rolfe. 

“I think it’s a real concern if young gay men, who may not be well-informed about HIV and sexual health, think that their partners will be responsible for their health,” adds GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “Some apps are better at promoting health issues than others. I think it’s really important that all gay men who are new to the scene at the very least know that HIV exists, is still around, that there’s still no cure, and that just because someone doesn’t use a condom doesn’t mean that they are HIV-negative.”

“We also need to be educating young people as early as possible so that they understand consensual safer sex, and know where to go for trusted information and advice,” Lucy continues. “Unfortunately, sex education in schools doesn’t cover these issues. Although they have started to educate young people about issues such as sexting and safety online, there’s nothing tailored to the needs and lives of young LGB people – this is really where we need to start. The age of consent is there for a reason.”

Arron, Jack, Adam, James and Daniel all confirm they didn’t get relevant sex education at school. “I think I know quite a bit but only through experience,” says Arron. “I know there are some places out there gay men can find the info they need, but I don’t think they get a lot of exposure so it can be quite hard to find.”

“I learnt nothing from school about having safer sex when you’re gay,” says Jack. “It was all heterosexually based, but a district nurse from college was helpful and showed me what’s safer and what isn’t.”

“I honestly don’t think there is enough support for teenagers,” says Adam. “At my school, which is a Christian school, they didn’t really talk about sex anyway – but when they did it was just between a man and a woman. But many of the teachers were accepting, especially when some of them found out I was gay. I think more information is needed in today’s society.”

“There was very little information available as a teenager,” says James. “I went to a Catholic school and there was no information on gay sex or relationships at all, other than the generic ‘use a condom’ which applied to all sex. There was the occasional moral discussion in classes but never any practical advice or information.”

“My knowledge about STIs is god awful,” admits Daniel. “I wouldn’t know which symptoms indicate which STI and, to my embarrassment, I have no idea how HIV is transmitted between people – whether kissing and oral sex are safe. Whether teenagers have it better now I wouldn’t know, but if they don’t I have no idea how else they’d get information regarding safer sex except from the inernet. As for the dangers of drink and drugs, I’m fairly clued up – I used to take recreational drugs fairly often, but don’t now as I’m a masters student and don’t have any cash.”

“I think most people at school knew condoms stopped STIs but they were never discussed in the context of actual gay relationships,” James continues. “For example where you get them, using them for oral, the awkward moment when

you actually try to use them the first few times. I also think teenagers assume HIV only affects older guys who’ve had lots of sex, and that they won’t get it from another young person.”

GOOGLE IT

Photo © Chris Jepson, www.ChrisJepson.comIf school didn’t provide answers, where can you get advice about safer and consensual gay sex? “I think the advice is out there, it’s just knowing where to get it,” says Dan, 24 from London. 

“There are dozens of websites and blogs, and the rise of social media has certainly helped. I’ve never been stuck for places to go, for example on sexual health services. I’d like to think I knew a bit about safer sex and alcohol/drug dangers, but experience says otherwise.”

“I think the information has to be found,” Kyle adds. “It’s not handed out as readily as it is if you are heterosexual but if you ask the right people, or even if you just use Google, there is no shortage of information.”

“I go to a few gay friends I have, maybe even do a Google search,” says Arron. “Sometimes you get the advice you need, sometimes it’s a matter of experiencing it before you know what it’s about.”

“I usually use Google to find out any information that I need really,” says Adam. “Apart from the internet, I tend to ask my friends, some of whom are gay too. I think a lot of the advice that they give to me is just from their experiences.”

“I don’t think there’s an effective network designed especially for young people. For sexual health I would go to a GUM clinic. For everything else I would have Googled it,” agrees James. “I only found out about sex and relationships by dating people. It would have been good to discuss gay relationships with actual people when I was much younger so I’d at least thought about it before meeting up with people.”

The problem with relying on something like Google is that it’s not necessarily reliable, as the LGF’s Lucy Rolfe points out: “There’s a lot of bad information and advice out there and online, so we have recently started to do virtual drop-in sessions on various sites, so that men can get reliable, high quality information on whatever they need.” 

