Words by Hadley Stewart

"This isn’t working,” he said to me on Valentine’s day. We had just returned to our hotel room after dinner when my now ex-boyfriend announced that things between us were to come to an end. An evening of smiles, laughter and flirting over candles in an Italian restaurant, ended in me splashing cold water over my tears-stained face in a hotel bathroom, picking up my bags and starting a 45-minute trek across London to my best friend’s house. Little did I know, 2020 would have many more surprises up its sleeve.

Perhaps everything really does happen for a reason. The night I turned up at my best friend’s house, was the first time I’d cried in front of her. We’ve known each other for over six years, yet that night I felt able to let my guard down completely. Not because I’d been purposefully guarded with her, but it was the first time in a long time that I’d felt brave enough to be truly vulnerable in front of another person. That night I shared things I’d never talked about before. I spoke with an emotional honesty that felt unrecognisable to me. Even in counselling, a legal framework protecting my secrets to the four walls of the therapy room, I’d never achieved such a level of honesty like I did that night with my best friend.

Female friendships are something I’ve always cherished, having found building friendships with women easier than with men. When I came out, I sought the support of female friends and female teachers. During the final two years of school, I found refuge in the girls’ Sixth Form common room. When it came to university, I chose to do a course that was predominately dominated by female students. Yes, there were male friends, but I’ve always felt more at ease surrounded by women.

I hardly knew any gay people during my final years of school, so moving to London for university felt like an opportunity to find a community of welcoming, non-judgemental gay men. In reality, it took a little longer to find my community. My effeminate tendencies weren’t everyone’s cup of tea, and some gay guys weren’t shy of telling me. Whilst my female friends thought the idea of going to a gay club was fun, I didn’t feel particularly comfortable in those spaces. And when I looked on social media, some gay people I followed seemed to be surrounded by LGBTQ+ friends, whereas I could count mine on my hands.

After years of building strong friendships with women, I felt like somewhat of a failure for not being able to find close friendships within the so-called gay community. My female friends understood me and my experiences to an extent, but I was still left with the yearning for a friendship with someone who knew what it was like to be gay.

Shortly after I was dumped, a friend said something that stayed with me, “You’re the opposite of internalised homophobia.” We weren’t particularly close at the time, so I was surprised that his summary of my personality had so easily rolled off his tongue.

Then the lockdown restrictions lifted, and we decided to go for a drink with a couple of our friends. We were the last two from the group left in the pub, and started talking about boys and our experiences of being gay at school. My new-found emotional honesty appeared (again) and I started crying, whilst telling him things that were only for the pages of my teenage diary. Once I’d stopped crying, we left the pub, and I kissed him.

We went on a couple of dates, and I began to feel anxious about starting a new relationship and how this might ruin our existing friendship if things were to go wrong. There was laughter and bitching and we burned each other with our equally fierce acerbic humour; spending time with him felt easy. But there was no more kissing. It hardly came as a surprise when he told me he wanted to stop dating, and stay friends.

Maybe if I hadn’t been dumped at the start of the year, and realised just how important friends are in my life, I would have thought I was being demoted or rejected. There have been many moments in my life when I’ve gone searching for the missing piece of the puzzle in romantic relationships, only to emerge disappointed. I’d told myself that finding The One would provide me with a sense of completeness, yet in fact I should have been looking for emotional fulfilment in my friendships.

This year has taught me that my love is better off in friendships. The two friends I’ve mentioned aren’t the only ones who have been there for me this year, however, it seems to me that these are these two friendships that have grown the most out of the sadness of 2020. I think subscribing to the notion that being “just friends” with someone is somehow less than being in a relationship with them, is where I’d been going wrong. I’m so grateful for the friends who have been there this year to share my tears and laughter.