In darkness, a camera flashes. The screen flickers alive and I get a glimpse of a toned torso in a rather dirty mirror. Then darkness. Then another flicker, another pose; and then another and another and another. The eyes may be obscured by a perfectly placed baseball cap, but their hunger is undeniable. It is through these scattered selfies that I first meet Frankie, a lithe young man all too curious about his uncontrollable desire for other male bodies. Content with his pictures, he soon lights up his computer, turns on his webcam, and signs on to a video chat room called Brooklyn Boys. There, he coyly interacts with half-naked men who egg him on to show more and, later still, to meet them. There’s a rehearsed, almost weary rhythm to these digital encounters. He knows what he’s looking for and is all too happy to click away from any man who may not fit what he covets.
These first images of Eliza Hittman’s film Beach Rats struck a little too close to home. Shrouded in a darkened movie theater, I felt the pang of recognition. I’d been Frankie, toying with different angles to better show off my body, aiming for the kind of standoffish allure that suggested more could be elicited and demanded should you know how best to ask. I’d also been the men Frankie chatted with—some all too eager and hungry for what was under his shirt, others more savvy, knowing his coyness was a screening mechanism that required careful disassembly, and others still whose flagrant exhibitionism didn’t require his engagement. I’d been them all.
I hadn’t encountered a character quite like Frankie before. Throughout Hittman’s film, his wandering eyes are constantly cruising and surveying. He’s a shapeshifting creature looking for what best to emulate to make sure he goes about his day unperturbed. That gift for observation serves him well. He’s on the lookout for other men like him, not just to lust after them, but to make sure his own body is not legible. The anthropological indexing he masters online is put to good use when out and about in his Brooklyn neighborhood. Just as he knows a gruff grunt or a gentle come-hither look will earn him the praise of similarly turned-on men on the other side of the computer screen, Frankie modulates his body movements while on Coney Island to play the laconic straight man he’s supposed to embody. Worried his long, luscious hair makes his features all too soft, for example, he trims it off on a whim, adopting the military-style buzz cut his boardwalk bros sport. This allows him to blend in more, but it also helps craft an iconic gay male object of desire: When cruising men along the water, Frankie is a late ’90s vision of those ambling hustlers along another very different New York City waterfront. With his white tank top and buzzed hair, he’s what we’d euphemistically have called “trade.”
I never quite succeeded at playing the “straight boy” as well as Frankie does. My high-pitched voice and my penchant for loose-hipped movement always gave me away. Nevertheless, I saw myself in him, especially the more I saw him carefully navigate a budding digital world where he could indulge in a cordoned-off vision of queer intimacy. Set in a world before Grindr and Glee , and in a neighborhood dozens of subway stops away from the gay utopia that New York City often comes to stand for in our cultural imagination, Hittman’s film was inadvertently offering me a time machine—back to my own late adolescence when, like Frankie, I first discovered digital outlets for my most shameful desires. Playing Frankie, actor Harris Dickinson had made flesh what for years had been a secret double life I’ve longed to forget. One I carved out for myself during late-night adventures in digital cruising, offering up my body to those who’d dutifully lap it up in exchange for some pleasantries and flatteries.
I must have first stumbled onto one of those chat rooms in college. Growing up, I didn’t even have dial-up at home. Whatever web surfing I did in my teens was always monitored closely, either in the school computer lab or at my mom’s office. And while I’d learned how to quickly toggle between open windows and mastered the art of scrubbing browser histories, my forays into the vast online world of gay chat rooms didn’t become a regular part of my life until 2007 when I was living by myself in a dorm room.
To say “stumble,” though, is misleading. It wasn’t like I was sauntering along, made a wrong turn, and suddenly found myself sharing with men both near and far my A/S/L—Age/Sex/Location, one of the many shorthand expressions I’d soon master. I must have surely sought one out. I probably searched for “gay chat room.” Back then, there were still many of us who came of age without owning a cell phone in high school, who had yet to hear about a new college-only social network called “Facebook,” and who lived long stretches of our daily lives without even thinking about going “online.” But late at night, I’d stay up in front of my clunky monitor to explore a thrilling world I was still too shy, too scared, too coy to attempt to enter in real life.
Behind a childishly suggestive screen name—say, “XXXman”—I could strike up conversations with strangers who needn’t and didn’t question my sexuality or my proclivities. At times, I passed myself off as someone older, wiser, more experienced. Sometimes I leveraged my own IRL inexperience as a selling point. I may have been shy and bookish in my day-to-day life, but my penchant for sexual double entendres made me feel adept in a space that depended solely on one’s words. To be sure, there were as many men won over by my vacuous wordplay as there were those who lost all interest whenever I began using polysyllabic words. These often salacious conversations were never about wanting to find a way to fit into the LGBT community or seeking someone I would actually want to meet in the flesh. Instead, they were performative experiments. What kind of gay man would I want to be, to become?
This is a question that Frankie never poses to himself in Beach Rats. His cruising is instinctual and visceral. He has no time for labels or questions of identity. The degree to which Frankie compartmentalizes his online sexual exploits, keeping them so clearly isolated from both his family (he’s set up his computer in his basement and not in his own bedroom upstairs) and his friends (who think he’s a ladies’ man through and through), would have felt near-pathological had I not been such an adept practitioner of it myself.
By the time I officially came out, I didn’t leave behind those lurid, late-night chat rooms. Whatever boldness I displayed within those Internet Explorer windows never quite spilled over into my “real” life. They remained, instead, fantasy worlds I’d inhabit whenever I needed any kind of release. While outwardly preaching pride, I found myself still repressing and feeling shame at the sex-positive (if not outrightly promiscuous-laden) sensibility I so easily gravitated to online, choosing instead to cordon it off. This was made possible in that oh-so-brief digital moment before social media pushed us to both neatly dissociate yet crucially integrate our digital and IRL lives. The anonymity I first cherished in chat rooms would soon be tested once I made a purchase that raised the stakes of these interactions: a webcam.
Ensconced in the privacy of my own room, I made my body public. Within the safety it granted me—never do I feel as in control of my own libidinal urges than when I’m a click away from exiting an unwanted scenario—I toyed with the most brazen version of myself. Typing, later uttering, and ultimately performing acts that would make me blush were I to discuss them with friends (and even lovers), I found a freedom that was intoxicating. For a ’90s kid who still couldn’t help but think of, let alone engage in, gay sex without the haunting spectre of AIDS, there was a liberating aspect to indulging in sexual fantasies that were safely framed by a screen. Like Frankie, I was able to explore a part of myself online that still shamed me outside the confines of an internet browser. Somehow I was able to preach about pride and live my life as an openly gay man, but still felt my furious role-playing on camera for strangers was better left closeted. I had swapped one dirty secret for another.
Even before Beach Rats took a lurid turn and tied Frankie’s escapades to another deadly secret he’ll have to live with, I knew there would be no happy ending to this tale. Here, after all, was yet another narrative about the soul-gnawing consequences of keeping parts of yourself hidden: They’ll eventually come crashing around you, causing a kind of havoc you cannot control. As the lights came up and I caught my breath, I recognized that feeling I’d experienced whenever I finished a Skype call with a stranger, or closed the browser on a video chat room where several men had witnessed me writhe in pleasure. There was, here again, a sense of unearned embarrassment. There was nothing dirty in what Frankie had been doing, just as there was nothing illicit in what I found myself sharing with others online. He and I only made it so by bracketing it off from our daily lives. And, just as I’d done many times while closing my laptop on my way to clean up, I didn’t think more of it. I headed toward the exit, into a bright, sunny day and, like Frankie, went on with my life.