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Generation Gap: Gay Men on Dating and Love

With online dating and same-sex marriage, have the realities of gay romance changed over the years? Have these altered realities changed the ways younger gay people approach love, or is love a consistent and universal truth that withstands the test of time?

In this new series, Generation Gap, I will ask three different people of similar identities but different generations their opinions on issues that impact them. I asked three gay men representing Generation Z, Millennials, and Generation X — Ethan Todd, 23; Daniel Martini, 32; and Helmut Domagalski, 45 — questions about hookup culture, online dating, and what love means to them to find an answer to the age-old question: are the generations really all that different?

Quotes have been edited for clarity.

Do you have experience with online dating apps like Grindr? What is your opinion on online dating?

Gen Z: I honestly have far more experience than I care for with online dating in the gay community. I started using “Hot or Not” at the age of 16, and I think that truly dates my age within the community. I find, honestly, that regardless of what you put in your bio, or what the other party has written in theirs, that online dating within the gay community is very centered on sex. I’ve talked to so many guys online who write in their bio that they are looking for love, something meaningful, or a relationship, but quite often, once you’ve moved beyond the app, the first conversation you have with them includes, “Sorry, I’m just so horny right now.” Though I consistently face this challenge, I strive to keep my chin up and continue to put myself out there. I have had a few successful dates through online dating. The issue is that if you can only manage to go on a first date with a very small percentage of the population, there is a low probability that you will be truly compatible with everyone you go out with.

Millennial: I’ve had a positive experience with online dating. I met my boyfriend of three years on an app. As far as the negatives go, I do not like how online dating has almost hindered people’s ability to have one-on-one contact and communication with each other. I don’t like frivolous conversations. I like depth and range, and that, in an online app, is missing — especially when you go to the more sexualized apps like Grindr or Scruff.

Online dating can also be very dangerous. You could meet someone who is not who they say are, who could steal from you or be on drugs. But I’ve used dating apps. I’ve used Grindr; if I want to get my dick sucked, I know exactly what app to pull up. It’s convenient, but the level of convenience has put blinders on us with actual, long-term relationships.

As far as positives, however, I’ve met some great people that have changed my life for the better. I’ve learned lessons about what I’ll tolerate and not tolerate and how to be comfortable and confident in my own skin.

Gen X: YES, more than I wish I had. Coming out late and having a background of religious and sexual shame, I used these apps for what I thought was a lot of fun. But they also create a lot of challenges. Like all apps, they are addictive, but they offer a promise of intimacy and satisfaction and therefore leave you often far less satisfied than you had hoped.

And the apps all vary! Grindr and Scruff both lend themselves to sex, so for dating they aren’t highly effective. Other apps like Tinder seem to focus more on dating, but often you match with individuals only to never communicate again, or you are swiping right on men who are taken and left the single scene months ago.

I think that gay men at my age are trapped with no really easy way to meet each other in a world where we are such a small percentage of the population. One can feel forced to look to apps as a means of participating in a search if you really do want connection, and not necessarily of the sexual kind.


How would you define “hookup culture” and what is your opinion on it?

Gen Z: Hookup culture in the gay community, to me, is the epitome of toxic masculinity and a lack of self-love in the individuals who partake in it. Often, those who are obsessed with hooking up with others are seeking to fill a lack of self-esteem in themselves, or to replace a sense of intimacy that comes with truly knowing someone and caring for them. Those who are obsessed with hooking up often talk about relationships as something that they are unfamiliar with, and they do not know how to navigate that discomfort. Either they have been mistreated in the past and are afraid to be vulnerable now as a result, or they have been on their own for so long that they do not know how to accommodate the wants and needs of another, because they see that as threatening to their own well-being. What these individuals do not see is that though there is risk in being vulnerable with someone else, there is no opportunity for growth without vulnerability. If you cannot bare your soul to another, you will never be seen, heard, and known in the way that a human being deserves to be.

Millennial: Gay culture is hookup culture. [Hookup culture] hasn’t been around that long, so how it has completely morphed an entire generation’s thinking and approach to dating is quite fascinating to me, honestly. My boyfriend and I were together for three years and we were monogamous, and people would look at us like we were some kind of delicacy. It was like this notion that gay men have to be open and overtly sexual.

