My therapist eyes me with a puzzled complexion, cocks his head as he opens his mouth to speak. “So, you’ve really never had any sexual or romantic attraction for another man? Not once?”

I take a breath, gulp. We’ve only had a few sessions together, and I’ve been explaining my sexuality as a Jesus-follower, as someone somewhere on the asexual-yet-still-gay spectrum, someone definitely only attracted to men, but someone also not at all drawn to sex, but also maybe someone a little sparked by romance, someone walking out a traditional sexual ethic of celibate singleness —

It’s a lot. I’m trying to put words to nebulous feelings that you’d think I’d have crystalized by now after countless blogs and podcasts and even a couple books to my name over the last decade and a half, not to mention all the conversations with people along the way — stories upon stories of sexuality.

“I wouldn’t say sexual attraction, and mostly not romantic,” I say, taking another pause, a collecting of the breath and soul. “But also there was this one guy.”

~ ~ ~

For the last year and a half, I’ve been blogging about my journey with physical touch — the “Cuddle Chronicles,” I’ve affectionately dubbed this series — sharing some of my accounts of male or “bro cuddling,” as has become popularized in our community.

My first male cuddles involved some shame-filled, late-night footsie, which later escalated into hugs and holds that held too long, along with sharing beds. One guy crossed my boundaries, and I also found myself so restless for touch that I downloaded a certain gay dating app. There was also that one kinda awkward time that a roommate caught us cuddling.

While it’s impossible (also: unnecessary, exhausting) to blog about every physical interaction I’ve had with other gay/SSA men, I find it inescapably necessary — and quite daunting, if I’m honest — to close these Cuddle Chronicles, finally, with a story about someone who inspired this whole series. In essence, all of these stories — stories of new frontiers and boundaries and nightfall and couches and beds — have been gearing toward this one.

After all, he’s the guy who has clarified my boundaries with cuddling and physical touch more than any other. The guy from whom I’ve sought comfort in touch more than any other. The guy who has made me feel seen and warm and laugh and cry like no other.

He’s the first (and to this point, only) guy I’ve fallen in love with.

Saying that, admitting that is tough. After all — “I’m Tom, and I don’t fall for guys romantically or sexually. I just find them hot.”

Alas, I fell for this guy so hard that I may think about him for many years yet — if not the rest of my life. A silhouette in a cracked mirror in the back of my mind that never seems to dissipate from memory or sight, day or night.

Especially night.

The First Guy I Fell in Love With

It started out as a bit of an awkward dance, as many momentous relationships begin. We met at church and later grabbed dinner at a pizza place, and I felt the swirls from the start. You know the swirls? Something there, something brewing like a tornado’s first funnel. Something attractive, hard to pin down.

I can’t explain why — I just loved being around him.

I like being with lots of people, of course. But I felt a tenderness for this guy even before that first slice of pizza. Our conversations felt stilted at first, and we didn’t hang out all that often. Saw each other more often in group settings than one-on-one.

But whenever we did hang out, just the two of us, our conversations grew a little less stilted, our bond a little less awkward. A little more tender, too. I started thinking about him more often when we were apart.

I grew jealous of his other friends — the curse of social media, seeing them hanging out when I wanted to hang out. But just with him, minus the other friends. How I longed to be “in” with him like they were.

Maybe I was insecure. Maybe I was intimidated. Maybe I was totally crushing on him.

Our first steps into friendship were long and slow, a road littered with frustration and envy. But with more time shared together, time in groups and especially time independently, the closeness came. Those former flames of jealousy faded, a new intimacy ours. We grew more comfortable with each other, both conversationally and also physically.

I still remember our first long hug — a signpost, a banner, a defined marker of touch in the friendship. Is it special or sad I remember these moments all too vividly? It was a “backwards hug” in his living room, his arms wrapped around me from the back, my arms wrapped back around him from the front.

Kinda weird, yeah. But also sweet, endearing, right? We stayed standing and contorted like that for several minutes. I could’ve gone hours.

Long backwards hugs were only the beginning. We watched movies together holding hands, heads on shoulders. Another sign, another marker — the first time we cuddled after the movie ended. Just the two of us, in the dark.

Sitting beside each other turned to lying beside each other turned to lying atop one another. Evenings on couches evolved into nights — and mornings — in beds. Nothing sexual ever happened. But I was often aroused by our touch and proximity. Is arousal a bad thing?

Not all of our cuddles or lingering touch felt bad or out-of-bounds, mind you; maybe some of it was. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but what relationship is? Nonetheless, I believe some major percentage of our touch was good, tender, brotherly — even a little healing. Not once did I ever sense his trying to take advantage of me, and hopefully he felt the same of me.

