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.
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.
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.