Sunday, September 2, 2012

The First Man Who Loved Me

I'll never forget the first day I met him. I was a junior in college, he was a freshman.

After a year of volunteering on Lambda Legal's "Freedom to Marry" campaign, they requested my help in recruiting the next year's volunteers. Catina was Lambda's community outreach coordinator, an all-around bad-ass Black queer woman, and guided me through the brief spiel. As I entered the Introduction to LGBTQ Studies course, I gazed around the classroom until I eyes crossed paths. We exchanged a brief but sincere smile. After our talk, he came up to Catina and I to express interest. He talked passionately about his catering experience as his eyes gravitated in my direction. I could tell how nervous he was, how unsure. With a little intuition, there's a lot you can tell about a person's body language if you're paying close attention.

The event went smoothly, in no small part to his contributions with coordinating the operations of our catering stations and managing volunteers. Afterwards, Catina invited the two of us to a thank-you dinner where we were able to connect more intimately. The three of us shared margaritas and stories about what it meant to be queer. He talked about what it meant to be young, gay and bi-racial (without ever explicitly mentioning race). He shared a very personal story about white men's relationship to his body. I could feel my body temperature rising and without rhyme or reason, I blurted out, "Don't ever let anybody treat you like that again. And if they do, you let me know." He attempted to excuse their behavior and I looked him, without apology, and emphatically repeated, "Ever."

This scene really captures the essence of my relationship with him. It taught me about about my desires to control. He was a 19 year old boy trying to find himself and because I didn't want to see him get hurt, I attempted to put up a shield. A bitter shield. One that didn't want to give him the chance to make mistakes and learn from them.

When I first met him, I knew he was going to be important in my life. Throughout the entire time I've known him, he's felt like a younger brother to me. And just like my relationship to my biological brother, it wasn't always loving. There's this cultural myth that suggests we all possess the skills to love. The reality is that if you haven't been taught what love is or how to give and receive it, you won't recognize it and you certainly won't give it. Some call it love but I call it healthy love. I'm qualifying love because a lot of people (myself included) mystify love by calling abusive relationships 'love.'

In my attempts to love him, I feel like I was abusing him. I wasn't giving him the space to grow into the man he would become. Instead, I was projecting all sorts of hopes and dreams I had for him rather than allowing his hopes and dreams for himself to come into fruition. I should have been supporting him by learning when to shut up and let him go through it. In return for my foolishness, he offered me an unconditional love so rarely witnessed. Despite all of the reckless stories I've shared with him, he's never once shamed me in all the years I've known him.

He was the one who acted a fool with me after I'd broke down in tears when we discussed our childhoods. He was the one who stood in our kitchen with me with a "What did that bitch just say?" look on our faces after I'd been told I was a fool by some man I'd been dating. He was the one who listened after my last (abusive) relationship. He was the one taught me I had a gender and what it meant to be a feminist. Even though he wasn't always comfortable expressing his vulnerability, he was the one who showed compassion when I was afraid. He was the one who gave me space away from our friendship to heal, learn and grow without condemning me (or serving up a Bette Midler moment from 'Beaches'--"You took your friendship away and you didn't even ask me!"). I wish I could say I was ever that courageous for him.

When I reflect on the men I've experienced love with, I have a tendency to imagine the romantic relationships I've had. I picture the men who I went through some trying things with. Oddly enough, there he was all along. Only recently have I been able to step back and reflect on the queer men whom I've loved that I never had to call "boyfriend." To me, the ultimate test of love is: when someone is at their worst, can you love them through it? He was the first man who loved me, flaws and all, without exception nor abandoning me when I needed room to grow.

I'm proud to call him my best friend.

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