Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. How to be Human runs every other Sunday. You can write to her at email@example.com and read more How to be Human here.
I’m a 21-year-old gay male who lives in the Pacific Northwest. I’m out to those close to me, but I’m in the closet publicly for now. I feel it’s a personal thing, my sexuality, so I only tell it to those I care about. Plus, I live in a super-conservative county, and after the election, trust me when I say it’s better I stay in the closet for the time being. The kind of hate I’m seeing lately towards minorities is scary as hell.
Being gay, and living where I do, I’ve never… well, had a romantic relationship and obviously, I’ve never gone the distance with anyone either. (I’ll freely admit, that’s a tough thing for me to say, especially when we live in a society where sex is held in such high regard, and those who don’t have it are either unattractive or have ‘other’ issues.) I didn’t fake it in High School and pretend to be straight by having a girlfriend or anything like that. I just managed to avoid the question, and since I identify strongly on the masculine side of the spectrum, most people haven’t a clue.
So without any romantic background, I’ve found I develop crushes fairly easily on guys I’m around, especially those who are attractive both in personality and looks. Nothing’s ever come of these though, as I’ve never had the courage to act on them since I’ve never been able to tell if the guys are actually gay or not. Let’s just say that when it comes to flirting, relationships, and sex, I’m hopelessly lost and inexperienced.
So, about a year ago at work, a new employee was hired. He’s older than me by about nine years, but he’s still incredibly young and extremely, extremely attractive. He’s a jock who’s very fit, tall and handsome. But he’s also extremely kind and our personalities kinda clicked.
At first before I really got to know him, I developed the usual crush on him. And as we became friends, and as I got to know him more, that crush went away and something far more powerful replaced it. I began to fall in love with him. I’m confident it’s love because well, when I’m around him, talking to him, I feel good — extremely good, like I’m worth a million bucks kinda good. He makes me smile and happy; he makes me laugh. I feel whole around him. And whenever I think of him, I get such strong emotions that I sometimes feel physically sick. As I said, I’ve had several dozen crushes over the years. None have ever come close to the feelings I have for my coworker. In a perfect world, I honestly think he’s the one. Our chemistry seems almost too perfect. I would do anything for him. Take a bullet for him, no questions asked. This gets to the root of my problem. In a perfect world, my coworker would be gay and single.
Sadly, this isn’t a perfect world, and my coworker is straight, and very recently married.
Yay me. Falling for someone I could never, ever hope to ever be with. I’m certainly not in denial about it, but here’s the thing, I don’t know how to un-fall in love with him. I’ve tried distancing myself from him at work and ignoring him, but that doesn’t work. And while I can never be there for him the way I’d like, I do not want to lose him as a friend. He’s literally the only out-of-closest friend I have and losing him would only make the pain of our situation unbearable.
Some things you should know. I have told him I’m gay (he was very supportive and thanked me for my trust in him), and I’ve very recently told him about my feelings towards him. I wasn’t completely honest to the extent that those feelings go, but he got the message.
The part that kills me, is his response to my admittance was along the lines of “I’m really sorry” and “I’ll be there for you if you want, whatever you need,” or “if you need some time or distance to work this out that’s cool…”
What I didn’t get and what I was hoping for was downright rejection. He never told me that he didn’t feel the same. He never said explicitly that he wasn’t open to us being something more.
Maybe he felt it was implied, with his marriage and all but honestly, my mind is grasping at whatever hope remains. Sad, I know, but I don’t know how to get past this. All I do know is he’s a great guy, and he deserves someone better than me. It’s not fair to him that I’m like this. It’s not right, and I feel pretty ashamed about it actually.
Lastly, I’m someone who’s struggled with being alone for a long time. I would often spend sleepless nights paralyzed by loneliness, but my coworker and the feelings I have for him has largely filled this void. I’m terrified of going back to the way things were before he came along. I don’t want to feel that way again, but I know if I do let him go that I will end up feeling this way again.
