Logically, the answer is simple: Don't get involved with someone who isn't willing to be seen with you in public.
And in a perfect world, I think that's what I would have done before I allowed myself to become the "secret boyfriend." But as anyone who has ever been in love will tell you, sometimes logic goes out the window.
Maybe you know the feeling. When you talk to someone and, for the first time in a long time, the conversation comes easily. When five hours feels like five minutes because you never run out of things to say. When you kiss someone and this time you're not faking it, and all those love songs about guys kissing girls or girls kissing guys suddenly make sense.
There's just one problem: You're "out" and he's not.
But it's not like you live in a perfect world anyway. It's not like you're out to everyone. You haven't told your coworkers. Plenty of your friends still don't know. What's the problem? You can do this. You can be with him without being with him. And who knows? Maybe you can help him accept himself along the way.
It's okay at first. Behind closed doors, he's all yours. For a little bit, you get to feel like a regular couple: cuddling on the couch and watching movies, stealing kisses during the boring parts, making popcorn and gently teasing each other the way you've seen straight couples do on TV.
Maybe you know the feeling. I do. That's why I stuck around as long as I did. I was in love.
And if it had been like that all the time, if it were all cuddles and hand holding and easy talk, I might still be in love.
But it wasn't.
When you're the secret boyfriend, you become accustomed to the gentle shove, the little push away when he hears someone approaching or he thinks someone is watching. It's not so much the fact that he does it that hurts you but the way he does it, so quick and alert and willing to ditch you. The separation is slight, but it will feel like the distance between strangers.
When you're the secret boyfriend, you come to understand that "normal" is higher on the priority list than you. Plans are canceled and dates rescheduled if your presence threatens the veneer of normalcy. Sometimes it's worse than that. Sometimes he goes on dates with girls and it breaks your heart. "It's just to be normal," he promises.
As messed-up as it sounds, you learn to live with it. You find what you need in the in-betweens, in the space before he shakes your hand away, in the gap between the "I love you" and the "He's just my friend."
That's how it was for me, anyway.
Any reasonable person would say it's not worth it. They'd probably be right, too. But the more you look, the more it seems like every gay relationship is a secret in some way. Everyone has a "boyfriend" who is also his "roommate" who is sometimes referred to as "my girlfriend" on the phone.
When you first came out, your peers told you about the dangerous places. The gayborhood is fine, but don't let them catch you being queer in that other part of town. They don't like homos in that area. You learn where you can express yourself and where you should blend in. We all do it. We all try to blend in sometimes.
And he has his reasons, too. His parents would disown him if they knew. The people he works with would never understand. When he was little he was called names and even beaten up for being effeminate. It's hard on him. You want to help. Of course you do. You love him.
But here's my question: What about you?
How does it feel when he pushes you away? How does it feel when he doesn't claim you, when he cancels plans with you and leaves you hanging, when he's ashamed or embarrassed of you?
Is that love?
Is it really?
The answer is no.
No, it's not all his fault. It's the imperfect world we live in that forces people into closets and makes them feel like they can't be who they are. No, it's not you. He can be in love with you and still be afraid. But ultimately, unfortunately, no. It's not really love. Or if it is, it's not enough.
I learned that the hard way, and that's why I left.
So let me leave you with this advice: You deserve someone who loves you all the time. Someone who is proud of you and brags about you to their friends. Someone who will hold your hand and not shake you off when times get tough.
And although it might be hard, you can still be there for this person you care about. You can help them accept themselves, and you can listen to them when they need to talk, and you can provide them with a safe place that they may not have anywhere else.
But try to remember: You deserve someone who's not afraid to love you.