I'm from the generation of kids that you helped through the It Gets Better Project. The goal, to my understanding, was to prevent youth suicide. I attempted suicide a few months ago and don't feel suicidal after spending a week in an inpatient center. I'm twenty-four now and just finished college.
I'm crying as I write this because it didn't get better. I fully accept myself as a gay man and have been out since I was seventeen. I've always wanted a boyfriend. But the longer I've tried to date and hookup and meet people, the more it hurts to be lonely. People say that it'll come when I stop looking but I have stopped looking (and maybe even given up) and nothing has happened. I recently moved home to a small southern town and it's extremely isolating.
I went to a college where almost all of the gay boys had boyfriends. It was so easy for them. But I've been single for years. And I see all these gay couples on Instagram with their beautiful bodies and beautiful lives and I have to wonder why it's so hard for me. Why don't I have anything resembling that? I'm a nice, smart boy and I hate feeling this way.
What's wrong with me? Do I need to be more beautiful? Do I need to be muscular?
It didn't get better. Please help me.
Sleepless In Savannah
First, SIS, I hope you're in a better place emotionally—and I hope you're continuing to seek help and you have a good therapist. I also hope you're planning to get to a better place geographically. Isolating yourself in a small town isn't a great strategy for a gay man who wants a relationship. (Which is not to say no gay man has ever found love and/or dick in a small southern town. Some have. But dating is an odds game and your odds are better in bigger cities—including big southern ones, regional gay meccas like Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans.)
A quick word—sigh—about IGBP: "it gets better" doesn't mean “everyone gets a boyfriend." It means, "You get older, you gain more autonomy, you have more control over your life and the people who get to be in it." We graduate and high school bullies are suddenly out of our lives forever. If our homophobic/biphobic/transphobic parents don't come around, we can limit our time with them or cut them out of our lives entirely. Friends who can't accept us—friends who were never really our friends because they never really knew us—are gradually replaced by friends who love us for we are. It gets better when we take proactive steps to make it better.
Okay, I'm going to be blunt now, SIS... so if you're not in the right frame of mind to process bluntness, set this aside and come back to it later.
Not everyone finds a partner easily and some people never find a partner at all. And just like coming out isn't the end of all our troubles, SIS, finding a partner isn't the key to everlasting happiness. Even good and loving relationships are challenging and some people wind up with partners who are emotionally or physically abusive. So don't look at all those gay couples on Instagram or YouTube and think, “Oh, those boys have it made, they’ve got each other, they've got it all.” You don't know what their skin looks like without filters, SIS, and you don't know what their relationships look like without them either. A person can be partnered and miserable. Half the mail I get is from people who feel trapped in awful relationships; some don't just feel trapped, SIS, they are trapped. And even a happily partnered person can wind up alone. You can be with someone for five or ten or twenty years and then lose him to an accident or an illness or a bigot. (Oh, and some of those hot gay couples you've seen on Instagram and YouTube? They're not together anymore.)
Romantic partners aren't the key to happiness—they're not even a shortcut to happiness. The true path to happiness is creating a life for yourself that makes you happy whether you're partnered or not. (And not as a strategy to find a partner, like people who "stop looking" because they've been told that it'll happen if they stop looking.) As I told this lonely straight guy...
Just live your life. Live a life that’s worth living, one where you do what you want to do, pursue your passions. That way, if you meet someone, they’ll be joining a life that’s already really good. And if you don’t meet anyone, you can still look back at the end and say, "You know what: I lived a really great life." [And in the meantime] keep going on dates. And don’t get bitter, either about women or the dating process.... Life doesn’t owe you anything, and I think it’s up to all of us to go out and create a fulfilling life for ourselves. Like, my husband Terry, he left the house an hour ago. We have a life together. But if he never comes back, I still need to have something here, a life of my own, one that’s fulfilling in itself.
More recently, SIS, gay journalist Michael Hobbes—who wrote a long piece on the epidemic of gay loneliness—offered some similar advice to a gay male reader of mine who, like you, was looking at all those happy gay couples out there and wondering why it's so hard for him:
"Finding a soul mate is largely out of our control. Whether you allow your lack of a soul mate to make you bitter, desperate, or contemptuous is not. So be happy for the young jerks coupling up and settling down. Learn to take rejection gracefully—the way you want it from the dudes you're turning down—and when you go on a date, start with the specificity of the person sitting across from you, not what you need from him. He could be your Disney prince, sure. But he could also be your museum buddy or your podcast cohost or your afternoon 69er or something you haven't even thought of yet."
And now for the clichés: put yourself out there, volunteer, join clubs, pursue your passions, and maybe you'll meet someone. Or maybe you won't. But at least you'll be getting out there and living your life and finding some measure of joy even if you never find a partner. But odds are good you will find a partner, SIS, you just need to accept that it takes more time and more sustained effort for some of us.
And quickly turning to your questions...
"What's wrong with me?"
There could be nothing wrong with you—you could just a late bloomer—or there could be something terribly wrong with you. Ask trusted friends to take a look at your dating profiles and to level with you about your demeanor and/or approach. You should also ask your therapist to work with you on your interpersonal skills. Because if you're too overbearing or too timid or too creepy or too bland—or if your personal hygiene could be better—you can improve your odds with a little effort.
"Do I need to be more beautiful?"
There are plenty of happily partnered people out there who don't match up with our currently prevailing standards of beauty. But you're not alone in feeling this way—everyone would like to be more beautiful, SIS, including all the beautiful people you're currently following on Instagram. (Pro-tip: If following beautiful people on Instagram makes you miserable, unfollow them.)
"Do I need to be muscular?"
There are plenty of happily partnered skinny people out there and plenty of happily partnered heavy people out there and lots of straight-up miserable muscular people out there—some of them single, some of them partnered. If you'd like to have bigger muscles, by all means join a gym. If getting more exercise might make you feel more comfortable in your own skin, SIS, by all means get more exercise. (I go to the gym not to be huge, but because regular exercise improves my mental health.) And going to the gym is one way to put yourself out there. But slapping muscles on a miserable person rarely makes that miserable person happy.
Good luck, SIS. I'm rooting for you.