I was 19 years old when I effortlessly fell in love.
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.
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 and 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 1 a.m. in my parents' basement.
At 24, 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.
Even in 2017, we remain 10 times more likely to take our own lives compared to our straight counterparts, 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.
Battle scars are etched into our souls. We bring these scars into our quest for love.
It pains me to remember dating in my mid-twenties. Rejections brought me back to my youth and cut deeper than they should have. I was a self-fulfilling prophecy complaining 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 of society. 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.
The weeks that followed were fast, frantic, yet beautiful.
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.
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 because I had learned that when it comes to gay love, you have to make concessions.
As gay men we've learned 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.
I was that man a mere decade ago.
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 Christmas dinner with my family. My stomach knotted as the people I loved pitied me. I made excuses for how I was being treated because I knew his plight.
I was also plagued by survivor's 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 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 on the sidewalk. 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 as a mirror.
We see our progress and what remains. We see wounds that have healed and ones that may never. We see our fears of loneliness.
As a gay man, I realized what I would to do to prove 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. It's the story we as gay men can 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.
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 today.
It is only when society fully loves gay men that we will finally learn to love ourselves.
And, sadly, we may just be the ones that need it the most.
** Name changed for privacy
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