05/15/2012 06:36 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Fag Hag

When I moved I found a bundle of letters she'd written to me back in high school, when people were still writing letters. I was transported back in time to the mid-'90s, to ripped jeans, bleached hair, and Kurt Cobain posters. In one letter we were lamenting the distance between us (less than an hour's drive), our first real separation since grade school. I couldn't help but smile. Living in different towns back then seemed like the end of the world.

Now at 35, we are separated by thousands of miles and what feels like a lifetime of experience. Our relationship has become reduced to comments left on one another's Facebook page. But a day doesn't go by that I don't think about her and wonder how she is. Time and distance can't dull the important role she played in my formative years.

As a teenager growing up in a small Texas town, she was the first person I came out to. Back then, I was so afraid that I couldn't even say it out loud. I had to make her guess.

"Are you bisexual?" she asked.

"Warmer," I responded.

"Are you homosexual."

"That's the one."

Back then, we were one another's only springboard for the big things, the unspeakable things, secrets whispered into the folds of sheets, words written in letters with purple ink, with rock-and-roll lyrics and poetry, passed back and forth at cafeteria lunches or folded in science-fiction novels. No one really got our relationship. We were friends, but we were more than that, though exactly what was hard to pinpoint. We weren't boyfriend-and-girlfriend, and given that she was a good five inches taller than I was, I'm sure we made an odd pair.

Growing up, I never had any male friends. I was always in the center of a group of girls, and there was always one girl in particular whom I was closest to. In my teens and 20s my relationships with women were deeper and more substantial than those I had with men. Dates, hookups, fling were all things that would come and go, but they made great fodder for 3 a.m. discussions with my closest female friend at all-night diners after we'd finished dancing, a means of reassuring one another that we were us and they were them.

For the girls I was a dance partner, a confidant, a companion, someone to reassure them when they needed it. For me they were a safe way to explore the world, offering relationships uncomplicated by sex. They were a non-judgmental audience to my ever-accumulating exploits. They were my "in" to relationships, teaching me how to build trust and make real connections with the objects of my affection.

There should be a better name for this kind of friendship.

"I prefer 'queer dear,'" Anna once said after I referred to her as my "fag hag." I'm not sure which word she took greater offense to: "fag," or "hag." Either way, I get the sentiment. The term is dismissive and doesn't really capture the real depth of our relationship, or the important role that it played in our early development.

Like many relationships, though, even this type seems to have a shelf life. In my 30s something happened. The smart, funny girls in my life suddenly became women with careers and families of their own. Movie nights were few and far between, and more often than not we'd forego dancing and head straight to the diner. Dates became scheduled phone calls with deadlines and a baby crying in the background.

I'd changed, too. I not only started going to bed at a reasonable hour, but I looked forward to it. I had projects and relationships of my own that began to occupy my time. Growing up meant leaving the safety of our platonic relationship and allowing ourselves the space to grow and experience the real thing with people with whom we shared physical intimacy. But I could never have had the healthy relationship I now have with a man if I hadn't first had healthy relationships with women.

Not every gay man is lucky enough to have had special relationships with members of the opposite sex. I've been blessed enough to have had a few. For many of us, this bond provided a safe and nurturing springboard for self-discovery. I feel so fortunate to have had such strong, beautiful friends and partners in adventure.

This is a love letter to the women in our lives: the fashionable ladies who hold our hands in shopping malls and dance with us all night in sweaty, strobe-lit clubs; the ones who listen to the travails of our relationships and give us the advice that our families weren't willing or able to give; the socially awkward girls who cuddle with us during corny movies; the tender women who nurse our bruised eyes and egos; the funny girls who, with just a look, can make us laugh and turn around an otherwise rotten day; the tough girls who defended us from bullies; the sweet girls who make us believe that we were smart, and handsome, and talented. Thank you. We do not take you for granted. Without you we wouldn't become the men you believed we could be.