DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a long time follower! Let’s get down to business, ‘cuz this is gonna be a wild ride.
Let’s start by saying this: I’m a closeted lesbian. When I was much younger and new to the internet, I joined a nerdy forum/chat site posing as a man, not because I wanted to catfish anyone but because it felt good. I was able to be my true “self” online, where no one would judge me and no one knew me. I made some friends who knew nothing about me and among those people, I started falling for one of my friends, a girl a bit younger than me.
I need to clarify that as a ground rule, I made it clear that I didn’t want to share a lot of my personal info to anyone under the pretense of Stranger Danger. In reality, I only did it so I could keep being myself without my “secret” following me to my real life.
But moving on. I befriended this girl by accident and by talking to her, I realize it was quite possible to fall for someone online just by talking to them. We never blatantly flirted or anything (mostly because I held back due to my secret) but I feel there was some sexual tension there.
We remained as friends for years to come, both following my rule of keeping real life details secret. We did end up sharing certain vague things like our location, job, etc. Nothing that would help anyone figure out who I am. And that’s about it. No real names no phone numbers, etc. Just…pen pals, so to speak.
Now here’s the wild part: when she got a new job at pet cafe, I had no idea what that was so I googled it to get an idea. I ended up finding the exact location she worked at by accident and, lo and behold, a profile of her on the website where you could meet the employees.
Except it wasn’t Her. It was Him.
It was shocking at first and I was in denial but I was also curious and confused. “His” profile, info, likes and dislikes and even schedule matched perfectly everything “she” had shared with me. When there was an event at this store and “she” would talk about it with me, the website would match almost word by word what “she” said.
So let me recap: I, a closet lesbian, fell for a closet gay boy.
I still love who He pretends to be, the person that I’ve talked to for years now. But every now and then I remind myself that this person doesn’t exist, it’s only in my head now. I’m not physically attracted to guys and it’s clear that he’s not attracted to girls either. This whole situation has got me messed up, I’m hung up in this fake relationship I was building and that is going nowhere. I never intended to create a real relationship with my friend either but I’d be lying if I didn’t fantasize about meeting “her” one day and coming clean and hope for the best. Now I can’t do that at all.
In all honesty, I’m not even sure what kind of advice I’d want or need. Do I need to look for therapy? Is this good for my mental health? I love my friend but it’s just very confusing talking to “her” now. I haven’t said anything about what I found out to respect “her” privacy so I don’t know if that’s making it worse.
Help me, I’m a mess!
Casper the Really Friendly Ghost
P.S: I don’t mean any disrespect by using quotes when referring to my friend. I just don’t know how to refer to him/her since we’ve never discussed it.
DEAR CASPER THE REALLY FRIENDLY GHOST: This is hardly the first time that someone has fallen for somebody else on the Internet who turned out to be someone completely different, CRFG. Hell, it’s not even the first time that it’s come up in this column. People creating a false persona in order to explore or express themselves more freely is incredibly common. Hell, for a lot of folks in the LGBTQ community, it’s often the first time they’ve ever been in a position to actually explore and express their true selves.
And to be perfectly honest… that’s not a bad thing at all. There are a lot of times where you can feel bound up by your history, by the people who know you and the expectations they have… but that version of your self isn’t the real you. It’s your conforming to what others expect of you or want from you. But because it’s so easy to see that as being definitional — you’ve spent so long being told that’s who you are — the only way that it feels safe to explore is to become someone else.
Some folks find this outlet in theater. Some find it in RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons. Some people try reinventing themselves when they go off to college. And some find it in the comforting anonymity of the Internet, where it’s easy to post up in a new community and invent an entirely new person. Having that level of separation — “this isn’t me, this is someone else” — can give you the confidence and freedom to try out different aspects of your personality, different potential selves and identities. And a lot of times, this is how people realize that who they are isn’t necessarily who they think they are… or who they’ve been told they are by others.
So in falsity, there is truth. A trace of the true self can exist in the false self… or it can be REVEALED by the false self.
I mean, this is exactly what you experienced: you created a false self in order to be more authentically who you are.
It sounds like that’s what your friend did as well.
But here’s the thing: you’re assuming that “he” is fake and that your relationship is false. And that’s not true. To start with: even if the facts aren’t real, the emotions behind them are. You and your friend have years of shared intimacy, caring and connection. That’s real. That happened. The connection you have had, the shared moments and stories… those aren’t any less true or any less valid or important just because some of the details were wrong or absent. You aren’t any less of friends because you and they didn’t share actual home addresses or real names.
(I mean, s--t, I’ve had friendships going on for more than 20 years with people I’ve only met in person for the first time within the last 5 years. This is a thing that happens.)
Just as importantly: their gender (and possibly their name) sounds like it was one of the only things they lied about. And frankly, there’s every possibility that they aren’t lying about those either. There’ve been plenty of trans folks who have created personas in order to experience and get comfortable with their gender, even if they haven’t transitioned in physical space yet. It’s not impossible that your friend has been doing just that.
But even if they are, in fact, a cis gay man, it certainly sounds like they weren’t lying or inventing the rest of it. After all, you weren’t; other than names and gender, it sounds like your online self wasn’t that different from your actual self. You may not have given what you assumed to be identifying information, but you weren’t inventing a life out of whole cloth. So why assume that your friend was doing things any differently? After all, they gave you enough information about their lives that you were able to track them down and find their… let’s call it alternate identity. That sounds a lot like they were doing much the same as you: hiding identifying info, but being real all the same.
So it doesn’t sound like your friendship was fake at all, just complicated. And hey, complicated is fine. Nor do I think you need therapy or that this is bad for your mental health. You care for them because of what you experienced together; the fact that they may not be a woman or into women doesn’t change that. It may take a little adjustment, but you would hardly be the first person to have a crush on a friend, nor would you be the first to need to adjust expectations of what you hope from the relationship.
(And really, you could end up in the same boat by finding out that you weren’t physically attracted to them if and when you met in person; that is a tale as old as time, let me tell you.)
So where do you go from here? Well… I think the best thing you could do is come clean. Not about finding them at work and knowing their “secret” (assuming that it’s not their truth), but about who you are. Tell them that you’ve reached a point where you feel like you need to be honest and this is awkward and embarrassing but you’re not the gender you’ve been posing as online and you trust them enough to tell them. You can explain why — you’re still closeted, you wanted to make it harder for people to find you, you were exploring your genuine self — and that while your gender wasn’t accurate, the rest was real and true.
And then… the ball’s in their court. Being honest and trusting them with this secret may be what gives them permission to share their truth with you. They may well be in the same situation you are; they want to be honest, but they feel like they can’t. Hell, they may have been as much of an internet sleuth as you have been and tell you that that they knew already.
But either way: telling them — without revealing that you’ve tracked them down — will, at the very least, be a weight off your shoulders. You can start to come to grips with the fact that while the details were different, this has been, and still is, a real relationship. The nature of it may be different than you’d hoped it might be some day… but it’s still real. And then you and they can start to get to know each other as old friends who’ve just met.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org