Anyways, unrequited love. It kinda sucks. So if you have any advice, or need more details, I’m all ears. It’s not that I don’t know how to be human. I’m afraid that I’m feeling too much as a human. Please help.
Oh my friend, have you come to the right place. You know, the reason I called this column How To Be Human is because being human is hard. It’s a challenge for most of us — whether we feel too much, not much at all, or simply don’t know how to handle whatever feelings we have. Honestly, most of us a combination of the three at various points in our lives.
Here’s another reason this is the right place. Your humble advice columnist spent much of her life in pursuit of people who were unavailable for one reason or other. I’ve had to come to some honest and painful realizations about why I did that, and I want to share those truths with you. They might be hard to hear, and you might dismiss them. That’s okay. Would you believe it took me until I was 40 to finally listen to this advice myself, and to understand my behavior in a way that’s allowed me to start changing it? This is my way of saying that you should save this letter and read it occasionally. You’ll know when you’re ready to hear it and to change. (It’s also my winking way of saying that it’s not surprising a 30-year-old man still seems so youthful. He is!)
The first thing I want to acknowledge is that I can never know what it’s like to grow up as a young gay man. That doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with you, though. I also want to address idea that being a virgin or being sexually inexperienced means something is wrong with you. Our society has a much more complicated relationship with sex than simply “high regard” — although traditional heterosexual society and gay communities are neither the same nor monolithic. Regardless, please know that while I understand it’s tough for you to admit your lack of experience, I want to encourage you to not see it as a failure, as something wrong with you, or even as something weird or bad. There are far more people like you out there than you realize. It’s just that, like you, they don’t talk about it, because we don’t make it comfortable for people to talk about a lack of experience.
But your letter isn’t about sex. It’s about unrequited love, specifically for your coworker. Even though I’ve written about unrequited love before, I haven’t had the chance to write what I want to say to you. Which is this:
Falling for unavailable people is a very easy thing to do. Many of us do it, sometimes for most of our lives. The person may be emotionally or geographically unavailable, married or otherwise in a long-term monogamous relationship, gay or straight or simply not attracted to us, and so on. Emotions are not always very logical things. Attraction is often a mystery concoction of physical and mental chemistry, timing, mood, and more. Humans are still animals at some level, right? I get that your attraction to your coworker is a very real thing that you can’t totally control, and I don’t want to dismiss that part of it.
The problem is that falling for unavailable people is a way to avoid reality. This is especially tempting when our reality is, like yours, less than ideal. You live in a place where you have an extremely limited chance of meeting someone available to you. You don’t feel comfortable or safe being out publicly, which means you can’t openly look for a man you’d want to date or sleep with, and it likely means other gay men who live where you do feel similarly. LGBTQ communities have long relied on signs, codes, and hidden spaces, many of which are still painfully necessary around the world and, unfortunately, here in the US. The internet can help with connections as well, for people who don’t live in urban areas with more active gay, lesbian, or trans communities. But you still live where you live, and maybe there aren’t many spaces like this where you are, or maybe you haven’t found the people who can show them to you, because no one feels safe talking publicly and you pass as straight, so your cycle continues.
Falling for unavailable people is a very easy thing to do
Your reality is more than just this, though. You’re insecure about a lot of things, including your lack of sexual experience. There’s a lot you want to hide. You don’t have the confidence to go out and look for men who might be available to you. What if they judge or laugh at you? What if you don’t know what to do? I also can see you have a deep sense that something is wrong with you. Not only do you mention this in relation to sex, you bring it up again with respect to your coworker: He deserves someone better than you. When you think of yourself as a flawed, broken, not-good-enough person, you find yourself attracted to the people you think you deserve. These people tend to also be flawed, broken, not-good-enough — or people who are so totally unavailable you can create an entire fantasy about who they are and what your life with them would be like. And by you, I also mean me and all of us.
