My vision impairment makes it impossible for me to drive. I grew up in Little Rock, where there was zero public transportation of any use. Unlike many larger, older cities, there were no neighborhoods where residential areas intermingled in close proximity to business districts. Streets were wide, and there were no accommodation for visually impaired people in those days. The distances to shopping malls and business districts were too far to walk, even if the streets had had accommodations for the disabled. So I could not go anywhere without someone taking me by automobile. Not to school, not to work, not to the doctor, not to the bank, not to the grocery store, not to the library, not to the cinema, not to the pharmacy, not to the theater or to concerts, and most importantly, not to social events. Making friends was a catch-22. To get out and about to meet people and to attend social events, I needed someone willing to drive me. But since I had few friends due to my situation, such opportunities were rare. The isolation was killing my soul. And my dependency upon my partner at the time, Dee, was stifling our relationship — made worse by her jealousy. She seemed to both resent having to take me everywhere, yet seemed happy for me to have no friends.
Then I got my first home computer, a Commodore 64. (See I Used to Be a Systems Engineer…) I had, of all things, a 300 baud modem. And I was lucky because the University of Arkansas installed a public chat facility they called “CB”, the visual equivalent of CB radios. Now a new world opened to me, and I was able to talk with people, even though through cyberspace. In those days, PCs and Windows were not yet on the scene, and the Internet as we know it had not quite been invented. Everything was text-based — very little graphics, and certainly no streaming media. Even the first browsers were text-based, and there was little of interest for the casual user to find on the web.
Then along came Quantum Link, affectionately known as Q-Link. To quote from Wikipedia:
Quantum Link (or Q-Link) was a U.S. and Canadian online service for Commodore 64 and 128 personal computers that operated from November 5, 1985 to November 1, 1995. It was operated by Quantum Computer Services of Vienna, Virginia. In October 1991 they changed the name to America Online, which continues to operate the AOL service for the IBM PC and Apple Macintosh today.
Yep, it was the forerunner of AOL. Now my world really did open up to me! The CB system hosted by the University of Arkansas only had a handful of users, mostly hard-core geeks. But by the arrival of Q-Link, ordinary people were beginning to buy personal computers. The downside of Q-Link was that one had to pay a monthly subscription fee. But next (or simultaneously?), Internet Relay Chat (IRC) made its appearance. From the Wikipedia article:
Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is an application layer protocol that facilitates transfer of messages in the form of text. The chat process works on a client/server model of networking. IRC clients are computer programs that a user can install on their system. These clients are able to communicate with chat servers to transfer messages to other clients. It is mainly designed for group communication in discussion forums, called channels, but also allows one-to-one communication via private message as well as chat and data transfer, including file sharing.
Client software is available for every major operating system that supports Internet access. As of April 2011, the top 100 IRC networks served more than half a million users at a time, with hundreds of thousands of channels operating on a total of roughly 1,500 servers out of roughly 3,200 servers worldwide.
Over the past decade IRC usage has been declining: since 2003 it has lost 60% of its users (from 1 million to about 400,000 in 2014) and half of its channels (from half a million in 2003).
IRC was where I “cut my teeth” on the use of the Internet as a social medium, long before Facebook was conceived. Millions of users worldwide, servers on every continent.
Email list-serves also burgeoned. Unlike real-time communication via IRC, the email list-serves allowed one to read and post messages at one’s convenience. So not “real time,” but still a social outlet, and a way to meet people. In my personal trajectory from lesbian to transitioning from female to male, I was most interested in the lesbian list-serves, and the IRC channels for lesbians. (See a list of lesbian list-serves here; many of them are probably now long defunct.) Later in my life path, I sought out forums for FTMs.
Since we were all “talking” with each other behind the anonymity of screen names, there was much freedom of expression, and much room for deception. I thrived in the online environment because it gave the social contact I craved, and it enabled me to overcome crippling shyness. But I quickly learned that there are people who weren’t quite what they presented. Yet lots of very nice people as well.
My first introduction to deception came when I befriended a lesbian woman on IRC. The woman was intelligent, and our conversations were lively. After some months of chatting, I became reliant on the daily chats. And then one day, she decided to come clean and dropped a bombshell on me. “She” wasn’t a “lesbian” at all, but a male linguistics professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “She” was trying on a new identity. I’m grateful that the professor came clean with me, and I learned my lesson. He could have carried on pretending….
I had several other interactions along those lines, and began to think of myself as savvy in identifying creeps and deceivers.
