Is a First Relationship as Big a Milestone as Coming Out?


Is a First Relationship as Big a Milestone as Coming Out?

by Khalid El Khatib

I’ve been openly gay for over a decade. I’m running out of “firsts”and upon reflection, I realize they define much of my personal narrative. While the first time I said “I’m gay” (using different words, much less assuredly) was important, it doesn’t seem to be the most profound. My mom, who has been my most thoughtful supporter through this journey, would agree that my coming out phase wasn’t nearly as rocky as the rise and fall of my first gay relationship.

Every first love is exceedingly complicated to navigate—any Young Adult novel will teach you that—but coming out at 19 meant I missed the trial and error period where teenage love thrives. I very much believe that this impacted my emotional maturity (and many of my peers feel the same about themselves.) When you date in high school, romances aren’t so quick to accelerate and mistakes are more easily forgiven. College may be ripe for experimentation, but high school is custom-made for crushing. 

Dating wasn’t tough for me just because I was inexperienced. I was further affected by a sense of discomfort with who I was. No matter how much support and reassurance I received from friends and family, I couldn’t entertain the idea of a first date kiss in public, let alone holding a man’s hand. Pervasive self-consciousness turned any bystander into a chaperone and every passing glance into a stare.

My early experiences dating and many three-week-long relationships were punctuated by nonsensical break-ups and bottled up emotions.

My mom, ever the optimist, did her best to be supportive. During holidays, she assured me that it would be more than okay to bring a boyfriend home. She asked about dates like anyone would: where did you go? Will you see him again? But perhaps there was a separate set of special questions that should have been asked: do you feel comfortable dating? Did you talk about coming out? What was your date’s experience?

There’s such a push for treating gay kids equally that it’s important to recognize there is such a thing as equal but different. The early stages of gay dating require a litmus test that accepting parents are perfectly positioned to initiate.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I became “good at dating.” I landed a smart and successful boyfriend, and after a few months we parted amicably. Shortly thereafter, I fell for someone else—faster and harder.

And then, after a year, we broke up.

The weeks after our break-up, I reacted extremely and viscerally. I forgot to eat. I lost focus at work. I threw myself so fully into running as a distraction that I jogged through painful muscle tears, causing permanent damage.

My friends grew sick of hearing me lament, so I most often ended up on the phone with my mom. She very wisely reasoned that maybe my depression over a relationship that seemed doomed from the smart was rooted in the fact that it took 26 whole years before I learned that your heart could break, and I had yet to learn for myself that it would heal.

As I moved on, I realized she was right. In fact, there was no other insight that was more powerful in my healing. I hadn’t spent my youth taking punches to the shoulder, so I wasn’t prepared for the one to the gut. Romantic comedies and break-up songs can only go so far in providing an education; we’re only as smart as what we’ve experienced, and I spent a little more time than most being “young and dumb.”Our parents are our best allies and our best historians—they know the thrill and pain of first love and they often know our lives better than we do. Growing up is forever influenced by our coming of age and any way that our parents can relate the two—especially in times of crisis—is incredibly helpful.

There are no easy talking points to be dispensed on first experiences dating when gay. But perhaps there is a more pressing need for empathy and operating with a sense of understanding. When your kid is gay and starts dating, the learning curve can be steeper and sharper. Consider that when the heart has spent a few extra post-pubescent years in hiding, it is capable of breaking harder.

Khalid El Khatib is currently writing his first book - a memoir on his youth in Iowa, his twenties in NYC, and how being gay and having a devout Muslim father impacted the two. He is a contributor to The Huffington Post, to Hello Mr., and to a number of digital publications covering lifestyle, entertainment, and technology. Khalid lives in New York City where he is the Head of Digital Marketing for GLG - the world’s largest membership for professional learning and expertise. Originally from Dubuque, Iowa, Khalid graduated from Washington University in St. Louis with a bachelor's degree in creative writing, political science, and psychology.

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