Dating has never been a forte of mine. I watched my friends in high school trying their luck with the opposite sex and it seemed like a lot of fun. It was like a game; they would plan, strategize, and execute, then deal with the unexpected challenges or unintended consequences. It was the thrill of the chase, the valiant effort, and the glorious victory (if you happened to snag your target) – the whole affair seemed addictive. Sure there were awkward moments, disappointments, and even tears, but it all seem rather harmless, and in the end and everybody would just get on with their lives.

My first date wasn’t until I was 21; the same year I left home for Canada and came out. I was keen to try out the dating game for myself, but I knew that the game would most likely be different in the gay world… and boy, was I in for a ride! I started dating in the pre-Grindr era, (or maybe Grindr existed and I just didn’t know about it) so I would nervously go to bars and clubs on my own and just see what would happen. I didn’t have many friends, let alone gay friends, at the time and so I would just put myself out there. Understand that I grew up chubby, shy, and awkward so going to bars and clubs alone to get a date was a real achievement for me. Even though I had worked on being more confident and I was no longer ‘well-fed’ as some of my dear friends would politely put it, it was still a real struggle to be comfortable with what I had to offer on a physical level and believing that guys would actually find me attractive, especially once I discovered how superficial the gay dating scene can be. I wanted to show that I’m a pretty decent guy who is fun, genuine, and caring. How to get those ‘internal’ qualities across at the bar or on a dancefloor was the issue.

The more time I spent in the game, the more I realized how ruthless and discriminatory the gay dating scene is. I soon noticed various coupling patterns, specifically (older) white men with young Asian. On the flip side, I also noticed guys dismissing me because they ‘don’t do Asians’. This polarizing attitude towards gay Asian men confused me at first until I learned what the gay Asian stereotype is, and how it was sometimes encouraged by Asians themselves. Once, I had an Asian acquaintance telling me that despite looking muscly and toned, he said we should be wary of getting too bulky because the demand in the market for was for slender, less masculine, passive Asians. He would also shave his body hair religiously because the demand was for smooth and shaved. I was quite disheartened to discover, and have it reinforced, that only a specific type of men would show interest in me and if I looked a certain way. I confess, I soon got sucked into the game; I believed that I was only capable of dating specific men and that I needed to fit into the stereotype to be considered desirable. Part of this was me being a young naïve gay man, easily influenced by what I saw in the scene and part of it was caving into my loneliness. I changed my behavior and how I looked to satisfy those who would give me the attention I craved, however shallow and fleeting the admiration was.

Thankfully, I met my first love before the game consumed me. He was 22, Mexican, and dreamy. The first time I locked my eyes on him, I thought he was the cutest thing on earth. Sadly, I did not have the courage to approach him at first because based on what the scene dictated; he absolutely did not fall into the category of men that would typically find me attractive or I should be approaching. It took at least three encounters over the course of a month and a pep talk from a good friend in a NYC hotel room before I made a promise to myself that I would at least say hello if I saw him again. I did and long story short, I moved to Mexico with him and we ended up getting married, but now divorced – sorry I couldn’t give you guys a happy ending!

Getting a man to go out with me who defied previous stereotypes, was the start of a new approach to dating for me. When I asked him about what it was that made him say yes, he said that in the first 5 minutes we talked, he sensed that I was a genuine, caring and fun guy (all the qualities I thought could never be communicated on a dancefloor!) Conversation is key; you can tell a lot about someone within the first 5 minutes of talking to them and get a much better sense whether there is mutual interest or not. We’re so quick to judge based on physical appearances, so if you’re not blessed with the ‘typical good-looking’ DNA, you do have to work harder to capture someone’s attention; you need to create an opportunity to talk to them.

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Equipped with this new appreciation for communication, I moved away from the clubs and bars as I found the majority of guys there do not want a real conversation. I also didn’t want to be frequent sight at the bars and clubs anymore, because whether I liked it or not, people would have certain ideas about you if they see you clubbing or drinking at bars every single weekend. I started going out on dates with guys from different social activities groups that I or my friends were involved in, like running, yoga, and writing workshops.  I found guys in these groups to be an eclectic, inspiring, and colorful bunch – not to say that guys at bars and clubs are not, they are just harder to identify or represented in smaller numbers. These social groups are full of open-minded guys looking for real connections in whatever form that is, rather than just casual encounters. They challenged me on an intellectual, emotional, and physical level. Some dates even helped to heal old wounds that I had from previous relationships. They helped me to discover things about myself, and allowed me to be comfortable in my own skin. They forced me to evaluate my beliefs and reconsider my perceptions on certain things. A guy I casually dated found out he had HIV and I surprised myself by immediately stating that it’s not a problem for me if we were to take the relationship to a more serious level. We had built a real connection and the whole HIV thing, while a big deal, seemed like it was manageable. For me, it did not define him as a person. I didn’t think I would ever be comfortable with the idea of dating someone with HIV but knowing the person on a deeper level allowed me to overlook the stigma, something which I probably would not have done back when I was at the bars and clubs.

Dating guys from these social groups also allowed me demonstrate all the things I said I loved doing rather than just talk about them. Since we already shared common interest, we were able to eliminate a lot of the small talks for the sake of initiating and/or continuing a conversation, and often would delve into topics or engage in activities that showed how passionate we were. The dates I went on were also more exciting, enlightening, and fulfilling. I went on a date once with a hearing-impaired guy and we went to a dine in the dark restaurant. I had to sit right next to him rather than opposite him, as he could no longer lip read and his spatial awareness was now compromised. That dinner is still one of the most memorable dates I’ve ever been on and I had a new found appreciation for my senses and how intimate a dining out experience can be.

Today I no longer see dating as a game, but rather an invigorating activity. If and when the day comes where I have to start dating again, I will approach it as a fun and enjoyable experience that will add to my self-growth, because no matter the outcome, the process itself is an opportunity to learn, to connect, and to accept where I am in life and if necessary, to transform myself. As humans, we crave genuine interaction and connection with our fellow beings, and there is absolutely no reason as to why going out on dates cannot fulfill this need in a real and meaningful way.