“Would you be comfortable if I maybe kissed you on the cheek or forehead?” I asked him one time. I’d never asked anyone that. Never dreamt of doing so. Had never particularly wanted to kiss another man’s cheek or forehead until then. That changed with him.

Was it appropriate? Honestly, yeah. I think it was.

I liked — loved — that guy. Cared deeply for him.

And yet.

When I look back at how it all ended, I can’t help seeing how a brotherly tenderness turned to idolization somewhere along the way. Maybe it was there from that first bite of pizza, or the cute backwards hug, always lurking throughout much of our bond.

It got to the point that whenever we weren’t together, I mourned. I missed him more than anyone else I’ve ever missed. Separated by eternal time and distance, I grew consumed with coordinating calendars to see him again, hug him again, cuddle with him again, and sleep beside him again for hours on end. The comfort of bodily and emotional warmth alike through the long cold night.

Of the several men I’ve written about sharing a bed with, his body, unlike all the others, is one I still yearn to feel. Even today. Some nights, I still turn over in my bed and wish he were there.

And yet just like those several other guys, I’m no longer in friendship with this person. I don’t believe that’s coincidental.

It’s an unsettling trend that’s happened again and again now: those first forays into touch with a new friend. Long hugs. Cuddles on the couch. Even sharing a bed. And then the bottom falls out. The relationship becomes a black hole, this all-consuming, never-enough what can he give me next??

Somewhere between the first hug and the sharing of a bed, the friendship became about the wounds and longings he could fill in me versus anything I could offer him. And certainly not about what either of us could offer the Lord, together; how our friendship edifies Him, reflects Him, not replaces Him. Brings Him great delight.

I still remember (of course I do) the last time I shared a bed with this friend. How I wept the next morning on the edge of the bed. Some way, somehow, without actually knowing it, I knew it was the last time we would ever touch like that.

It was just too much. All this touch was all too much. It wasn’t sustainable — the touch, but maybe also this friendship. A friendship that started feeling less and less like a friendship, more and more like something else.

How can I be friends with someone I’m falling — already fallen — in love with? Friends with someone who absorbs all my time and energy? Steals time and energy from other people, time and energy from my job, my hobbies, and all my other commitments, too. Jesus.

Worse: how can I be friends with someone who doesn’t see the same problems, the same roadblocks, the same idolatry in the friendship that I do?

~ ~ ~

It felt like deflating a balloon and still calling it a balloon.

I mean, yes, it’s technically still a balloon.

But also, is it really?

He remained my friend for a while after that, though it was an awful process. The sudden lack of touch. The less frequent time spent together. Despite our physical separation, I did — do! — still love him.

But if I couldn’t love him physically up close any longer, like we used to, like we did so often, could I still love him from afar? But what was “afar”? Was it passive love or still somehow active? Doesn’t love require action? Something akin to faith without works being dead? Could I love my friend better with stronger boundaries?

What if the best boundary wasn’t a guardrail but a gulf?

What a concept: that I would have probably died for this person . . . even now. And yet I also cannot be in relationship with him. My heart cannot take it.

In a worst case scenario, I believe I’d have eventually had my first romantic/sexual relationship with a man had I continued in friendship with him.

In a more catastrophic scenario, I believe I’d have walked away from Jesus. Left Him in the dust for these intoxicating heart flutters through the night.

Our friendship balloon had deflated and yet also burst, lost its inherent balloon-ness, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I just couldn’t do it. As awful as it was for me and maybe more so for him.

Tears stinging my eyes, searing my heart, I said goodbye.

~ ~ ~

My therapist looks back at me and nods. He doesn’t fully understand, I can tell. He’s told me directly he sees nothing wrong with two men sharing a romantic, sexual relationship. But like any good therapist, he recognizes my beliefs, my boundaries, respects them, wants me to be the healthiest happiest Tom despite his disagreements.

Take the boyfriend, God will still love you, I can hear him thinking. You deserve love just like any straight person does.

And yet there comes a certain freedom with denial. A freedom that — surprise, surprise — is hard to put into words. And yet I feel it. Feel more free than I’ve long been to pour into the people around me — YOB, certainly, but also the other circles in my life. I’ve still never dated someone, but that particular friendship gave me a glimpse of what it looks like to devote yourself so majorly to one person and how other things, other people must be sacrificed.

I do want it. It’s important to admit that.

But also I do not. It’s important to admit that, too.

