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    Jul 30, 2015

    This Is What Happens When An Openly Gay Man Falls In Love With A Woman

    Sometimes there's no snappy way of putting it, no label that really describes how your head and your heart work.

    1. Love is always complicated.

    splitshire / Via

    I had been an openly gay man for six years when I fell in love with a woman I'd known since I was 13. Growing up on the Isle of Wight, we bonded over adolescent heartbreak, which happened to me more than once as I got to know the boys in our year. She was straight, but seemed to understand more than anyone about unrequited love. I wondered why it was that I spoke to her more than my boyfriends, but left my confusion to simmer for years as I drifted through school. When it finally dawned on me that, yes, this was love, I was well into my first year at university.

    Slowly but surely we got back in touch, and arranged to meet back home. We spent the day together, talking, playing video games. But before long, she was waiting for a bus back home. We looked at each other for a long time before sharing our first kiss in the rain, lit only by Christmas lights; it was right out of a movie.

    What had seemed like a gradual build-up of feeling to me was a sudden revelation to her, but it didn't take long for her to reveal that she had fallen in love with me not long after we met. I had put her through my coming out, my relationships, and the apparent certainty that we would never be together. She said “I love you”, and without hesitating, I said it back. It's been nearly four years since that moment; we spent our first two years together at separate universities, yearning for graduation, then moved to the southwest together.

    Throughout all of this, should I have been thinking, "don't do this, you're gay"? I don't think so. Overcoming self-inflicted heartbreak is a lot harder than admitting that there's an exception to the rule.

    2. Not everyone needs a label.

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    First off, I thought, what do I call myself now? Saying "I'm gay" was daunting when I came out before, but at least the label was there to do some of the explaining for me. Now that it no longer seemed to fit, I looked for other words to replace it. Could I be bisexual, maybe, or pansexual? Is there a word to sum me up? I've occasionally used the word "queer" for brevity, but it doesn't always feel appropriate, since in my experience many people still take offence at the term. A friend of mine called me out on it once, voicing some strong opinions about how often the word queer was historically used to humiliate and isolate LGBT people. Personally, I'm in favour of reappropriating it – partly because taking ownership of the word away from our detractors is a good thing, and partly because there's no other word to describe who I am.

    I've known people in my situation who started identifying as bi. Some kept their old label; for example, singer Tom Robinson identifies as "a gay man who happens to be in love with a woman". Others, like me, do away with the label altogether. Sometimes there is no snappy way of putting it, no label that really describes how your head and your heart work. As Alison Goldfrapp puts it: "I don't like to be defined by my sexuality, which swings wherever I like to swing."

    There are no rules with these things; you just have to choose the approach you're most comfortable with.

    3. It feels like coming out all over again.

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    Coming out is a big ol' nuisance. If you've ever felt the need to change your label after getting together with your partner, you'll know that doing it again can feel every bit as tricky, with the added burden of explaining yourself to every last person.

    When I felt it was important to me to help someone understand, I found that putting them in the right conditions really eased the conversation and made them more receptive to new ideas. It's close to what psychologist Carol Dweck calls a "growth mindset": Whether it's while your best friend is fishing, or your mother is sitting down with a glass of wine, or your brother is half-watching something trashy on Netflix, there are certain points in most situations where a person is comfortable enough to accept the challenge your ideas present to their worldview. It was important for me to create an environment that was safe for everyone – I wanted my family and friends to be receptive, but I also had to look after myself and make sure I felt comfortable telling my story.

    I was lucky enough to have a lot of supportive people around me, but many of them still needed sitting down and talking to before they adjusted to the fact that I was now with a woman after years of identifying as gay.

    Many of these discussions turned out to be just as enlightening as they were frustrating. In one case, a friend of mine thought about what I'd said, then told me that she'd just defaulted to calling herself straight, even though it didn't suit her all the time. It occurred to me that perhaps that was why my news had been received so well – I had friends who understood that a label doesn't have to be restrictive, that even though people default to a label, it doesn't mean the umbrella term matches up perfectly with who someone is.

    A lot of people seem to instinctively get that identities come in all different shapes and sizes, and I was lucky to find so many people who were supportive and understanding.

    4. Some people will be confused, and they won't always know how to respond.

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    Most of them understood. Nobody can predict how any one person will react to the news that you're queer and dating someone who presents as "the opposite sex".

    A lot of people still see gender and sexuality through opposites: They believe that man is the opposite of woman, and straight is the opposite of gay. The idea that there might be a third gender, or a third sexual orientation, is crazy to them.

    It was clear lots of people didn't know how to treat me because of my new relationship, and it wasn't long before, by two or three tremendous leaps of logic, people started to think that because I look straight, it's suddenly OK to make gay jokes again.

    A friend used to say “gayyy” whenever my girlfriend and I did anything romantic. After trying to ignore it the first few times, I got really worked up and shot him a glare. It must have been enough, because he flinched and never did it again. That might sound effective, but to this day we have never discussed the problem! After that I decided to use words instead, and when I recently called someone out on a similar joke I told him I found it inappropriate, and he apologised. Keeping a lid on my temper was hard, but worth it.

    5. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page.

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    Top tip for people in my shoes: If you can, be honest with your partner, and encourage the same honesty from them. If they founded an anti-trans subreddit or work part-time as a conversion therapist, it's probably best you work that out sooner, rather than later.

    In all seriousness, the political gymnastics can easily bog down the fact that you've met someone you really care about!

