Andy Cramer, chief executive of Gay.Net, remembers what it felt like to be gay and go to an Ivy League college 30 years ago: "terrifying."
He said a lot has changed since then, but not enough. So, Gay.Net is offering free memberships to college students who want to go online to explore issues about sexuality in a gay online community.
Although there are lots of gay organizations at colleges, a lot of young gays are afraid to participate in them for fear of being ostracized, Cramer said. "It's really, really hard to meet other people and find out what being gay is like."
But online, the threat virtually disappears. People can meet each other anonymously in the privacy of their own homes or dorm rooms via the computer. In fact, although there are no precise numbers to back this up, it is clear just by doing a quick search that cyberspace has become a virtual home for many gays and lesbians.
Sites representing those communities tend to flourish, and mainstream advertisers once reluctant to be represented on those pages have found a lucrative target market in gay Web sites. That's why Gay.Net's move to waive the $10 monthly fee for the behind-the-firewall content seems to make good sense from both a social and economic point of view.
With all the competition heating up for gay Web sites, it's a good idea to offer free incentives to draw traffic to the site. While some subscription sites have had a hard time financially on the Web, Cramer said his site now boasts about 10,000 members. And it only launched in June.
The offer for free service to college students lasts through December and may be extended depending on the response, according to Cramer.
"One of the things the online experience gives you is the ability to participate at your own level so you don't feel forced," he said. "We've built a community with interactive features...The thing we're giving away is the ability to interact with each other. I think people meeting each other face to face is a natural progression of the online experience."
So is remaining a member and eventually paying membership fees. "If people use Gay.Net in college and are satisfied with the experience, when they get out of college they'll becoming paying members," Cramer added.