I was 19 years old when I first fell in love.
It was effortless and its rarity is never lost on me.
Falling in love without fear is a privilege often reserved for youth. As we get older, we yearn for that beautiful moment of purity before we learn the brutal truth that every love comes with no guarantees.
Love can also be powerful beyond measure.
This particular love patched the hole in my heart left by childhood torment over my sexuality. But a patch by nature is a temporary solution. As such, it can make a crash back to reality even more pronounced.
Despite our undying proclamations and unbreakable bond, I never believed we would last.
When it came to gay love, I found it hard to be what I could not see. I am of a generation who learned gay love as ghosts.
Modern media once covered gay men as parody, as predators, or simply miserable. That’s if they covered us at all.
At 17, I felt a glimmer of hope as I devoured bootlegged VHS tapes of Queer as Folk at 1am in my parent’s basement.
At 24, single, and fully immersed in the throes of gay culture, I watched this very world come to life.
A friend of mine refers to dating in the gay community as “dating while damaged.” It is hard enough for anyone to find love. It is even more challenging for those of us who hobbled into adulthood with the pain of the closet on our shoulders.
Despite monumental strides in civil rights we are up to 10 times more likely to take our own lives compared to our straight counterparts.
We’re up to three times more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression, less likely to have close friendships and two and half times more likely to become alcohol or drug dependent.
Studies have shown gay men can be plagued with mental trauma akin to that of someone who has served in the military or been raped.
The battle scars from a world that hasn’t caught up fast enough are etched into our souls. It is these scars that we bring to our quest for love, an experience that we deserve as much as anyone else.
In pains me to remember dating in my mid twenties.
Rejections brought me back to my youth and cut deeper than they should have. I blurred the boundaries between friendship and love to no avail.
I was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I complained about gay love constantly falling apart, while paying a role in the reasons why.
At worst, I was a gambler who sought love from those who had none to give. At best, I was the most emotionally avoidant person of all. I overcompensated and shape shifted like a chameleon to prove that I was deserving of love, even as the ugliest version of myself.
We may be broken at times but we’ve gained immeasurable resilience.
We’ve warded off verbal and physical attacks from all fronts including the media, religious groups, other gay men, closeted men drenched in self hatred and the medical establishment to name a few.
Using this learned resilience, I worked hard to learn how to love into my 30s.
But it would take a guy named Eli* to remind me of just how much work still remains.
I met Eli at a summer BBQ that I was invited to as the date of someone else. Our first moments were ones of frozen fluorescence. We spent 3 hours forgetting the heavily populated room in an impenetrable bubble.
Even in breaks of silence, the sound of our connection was deafening.
The weeks that followed were fast and frantic. In the eyes of one another we were devoid of imperfections. So when Eli casually dropped the hint that he wasn’t out at work, I batted it away.
When Eli explained he wasn’t out to his family and had no plans to be, I held him closer. When Eli’s ex-boyfriend texted me to tell me he would never be OK with himself, I thanked him for his concern but explained that we were different.
Eli’s self hatred unveiled itself over and over in the months that followed as we attempted to fall in love with each other. He’d vacillate between ignoring me for days, then talk about getting a dog or living together. I worked overtime to bring him to a point of self-acceptance that I thought I now enjoyed.
I had also learned that when it comes to gay love, you have to make concessions.
To this day, my friends and I will still power through a film of low quality if it features a gay relationship.
We’ve had to learn to take what we can get from this world. Sometimes what we’ll “take,” is a closeted man in pain and an expiration date looming.
In the months that passed I started to pull away. Each time Eli would pick up on cues, act like nothing had happened, and start the cycle again.
I continued to see Eli even after he bailed on my birthday and an invite to Christmas dinner with my family. Each time my stomach knotted as the people I loved pitied me.
I made excuses for how I was being treated because I knew the plight of a gay man. I was also plagued by survivor guilt.
How could I go on leaving someone I thought I loved behind? I was that man, a mere decade ago.
Two weeks after Christmas, Eli was having a rough go of it. I brought him a green tea latte and sat in his hallway for 10 minutes until he begrudgingly opened the door. I laid beside him and pleaded for him to tell me who told him he wasn’t good enough, though I knew the answer.
As I left he texted me, “You are a wonderful guy and I love you but I don’t think I can be saved. I am not destined to be happy.”
I broke down crying and confronted the harsh truth I knew all along: My love for Eli would never compare to how much he hated himself.
To fall in love with me would mean facing every demon he had been fighting for over 30 years. And though it’s over, I owe him a great deal.
Relationships enter our lives like a mirror showing us a raw reflection. We see the progress that we’ve made and what remains. We see the wounds that have healed and the ones that may never. We see our lingering fears of loneliness.
As a gay man, I realized just how far I was willing to go out on a limb to prove to the world that I am not unlovable.
I saw all the odds against me, including a miniscule dating pool, and lost myself under the notion that this might be my only chance.
After Eli, I sought to write the greatest love story of all.
The greatest love story is the story we, as gay men struggle with the most. It’s the one where we fall back in love with ourselves.
And it might be harder for us but we can get there.
It remains my duty to fight for those who have been left behind, like Eli, the carnage of a world firing bigotry on all cylinders.
In maturity, I learned empathy for the guy with a beautiful heart that I no longer fault for breaking mine.
As gay men we can take solace that is does get better every day.
And as we work to slowly save all these lives, we can show them the parts of themselves that are worth saving.
Eli is a placeholder for millions of gay men around the world. It is only when society fully loves gay men that we will finally learn to love each other.
And sadly, we may just be the ones that need it the most.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.