Falling in love is sweet and innocent, awkward and unnerving, invigorating and the most natural feeling in the world. When it happens for the first time, I’m sure that all the emotions that come flooding into a young person are similar whether that person is gay or straight, but I think often the context is very different for sexual minorities. Imagine a young gay teen falling in love 5, 10 or 15 years ago, or even today. Will this young person, still unsure of why he or she feels differently from their peers, have had a chance to really understand and accept their sexuality by the time the first experience of same sex love occurs?
My first time falling in love was a rollercoaster of friendship and confusion and disaster. Here is that story.
I was a very shy kid growing up, a definite introvert. Academics interested me more than social activities, athletics, or friendships. But at least as early as junior high school my attraction to males started to be tangible. I took notice of other guys, and began to feel elements of sexual and emotional attraction. Because I could usually pass as “straight” at school, I managed to mostly escape the teasing and bullying that so often befalls gay and transgender youth. I don’t recall ever being the target of overt homophobia, but at the same time I definitely absorbed the ever-present message that being gay was equivalent to social suicide. Growing up it was more or less my highest priority to keep my same-sex attractions secret.
Until high school I generally had few close friends. My sophomore year however, I started to develop some of my first close friendships. A half dozen guys and girls, we met in a history class where we had an unconventional and inspiring teacher. I began to hang out with my new group of intellectually-inclined friends and do things becoming of our newly-discovered teenage omniscience: talk about forming rock bands and probe the bottomless well of sarcasm.
With the growth of these new friendships, I started to feel strongly at that point in my life that I really wanted a best friend. Two guys in this small circle of friends, it seemed, were already becoming best friends. Except for a close friend from early elementary school, this was something I lacked. With time I became close with PJ, a guy who was not part of that original circle that began in my sophomore year. PJ was one year younger than me, but he was really my superior in many ways, especially academically. I looked up to him. He was intelligent, independent, and wildly ambitious.
Over the course of a few months we became really close friends. We shared interests in biology, music and school. The summer between my junior and senior years PJ and I spent time together almost every day. We went swimming, hiking, and exploring at the beach. We bonded to a degree that I had not experienced in life before. Whereas I was (and often remain) reflexively shy in larger groups, I loved the one-on-one interactions. In fact, having a best friend was the most incredible thing to me up to that point in life.
An interesting experience with PJ involved an early connection to Mormonism, a worldview that would later shape many of my decisions over the next decade and a half and have a significant effect on how I interacted with my sexuality.
Both PJ and I were interested in two LDS girls at our high school who were in my graduating class. They came from very devout and conservative Mormon homes. These young women were athletic, intelligent, and pretty. In fact, MM, the girl that PJ liked, would go on to become the homecoming queen of my high school during my senior year. PS, the girl that I liked, was attractive and sweet. PJ’s love for his Mormon crush, as far as I knew, was genuine and deep. But if there is any objective way to quantify romantic intensity, I’m sure that my level of interest in my Mormon “crush” was much more benign. I “liked” PS on and off for perhaps 6 years growing up, but I doubt there was a whole lot of intensity to those feelings.
True to his ambition and intensity, PJ concocted a plan for the ultimate double date towards the beginning of my senior year: the two non-Mormon boys and the two Mormon girls would have the perfect dinner together and then see the band U2 in concert.
PJ took the lead on preparations for the whole night and I was more than thrilled to be participating in such a once-in-a-lifetime event with my best friend. PJ selected the restaurant and went out of his way to let the staff know that it was a special night. The concert part of our date was pretty incredible. For starters, somehow PJ had secured floor seats in a massive stadium that was hosting the world’s most popular band at the time. Of course I loved the music, and during one of the band’s best songs, I recall looking behind me to see some of the upper tiers of the stadium visibly moving (earthquake shocks it must have been) as the crowd jumped to the song in unison.
The most amazing part of the evening, technically, was that we somehow managed to obtain the good graces of two sets of conservative Mormon parents enough to let their daughters attend this concert, 45 minutes away from home, with two non-Mormon teenage boys. The night went without hitch of course, because despite being non-Mormon heathens, we were still in reality two good boys. I’m sure also that the threat of the wrath of God hung over us that night. But, unbeknownst to everyone, that wasn’t really needed for me. I was gay, the safest date a young Mormon girl could ask for. I was in love with PJ.
One of the things I have learned over the last few years since coming out is how my emotional attractions are an integral component of my sexuality. I have had many healthy platonic friendships with men, but a few times in life I have developed very strong emotional connections to other guys. This friend, PJ, was an early and profound example to me that the feelings of love we are capable of having for another person really constitute a broad spectrum of attractions. At the age of 17, I believed (or at least told myself) that I just wanted a best friend; now I know that I naturally wanted emotional intimacy with another human being. Without self or societal acceptance, how can the closeted young person properly interpret those blossoming romantic feelings?
