On a freezing cold February evening – Valentine's Day, to be exact – my housemate Esther and I decided that, in lieu of boys to wine and dine, we should celebrate our singledom together. Sufficiently suited and booted, we headed out to eat posh tapas and gawk at the wine list, before guzzling the cheapest bottle between us.
The next day I noticed an ever-so-slight uneasiness in myself. Almost like a sense of denial ticking away somewhere. I found myself ruminating on how much time Esther and I spent together, how her presence made every situation and experience infinitely more enjoyable. I loved her sense of humour, her laugh, her attitude to life and love and just about everything else in between. We laughed together, cried together, drank, ate and farted together. Alas, I never thought something romantic would flourish, what with her being a woman and me being gay.
The next weekend we got dragged on an impromptu night out with friends and several vodkas later, everyone in our party ended up kissing one another in the smoking area – ah, the heady days of pre-pandemic life. My first kiss with Esther went by in a blur; both of us in our wobbly state decided to go in for another one as a chemistry test. That was it: fireworks, a proper sucker punch to the gut and an unmistakable stirring further south. Once we got home we followed our usual post-club routine: shitty wine, an even shittier kebab and a soppy movie. The difference was this time we went to bed together rather than separately.
The next morning I awoke to a gently snoring Esther and a feeling of deep contentment. Nothing felt 'off' or unusual, even though I had just slept with my best friend. Something in me knew this wasn’t going to be a one-night stand. It felt right, like we’d fulfilled something long overdue. This was the beginning of our Monica and Chandler period, sneaking around and hiding from our other housemate. And I’m happy to say that winks, nods and sly bum-squeezing has since given way to a proper, wholehearted, head-over-heels relationship that’s lasted through a pandemic and multiple lockdowns.
Having lived with each other for two years prior, lockdown 1.0 was a piece of cake (mostly). Instead of allowing ourselves to become overwhelmed by the negatives, we decided to see it as a chance to encase ourselves in the newness of our relationship and shut the world out for a while. The space to breathe gave way to a powerful and raw intimacy, something that neither of us has ever experienced before. Telling her I loved her was easy, realising we were perfect for each other took seconds, just being in the same room as her made me giddy. The thing that caused me to become a little unstuck was the gay thing. Spending hours indoors gave me time to really think about what this new relationship meant for me. Had I always been attracted to girls? Was coming out as gay at 18 a mistake? Had I been bisexual or pansexual the whole time?
I’d come out as gay at 18, just after leaving for university, and what followed was a string of boyfriends and flings and one memorable encounter at a bus stop, alas nothing substantial. Once Esther and I started dating, I began to appreciate that the walls that had separated us in the first place were flimsy. It took a while of self-reflection but I slowly began to understand that the decision I’d made to come out as gay at 18, rather than bi or pan, wasn’t written in stone after all. It was Esther who made me realise it had been the person that stirred my soul, not their gender.
Coming out to my family for a second time reminded me of how problematic the whole exercise is. My family were supportive and loving as always but I couldn’t help feeling a little silly about the build-up and formality of coming out the first time around. Although many count their experience as an important milestone in establishing their identity, I saw for the first time how it serves to teach many gay, bi, pan and trans people that fancying someone outside of the 'norm' is something that needs to be spelled out, 'othered' and examined under a microscope, instead of celebrated for what it is: one human being wanting to find love with another. Gender doesn’t always have to be an integral part of that.
Esther and I starting out as friends meant we opened up to each other slowly at first, got to know one another without the pressure of a romantic relationship and subsequently nurtured a deep bond over the course of three years. I wouldn’t change a thing, though I wish someone had encouraged me to be kinder to myself in my teens, not to feel pressure to define or explain myself in a hurry. Had I done that, I think I would have had room to grow and develop at my own pace. So if anyone reading this is struggling, just remember that matters of the heart are rarely preordained, nor something you can prepare for or predict; all you can do is trust your instincts, try not to overthink it, and take things at your own pace.