For years, I thought I was “immune” to the draw of sex or romance. Maybe that draw is indeed less severe or hits less often than most who identify as gay/SSA; maybe I do have it “easier,” in a sense. But through therapy I’ve been learning that I’m human, too.

If it’s not explicitly romantic or sexual, I certainly desire “hyper-platonic” intimacy. An intimacy of long talks and long walks and silence and laughter and tears and hugs and holds and maybe some appropriate number of cuddles. Call it romantic, call it sexual, call it some nondescript groaning of the heart.

Call it a desire to be normal. To belong in this culture. To do what seemingly most everyone else on this planet looks and longs for: someone to come home to, someone to wake up beside. Someone to share life with.

I feel ashamed admitting it, desiring a man that way. But therapy has helped me admit what’s been there for many years now. A desire I’ve often prided myself in not having — til death do us part.

The Path Forward with Touch

Since that friendship ended, I’ve drawn the boundary of not sharing a bed with another man. It’s an erotic dance that has only led to obsession, idolization, separation, and heartache, and I won’t go back.

Sleeping in the same bed didn’t steal my virginity, but it did take something else from my heart that I can never get back. Added a burden I’ve been unburdening for many years now, through therapy and other means.

Since that particular friendship ended, I’ve noticed whenever my “emotional electricity” starts sparking. When I feel the tingles of new friendship, I consider all the unhealthy places my heart wants to follow those sparks. Particularly in the realm of touch. How vital it is to communicate your touch boundaries with your friends.

Communicate, communicate, and ever always over-communicate.

I strive to give myself credit and show myself grace for stepping out in touch with other men. It’s not something I was taught, not something that generally comes naturally in American Christian culture. I’ve beat myself up for the mistakes I’ve made with other men, but of course I’ve made mistakes.

It’s okay, Tom. And it’s okay for you too, brother, sister.

The question is where do we go from our mistakes? Touch is tender, touch is healing, but touch is also a dubious, dastardly thing. That passage in James 3 about the tongue “setting on fire the entire course of life”? I feel it strongly with touch.

I hate the pain I’ve felt, in part, from those fires of touch, and also that I’ve caused other humans pain.

I’ve been on a staggering journey to love myself more. Despite my many relational mistakes. Despite the sharp words I could have softened at the time, the rough actions I could’ve rounded more.

How sorry I am to that friend for not handling our separation better, and how also I long to show myself grace for having never done such a thing before. Going through a “breakup,” of sorts. It’s an element of my second adolescence — learning what many straight people, no doubt, learned to do at 14, 15 years old.

It took me an extra decade or so to experience on a visceral level: this pain of separation because some dynamic between two people in relationship — in love — no longer works.

I’m not there yet. I may never get “there.” I don’t pretend to profess the perfect boundaries for touch. I do know it’s different for everyone. What may be acceptable and beneficial for some may be utterly disastrous for others. After many trials, I better understand what’s disastrous for me.

I once placed physical touch atop my love languages pyramid; it was the entire pyramid. And while I may not feel as drawn to touch today as I did many years ago, it’s still up there, still very much in the mix of meaningful connection. Touch still matters; touch is still needed.

I just want to tread more carefully with touch moving forward. Particularly in those moments of touch that linger beyond a second or two. What’s the motivation? Is it totally self-serving? Does it honor the other person? Does it honor the Lord?

Ultimately, does everything I do honor the God I’ve staked my story to?

Moving forward in touch with other men, gay or straight, I’m opting for less is more, the long game versus the short flame; the pain of perhaps longing for some greater touch over the deeper pain of regret for never being able to take something back.

I hope any part of my journey with physical touch has resonated with you. Encouraged you to consider what’s appropriate, healthy, and holistically good for all involved. That you allow your mind and your heart to consider these things amidst those arresting flurries of masculine touch.

We’ll never get it perfect. We’ll stumble plenty of times along the way. It’s okay to mess up.

But God is there when we fall, and oh how He delights in our getting up. He’s met me in the depths of my sleepless, solitary, tear-soaked nights.

And He’s been there when the morning dawns anew.

  • I’ve so appreciated this series from you Tom. It’s resonated to deeply with my own heart and story.

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Gorges are where we grow. It’s so easy to be gluttonous, and the world we live in is sick with gluttony for all its wants. So words like this are very refreshing.

    And communicating boundaries is so important to every relationship!

    • Thanks for reading and ~resonating~ brother. That word “gluttonous” hits me. I felt like such a touch slut for so many years, if I may be so bold to say so. Still working on the communication piece, but generally feeling a greater peace about my boundaries with touch than I’ve felt in quite some time.