When I try to think back on what endeared me to PJ, it was not really his physical looks. He wasn’t unattractive, but his looks were secondary to other feelings I had for him. He was incredibly intelligent and ambitious. He expanded my horizons intellectually and challenged me to come out of my introverted shell. Though we lost contact after high school, I learned that he went to college at one of most prestigious universities in the
. I ran into his name from time
to time (or looked him up) and found out that he later earned a PhD and was on
track for a very successful career. The teenage PJ also had a streak of
arrogance - which today I would likely find unattractive - but at that time this
quality probably drew him to me also, because it meant I was part of his team,
allowing a special connection to him shared with practically no one else. US
I don’t know exactly why PJ was interested in my friendship. I think it started, in part, because he himself had few close friends. To him, I may have been the kind of malleable friend who is perfect for ambitious people in need of an audience. His interests were easily my interests and I was willing to go along on any adventure if it involved his company. If he gained a disciple of sorts and rides in my car from time to time, I in turn, benefited from the emotional comfort of a strong new friendship.
|Sunset at one of our beach spots.|
Like most first loves, this one ended, but it ended pretty badly for me. Because my attractions for PJ clearly ran deeper than a close friendship, over time I found myself wanting more from the relationship. I wanted to be around him more often, even when we already spent hours together, and I wanted to have a deeper emotional connection. I was jealous, for example, of his interest in his Mormon crush, even though she didn’t seem to reciprocate his feelings. Soon I began to smother the friendship we had formed. PJ, confused and frustrated, began to withdraw from me. In turn, I struggled immensely with feelings of insecurity, sadness and loss. I simply couldn’t tell PJ what was going on. I just wasn’t ready to be honest with anyone, even myself, about my sexuality. There was nothing in my limited universe to indicate that my feelings for a guy were normal and healthy, and I had no one I was comfortable turning to.
After a few months struggling through a friendship, PJ determined that we could no longer be friends. He suspected I was gay, I found out, when I secretly read some of his journal. He had confided with a counselor at school who suggested as much. I was crushed and terrified when I learned this. Understandably, the invasion of his privacy only exacerbated the difficulties between us. Whether homophobia had any role in driving him away, I do not know, but it was clear that we wanted different things out of the relationship and I was an emotional mess.
It has been two decades since PJ and I last had a conversation. For years after high school he would appear in my dreams. Most of those dreams revolved around the same theme – we would to one degree or another become reconciled. We would be friends again. He would accept and forgive me. Though our new friendship in those dreams was always more constrained than what we experienced in high school, I took comfort in them because of the reconciliation. These dreams pretty much ended a few years ago, but it amazes me that I had them for such a long period of time.
In large measure this really difficult emotional experience during high school probably pushed me into the next chapter in my life, an affiliation with Mormonism. In the wake of a disaster mostly of my own creation, I needed something to guide me and support my struggling self. This came from well-intentioned Mormon high school friends who invited me to their activities and befriended me. They were attractive, kind, intelligent and successful. Ever interested in the “truth”, I was intrigued by an ideology that talked so much about truth and striving for excellence. After several months learning about the religion, I joined the Church after high school. Mormonism would turn out to have a profound negative effect on my journey as a gay person, but it also brought many positive things into my life during the years I was an active member.
What have I learned from falling in love years ago to my straight best friend and from experiences since? First, I gained an important reference point for understanding the depth and scope of my attractions. Homosexuality is not just about sex, but like any manifestation of sexuality, it is about the range of connections that two individuals can share. Though the nature and magnitude of feelings were unreciprocated, I felt for a time that PJ was my partner. And I think that consciously or subconsciously, I have desired to have that depth of connection with another person for many years.
Second, I’ve learned a little that falling in love can bring out some of the best and worst tendencies we possess as individuals. In our better moments, love serves as a motivation to put off our own interests in order to meet the needs and expectations of others. We sacrifice and adapt working together. We learn and we teach each other in relationships. We grow the small single-occupancy universes we inhabit a little more to encompass two souls.
Yet, in rendering us vulnerable to another person, love can also summon our insecurities like few other events. In the process of becoming vulnerable, we hand someone else our heart and expect that they will know what to do in order to treat it right. Sometimes, our feelings of self worth can get a little too tied up in how our romantic partner views and treats us. We might struggle with feelings of rejection when the intensity of feelings is not reciprocated. In the case of my high school love, I wanted the approval of an old friend for many years during dreams I had while deep in the closet. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the dreams more or less ended – the real reconciliation occurred - when that approval eventually came from within after coming out and accepting myself as gay. Perhaps not.