Wearing Dad Jeans and Other Premium Benefits of Mentoring a Young Gay Man

01/20/2015 07:23 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

I recently had lunch with Griffin.* He was back in Nashville to start his final semester as an undergraduate. During his break he found out that he didn't get accepted into the grad school of his choice. His sister, who's a heroin addict, stole some of his Christmas gifts to fund her habit. And he filled me in on his burgeoning relationship with Paul,* whom he met when he was home over the summer. They felt a spark during the holiday, and he's really in love, he said, but he's nervous about the distance between them over these next few months.

My 23-year-old friend is going through some major growing pains. All Griffin's plans for the future are suddenly in the air, and he's not sure how to factor Paul into plan B.

My advice to him: Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Focus on graduating, and keep an eye open for internships in your field. Trust that everything happens as it should, and that your right path will be revealed. Enjoy being in love, but make fulfilling your own life your top priority. As for your sister, forgive her, set good boundaries, and keep praying that she'll find her way back.

I hope my words to him made a difference. And if not the words, then at least the time I spent with him.

I met Griffin when he was a sophomore. A mutual friend introduced us at the Nashville AIDS Walk. We hit it off immediately. Soon after, we developed a strong friendship with lots of texting (as the young people do) and occasional dinners and movie nights. At some point, he started referring to me as his "gay dad." It shocked me until I did the math and realized that I am reasonably old enough to be his father (I'm 42). To add insult to injury, I showed up to dinner one night, and he asked me, "What's up with the dad jeans?" I looked down and realized that I hadn't updated my denim in about eight years. In a world where hipsters and skinny jeans rule, I am now a break-a-hipster. The boot cut is the deepest.

Aside from the clanging chimes of aging doom, my role as Griffin's gay dad has been one of the most rewarding of my life. I get to share with him some of the wisdom I've gleaned over the years: how to navigate the brutal and egocentric world of gay dating, what it means to have integrity, how to keep a healthy sense of self while wading through narcissism in social media, and why he should look on the bright side of whatever life throws his way.

Griffin is close to his own parents. They love him and are supportive in every way. But they don't know what it's like to be gay. Griffin has told me time and time again how meaningful it is to have a gay mentor in whom he can confide. While his parents took him and his boyfriend on a mini-vacation to Florida over the holidays, he can't talk to them about the complexities of gay sex. He feels reticent to share the depth of his emotions with them. With me, he can be frank about anything.

While I judge that our relationship is good for Griffin, it is healing to me as well. When I think back to my own life at his age, I would have given anything to have an older gay friend to show me the rainbow ropes. I wish I'd had a shoulder to cry on after every false start at love. And, as for those couple of years I spent as a go-go dancer, I wish I'd had someone to tell me that to shine in the world, I could be so much more than my body, that my intellect and my humanitarian gifts were more than enough to light my way.

I don't think we, as a community, offer enough support to youth who are navigating the world as LGBTQ adults for the first time. There are no healthy rites of passage for young people as they emerge from the closet. To gather as gay people, we mostly meet in bars, which promulgate all the human vices and prove over time to be our only enduring social structure.

My own early years acclimating as a gay man carry some of the deepest wounds of my life. For a while, I sacrificed my education, carried shame about my sexuality, made horrible dating choices, and looked for my self-esteem in the nightclubs. Now, through Griffin, I have a golden opportunity to bring light into those dark places. I have a deep and visceral need to give him the advice and friendship from an older gay man that I didn't have.

I'm glad I can now dust off my past -- with all my mistakes and failures -- and use it constructively to mentor Griffin. I know I don't have all the answers he seeks, but I always have a listening ear.

Maybe, though, it's time I listen to him and get rid of those dad jeans.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.