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The dating game

| Thursday, September 8, 2016

This past summer, I sat at family dinner on Fourth of July weekend in Manhattan, and the conversation on the younger end of the table was turning to discussion of relationships. The subject was ripe with possibilities: My sister had a new boyfriend, one of my brothers had recently broken up with his girlfriend and another had been dating the same girl for some time. My youngest brother was relatively inexperienced, but his youth brought on a welcome change of perspective. At 12 years old, he was just beginning to dip his toes into the world of romantic connection.

When I was his age, I learned about relationships by example — dissecting snippets of gossip whispered in middle school hallways, constructing a manual in my head to navigate through the dating process. By the time I had finished high school, I had developed my own personal approach for maneuvering through the dating scene. While my friends around me developed relationships lasting months or even years, I hopped around from possible girl to possible girl, never advancing the relationship beyond its early stages.

Years passed, and slowly I came to realize why I acted this way. At some point, instinct, desire for connection or some random human impulse is supposed to take over to guide you toward love. With girls, I didn’t have that. Dating, or love or whatever — it’s not formula-based. I guess that explains why my first kiss with a girl didn’t happen until I entered my senior year of high school — or, maybe, why I never really thought about kissing girls at all.

I never planned to come out as “John Haley, gay man.” For some time, I had cultivated a belief that my sexuality constituted something shameful and unnatural, so I pushed down feelings which started as early as seventh grade to live as “John Haley, straight man.” In some ways, it was a strangely peaceful existence. It was also a false one. I never struggled much with my sexuality until I came out to one of my closest friends after my freshman year of college. Then I broke down, and living with it — the truth — grew much more complicated.

I kind of destroyed myself. I became depressed, lost my appetite, fell behind in school. Some nights when I went to sleep, I didn’t seem to care if I woke up the next day. And when morning came and I did wake up, I walked in a daze to the bathroom and turned on the shower full blast and gasped for air.

Later, people would tell me how brave I was, but I’ve never really felt brave. I’ve always surrendered: pretended to be straight, started meaningless flings with girls, ran away from them before things got serious. If I came out to people, it was only because I felt dangerously vulnerable — and because of this, I felt, more than anything, like a coward.

When I started treatment for depression, my counselor suggested examining the way I viewed myself to determine why I struggled with self-acceptance. The thoughts in my brain, intrigued by her suggestion, huddled up and tossed a few self-perceptions between themselves before saying “well, whatever” and throwing in the towel. I skipped counseling, and I stopped taking Zoloft. I didn’t really feel like getting better. Getting better meant accepting that being gay is okay — and this, on a personal level, was pretty hard for me.

You see, it’s infinitely easier to condemn hatred from the sidelines. From that angle, everything — what is right and what is wrong — is clearer. But when you’re a member of the demographic being targeted, you sometimes catch yourself wondering if maybe you deserve the hatred and rejection that people like you often face. From the sidelines, I surveyed the grand landscape of America and declared that gay marriage was an essential human right, but I also stood on the field, in the heat of the action, and declared that being gay, for me, was wrong. My mind was never on the game. I was looking far away into the crowds in the stands, and they didn’t seem too happy to see the real me.

It’s strange and messed up, but in this world there is a clamor of voices eager to gauge the value of other humans — an army of apothecaries who prescribe worth based on factors outside an individual’s control. It’s a pretty terrible feeling to think someone has surveyed the world and hand-picked you as the problem — something everyone would be better off without.

I think that’s why I’ve never pursued love with a guy. More than the romantic love shared between two people, I wanted the world to love me for me. In the small circle of people I have come out to, the response has been pretty loving. Yet I’ve thrown this love offered to me aside to stand out in the heat, sweating as I waited for the anti-LGBT coalition to give in and love me the same way.

Back at the restaurant in Manhattan, the relationship conversation continued, and one of my brothers suddenly remarked that I had never really dated anyone. I fired back some witty response about being “forever alone,” everyone laughed, the conversation moved on, and I excused myself to go to the bathroom. I was breathing heavily as I descended the stairs. I banged open the bathroom door and stood in the center of the empty room, hands raised to my head, exhaling long and slow, eyebrows furrowed, tears in my eyes. My heart thumped and whispered, “Time is passing. You’re still waiting.”

Despite being relatively certain of my sexuality by the time I left seventh grade, I’ve never allowed myself to try to love someone. Eight years of waiting — how many missed opportunities have been crumpled up and tossed into the wastebasket behind me as I waited for the world, the entire world, to tell me it was ready to love me unconditionally? I think I’d be waiting forever for that message. Actually, I kind of feel like I have waited forever.

Coming to you live from the field, eyes fixed on the game in front of me — John Haley, gay man.


John Haley


Sept. 7

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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