Almost everyday, I catch myself fantasizing about what might have happened if I had been born into a family that would have accepted and celebrated me as gay. Some days I actively mourn intentional hurts and feel filled with grief and loss. Most of the time, it’s just a passing thought, daydream or silent recognition. But 15 years after coming out as gay, I’m still turning over the pieces of what could have been.
Recently, another portrait of what I never had came to me on the Netflix show “Heartstopper,” a cute, fantastical, sugary depiction of young gay love. There we meet Charlie, a 15-year-old gay boy, and Nick, a 16-year-old rugby player whose kindness and empathy help forge a bond of love between the boys. After much struggle with his identity, Nick realizes he is bisexual. He and Charlie engage in a sweet romance. With the support of their loving friends and welcoming families, they overcome the challenges of mild homophobia to achieve a love that is as comforting as it is unrealistic.
I’ve never seen gay teenage love depicted on screen without the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. The unapologetic optimism of “Heartstopper” made me think again about the grief I carry from my own story, and it reminded me of the cynicism and disenchantment I encounter in my experiences with love as a than an adult.
I grew up in the home of a southern Pentecostal pastor. Being gay was a scandal, a curse, even a death sentence for an American evangelical. Even though I tried to hide my homosexuality, I was clearly different from the straight boys around me. Sensitive, sweet and flamboyant, I stood out in all the ways that painted me as queer. At the height of my sexual and romantic awakening, at the age of 15, my optimism and my fantasy met the cold and harsh reality. I remember pining for a few boys who were nice to me, only to have my longing for a deeper friendship and maybe even a romance bitterly tempered by the awareness of the disasters that awaited me if someone one discovered it. I thought about suicide every day.
One of the benefits of being a Pentecostal was that church was an emotional experience. We could scream, dance and cry. This cathartic outlet gave my pain a purpose and helped the straight boys around me find some semblance of socially acceptable emotional expression. The pressure cooker of evangelism, the perfection it demanded, and the emotional release it provided from our failure helped us bond with each other. The bonds I forged with some of the young men were real, and their friendship saved me. When I got out, those ties broke. I never stopped crying for them.
As a sex therapist and couples counsellor, I recognize in many of my gay and straight clients a similar grief. I have over a decade of experience studying sexuality, observing it, nurturing it like a fragile flower, watching it sometimes die, sometimes watch it change. In my work, I am constantly reminded of how grief and fear of loss affect love and relationships. Psychotherapy, like life, can be understood as a process of grieving, confronting and accepting hurt in order to find meaning and joy.
As I struggle to release what could have been in my life, I hold myself back in new relationships. What would have happened if I had been given an early chance to love like the one depicted in “Heartstopper”? What would I do now if I had been loved a little more? Would I have suffered so much? Would I be less cynical now? Would my sexual fantasies and desires be the same? Would I have a husband? Would I be a psychotherapist, or would I be a Broadway singer, as I dreamed? Would I have had the experiences I still yearn for?
Sometimes fantasy is the self-protection tool of the psyche. This is why the exploration of fantasies is often at the heart of good psychotherapy. It is no coincidence that it is also the heart of good romantic intimacy. Such exploration encourages me to understand my desires, gives me the keys to unlocking them and, if necessary, letting them go. In this way, “Heartstopper” is a powerful reminder of what I wanted as a teenager, a hope I desperately clung to, an escape I never found, a dream to see me through the tough times. coming. If someone like Nick, the cute and empathetic jock, had liked me, maybe I would have been isolated from the disappointments to come. The fantasy and paralysis that kept me from acting were necessary for my survival – the former gave me hope, and the latter saved me from the real and present danger of being discovered.
At a time when LGBTQ+ rights are once again under threat from those who wish we didn’t exist, the optimism of “Heartstopper” is a poignant reminder of why it’s important to keep pushing. It presents a hopelessly hopeful picture of what might be, of what might be possible for a new generation of young people who will yearn for love and acceptance just like me. It may still be a fantasy, but it’s worth fighting for.
Lee Kinsey is a sexologist and relationship counselor in private practice in Boston.