I promise I’m not dismissing your feelings for this guy. I have felt exactly as you do about people who were so unavailable to me it’s mind-boggling when I think about it after the fact. And much of my unrequited love has come from my own desire to avoid reality. Why? Because reality is hard and it’s not always fun. It’s easier to go after people who aren’t available so you can pine forever rather than admit you’re scared to be in a relationship or to commit to someone, or so the relationship can fail for reasons that you can blame on someone or something else. Longing for an unavailable person means you don’t have to get honest with yourself about why, deep down inside, you don’t think you deserve someone wonderful, or why you believe someone wonderful deserves a better partner than you could ever hope to be. It is much easier to believe someone else is perfect or at least perfect for you than to recognize and act on your own reality.
ST, I do not want you to go back to your crushing loneliness. I would not wish that on almost anyone. You are in a tough spot, literally and figuratively. You have to think not only about yourself but about where you live and what your options are. I don’t have an easy answer for you, but I do have a place for you to begin: You have to get real about your situation, and you have to start working on feeling good about yourself. You need to find more people you can feel safe around, including other gay men. Maybe also a therapist, one who is very LGBTQ friendly. You need to feel okay with yourself so you can be yourself. It’s easier to tell this straight guy about your lack of experience but to tell another gay man probably feels impossible, right? But who is more likely to be able to help you learn to flirt, to recognize other gay men, to find someone who will help you experiment sexually in a safe, consensual way? I don’t know if you can move, or if you want to, but you do need to find a way to expand your friend circle and support network. Look for resources near you, or in the nearest city. There are definitely other gay men near where you live, you just have to try and find them in a more structured way. I bet if you searched for volunteer groups or book clubs or gyms or literally anything in a nearby large city, you’d find something. It will be terrifying, but you can do it. Carve out the space to start working toward a better reality.
Right now, you have invested nearly all your emotions into a single person. He’s your only close friend and your heart’s true desire. This is not sustainable, either for you or for him. Give this friend of yours a break and be willing to see the reality in that situation too. He has rejected to you, but in an incredibly kind way. I think it is a testament to him as a human and to your friendship that he handled your admission of feelings with kindness. Not because you’re gay and he’s straight, but because it’s hard to respond gracefully when anyone likes you in a way you can’t reciprocate. It’s awkward, and sometimes it brings up feelings you’re not ready to deal with. Maybe he’s questioned his sexuality, or maybe he’s feeling uncertain about having gotten married, or maybe he’s feeling god knows what. Don’t push for him to give you an outright rejection when it’s you who needs to be willing to honor his friendship by hearing what he’s saying. And don’t push yourself to be friends with him if the romantic feelings are too overwhelming.
It is much easier to believe someone else is perfect for you than to recognize and act on your own reality
You and I are a lot alike. We have big feelings and romantic sensibilities. We think hearing someone apologize or reject us will somehow solve a situation or make it easier. We kind of want to be rescued rather than digging in and fixing our situations by ourselves. We invest way too much in one person, all our hopes and expectations and energies, and then are thrust back into loneliness and isolation when that doesn’t pan out. I’ve spent a long time figuring out why I’m like this, and how I’d like to be different. I want you to do the same.
The truth is that finding relationships of all sorts, friends or romantic and sexual partners is a messy business. It’s hard even for people who feel confident or who live in places where there are more options than you have. That’s why people like columns like mine. Hey, I’m an advice columnist and I often don’t don’t know what to do when it comes to my own dating life! Just last night, I was trying to figure out how to have a drink with someone I’m attracted to without making it totally obvious I want to have a drink with them!
Being a human is hard. It’s something you kind of have to work on every day. I don’t want you to spend the next two decades thinking the only options are “crushing loneliness” and “this person is THE ONE and we are destined to be together, if only they would see it.” It is a colossal waste of your time and of your love. I want you to be able to love this friend in the way you both deserve—as a true friend, one who can be there for him in the way he is for you. I want you to have other close friends you trust. I want you to be able to love men who are available to love and desire you. I want you to have really great sex. And the only way you can do that is to figure out how to rescue yourself.