According to estimates by Internet demographers, 20% of AOL's 21 million subscribers are gay, and at nearly all hours, the men-for-men chat rooms are filled with guys looking for Mr. Right. (On a random night in AOL's Town Square area, 140 of the first 200 chat rooms were labeled M4M.) "Unless you're John McCain, you can't always look at someone's face and know they're gay," says Internet-privacy expert John Aravosis, jokingly referring to the candidate's remark about his ability to spot gays in the military. "The chat rooms are a place where people can be relaxed and reach out without fear."
"It's changed the world," says Peter Ian Cummings, publisher of XY magazine, a title aimed at young gay men. "If you ask gay men under 25 how they meet people, I think 99% would say they've met people online, and the vast majority of them would say they use AOL." (Women-for-women chat rooms are not yet nearly as integral to lesbian dating.)
Most men-for-men chat rooms are organized geographically. Members select a chat room heading, like "ClevelandM4M," and click on the who's chatting button to see a list of folks in the room. Listed with each individual's screen name is an accompanying profile--a personal resume of sorts, whose details vary from person to person and city to city. When a surfer finds a profile he likes, rather than have an ice-breaking conversation on the chat-room bulletin board, he'll usually send an instant message to the potential paramour with an invitation to a private room. Says TV producer Jim Fraenkel, 29: "You don't even have to say anything, and within a few minutes you'll start getting [instant messages] from people who are reading your profile."
While the chat rooms are filling a void for millions of men, the gay community's relationship with AOL is more of a love-hate affair. In 1998 an AOL employee let slip the identity of gay naval officer Timothy R. McVeigh to a Navy investigator, resulting in McVeigh's discharge for violation of the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy. AOL issued a public apology, but complaints have persisted that AOL holds gay customers to different, stricter standards, both in chat rooms and on personal profiles. "There's a sense," says Cummings, "that they don't want to acknowledge who gives them their money." Last October a Fort Worth, Texas, man's profile was deleted because he mentioned his preferred sexual position. Frank Provasek of the local a.c.l.u. chapter conducted an informal investigation and said gay men's profiles are often removed or modified because of potentially offensive language. A company spokesperson replies, "AOL values all of its 21 million members. We want to make the online experience enjoyable, fun and safe for everyone, and we value and honor our members' privacy." If there is censorship, it is uneven; anyone who glances at M4M (and straight) chat rooms is likely to find a number of graphic and suggestive profiles.
Aravosis thinks AOL's problems are more oversight than malice, but he hopes the company gets more sensitive to its gay consumers before the relationship sours. "It's a great service. All anyone's asking is for them to address the problems."