Gen X: I’d say hookup culture is where you have random buddies that you use to meet sexual and connection needs. I think there is nothing wrong with this culture per se, but I do think that gay men don’t realize what they are giving up by not working on themselves for a relationship. I think it’s not unique to gay life, but it is very much encouraged by our all-male chemistry and the lack of emotional intimacy characteristic of men. I think as we mature over generations, this culture will too. The scariest reality of the gay experience is that there are concerning levels of sex and substance addictions that are also a major part of hookup culture. This is a very real and problematic issue, and I think parts of our society have spiraled here with a deep lack of self-love at the core.


How did you feel when same-sex marriage was legalized? Was that something you expected to happen? Do you think it had an impact on how gay men, including yourself, went about dating and love?

Gen Z: Honestly, when same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S., I immediately went through a wave of shock. I had not anticipated it happening on the timeline that it did, and I was heavily relieved. At that time, there was very little representation in the media of gay people, and often the representation that did exist was through the lens of comedy. It was very hard for me to grow up not seeing people ‘like me’ in the media, and I clung to online platforms like Tumblr where I saw positive representations of LGBTQ couples who I could see myself ‘becoming’ in the coming years. Since then, I have not only seen a boom in positive LGBTQ representation in media, but also in my day-to-day life, and that has brought me great joy and a sense of hope. At the time and since then, however — especially during President Trump’s term — I feared for those of us who had not only made their love public business but also government business. If we were to devolve socially into a state where being LGBTQ was no longer acceptable, my peers would not be safe from both persecution and prosecution. This is a legitimate fear for me. I am also truly grateful for the effects of the legalization of same-sex marriage on the adoption process. It can be very difficult for a ‘single’ person to adopt a baby, as there are many standards for what a home life should look like in order to care for a child and being able to be recognized as a family unit as opposed to a single person has made it considerably easier to adopt a child as a LGBTQ person.

Millennial: Fuck yeah, absolutely [I expected it]! We fought so hard and long for it. I absolutely thought it was going to happen. I thought it was high time; I can’t believe it took as long as it did. I have some gay friends that have gotten married, the weddings were fabulous, but it didn’t really work out for them, I’ve seen a lot of gay divorce. But I still absolutely love it. However, I do not at all [think it changed gay men’s perception of commitment]. I think gay culture almost has amnesia; they have the memory span of a fly. We fought so hard for this monumental piece of legislation, and they don’t care. Especially the younger generations, they are so numb to it, and I think it’s a byproduct of our parents. I think the idea of marriage is a beautiful thing, but gay men aren’t pressured by the social norms of [marriage and] having a child [like heterosexual women are]. I don’t think the social norms and pressure are on us, but I also don’t think gay men don’t appreciate it. I think they think it belongs to the heterosexual community because of gender roles.

Gen X: I cried. I came out and left a marriage to a woman. Not being able to marry a man meant not being able to one day meet another king and marry him. That idea felt so wrong and rejecting by my society. I was not expecting it so quickly, but it was an amazing moment! Long-term commitment was always an option, though not with a marriage sticker; one could partner, write up some legal frameworks. I think that it did serve to solidify that partnership is a valid and real goal for gays. I think that many gay men struggle to achieve this when there were so many weaker models of it around them. I have always sincerely wanted a partner in life, but I also had to work through my own self-love issues, sex shame issues, gay shame issues, religion issues, etc.


How do you define love?

Gen Z: I define love as a commitment to bring peace and joy to your partner(s), reliably being present to share their joys and struggles. To me, love is an agreement that you will care for the other person, as long as you are able to in a healthy manner. I love many people in my life, romantically, professionally, and platonically. The bottom line is that you should always want what’s best for the other person in the relationship, regardless of if you are a part of that solution or not. Love is both a feeling and a commitment, and you can love a person regardless of how they feel about you — but you should always have boundaries and maintain a level of self-respect. You can pour from your cup as much as you want to, but when your cup is empty, you have nothing left to give to yourself or others.

Millennial: I would define love as sacred, being safe and comfortable, being a home base and anchor and supporter [for someone]. I would define it as all-consuming, two people growing their lives together. My version of love has changed a lot because I have focused less on an actual boyfriend and more on loving my friends and being able to love my friends, to take care of them not because I have to but because I want to. When shit hits the fan, are we strong enough to work this out? I think that’s a huge part of love. Also, you have to love yourself in order to love other people, and that takes work.

Gen X: Love to me is making something precious and worthy of my resources, time, and attention, delighting in someone even. The partnership love I seek will be from someone I share life’s journey with, or at least part of that journey, and we will both give each other preference.


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