PokéStop In The Name Of Love
Minutes into Jennifer Lopez's The Wedding Planner — in which she plays an uptight but in-demand wedding planner who eats TV dinners while watching Antiques Roadshow alone every night — the heel of her stiletto gets caught in a manhole cover and Matthew McConaughey saves her before she's crushed by a runaway garbage dumpster. That's a pretty high-concept meet-cute for a movie, and that's the first thing that came to mind when I met a guy and got his number while meeting in an alley behind a Silver Lake bar at midnight looking for Pokémon. Or, that was the second thought: My first thought was that I hoped a masked serial killer wasn't going to hack me to death. And to think, I wasn't even cruising for sex when it happened, either.
By 1980, cruising in the gay community had hit mainstream consciousness enough that Al Pacino starred in the thriller Cruising, named after the term gay men used for driving or walking by a discreet location, looking for sex. The practice was popular when being gay was still criminalized in America, when it was illegal to even visit gay bars and scope for a one-night stand, a boyfriend, or, lord forbid, a group of gay men to be friends with. By the ’90s, cruising had moved to chat rooms. For the gay men who no longer needed to keep their sexuality a secret, you didn't have to visit a bar to find sex; you could turn on your computer.
Once chat rooms replaced cruising, we saw the advent of dating apps. Now, it's easy to find another homosexual or closeted GOP senator without leaving your living room. Cruising has been replaced by right swipes, woofs, and "sup bros?" from guys who have only their abs as their profile picture. I'd hardly call it the death of the gay community, since we're far from the only people obsessed with our phones, but it's easier than ever to swipe an app in a bar instead of interact with your friends. And the interactions that have birthed from the ability to order sex like it's an Amazon Prime deal have led to checking off boxes that can keep you from interacting with people based on their race, height, or weight.
It's ubiquitous enough that those exclusionary phrases like “No fats, no femmes” or "No Asians, no blacks, sorry just a preference" have become running jokes on social media. It's ironic that an app everyone uses could also become a tool to distance a community, to parcel out potential love interests you might meet while just roaming the streets, looking for anyone to make a connection with. How easy it is to "interact" with other gay men and yet not have to see them in person.
Which is why I was startled the first time I downloaded Pokémon Go and found out how popular it has become within the gay community. The app is a video game that you play in the real world. The Nintendo game uses your GPS to place Pokémon (pocket monsters) in your apartment, your office, or even on the street. To catch them (and the tagline of the series is "Gotta catch ’em all!"), you literally need to get off your ass and patrol the streets like Buffy Summers hunting for vampires in Sunnydale. You can use extra tools like incense to make Pokémon come to you, but you'll only find a wider variety of Pokémon if you don't stay in one place. The game even tracks whether or not you're walking or driving, so some components (like hatching eggs and birthing your own Pokémon) require you to be really active.
A game like this is no stranger to gaymers, which is the term for gays into video games and other kinds of role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, but because it's not tied to a video-game console and it's easily downloadable (and free, unless you make in-app purchases), nearly everyone can play this game. I don't consider myself a gaymer, but like most millennials, my iPhone is an obsession and I'm in that prime age range that watched the ’90s Pokémon TV show and played with the trading cards as a kid, so the joint nostalgia all worked in a conspiracy to get me to download this game — not to mention the endless hype it's gotten on social media. I don't like being left out. I mean, after all, I did play Kim Kardashian: Hollywood for a good three months until the nefarious Willow Pape drove me to insanity.
After downloading the game, the first Pokémon to pop up in my apartment was a Squirtle. Squirtle is a light blue turtle creature that squirts water out of its mouth. I wanted more, so I asked friends how to play the game and was told I needed to roam the streets. It was near midnight and I wasn't quite as obsessed with the game as I am now, so I waited until the next day to troll Los Angeles for cartoon animals.
The next morning, however, when I went to my first PokéStop, I saw someone staring at me from across the street. I figured they were confused as to why I was standing outside of a church, waving my iPhone around like a maniac — until they crossed the street and said, "Hey, what team are you on?" I responded that I hadn't joined a team yet and had only downloaded the game last night. He told me to join red because "everyone's on it," and then we talked a bit about our jobs. When he departed, I realized that this was one of the first times I could remember having an extended conversation with a gay man that I didn't already know, or was introduced to at an event, or was on a first date with. I have a strong personality, to say the least, but in public settings I can be withdrawn and introverted. I surprised myself by even engaging with this stranger at 9:30 a.m. before I'd had my first cup of cold brew.
But then, a funny thing happened. It kept going. Gay friends reached out to me to join their Pokémon teams and their clandestine Facebook groups where they plotted to take over gyms. I traveled to West Hollywood Park, which is right off the strip of the majority of Los Angeles's gay bars, where I found a huge crowd of men and women playing Pokémon. Later that evening, I even found people playing the game while ordering drinks and watching my favorite adult actor and go-go boy Brendan Phillips dance in front of us. The next morning, I even played Pokémon at brunch, and I don't stand for distractions at brunch when there are bottomless mimosas to be had: The lure of Pokémon was strong as hell.
Later that night, alone in my apartment drinking and watching The Invitation on Netflix, I noticed someone had put up a Lure Module at a nearby PokéStop. Lure Modules attract Pokémon and, once you put one up, anyone can use them. I made the quick decision to flee from my apartment and find this PokéStop — which, after watching a horror movie and generally being black in America, kept making me think it was beyond ill-advised to go traipsing around in an alleyway at midnight. The only thing that assuaged my fears was the fact that I found at least 15 other people in the alley doing the same, tied to their phones. After catching a Pokémon, I struck up a conversation with a guy and, to my surprise, we hit it off. Standing next to a garbage dumpster that he luckily didn't have to save me from, he asked for my number and I gave it to him.
I'm not saying that Pokémon Go has solved problems within the gay community, but it could become extremely useful. People are invested enough in the game that it could develop a social aspect like chat rooms, but what I like about this game is that while it's on your phone, you still have to interact with the real world. If it became some sort of actual dating apparatus, you'd have the problem inherent in all other apps — swiping people based on immediate attraction. But the people I've had conversations with IRL were all about the game first, and then, as you're standing there for at least half an hour waiting for more Pokémon to arrive, you let your guard down and talk about yourselves. And I know I'm far from the only person who has discovered other gays in the wild playing the same game. It's a bit silly, but after a couple of weeks that have been extra despairing as a gay and black man, it's nice to be reconnected to my community, even if it's only through catching animals in the streets. Pokémon Go, as opposed to Grindr or Scruff, has made me feel connected to other people and not judged and sized up by a list of sexual criteria. Which isn't to say that Pokémon Go is that different from Grindr. It still drains your phone battery like a motherfucker.