  • Oh Tom, this was so visceral and heartbreaking to read. I feel sick in the stomach.

    There is something temporal, effervescent, almost final in extinguished love. A darkness envelopes it is if it were the only source of light.

    I have a flame of love, unrequited, confessed and ignored. We are still friends but he doesn’t even respond to my messages anymore, and won’t pick up my calls. I am considering whether or not to call it a day, delete the chat, “unfriend” him, whether this may be healthier. I hesitate for all the usual reasons.

    • Aw Benjamin, I’ve been there too many times to count it feels. The unrequited or not-as-reciprocated love for other brothers, straight or gay/SSA. In general we’re a community that feels the feels so deeply, and it makes navigating male friendships so difficult, if not devastating. Prayers for you, brother. Thanks for sharing some of that with us.

  • Thanks so much for sharing this vulnerable series. I wish there were a clearer path on this topic.

    If I may ask, what about that final time of cuddling caused you to feel that it would be the final time? Or what was on your heart that prompted you to “break up” in a sense with your friend?

  • I appreciate the vulnerability Tom. I don’t feel the draw of touch except when it is used to communicate that quality time is occurring. I long for mutual trust more than anything else. First, I want to say that I’m proud of you for staying on this journey. You’re an inspirational apostle!

    Secondly, I want to encourage you to continue working towards true healing. I have a disability which has taught me that there is a fine line between acknowledging the challenge and over-identifying with it. I think this applies to being SSA. I don’t have any concrete advice, except to say that I believe God has greater stores of His true liberty to share with you.

    What I mean by true liberty is the combination of freedom and responsibility. I see you taking responsibility for your thorn in the flesh, and I can’t wait to see how Christ may grant you greater freedom as your reward. Whichever side of Jordan we meet on, I hope to embrace you with untainted and untamed love!

    God Bless You!

    • Thanks for your encouragement, ARJ. I like how you painted the picture of touch as a conduit from quality time. I feel the same way as you now, previously experienced the other way around. Not saying that’s the “correct” way for everyone to experience touch, but it’s certainly been the healthier outlook in my life.

      I also resonate with that divide of acknowledging our challenges versus over-identifying with them. I look back on my life and see me constantly self-shackling with the excuse “I’m attracted to men, so…” as a reason not to get involved with men, gay or straight or in the church or where have you. Learning to show myself grace when I make relational mistakes has been a huge part of my growth, and one I imagine I’ll continue working on for many years yet to come.

      Until we reach the Jordan!

  • Thanks Tom for ur transparency and for taking the time to write for the benefits of others something so personal and vulnerable.

  • I probably needed to hear this at this time in my life.

    I have a couple of straight guy friends that I have been coming to love more and more. It feels like we’ve been open our hearts more and more.

    But touch is something I’ve longed for for a long time but have always been afraid of. All we have is short hugs. I’ve been obsessing (which right there is not healthy) about the thought of cuddling with them. But I don’t want to ruin things.

    I’m trying to really focus on the other aspects of our relationship so I don’t idolize the physical.

    I’m not sure where the balance is, but I’m afraid to lose what I have.

    • Thanks for your vulnerability, Steven. I know that tension all too well, as do many others among us, I imagine. Wanting to take things to a new level, so to speak, but also not wanting to lose what you have. I don’t pretend to have figured out this dilemma, but I think God has also gifted me more patience through the years, particularly for my straight friends. We’re just wired differently, with different longings, and I strive more to be a good friend to them firstly, in hopes that they’ll also want to meet me where I am too. I’d rather still be friends with them 50 years from now with an eternally slow build than a quick ascent and hard crash, if that makes sense. Prayers for you, brother!

  • Tom, I so appreciate your vulnerability!

    Like you, I feel an attraction to men and deal with some sexual temptation at times, but I have never actually had sex.

    The only guys that I have felt like I have “fallen in love with” have been straight and were interested in friendship, not sex. That is painful at first, but eventually happy, fulfilling, and long-lasting. I am thinking of three of those guys right now. They all live within about a mile of me and I see them regularly. One I have known for 20 years, another 15 years, and another for just 3 years. All of them hug me, and when they do I can feel their genuine love. One even told me that he will give me a hug whenever I need it. We sometimes hold on a minute or so and he lets me be the one to decide when to let go. All of them have been unselfish in the ways they have given me time, touch, words of encouragement, and even protection from violence. I know they will be there in the future!

