08/31/2012 12:44 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Tongues Untied: Love Rules?

We know what you are thinking: Not another conversation on love. We promise, however, that for every saccharine-laced word that follows (thanks to one of our early readers, Larry Lyons, for warning us that our love notes might very well cause toothaches), we were sure to talk about the whips and leather, too. Well, we don't really get a chance to discuss whips and leather in particular, but in "Love Rules?" we challenge the ways that love and sex and friendship are typically imagined and raise questions about the potential for radical love as practiced and embodied in all of our relationships.

Darnell: Wade, when you first met your partner you mentioned that you knew right away that he would be the person that you would marry. How did you know?

Wade: Yes. I know that it sounds strange, but I knew it. And I wish I had told him at the time but the "rules" of love prevented me from articulating my genuine feelings. I can remember our first conversation and how he allowed me the space to be different and I wasn't judged or made to feel anything but my authentic self. He also wanted to get married, have kids, and exist in the type of relationship that I wanted in the future and he was HOT! But, since we are speaking of "love," how was your date this weekend?

Darnell: Honestly, it was the best date I've had in my life. It was so modest and beautiful. We walked the streets of Manhattan and ended up at a pier where we talked. We didn't spend money, there weren't any stops for drinks along the way (not that that would have been a bad thing) to loosen us up, and there was no agenda guiding our time together. We just wanted to be in each other's company. We even sang songs together while holding one another. And, I am not always the best when it comes to public displays of affection. I enjoyed the vulnerability...I enjoyed being in the moment without anxiety about next steps...I enjoyed smiling and feeling butterflies. It was pretty fantastic. I started thinking, when I was standing on the pier staring at the moon, that love happens when two people move toward one another and alleviate the space between them without fear of harm...with openness. You know?

Wade: I know exactly what you mean, but I think the fear of rejection usually prevents people from taking that leap of faith to offer up their heart to another. Like I mentioned above, when I first met my partner I knew at the tail end of our first date that I was going to marry him one day, but I definitely wasn't emotionally comfortable enough to open my heart to another person. We hear all these clichés about honesty and openness, but usually we begin relationships closed off trying to protect the one thing that we so desperately want to give away. Now, I hate dating. I don't wish to be single ever again especially now with access to so many people. How does someone become less afraid to be open with a new person when people focus so intently on heartbreaks as opposed to that which the heart-makes?

Darnell: Good question. Love requires vulnerability. It takes work. I guess I could go on by providing a really deep response, but I think that I've feared rejection and the possibility of hurt for too long. I opened my heart up for others, especially intimate partners, and ended up hurt in the end. What I thought was love ended up being relationships of convenience and neediness in most cases. A few months ago, however, I was reading a draft of a friend's essay. Colin Robinson wrote a moving and honest piece that reflected on the life of his friend, Joseph Beam, a celebrated black gay writer and activist who has since transitioned. I so was haunted by Robinson's description of a black gay man that many of us have come to celebrate: a description of someone who knew how to write beautifully about love, but for whatever reason never really experienced the love that he wrote about in the most intimate spaces of his life. I was so scared and angry that I threw the book down because it made me think about myself. At 36, I am really good about talking about love, but have suffered from my own failures to practice love in my friendships of all types.

Wade: Love is freedom: the freedom to be yourself without reservations and fear of judgment. I practice love within my relationships, but always try to put the needs of others first without worrying about whether or not I'm losing out on anything. I don't believe one can be taught how to love. We are always feeling our way through the stages of love because love shows up differently for everyone, but I like to practice love by showing up every time, every day, and in every way in the lives of those I love. I do believe, however, that our love for friends and an intimate partner are similar, but different. And it's hard to define the difference in the ways we love our close friends and our intimate partners -- the love is different: It's more detailed, more naked. More fiercely fought for and, hopefully, without reservations.

