This is what gay dating is like in the time of COVID-19

Gayborhood meeting spots like U Bar have only recently begun to open back up (Philly Gay News Photo)

By Sebastian Fortino

PHILADELPHIA — When the pandemic swept through the country and prompted Philadelphia and everywhere else to lock down, people who were dating, trying to date, or thinking about dating had to rethink their plans. Some couples moved in together, some couples broke things off, and some put the romance on hold. But with the pandemic forcing typical social spots to close and apps like Grindr to issue COVID-19 warnings, the dating landscape has become an entirely different terrain.

Chris Jones, a marketing analyst, has lived in Philly for almost two decades. He made the move to the heart of the Gayborhood during the first week in June, when Philly was still in the red phase of reopening and everything was closed. For him, the things he has missed most during the pandemic are not so much dating related but more physical comfort, namely enjoying dinner in an air-conditioned eatery or seeing a film in a cinema. The apps, he says, were never a fit for him.

“I only did the apps briefly. They’re boring,” Jones said before humorously observing: “You know way too much about a guy going in. I like the bit of mystique you get meeting a guy in the wild. The apps are like a frozen dinner: always there and ready, but it never tastes quite right.”

As Jones is walking distance to Camac Street, home to several of the community’s favorite watering holes, he has still maintained a socially-distanced-social-life.

“I actually made a few new friends. Guys (and a few women) I’d seen at the bars for years were just hanging out on Camac Street with walktails looking for a conversation. So it hasn’t been that different. I’ve always prioritized friends above potential boyfriends and, if anything, I’ve gotten closer with the people who matter most.”

Joey Amato, an LGBTQ publicist and travel writer based in Indianapolis, was dating someone before the pandemic, but they stopped seeing each other when COVID-19 spread worldwide. In his own life he is very cautious about socializing, as the New York City-native lost his father to COVID-related issues back in April.

“I understand that the apps were used mostly for hookups prior to the pandemic, but the amount of people I see still hooking up randomly is quite disturbing and makes me realize that we are going to be in this longer than we think unless a vaccine is discovered.”

On a positive note, Amato added, “I think people have gotten more creative with dating and decided to do more outdoor activities and dates that don’t involve crowds.”

As someone who works from home, and lives alone, Amato mostly misses having a partner to talk to and socialize with. But he doesn’t rush to have friends over for wine and cheese. “I actually purchased a temperature gun to scan temperatures before they enter my house, although I still don’t use it much.”

Michael Bufalino, of West Philly, says he has taken advantage of the downtime provided by COVID. He doesn’t see very many downsides despite the shutdown. Perhaps, for Bufalino, the social pressure of dating or “talking about dating” as single gay men are apt to do, has been lifted. He’s happy to spend time at home among his collections, playing records, and catching up on his reading.

“Since I have a relatively large front porch, it’s very easy to invite a friend or two over for an afternoon and evening of good conversation, not to mention cocktails. A friend pointed out that there is social distancing and physical distancing,” the small business owner added blithely. “Many people now associate all interactions with the relatively new phrase ‘social distancing,’ when they are really physically distancing.”

The apps were not for him, as he preferred meeting available men at events, house parties, or bars. But at the moment, he enjoys them like many single guys do, for conversation.

Like Joey Amato, he admits, “I miss the physical act of going out and the excitement that comes with the expectation of meeting someone.”

Noah Michelson is perhaps acutely aware of what gay men are going through in terms of being single and dating during these times. Michelson is based in Brooklyn and he works for Huffington Post as an editorial director and the host of D is for Desire, Huffpost’s love and sex podcast. He has been single since December and promised himself six months of not checking out the dating scene.

“I actually got back ON apps after COVID arrived because I figured it would be a way to pass the time and perhaps meet some other guys who were trying to figure out what intimacy and connection looked like in this strange new world,” he told PGN. Michelson misses the ability to act on something that he feels could be right in terms of connecting with other guys.

Michelson did meet someone on the apps this summer, but they have been taking it slow and have been carefully social distancing when they meet.

“We’ve been picking a different park every weekend and spending three hours laying in the grass (six feet apart) and talking about ourselves and our lives and it’s been really chaste and really sweet and really strange and I’m just trying to have no expectations.”

Despite the current ease, he points out that sooner or later they’ll have to decide what the next phase of the relationship is going to look like. And both Michelson and Amato are curious as to what socializing will look like when the colder, wetter months hit and outdoor activities are scaled back.

The four men we spoke with have managed to maintain a sense of well-being and community despite having to scale back their dating lives. All of them are well-aware of the losses and suffering gay men endured through the AIDS crisis, another global pandemic. Considering the trauma and the losses felt by the community, COVID-19 pales in comparison, for now.

Joey Amato still travels, and just this past weekend visited Nashville for his birthday, taking selfies with his mask at the ready, and enjoying the city outdoors. Meanwhile, Jones takes comfort in making new friends and keeping up with old ones locally in the Gayborhood. And while Huffpost’s Michelson, due to his work, spends “a lot of time thinking about intimacy and desire,” he is interested to see what we may learn as both queer people and humans in general from the pandemic.

“I think that in some ways, COVID has made me be more thoughtful about who I want to spend my time with and what I want to spend my time doing with them, and I’ve found I put up with less bullshit from potential dates (or even just guys I am texting with or interacting with on apps),” he said. “But it’s hard to get my footing, and what felt right or real in March is different from what felt right or real in May, and I suspect it’ll be different from what feels right or real in October. All we can really do is try to be as honest as possible with ourselves and the people we’re meeting and hope that with that honesty, good things will come.”

Sebastian Fortino is a reporter for the Philadelphia Gay News, where this story first appeared.