    Soon after we started dating, my girlfriend admitted that she had worried it was all some sort of joke. Jumping headfirst into a relationship with her gay best friend from school was so unexpected that it seemed impossible, and for the first few hours she was prepared for someone to emerge from behind the shrubbery, smartphone pointed at us, and reveal that the whole thing was just a cruel prank. The good thing is that she voiced this the day after we got together, rather than sitting on the theory and worrying. She talked about about how much of a break from the past this all was, and how shocking that felt. For my part, I confided that I was still taken aback by how quickly it had all happened. Both of us were feeling more candid, and before long we got to talking about how giddy we were about our future. Honesty about these early worries set a great precedent for our relationship.

    6. True open-mindedness may be hard to come by.

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    While my relationship was rosy, the way people interpreted wasn't always kind. For a woman dating an out gay man, terms like "beard" and "fag hag" get thrown their way, and male partners don't have it easy either. Navigating an unexpected relationship in an circumstance is difficult, and feeling isolated by a community that once received me was particularly hard; I'm no stranger to comments from LGBT activists that heap scorn on couples with "passing privilege" who show up to Pride events.

    I don't understand this policing of who's allowed to turn out for an event about celebrating love and equality. Everyone's gorgeous and friendly and supportive, but it doesn't take long to unearth some Tumblr post about how couples like us ought to stay locked up inside until the dull grey fog of heteronormativity has descended over the high street once again. I want for my partner to feel free to support me and my experiences; she has as much of a right to care about the LGBT movement as anyone else.

    7. But you just have to block out the haters as much as you can.

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    I ditched Facebook a long time ago, partly because of the mudslinging that took place when we made our relationship "Facebook official". For example, I was told by one gay woman that it "looks bad for the community", and "implies that sexuality is a choice you can go back on".

    I'd been involved in LGBT activism, but my experience with responses from members of the community to my new relationship discouraged me from returning. Those comments focused, without exception, on how it looked from an outsider's perspective.

    Basically, if you can, hire a PR team to handle it for you. If you can't, good luck; you'll grow a thick skin pretty quickly.

    8. You shouldn't have to prove yourself.

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    People love binary oppositions, and when you don't fit into the boxes that make sense to them, they may express fear or distrust. My girlfriend was as supportive as it's possible to be and had conversations with her friends and family about the situation ahead of time, and this made it so much easier for all of us to break the ice and get to know each other properly. But there were still a few people out there who thought I needed to prove myself.

    My partner and I got repeated lectures about how untrustworthy I was, the most memorable soundbite being: "If you hurt her, I will murder you." They thought I was going to cheat just because I had dated a few guys. I got so angry about reactions like these, and there were a few occasions where I lost my cool and said something I regretted. She, patient as always, helped me to realise that we didn't deserve the kind of reactions we were getting.

    Naturally, our social horizons changed a little bit. We kept meeting up with the people who trusted us, and we saw a lot less of those who didn't. Neither of us have any regrets about that: After all, all we did was tell the truth, and most people took our honesty really well.

    9. Love never fits neatly into a box.

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    People love stuffing things into boxes, but after all those conversations about the fabric of gender and sexual identity, you'll never fit anything into a box again.

    For instance, we've been deliberating over whose second name to take when we get married. I don't like the tradition that we default to my name, but she says it's not about that: She just likes the way her name sounds with my bizarre double-barrelled surname. But what would our kids do when they get married? They'd be in this position again, which just passes the problem on.

    Mixed-sex marriages have a lot of traditions like that, and they can cause a few headaches when you've grown up with no desire to follow any of them (well, except the "getting married" part).

    But for the most part, gender and sex have little to do with the kind of happiness we have. We're a lot like other couples in their early twenties, right down to the Chinese food boxes piling up on the kitchen counter, hazy plans for the future, and Netflix marathons. We worry about council tax and openly struggle with the feeling that we're still kids pretending to be adults. Our years together have been the best of my life; on that note, we've been a part of each other's lives for nearly 10 years, shaping each other into the people we are today. And all of this has happened regardless of gender identities and body parts.

    10. You have to do right by your own heart. / Via snapwiresnaps

    So long as you take time to figure out who you are, you're probably doing the right thing. Sounds obvious, but it took me a while to come to terms with that. I spent years trying to figure out what I wanted, going through huge internal transformations and learning to listen to myself all over again. It was rough at times, but I came out of it much happier than I was before, and with a far better understanding of my own mind.

    When you're asking questions of your own identity, you're the best judge. Don't let someone else's reaction guide you. Most people learn to acclimatise themselves to a new situation – and they're likely to be the ones closest to you.

    It was important to me to remember that it's not up to them to decide who I have the right to be with in the first place. Really, it's all about being content with the fact that I made the right call for myself. I'm fulfilled, and that's the most important thing. The people who matter will understand in the end.

    11. The future is bright.

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    Our culture's ideas about sexuality are changing all the time. According to Peter Tatchell, who has been campaigning for LGBT rights for longer than I've been alive, the future of sexuality is not about gay or straight at all. In 2012, he reviewed “a host of sex surveys” which showed “that bisexuality is a fact of life and that even in narrow-minded, [anti-gay] cultures, many people have a sexuality that is, to varying degrees, capable of both heterosexual and homosexual attraction … sexuality might be more flexible than many people assume".

    For instance, ever noticed that Piper in Orange Is the New Black is never explicitly labelled as bi? There's been a lot of debate about why, but I wonder if it's because people are beginning to question whether labels are really the best way to talk about their flexible sexual identities. If it's true that the media holds a mirror up to society, maybe society is finally gearing up for an honest discussion about all this.

    Writers have been aware of this paradigm shift for some time. Tatchell wrote that article in 2012; Orange Is the New Black was released the following year; The Kids Are All Right discussed the nature of sexuality in similar terms back in 2010. There are many, many more examples, but my favourite quote on the subject comes from the 1996 adaptation of Trainspotting:

    "The world is changing; music is changing; drugs are changing; even men and women are changing. One thousand years from now there will be no guys and no girls, just wankers. Sounds great to me."

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