Almost every day I find myself fantasizing about what might have happened if I had been born into a family that accepted and celebrated me as gay. Some days, I actively grieve intentional hurts and feel filled with sorrow and loss. Most of the time, it is just a passing thought, a daydream, or a silent acknowledgment. But 15 years after coming out as gay, I am still turning over the pieces of what might have been.
Recently, another portrait of what I never had came to me in the Netflix show “Heartstopper,” a cute, fantastical, saccharine portrayal of young gay love. In it we meet Charlie, an out 15-year-old gay boy, and Nick, a 16-year-old rugby player whose kindness and empathy help forge a loving bond between the boys. After much grappling with his identity, Nick realizes that he is bisexual. He and Charlie engage in a sweet romance. With the support of their loving friends and accepting families, they overcome the challenges of homophobia-light to realize a love as heartwarming as it is unrealistic.
I have never seen gay teen love depicted on screen without Romeo and Juliet tragedy. The unabashed optimism of “Heartstopper” made me reflect anew on 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 an adult.
I grew up in a Southern Pentecostal minister’s home. Being gay was a scandal, a curse, even a death sentence for an American evangelical. As much as I tried to hide being gay, 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, when I was 15 years old, my optimism and fantasy met cold, hard reality. I remember pining after a few boys who were kind to me, only to have my yearning for deeper friendship and maybe even romance bitterly tempered by the awareness of the disasters that awaited me if anyone found out. I considered suicide every day.
One of the benefits of being Pentecostal was that church was an emotional experience. We could scream and dance and cry. This cathartic outlet gave my pain a purpose, and it helped the straight boys around me find some semblance of socially acceptable emotional expression. The pressure cooker of evangelicalism, the perfection it demanded, and the emotional release it provided for our failure helped us attach to one another. The bonds I forged with some of the young men were real, and their friendship rescued me. When I came out, those bonds broke. I have never stopped grieving them.
As a sex therapist and couples counselor, I recognize in many of my gay and straight clients a similar grief. I have more than a decade of experience studying sexuality, observing it, tending it like a fragile flower, sometimes watching it die, sometimes watching it change. In my work, I am constantly reminded of how much grief and the fear of loss affect love and relationships. Psychotherapy, like life, can be understood as a process of mourning, confronting, and accepting hurts in order to find meaning and joy.
In struggling 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 at love like the one depicted in “Heartstopper”? What would I be doing now if I had been loved just a little bit more? Would I have hurt as 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 long for?
Sometimes, fantasy is the psyche’s tool for self-protection. That’s why exploring fantasies is often at the heart of good psychotherapy. Not coincidentally, it’s also at the heart of good romantic intimacy. Such exploration encourages me to understand my desires, giving me the keys to unlock them and, when necessary, let 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 difficult times to come. If someone like Nick, the cute, empathetic jock, had loved me, maybe I would have been insulated from the disappointments to come. Both the fantasy and the paralysis that kept me from acting on it were necessary for my survival — the former gave me hope, and the latter saved me from the real and present danger of being discovered.
In a time when LGBTQ+ rights are under renewed threat from those who wish we did not 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 could be, of what might be possible for a new generation of young people who will long for love and acceptance just as I did. This may yet be a fantasy, but it’s one worth fighting for.
Lee Kinsey is a sex therapist and relationship counselor in private practice in Boston.