Tone’ Jackson seemed to turn Frederick Coffee Co. into a runway. Jackson, with brown-accented braids, was statuesque in an all-black outfit. His bell-bottomed pants, lace sweater and sequined beret were carefully coordinated.
“I’m always stared at,” Jackson explained. “I can’t walk through downtown Frederick without having somebody stare at me. And it’s not because I’m crazy; it’s because I have style. I look like I belong in New York, Miami or California. Honey, this is me being me.”
Jackson, 28, could have been going to a photo shoot, but he was there to chat with me about his experiences living in Frederick as a black gay man of Native-American ancestry. We talked about dating apps, but the experiences that shaped Jackson’s online dating became the central part of our conversation.
“I’ve always known I was gay. My mother’s Catholic, my father is Jehovah’s Witness,” Jackson said. “My family even had me exorcised in my sophomore year of high school.”
Jackson shared this in a relaxed, monotone voice, as if he was about to say, “been there, done that.” Jackson learned from a young age how to adapt. He said he started relying on himself at 9 when he worked for his barber who owned a shop on Rosemont Avenue. Jackson didn’t like the way men in the barbershop spoke of women, so Jackson spent more time with the beauticians who had a beauty salon in the back.
Growing up in a salon, Jackson witnessed all sorts of drama, but also lessons. When he moved on to Essence Hair Gallery on North Market Street, the matriarchs there gave him the outlet he needed. He cited owner Katrina “Darcel” Benjamin, as well as her sisters, Veda, Shawna and Amy, for giving him life skills and influencing the full-service beauty he offers in the Frederick area now. Jackson can remember doing hair since he was 12.
The licensed hairstylist, makeup artist and model has many titles — and “local celebrity” may be one of them.
“Hey love! How are you?” Jackson greeted a friend leaving Frederick Coffee Co.
“He’s fabulous. He’s always being interviewed,” Jackson’s friend told me.
After Jackson remembered where he left off in our conversation, he continued the discussion.
“The whole gay thing, I learned young that you have to honor your spirit within and not honor what everybody sees,” he said. “My spirit’s part man and part woman. I have traits from both.”
This confidence took time. Jackson dealt with physical and sexual abuse as a child, as well as bullying in the Frederick County schools he attended. Jackson said he was targeted for his perceived sexuality, lighter complexion, and straighter hair. He can remember students dumping his backpack and stuffing him into a locker.
Jackson’s experience suggests that he wasn’t the only one. Surprisingly, however, during the 2016-17 school year in Frederick County, there were just nine reports of bullying, harassment or intimidation due to a student’s sexual orientation.
But in 2014, 43.8 percent of gay, lesbian and bisexual Frederick County students claimed they were bullied at school. By comparison, 20.1 percent of heterosexual Frederick County students reported bullying. Those statistics seemed to more closely mirror the findings of the Human Rights Campaign report, ”Growing Up LGBT in America.” In the study, LGBT youth were twice as likely to report being physically assaulted, including being kicked or shoved.
With this backdrop, Jackson had several middle school girlfriends.
“I did their hair. I bought them jewelry and cupcakes,” he said. “I knew what girls wanted.”
But this started to change when his close friend’s dad came out and developed a healthy relationship with his family. As well as something else.
“I didn’t hear my voice for the first time until I was in an art museum at a field trip and we were all talking into this interactive machine and they played it back and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m so gay,’” Jackson laughed.
He came out in eighth grade, but he kept his boyfriends private and had to wear what his family wanted. He enjoyed wearing buttoned-up shirts and jeans, but he liked the form-fitting clothes underneath his outfits even more.
Jackson retold a pivotal moment in high school when he couldn’t endure seeing his boyfriend come to school with broken ribs and a black eye. His boyfriend was beaten because of his sexuality by his stepfather.
Afterwards, Jackson said that online dating came to him.
“Back then, you had Myspace. And then, AOL Messenger and all that,” he recalled. “Eventually, they’ll tell you who they are, but it’s getting it out.”
After lengthy conversations, Jackson realized he was talking with the same people who would shun him in public.
“Head of the Republican club, yes,” he said.
Jackson also listed athletes on numerous sports teams.
While some of these students did not identify as LGBT, 73 percent of LGBT youth reported in the “Growing Up LGBT in America” study that their most authentic selves are online and not in the real world.