OUT ON THE SCENE

Young gay men may be comfortable being out online, but what happens when they take their internet-honed skills into the real world? 

James explains that he didn’t go out on the gay scene until he moved to London. “I lived near Newcastle at the time, which has a great gay scene, so it was a massive opportunity wasted. I first started going to gay bars when I moved down to London. I went to them on dates with guys from Gaydar, so I already felt more comfortable walking in with someone else. I still felt really young – most of the guys seemed to be late twenties/early thirties. I still find it hard to meet guys my own age.”

“I don’t have that many gay friends so I’ve only been to the bars and clubs with straight friends,” says Arron, “so it felt more like I was with outsiders rather than I was one of them.”

“From my experience the focus is definitely on enabling singles to meet,” says Kyle. “But if you are looking to meet someone in a club you should be aware of what you are getting yourself into. If you are looking for something more relationship- focused, it isn’t the place to find it.”

“I think if you’re very confident and the type of person that likes clubbing and being social, then it’s quite easy,” Arron continues, “but if you’re not into that sort of thing then I think it’s very hard to find a place where you feel comfortable and open, and I think that’s a risk in itself because you can end up feeling very isolated.”

“Personally I had no problems fitting in and feeling welcome,” says Dan. “I moved at my own pace, chatted with, met and then started having sex with guys when I was ready. That being said, there are risks out there. There are obviously guys who might be willing to take advantage of someone new to the scene. For example, they might be pressured into barebacking without really being aware of the risks.”

“London is very different because it is so big,” adds James. “You walk into a bar and you don’t recognize anyone unless you’ve lived here a few years. As a young person looking to make some friends it can be frustrating. But I find most bars are very welcoming and the people are friendly as long as you behave yourself. Nobody likes to see little twinks running around looking for attention!”

SEX AND BODY OBSESSED

Arron believes there’s too much of a focus on sex and body image on the gay scene. “I think it’s giving the impression to people outside the gay world that all we’re interested in is sex and vanity which is damaging the reputation of the gay community – and it makes you feel quite isolated if you don’t think you fit into the image, making it harder for you to want to go to the bars and clubs.”

“Yes, there is definitely an emphasis on sex – you can see it from space!” says Dan. “You have magazines promoting the perfect body on their covers, perfectly ripped bar staff in clubs. It’s sending a message that you should look like this, and I think that puts a lot of pressure on some people to achieve that ideal. It doesn’t have to be an essential part, but sex sells, right?”

“I wasn’t comfortable at first,” Dan continues. “It was all new and exciting, but at the same time quite scary as I was surrounded by far more self-assured and confident guys. There’s always a part of you thinking you might be doing something wrong or that you won’t be accepted – which is stupid looking back.”

“Since I’ve come out I’ve definitely been more aware of my appearance – I pay more attention to what I’m wearing, how my hair looks, and how I look in photos than I used to,” says Nathan. “I still feel very self-conscious and find myself intimidated by guys who exude more confidence than me, or look better than I do, but I don’t necessarily think this is exclusive to the gay sector of society.”

“There’s nothing wrong with having lots of hot well-dressed guys on the gay scene!” James says, “Having said that, some people do spend too much time at the gym, and not enough time socialising, which can’t be healthy.”

BUT WISER?

What do young gay men think of the more established gay men they see on the scene? “There are always more experienced guys looking to get you into bed, and a lot of inexperienced young people probably get taken advantage of,” James says.

“I think young guys are often too polite or too drunk to tell people to leave them alone. Young people can learn a lot from older guys, as long as they have the confidence to tell them to sod off if they get creepy. Having said that, they can obviously be very sexy – up to a certain age!”

“I think they’re sexy!” says Arron. “I love the older men! I know a lot of people find them creepy, but I always think that’s gonna be me one day, clinging to my youth.”

“I’ve had mixed experiences with older guys,” Nathan adds. “Unfortunately, most I’ve encountered have one thing on their mind – some openly admit to getting turned on by ‘fresh meat’. Others, however, have been nothing but supportive and aware of how I, as a younger gay guy new to the scene, could be intimidated by the whole situation.”

