Noah, like an overwhelming majority of my teenage romantic interests, was a man I only ever knew online. We first met on Tumblr and our entire relationship was a series of text messages and Skype calls, but that didn’t stop us from getting serious. In fact, I still have handwritten letters from him when he was in the army on the wall above my bed.
For a short, intense period of my life, Noah was very important to me. He was smart, funny, and the army thing helped. The thing is, we didn’t have much in commonwhich, I realized much later, is important to have in a good relationship. Instead, we focused on imagining our future together. In some ways the distance was easier because we could act like that was the only thing in our way.
This practice of chatting with other gay men online didn’t start with millennials. Since the dawn of the internet, there have always been queer people using the web as a way of finding each other. However, I do think there’s something unique about coming out and exploring digital communities during the emergence of social media. Although our relationships were still limited to screens, the increased ways of communication made the distance feel less limiting. We could text all day and feel more involved in each other’s daily life through tumblr and Facebook.
Coming from a family of military and government people, Noah’s dream had always been to be elected President. Naturally, this was a future I could imagine myself a part of. We would talk about my role as his First Gentleman, what I would take on as my charitable cause, how I could balance a writing career. I don’t think I ever actually believed that I would end up married to Noah as First Gentleman, but that didn’t stop me from obsessively fantasizing about it.
I think my fantasies with Noah speak to the core of what a lot of these relationships are about: possibilities. Specifically, they’re about imagining possibilities of your future, a powerful queer concept. A lot of queer folks who grew up in the suburbs would spend a good chunk of their lives imagining their futurewhen they would go to college in New York or work as a professional musician. It’s the possibility of a better future that can keep queer youth alive.
Noah wasn’t my first, nor my last online relationship. Over the course of a couple years, I imagined a future for myself everywhere from Alaska to Idaho to Australia. While other young people escaped into books or movies, I escaped into other people’s lives.
These types of fantasies are not limited to internet boyfriends. I know multiple gay men, myself included, who at one point in their lives pretended to be women on the internet. Specifically, I would go into chat rooms and pretend to be a 24-year-old woman sitcom writer who worked at NBC. At the time it didn’t feel like an exploration of my gender or sexuality, I just wanted to know what it would feel like if people talked to me like I was this character I created, someone I could be.
Looking back at this time in one’s life, it can be easy to feel embarrassed; I know I do. Whenever I think about how emotional and fantastical I was during my online relationships, I feel a sense of shame. I talked to my friend, comedian, and writer, Ryan Houlihan about this topic. He had similar experiences in his youth and gave me his perspective.
“Being a teen is devastating,” Ryan says. “It’s also very pure, though. It was good to expose yourself emotionally and learn how to communicate your wants and needs and without the stakes being so high.”
That time I spent on the internet, no matter how cringey it might feel, formed me into the person I am today. And without those online spaces, I don’t know how I’d relate to my identity.
Ryan’s point was really insightful. It’s through these contained digital spaces that queer youth can have an opportunity to consider their identity in a dramatic and imaginative way. This online space won’t conflict with anything in their real life, so why not just try everything?
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