Several weeks ago I received a lovely hand-written wedding announcement in the mail informing me that my high school sweetheart will soon tie the knot with his longtime boyfriend.
Yes, my high school boyfriend is gay, and I was his girlfriend for our upperclassmen years in high school. I’ve had sporadic moments of reflection about our relationship over the years, but his impending nuptials have caused me to take significant pause. This was my first serious relationship, my first brush with romantic love, but it was so different from the experience nearly everyone I know had with their first love. Our relationship itself was complicated, and so are my feelings about the implications it has had for me as an adult.
The relationship began when I asked him to the Sadie Hawkins dance in the winter of our junior year. It was there we shared a highly visible first kiss. I was in heaven. He was one of the cutest boys in school, and he kissed me right in front of everyone. It was like a movie, and I still count it as one of the happiest moments of my young life.
And so it went between the two of us. We held hands and engaged in other nauseating displays of PDA and spent a lot of time together. Anyone who was in total denial about my boyfriend’s sexuality would certainly have thought we were the perfect teenage couple.
Of course, it was painfully obvious when it came to the point where a couple might start having sex that our feelings for one another were not congruent. I wanted our relationship to be romantic, and he flat out didn’t feel that way about me. He was always kind and subtle about sex, but this topic was a sense of immense frustration for me.
I knew that he was gay. He never said it outright, but it was most definitely understood. So I knew he didn’t want to have sex with me, that he never would. But this didn’t stop me from pushing the subject. I would tell him how ridiculous it was that we weren’t sleeping together, and how unwanted it made me feel. I didn’t keep my frustrations a secret from him, even though I knew well that the romantic part of our relationship was essentially an extended performance study.
Despite all of this, I genuinely believe that we loved each other, albeit in differing ways. We were very close despite the fact that we were not romantic in a genuine way and that we left important topics unspoken. I called him crying when I was having problems with my family, and I talked him through the immense pressure he was under from his parents to always be the best. My then-sweetheart’s situation at the time was far from easy or simple. So I tried to do what I could to be supportive and a source of some comfort. We were really there for each other. Call it a decade-long denial, but I don’t think that the relationship was a complete sham; I still consider this to be my first foray into the world of intimacy.
While it was, of course, not the perfect relationship it may have seemed from the outside, the bond my high school boyfriend and I shared was real, at least for me, and I think the time that I felt the depth of this bond most potently was when my internal experience, my personal reality, finally had to give way to the broader reality. We simply couldn’t be a romantic love match, and things between us had to end.
When we finally broke up right before high school graduation, I was devastated. I knew that the relationship was never going to last after high school (because few people marry their high school sweethearts to begin with, even if they’re sexually compatible), but my heart was shattered nonetheless. I really loved him, so it didn’t matter that he was gay, and it didn’t matter that he couldn’t love me in the way I wanted him to. The thing is, when you really love someone, regardless of the type of love, you don’t care if they’re gay. For me, the fact that my boyfriend was gay was the same as if he had been too short for my taste or if he told awful jokes. It was something about him that kept our relationship from being Hollywood perfect, but that would happen in any relationship, really.
While I’m grateful that the truth about perfect relationships was revealed to me at such a young age, I can say with certainty that this relationship has also deeply impacted the ways I’ve attempted to grapple with love and intimacy as an adult.
Romantic love and the intimacy that comes with it have largely eluded me in my adult life, at least in an emotional sense. Intellectually, I understand intimacy as the fluid space a couple builds around themselves. In this space, individuals thrive and the couple grows closer. When exploration, honesty and communication are the rule, love abounds.
But in my experience, exploring intimacy is a much higher-stakes exercise in relationships where both parties are sexually interested in one another, something that was not at all at play for me during high school. In relationships where men are interested in me sexually or romantically and vice versa, at some point there’s a moment when a life together becomes a possibility, even if the moment is very brief. These are the times when intimacy could blossom, but it is in these exact situations where I shush my authentic feelings and play the part of the “perfect girlfriend,” which of course never goes well (ever). Even when I notice glaring flaws in a relationship, some part of me must be thinking, “I made it work for two years with a gay guy, I can make anything work.” So I soldier on, often to my own detriment.
Too often, adult romances have not felt like safe places to grow and explore and go deeper, and my attempts to build such a place have ended in tears. So many of my serious relationships have felt like a juggling act, a performance leaving little if any space to stretch out and experiment with love.
Of course, all of this echoes back to my high school days where my boyfriend and I acted out the roles perfectly of boyfriend and girlfriend, when really we were just good friends who kissed for the sake of appearances. The performance aspect, the role of the girlfriend, is perhaps what I’ve come to know best, and is a default I can easily revert to when I need to feel safe. When heartache clearly looms, I can retreat to playing a part, leaving my true desires, feelings and ideas obscured behind an act, if only to put the pain off a little longer. I don’t have to trust a love interest with my heart because I will barely ever show it to them. Old habits die hard.
Where I am now, 27 years old and still hopeful that I can find what I want from love, I know that I have to drop the act if I’m ever going to have a relationship that thrives. I look around and see friends and family in relationships that seem to be authentic, intimate and happy.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t need more than my gay boyfriend, though I know I never could be happy in a similar setup now. But what we need from others changes, just like everything else. All any of us can do for ourselves is be open to them--and accept that intimacy can take any shape we desire.