One of my most unusual online friendship was with a woman stationed at McMurdo on Antarctica. I can truly say that I’ve chatted with people on every continent, but speaking with someone on McMurdo, and learning first-hand what it was like from someone who was stationed there was utterly fascinating.
I made a lot of friends, and managed to meet many of them face-to-face, and have friendships that have endured for years. One of the friends I made lived in Baltimore at the time. She had been a student at Yale at the same time Jodie Foster attended the university. When I was still a systems engineer, I got her a job at the company I worked for.
One of my grandest adventures was spending a month in Helsinki, Finland, with a woman I’d known on a couple of lesbian list-serves for many years. She’s still on my Facebook friend list to this day, though we seldom if ever talk now. But meeting her was a transformational experience that I will always treasure.
My first high school sweetheart, Dee, lived across the street from me, and so there were no computers in the equation of our relationship. My second partner, I met on good old Q-Link. Meeting her was the godsend that got me out of Arkansas. For the most part, she was as she presented herself. But she did have troubles, and her deceptions, relatively minor as they were, came later. The relationship lasted 7 years.
I met my third partner, Kim, on a lesbian list-serve. I’d read her posts, and exchanged polite emails with her for years before we began chatting on IRC and friendly conversation turned to flirting. Kim was exactly as she presented herself, no deception. We became partners, and the relationship lasted 6 years, with 4 more years of friendship. We had our problems, but they had nothing to do with computers, or having met via computers.
But in-between Donna and Kim, I had a (thankfully) brief romance with a woman I met on IRC. Her name was Vikki. To set the stage, Donna and I had broken up. But for financial reason, we were still living together in Pittsburgh. Vikki lived in Brentwood, MD. Vikki was going through a bitter divorce from a Turkish man, and the custody of her two daughters was at stake. She wanted to come to Pittsburgh to meet me. She’d decided she was a lesbian. Lesbians know well the pitfalls of getting involved with a straight woman who is sorting out her sexual orientation, and no one wants to be the guinea pig that gets hurt. And I had no interest in getting mixed up in a messy divorce.
But meanwhile, it was increasingly clear that Donna and I could not continue to live together without strangling each other, and I was lonely. I finally decided, what could it hurt to meet Vikki and have a new friend? So Vikki drove to Pittsburgh to meet me, and I got us tickets to see Kate Clinton, the renowned lesbian comedian who’d made a big splash at the March on Washington for GLBT rights in April of 1993.
Vikki was in my home no more than 30 minutes before she pounced on me, pulling me on her lap and kissing me. I was rather stunned, like a deer in headlights. On the one hand, my relationship with Donna had been dead long before it was officially over, and I was hungry for attention and intimacy. But on the other hand, I was triggered from past sexual abuse, and thus the “deer in headlights” reaction. She spent the night at my house.
Vikki began the love-bombing campaign that is now very familiar to me. Before long, she was suggesting that I move in with her. Continuing to live with Donna was untenable, and here was this new romance, and so I fell for it. But after I’d moved from Pittsburgh to Vikki’s house in Brentwood, MD, I learned her true agenda: I was to be her live-in maid, secretary, and babysitter. As the bitter divorce played out, the court demanded that Vikki be evaluated by a psychiatrist. I saw the results with my own eyes: Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Histrionic Personality Disorder, with Schizotypal Tendencies. My first introduction to the ilk of a psychopath. I won’t go into the horrors I experienced. Maybe that will be a future post. You might think that this episode would have clued me in, but it did not. The “relationship” was too short-lived. I got about the business of healing, moving on, winding my way toward transitioning from female to male, acquiring my job as a systems engineer, and beginning my relationship with Kim. No time for deeply processing what had happened to me.
Then came the nightmare of my wife, which I’ve blogged about extensively, having met her on Facebook.
I am not put off by meeting people online. You can meet good and bad people everywhere. There’s no guarantee that the person standing behind you in the check-out line isn’t a psychopath, or simply an unkind louse. The person sitting next to you at church could be a creep. (Think Jim Jones.) Also see my article Even Therapists Can Be Psychopaths — The Lawsuit. But I’ve also met many kind and decent people online. Among them are my friends L and Martha who I’ve previously written about.
It’s not about where you meet someone. It’s about learning to listen to your gut instincts and protesting your boundaries. It’s about being open, but watching for the clues. The patterns of deceit will emerge whether you meet someone online or face-to-face. I’m more cautious now, no matter where I encounter new friends.
The great boon of online communication and social media is the delight of meeting the truly good people, as kind as you, dear reader. And with reconnecting with long-lost friends. Do not be wary of online communication — just be savvy about who you trust.
Terms and Conditions of Use