Darnell: But isn't that the case with all relationships? I really do believe that the distinctions we make between, say, "friendships" and "intimate relationships" limit our understandings of love and the ways love shows up in our various relationships. For example, I have connected with a few soul mates in my life and all of them haven't been "intimate" or "sexual" partners. I am thinking, for instance, of my best friend of 25 years, Kondor, or my friend, Aimee. Both are family to me. When I met them there was no expectation about who or what they would be in my life. There were no unspoken or spoken demands about what should happen next, who should call first, when we should use the word love, or what they could or could not do moving forward. We discovered each others' likes and dislikes as we moved along in our friendship. We chose to simply grow together as friends, as soul mates. For some reason, though, when we meet folk who we might name as "partners," "boyfriends," "girlfriends," et cetera, we apply a different set of rules. The fact that we make a distinction between a "friend" (non-sexual partner) and "partner" (sexual partner) says something about the values we place on our relationships based on the type of relationship we share. Sexual involvement does not make a relationship any more valid or more valuable than some others. What if we approached ALL relationships with the same openness, trust, and willingness to be vulnerable in the way that we do our non-sexual relationships? I never thought about this before until a friend, Ashon, challenged me to consider these questions.

Wade: Well, the saying goes that friends make the best lovers or romantic partners. But I think the key is "growing together." If you enter any relationship without the want to grow together it is doomed because it won't be built on what I believe to be one of our goals in life, which is to inspire others to be better than ever believed. All of my "lovers" (friends and romantic partners) have all in some way inspired me to become a better person. You mentioned "rules" -- it's those rules that we mimic that prevent us from understanding how love is allowing someone else the freedom to fail or be wrong or different. For complete transparency here-and because we are friends--you have felt great and excited about a potential mate before--why is this one going to be different?

Darnell: I am different this time around. I am experiencing a different array of feelings, of vulnerability, of openness, of excitement because of that. If someone meets me on this particular life path, someone who wows me and moves my heart, my body, my spirit, then why not be open to the possibilities that may await? This time around I wasn't scared. I imagine that had I trusted my instinct, my heart, in the past, some former friendships would have turned out better. But as I am reflecting, I also want to acknowledge that is there is no one way to move about in love in the world. There isn't. I don't want to privilege "committed relationships" over other forms of intimacy or engagements. I feel like we have to have conversations about what we desire and what moves us and acknowledge that there are some who don't view marriage or committed two-party relationships or love, for that matter, as their goal. And, that is okay! In fact, why must love only be conceptualized in these ways? What about other relationship formations? What about folk who engage in mutually agreed upon sexual acts that have less to do with "love" and more to do with the desire to be physically intimate and experience pleasure with another? Our privileging of certain relationship formations and acts is also part of the problem, I think. So, I am thinking about all of those questions this time around.

Wade: Here's my truth: As a gay male, I was taught that being gay was wrong in every way so it took me years (YEARS) to be comfortable being intimate with another male, not because I didn't have the desire, but because I couldn't relax. It was as if there was this voice in my head saying "this is wrong" so I had to re-teach myself what "my" love is and how I wanted to express it. So, I do believe my upbringing formed my values around what is a healthy "sexual" relationship and I'm trying to re-program myself, but it's hard. I'm a person that believes in monogamy for myself and I desire to not to judge others who form relationships that may be foreign to me, but work for them.

Darnell: I get it. As gay men, or for that matter LGBTQ people, who have been subjected to society's heterosexisms, who have been named sexually deviant and morally reprehensible, it makes sense why we would desire to be seen as normal. It has been hard for me as well. It is not easy explaining my sexual politics to new people that I might meet. When I share that I am open to reimagining what relationships can look and feel like, I often get the side-eye. So, it makes sense that we (black and brown queer folk, especially) would be overly concerned about the need for "respectable" ways of relating sexually given the history of white racism and heteropatriarchy that has shaped the way we are seen and see in the world. But who the hell defines for us what is "respectable"? I mean, at some points in our history, interracial dating wasn't "respectable", yes? Yet, you challenge that by virtue of the fact that you are deeply in love with a White man. If we are to fashion a different world, I think we need to leave the nomative rules to those majorities which desperately seek to police and control others. We cannot replicate the very tools that have been used to tear us down and call that progressive.

Wade: I agree. Not falling into the trap of "samenesss" is hard. I can admit I'm guilty of looking at "difference" as wrong or uninformed. I felt so many restrictions placed on me just because I was gay and one of the ways I thought I could exist was to assimilate to heterosexual culture because that was all that knew. But seeing "difference" is great but seeing "difference" accepted is what changes families, communities, nations but more importantly lives.