In the mid-2000s, when Jackson was fielding suitors, there were fewer gay dating apps, but ManHunt and Adam4Adam were among the pioneers. Apps like Online Buddies and ManHunt actually started as party lines where people would make paid phone calls with the hope of finding someone in their peer group. These methods could be hit or miss at best. Around this time, there were reports that these gay dating apps were used to prey on members and out them.
Now, some LGBTQ apps have safety measures to prepare users for potential homophobia. Scruff, a gay dating app, alerts users if they travel to a country where gay relationships are against the law.
These protections however, still couldn’t prevent the mistreatment Jackson experienced in his youth, as well as the harmful decisions he made in order to cope. He described himself as a “cutter” in high school who relied on drugs. He experienced a dangerous cocktail of being overworked, angry and numb to the world around him. In his senior year, Jackson moved out of his mother’s home, took on three jobs, and started cosmetology school at The Temple in Frederick.
“The two things that a human person has weakness in is the fact that we require sleep and we require food,” Jackson explained. “With sleep, it means you have to pay for furniture. You have to pay for an apartment. You have to pay for bills. You have to have a job. You have to support yourself. You have to be an adult. All that anxiety and stress comes with that.
“With food, you have to have a job, you have to eat, you have to motivate yourself and sometimes eating is exhausting,” he continued. “Sometimes people can eat for comfort food and sometimes when you’re stressed and needy, you don’t have an appetite. You waste away. You don’t mean to. So if you can do drugs, that gives you endless energy for 24 hours and doesn’t make you hungry. You’re like superman. You don’t need a place to live. You don’t need a place to eat.”
Jackson hit rock bottom.
“I was 19 or 20 and I woke up and saw all my friends surrounding me, thinking I was going to die because I was on so many pills and alcohol that night,” he said.
“It was a weird place that I was in,” Jackson added. “It made me go for a walk ... I was thinking about them and how they were still worried about me. And then after that, I ended up on the top of the parking garage by the [C. Burr Artz] library. I used to honestly go up there all the time and think about jumping off when I was in my adolescent years. And I happen to go up this one time and there was this girl up there and she was crying hysterically.”
He gave the girl a pep talk and helped her figure out how to deal with her mother.
“The fact that she left from that ledge not crying,” he said, “but actually had hope and just a fresh perspective, it made me feel like, ‘OK, I can do this. I just need to listen to myself.’”
Jackson describes himself as a motivational speaker. Even in his one-on-one interactions as a stylist, Jackson tries to encourage others.
His travel schedule in teaching modeling and beauty techniques is one of the reasons why he met his current partner two years ago. But there’s also another factor.
“Honey, I have done online dating for years,” Jackson said in a jaded tone. “Jack’d in general sucks.
“Around here,” he continued, “you deal with a lot of gays who want other gays that blend in and look straight because of the fact that we live in a smaller town and not a lot of these people here are city people. Not everybody is cultured to be open-minded.”
He actually was out of town when he met his then-Chicago-based partner through Jack’d.
The app, which launched in 2010, has almost 5 million users, according to Online Buddies, the parent company of Jack’d. Grindr, another gay dating app, is much larger, with 6 million monthly users, according to Mashable. Out of the major dating apps, two research groups, SurveyMonkey and 7Park Data, cite Grindr as having the most active users.
Jackson wrestled with the idea that his current partner could be much more than a fling. Apps like Grindr and Jack’d are known as casual dating apps, compared with relationship-centric Chappy, a new gay dating app for people living in Los Angeles, London and New York City who can search for “Mr. Right,” “Mr. Right Now” and “Mr. Who Knows.”
“It freaked me out so much,” Jackson said after describing how serious his partner was.
But phone calls turned into a long-distance relationship that culminated with his partner moving to Frederick around Thanksgiving 2016. Jackson said their two-year anniversary will be in June.
At the end of our hour-and-a-half conversation, Jackson spoke as a person ready to share his experiences with the world.
“I’m eventually going to write a book,” Jackson said, “about the way people are, the way people think [and] growing up in the salon my whole life.”
“I’m comfortable with my body, finally, and the skin that I’m in,” he continued. “This is the way God made me. Accept me. And that’s what I want for everybody else.”