By A.J. Tomiak
On March 3, I celebrated my one-year anniversary with my boyfriend. We made reservations at the new, hip French restaurant in our neighborhood, exchanged cards and gifts, and spent the evening in bed watching the Real Housewives. In the year leading up to that dinner, we had taken two road trips together, met each other’s parents and spent countless weekends “urban hiking” through Washington, D.C. Looking back, the date marked not only our anniversary, but it was also a kind of official anointment of my first long-term relationship.
When we initially started dating, friends from college would ask about the relationship, and I found it difficult to properly synthesize the dynamic — how do you succinctly describe a relationship to someone, especially when they don’t know the other person? I eventually landed on the term “effortless.” As someone who’s very independent, being in a relationship and spending hours with a single human being was a new experience. I was surprised at how quickly I fell into the routine. It was enjoyable and fun, yes, but it was also, wonderfully, effortless.
But this sense of ease in the relationship occasionally brushed up against something less savory. When we were walking to a museum on the National Mall and he reached for my hand, I more often than not pulled away. When he went to kiss me goodbye after getting our morning coffee, I made it a quick peck. When he leaned his head against my shoulder while riding the Metro, I faked an itch to shrug him off. I could see that each flinch, each hesitation, confused him and made him feel both frustrated and discouraged. My reactions had nothing to do with him — he was neither too forward nor too aggressive — or with me not wanting to reciprocate. And these flinches never occurred in private when we were with our friends. It was just that, when we were in public places, I was hyper aware of where we were, who was watching and how we performed these public displays of affection — these physical, visible manifestations of my desires. I became, six years after officially coming out, actively anxious about my sexuality.
This took me by surprise. Where was this insecurity coming from? What was it rooted in?
Yes, homophobia still exists throughout the United States, but we live in D.C., one of the most liberal and gay-friendly cities in the country. We’ve never been harassed or heckled in any way.
But something else was going on inside my head.
I tried to locate where these feelings came from. I recalled one of my earliest recognitions of my sexuality — as a young adoring fan of S Club 7, naturally. I not only owned — and still own — every album from the band, but also religiously watched the TV show.
In season three, the show delved into the subject of romance; the first episode of the season worked through the controversy of band members Hannah and Paul kissing. With the issue of romance breached by these close friends I watched week after week, there was no turning back. With every passing Saturday, I started becoming more aware and invested emotionally in the relationships of the group. I picked up on small gestures, tracked what pair interacted the most and started rooting for my own fantasy couples — specifically, I rooted for Jon and Rachel.
Rachel wore crop tops, was the materialistic “posh” one of the group and was at times very ditzy. Jon gelled his bleached blonde hair in the middle, was the youngest of the seven-piece band and sang the higher, melodic parts in upbeat songs. I, too, gelled my light blonde hair in a middle part, was a year behind in my grade and was teased for having a particularly high-pitched voice. I saw myself in Jon, both literally and figuratively. I rooted for him and Rachel to end up together, and relished in the moments where they seemed to connect or did anything even remotely resembling flirting — whatever flirting looks like to a nine-year-old. If he could get the hot girl, I thought, then so could I.
“When he went to kiss me goodbye after getting our morning coffee, I made it a quick peck. When he leaned his head against my shoulder while riding the Metro, I faked an itch to shrug him off.”
It would be nine years after the end of this season that Jon Lee – the actor who played Jon, the fictionalized version of himself on “S Club 7” – would publically come out in Gay Times magazine, and only one short year from then that I would. Only then did I realize what Jon actually represented to my nine-year-old self and his influence on my sexual development.
Reacting to societal judgment against what I was unconsciously, if not naturally, feeling, I desperately lived vicariously through his on-screen character. It wasn’t just same recognizing same, but a tangible fantasy that my internal fears and anxieties could grab onto. I was looking at the show through a certain worldview and reflecting back on myself through that lens.
And clearly, that worldview of what’s expected of me, what’s “normal,” has left an indelible impression, even after coming out years ago. I know that falling in love and loving another person — regardless of who that person is — is normal. Demonstrating that love is normal.
Those specific feelings of love aren’t foreign to me — but the expression of it is, for some reason.
I guess I never realized that coming out was only half of my battle being a gay man; going through life as a gay man, enjoying my life and whom I love freely, is the other half. After all, there’s a big difference between coming out on Facebook and garnering hundreds of likes, and receiving a bouquet of flowers from your boyfriend in the office; there’s a difference between trolling Tinder while tipsy on wine on a Wednesday evening and meeting your boyfriend’s parents for dinner; there’s a difference between dancing ridiculously to Katy Perry at a gay club and holding hands with the person you love in Asheville, North Carolina. Ultimately, there’s a difference between being comfortable saying, “I’m gay,” and being comfortable being seen as gay.
This yearlong relationship, which has largely defined most of my post-college growth, has opened my eyes to an internal struggle that still needs to be worked through. Every relationship has its own unique set of questions that demand answers: Who’s paying for the next round of morning coffee? What do you want me to do when your sister comes into town? Are we ready to move in together? I’ve just learned that, in this relationship, I’m also responsible for looking inward and asking myself more probing questions in order for us both to move forward.
A.J. Tomiak lives in Washington, D.C., works at a public relations firm and will undoubtedly be listening to S Club 7 this weekend.