“My partner is 42 and I am 22 so already a fairly large age gap there,” says Kyle. “No, I don’t find it creepy – I think you need to find someone who is close to your emotional age rather than your physical age, and things will work much better.”

IS THE PARTY OVER?

Photo © Chris Jepson, www.ChrisJepson.comMany young people enjoy sex, drinking and partying regardless of their sexuality. But is there a perception that young straight people eventually settle down, get married and start a family, whereas many gays don’t.

And indeed as they get older a lot of guys keep on partying, drinking, doing drugs and being promiscuous. Will the new legislation legalising gay marriage in England and Wales change this perception?

“I think that it’s likely that gay marriage will encourage more people to settle down, just because there will be more social support for people to do so,” says GMFA’s Matthew Hodson. “But there will always be people who would rather carry on partying. I can’t imagine that lesbians and gays will have children as often as heterosexual couples, if for no other reason than it takes some planning to start a family if you’re gay. For lots of heterosexuals it just happens.”

“Society is changing in many ways and we don’t know how things will pan out in the future,” adds the LGF’s Lucy Rolfe. “Perhaps some LGB people maintain a lifestyle of going out and partying simply because they want to, and I’m sure many of these people are also in long-term relationships or civil partnerships. There are perceptions that this is what LGB people do, when in fact I’m sure many would rather stay in and watch Coronation Street! The important thing here is about choice, and the reason for that choice. People in same sex relationships should be able to marry if they want to, stay single and party if they want to – equality is about having a fair and equal society for all, which means people having a choice. However, if people are using alcohol, drugs or sex as a way of coping with distress, harming themselves or as a way of self-medicating because of underlying issues, then it’s important that services such as ours at the LGF are there to support them.”

So what does the future hold for today’s young gay men?

“In ten years time, I see myself in a secure job with my own place, hopefully with my boyfriend living with me too,” says Jason. “And maybe a dog or two.”

“I’d like to see myself settled in a relationship,” agrees Dan. “Not necessarily married, but I would like to be someday. I like that feeling that someone cares for you and you have someone to care about.”

“In ten years time I’ll appreciate the security of a dependable long-term partner,” says James. “If I find a decent one, I’ll want to marry him!”

“I’d like to see myself settled down and married to my boyfriend,” says Jack. “Having a job I enjoy, and even two children and some pets.”

“Happily married with a couple of pet dogs,” says Kyle.

“Hopefully in better shape that I am now,” says Nathan. “Maybe having been with a guy for a couple of years, not married, but comfortable with each other and still having fun.” 

FS SAYS: What's next?

Sex is a huge part of growing up. Exploring your sexuality should be fun. No young person should be entering the gay world without the knowledge of how HIV and other STIs are transmitted. It’s scary that there lots people out there, of all ages, that don’t know HIV exists. 

We in Britain have a knack for finger pointing and placing the blame on others. “It’s the government’s fault”, “no, it’s schools I blame”, “no wait, what about their parents”, “no, actually it’s the sexual health charities, fault”. 

So who is to blame? Well, every one of the above, including you and I. In an ideal world the government would roll out a major sex education programme that gives young gay men all the support and skills they need but that’s not going to happen any time soon so it’s left to us, the gay community, to make sure young gay men grow up into healthy young gay adults. The best thing to do is ask yourself what can you do to make sure younger gay men get the best education and support they need. 

We asked Matthew Hodson how GMFA intends to support young gay men in the future. He says, “Over the last few months we’ve spent a lot of time talking with and, more importantly, listening to young gay men to find out what it is they need to know, and how they want to get this information. We’ve heard that many young gay men don’t see HIV as something that’s likely to affect them, or think that a cure is just around the corner. 

“Projections suggest though that today’s young generation are the group most likely to become infected. So we’re working on new campaigns to make sure that gay men of all ages know that their sexual health is important and needs to be protected. We’re also exploring ways of helping gay men to value themselves, so that any feelings that they are not valued or are not good enough can be countered and don’t lead them to take risks with sex or drugs.”

Do your bit and help GMFA support young gay men by donating. Visit www.gmfa.org.uk/donate.