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But as his online friendships deepened, the phony elements of Jeffrey's story began to oppress him: Yeah, I'm gay, but it's a lie. He was very protective of who he let close to him. He let me in, but he let in this false identity.

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When he found out, he blocked me. By last summer, Jeffrey also had an online boyfriend, whom I will call C. A fellow Southerner a year older than Jeffrey whom Jeffrey called his ''true love,'' though the two had never met, C. For homosexual teenagers with computer access, the Internet has, quite simply, revolutionized the experience of growing up gay.

Isolation and shame persist among gay teenagers, of course, but now, along with the inhospitable families and towns in which many find themselves marooned, there exists a parallel online community -- real people like them in cyberspace with whom they can chat, exchange messages and even engage in online sex. The popularity of ''cybering,'' as online sex is called -- masturbating in real time to sexually explicit typed messages -- has lately been supplemented among boys, especially with a mania for Web cams and microphones, which allow them to see and hear each other masturbate, using programs like Microsoft's NetMeeting.

But this is only as important for gay boys as it no doubt is for the countless straight youths who flock to Internet sex sites. What was most critical to the gay kids I spoke with was the simple, revelatory discovery that they were not alone. Indeed, gay teenagers surfing the Net can find Web sites packed with information about homosexuality and about local gay support groups and counseling services, along with coming-out testimonials from young people around the world.

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Gay pornography, too, can be a valuable resource; a number of youths I spoke with, male and female, said that the availability of online porn had proved critical to their discovery of their sexual orientation. Kyle, a year-old youth from Florida I met online, wrote me in an e-mail message: The pictures turned me on soooo much, and I loved it. It was just so clear to me, I am gay and I like men. Parents' attempts to restrict their children's access to hard-core Web sites are rarely a match for their kids' surpassing computer skills.

Several teenagers I spoke with said they had accessed gay pornography on computers at school. Which means that a curious teenager not only has ready access to graphic material, but also can engage in sexual experimentation with peers that would be next to impossible in everyday life.

As one year-old put it in an e-mail message, ''I could say that the Internet made my life a living hell. It made me realize I'm different. I hated it I'd rather find out now than when I'm 30 and married to my wife with two kids or something. Recent studies suggest that kids are identifying themselves as gay at much younger ages; among males the average age has dropped from to , and in females from their early 20's to Caitlin Ryan, a clinical social worker and the author of ''Lesbian and Gay Youth: Care and Counseling,'' says, ''Today, youths are coming out right in the middle of high school or earlier, and I think the Internet is playing an important role in that because it's providing information to help them label those feelings and figure out who they really are.

One might reasonably ask whether such heightened early awareness of sexual orientation is always a good thing. And for all the educational resources the cyberworld can offer gay youth -- articles and studies and hot-line numbers and so on -- the gay-sex cyberworld, like the much larger straight-sex one, is not an especially wholesome environment in which to tease apart one's sexuality. Type the words ''gay'' and ''teen'' into virtually any search engine, and you'll find yourself circling among interlocking porn sites, some featuring ''twinks,'' or boys of allegedly legal age who appear to be younger and in some cases obviously are , and other sites hawking lesbian scenes that clearly cater to heterosexual men.

And of course, there is the simple fact that cyberspace is an incorporeal world, a world without flesh-and-blood people, and thus a peculiar realm in which to become one's ''true self,'' as Jeffrey put it. Late last summer, Jeffrey returned from a family vacation and wrote to me in an e-mail message: I had 'withdrawal' symptoms, you might even say Online boyfriends and girlfriends were common among the gay teenagers I spoke with.

In some cases, the relationships had a sexual component, but what startled me was the level of closeness and intimacy teenagers derived from these cyberrelationships. Jeffrey explained how he and C. Like Jeffrey, many of the boys I talked to described themselves as ''addicted'' to the Internet. Girls, who responded in smaller numbers to my postings, seemed more aware of the Internet's limitations.

They were also more likely to have at least one off-line confidante -- a parent, a friend, even several friends -- who knew about their sexual orientation and accepted it. In the case of Jane, a year-old African-American girl I met online, her mother knows, but with one exception her friends don't, and she's quite lonely in her eighth-grade class. It's hard finding a niche anywhere. Even so I mostly hang around with the popular crowd.

I'm not trendy. I mean I don't wear sweater sets. Online, Jane, who says she has known she was gay since the fifth grade, has been able to find a number of lesbian girls her own own age. We've known each other online for 9 or 10 months. When I asked Jane whether having an online girlfriend -- whom I will call S. Ya never know tho. A week later, Jane mentioned in an instant message that she and S. You've broken up? We fought a lot and I guess we both just lost interest. That's funny.

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I never had the impression you were fighting. How do you fight by e-mail? We fight through instant messaging, it's quicker that way. Can you give an example of something you would fight about? We would fight about no trust in the relationship, not talking, etc. We never had anything to say to each other. Soon after, Jane mentioned in another instant message she sent that she and S. Then it sounds the same as before.

Before you broke up. No, we really didn't talk then. We never had much to say to each other. Do you think you might get back together? Oh, heavens no. It didn't work the first time.

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I don't know how it could a second. But it seems as if part of the problem was that you weren't communicating, and now you ARE communicating. True, but neither I nor she is interested. Two months later, as school began, Jane wrote to me: Where does the drama end? The drama doesn't end, of course; these are teenagers. The remarkable thing is that via the Internet, gay teenagers are now able to partake of the normal Sturm und Drang of adolescent life, which before was largely off limits to them.

Jeffrey told me once, speaking of his relationship with C.: You can't go out to the movies, so there's nothing to fill the space. You have to talk.

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It creates this intimacy between you; it draws you closer. Our relationship isn't based on looks or financial status or anything physical. There's no space fillers, because you can't just sit there for 15 minutes and not say anything. And while language itself seems to buckle against the vagaries of online experience -- phrases like ''I met.

To understand the texture of this online loitering, I got in the habit of asking gay teenagers what they had on their screens at a particular moment -- it was usually some combination of homework,.


The resulting dialogues tend to be fragmented and desultory, like a hybrid of a telegram and an overseas phone call. At 10 o' clock one evening in October, I was in an instant-message conversation with P. Soon after, he discovered the online gay world, which he explores clandestinely on his mother's computer, carefully deleting his ''history,'' or the list of sites he has visited, along with the pornographic pictures he trades with other boys.

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Now an eighth grader, he is online several hours each day. Early on in our correspondence, P. He keeps pestering me to meet him, he just doesn't get the hint, but I don't like using the ignore button so I just put up with it. He said one day in the future he wanted to drive over here and take me to some hotel and spend the night together. I refused his offer.