NEW YORK — “Sorry, I sound like a catfish,” Kevin (not his real name) told me when we were trying and failing to find a time to meet.
He was kidding, but he understands the reasons for that kind of suspicion better than most. Since November 2015, someone claiming to be a freelance copywriter named Parks Denton was faving and flirting with gay men on Twitter — and for at least part of that time, he used Kevin’s photos to lure them in. The identity of the person who catfished an impressive amount of Gay Twitter remains a mystery; shortly after being called out by Kevin’s friends, they vanished, taking their tweets (and whatever DM'd nudes they’d solicited) with them.
Since seeing his shirtless selfie plastered over several articles about Parks Denton, Kevin has gone back and forth over how to respond to the situation publicly, if at all. He spoke to one outlet, but he has largely avoided saying anything. He is naturally averse to online attention: He uses a fake name on his Facebook and Instagram accounts, doesn’t tweet, and asked me not to use his photo for this article.
“I see social media as a very separate thing from real life,” he told me, seated on a bench at a park near his Midtown office. “I should allow you into my life, and that’s why I don’t even use my real name.”
But in the days following the revelation that Parks Denton, who had amassed 2,500 followers, was a catfish, Kevin saw his photo spread and be dissected, with people weighing in on whether or not they themselves would have sent dick pics to the person in the photos. Amid the uncomfortable discussion, Kevin wrestled with the choice to come forward as the real person behind the face of Parks Denton.
“I thought about kind of giving it a little more touch of humanity. Like, 'I’m a real person that lives in New York and I have a life and this affects me,'” he said. “'Try to be nice. Don’t call me a twink.' As much as people say how attractive you are, there’s always the other side, and I don’t want any of it. I’m just as insecure and self-conscious as anyone else.”
Before the Parks Denton revelation came to light, Kevin wasn't aware there was someone using his photos. But there were some clues: He noted that he’d been accused of using fake photos on Grindr by guys who railed against his deception and then blocked him. Eventually, one Grindr user sent him the Parks Denton Twitter account as proof that someone was lying. Kevin told the man on Grindr that he didn’t have a Twitter account but that those were his photos. “Obviously he didn’t believe me,” he recalled.
Kevin reported the account to Twitter, but he wasn’t satisfied by the vague response he got, so he asked a couple close friends to tweet at Parks Denton and demand he stop using Kevin’s photos. Sept. 5 was the night the catfish’s online charade unraveled, as Twitter users started to come forward with their own stories of Parks Denton’s dubious online behavior. Overnight, the account disappeared entirely, apparently deleted by whoever was running it.
As his outrage dissipated, Kevin was left unsettled. The last thing tweeted from the Parks Denton account was a photo Kevin had put up on Instagram that day. “I was kind of creeped out. You must be looking at my shit every day and seeing what I’m doing all the time,” he said. “You’re using a platform that you must realize — does he know I don’t use Twitter?”
It takes a certain kind of audacity to adopt someone else’s identity online, but it’s especially foolhardy to catfish people in New York while using the photos of a real person living in the city. That Parks Denton was able to get away with it for nearly two years suggests that they had some idea about Kevin’s low profile. In addition to steering clear of Twitter, Kevin said that he doesn’t have many gay friends in New York. If he’d had more — especially gay friends who were active on Twitter — someone may have spotted the fake sooner.
It’s possible, of course, that the person using Kevin’s photos is someone Kevin knows or has interacted with. If that’s the case, he’d rather stay in the dark. He’s also avoided reading too much about the DMs between Parks Denton and Twitter users, preferring not to think about what someone using his face was saying. He is a little curious about what dick pics Parks Denton was sending, and if those were his photos too. “I guess I want to know if half of New York has seen my dick or not,” he said.
Kevin knows this story, like most internet stories, has a short shelf life and will eventually fade from people’s memories. He’s hoping that his face will, too. But he remains frustrated by how open-ended the Parks Denton mystery is. He’s also somewhat concerned about the well-being of the person behind the account, especially after reading about one writer’s unusual Parks Denton experience, which suggests that this catfishing was never just about procuring nudes.
“This was a huge part of someone’s life. What if this was their only social contact?” Kevin said. “As much as it is fucked up, [they] need help.”
In reading people’s stories of being catfished, Kevin has been struck by the vulnerability with which people have confessed their online behavior, and how so many men admitted that the need for validation trumped the red flags the Parks Denton profile raise. How else to explain the number of people who sent naked pictures to an internet stranger without so much as verifying a Facebook account?
“I’m sad because I have read quite a few things where people feel so bad about themselves, but also I can [relate],” he said. “It’s so funny they used my picture and I have this many insecurities every day of my life. I would never imagine someone would do that.”
Avid viewers of MTV’s Catfish know that the motivation behind catfishing is either deep insecurity or vengeful manipulation — and usually some combination of the two. We may never know why the person calling themselves Parks Denton spent so much time connecting with Gay Twitter, or whether they had any link to the man whose photos they used, but it’s tough for Kevin — and many of the guys whom Parks Denton catfished — to let go.
Kevin has lost sleep since finding out about Parks Denton, but admitted he’s also fascinated by the story. Sure, there’s discovering the identity of the person behind the account, but at this point, Kevin is thinking more deeply about the larger issues at play.
Gay Twitter isn’t an established club; it’s just a self-designated name for a group of gay men on Twitter, many of them living in New York and working in media. And yet, it had enough of a pull for someone to create a fake identity and force themselves in.
“It makes me think about the space we create for ourselves,” Kevin said, wondering whether Gay Twitter would have been unwelcoming to someone who didn’t look like him. “What the fuck is with our community, and what are we doing to each other?”
While he toyed with the idea of stepping into the online world — even creating a Twitter account for half a day — Kevin seems firmly resolved to stay out of it. He said he met with me in part so I’d know he himself wasn’t a catfish.
“I just want people to know I’m a real person, and I’m nice. I think I’m nice. I don’t stand people up if I can help it,” he said. “Seeing so much shit, you want people to sometimes remember it’s somebody’s life. Try to care.”