    • Thanks, Marshall. This was one of the hardest pieces to put together on this site, and it’s through the vulnerability of this community that I’m able to continue pressing into my own vulnerability. Thanks for sharing the stories of some of your own “crushes” here. Like everything else in our community and beyond, it’s just helpful and reassuring to hear I’m not alone.

  • THIS. This this this.

    I so deeply relate to the section on desiring your friend; missing him horribly when he’s not around and counting the seconds until you get to see him again. I first heard you describe these feelings in the benediction of the “Love Language” YOBcast episode; it spoke right to my soul and brought me to tears!

    I found myself feeling similarly with a friend about a year ago. He was the best friend I always wanted – at least, that’s how I chose to see him. We were roommates in undergrad and were inseparable for the last couple of years. We moved to different states, but I made sure that we got plenty of visit in – I was a middle school teacher at the time and would literally plan trips to visit him during my school breaks. I made sure he got to visit me and that we stayed in communication each week.

    Then came the falling out… He didn’t reach out to me on my birthday and it sent me reeling. I was always there for him and was the guy who would text him at midnight on his birthday. How could he not do the same for me? A few days later, he texts and says “Hey, happy late birthday lol”. After a slight mental cival war, I decided to call him out. I sent a carefully worded text about feeling hurt by him not reaching out on my actual birthday, knowing that he didn’t mean to hurt me, that I wasn’t angry with him, and that I was just wanted to be honest.

    He never responded to that text, and it completely cracked my foundation. I woke up from a deep emotional slumber and realized how deep this dependency had traveled; our friendship had been like walking on eggshells and I didn’t know how to cope on my own anymore. I stopped reaching out to see what he’d do with the ball in his court. Spoiler alert: he did nothing.

    After some time and the help of my counselor (mainly the counselor), I could finally see things how they were. Our friendship was no longer iron sharpening iron and hadn’t been for some time. I’d spent years so afraid of losing him. If said the wrong thing or had the wrong opinion, he might leave, so I went out of my way to be agreeable and non-problematic. While I spent my nights thinking about when I’d get to hug him again or when we’d get to hike up another mountain and sit shoulder-to-shoulder at the top, he wasn’t doing the same. If we talked, it’s because I called. If we visited, it’s because I planned it. Had everyone in my life left me and he stuck by me, it would have been enough for me. My dependency had gotten waaaay out of hand; I’d stopped seeing him as an individual and used him as if he was the God-given solution to all of my insecurities. It had completely clouded my vision of reality. Peeling away each cloud, one-by-one, was painful, but it allowed me to truly grieve; both the friend I missed and the self I had been neglecting.

    We spoke for the first time in a year a few months ago. He texted me out-of-the-blue to tell me that he’d gotten engaged to a girl he started dating during our hiatus and that getting engaged made him realize that he was being petty and that he did indeed want to have a friendship with me. About a week later, we had a phone conversation and cleared the air a bit. He explained what led to him ghosting me and apologized. I took the opportunity to apologize for misplaced expectations and general neediness. We ended the fairly short phone call with him saying he’d be a better, more involved friend and that he wanted me to attend the wedding. We haven’t interacted since that phone call…

    His wedding is next weekend and it’ll be the first time I’ve see him in over a year. As painful as this journey has been, it’s caused me to run back to Christ and finally address a longstanding condepency/self-esteem issue. For that, I’m truly grateful!

    Thanks for making it to the end, if you’re still reading. Sorry, not sorry for the novel – haha.

    • I love novel comments! Thank you for taking the time to write it, Austin. That’s so hard. I can resonate with so much of that encounter with your friend, as I’m sure numerous others in our community would as well. I hope the wedding is good for you – not necessarily “amazing” and hopefully not “the worst” either. But good. I’ve had to learn the brutal art of holding people, friends, loved ones, in proper perspective of eternity, and certainly in relationship with the Lord. It’s hard, hard, hard. But by God’s grace I’m farther along today than I was five years ago. Hopefully I’m even further along five years from now.

      I’m sorry to have brought you to tears. But am also grateful for the response. Thank you, brother. Much love in this journey.

  • Thomas Mark Zuniga

    When I'm not wandering away, I live in Asheville, North Carolina – the Jewel of the Blue Ridge. I'm YOB's cofounder and editor, and I also host our two podcasts. I've written a couple books, including a 2013 memoir in which I came out to the world. Once upon another universe I anonymously blogged about my faith and sexuality under the Xanga username, twoBeckonings. I'm an INFJ, Enneagram 4w5, and my spirit animal is the buffalo. I love to travel, and my favorite place in the world is the one where coffee and vulnerability meet.

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