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12 Dates of Christmas’s Corey on being himself, and the Black gay role model he never had

Personal trainer Corey Lay is one of the singles looking for love in HBO Max’s holiday-themed dating show 12 Dates of Christmas. In this edition of The Confessional, he writes about his experience filming the dating reality show, and about trying to become the representation that he didn’t see on TV.

“Don’t tell him you like him!”
“You can’t let him know that bothered you!”
“You’re going to come across as needy if you say that!”

We’ve all heard these remarks from our friends when talking about a new crush. The advice we get is to take it slow and to avoid doing “too much” because it will scare them away. But why is expressing how you feel a bad thing? Isn’t the goal of dating to find the person who loves you for who you are? Vulnerability and emotional honesty should be a trait we all want to share with potential lovers.

These are the questions I asked myself before embarking on my 12 Dates of Christmas journey. 12 Dates of Christmas is a reality dating show with the goal of taking someone home to meet your family for the holidays. If that meeting goes well, then you decide: Will I carry the relationship into the new year or leave it behind?

My family has never met anyone I have dated, so I knew going in to this experience I needed to be as open as possible to make sure the person I brought home would know exactly what they were signing up for. I have also never met any of my partners’ families in any relationship I’ve had so far—so the internal stakes were very high for me.

I am a strong believer in vulnerability—I think being able to communicate clearly and openly about how you’re feeling is the only true way to make a connection with someone. If you aren’t willing to take a risk, where is the reward?

Growing up Black and gay, without TV role models

From the first second I stepped on the plane to Austria I knew embracing my emotions would allow other people watching to find the strength in themselves to do the same.

Growing up as a gay Black teenager I didn’t have many role models to show me what being a gay Black man was or what it could be. I did anything to hide any trait that could come across as “feminine”. This includes suppressing any of my emotions that weren’t anger. I grew up holding so much inside that I felt constricted.

In my early 20’s, I realized a lot of basic, trivial arguments would escalate in to yelling due to how much I was holding inside. I made the decision to let all of that go. Now, I express every emotion I feel. Whether it is positive or negative, it will come out of me. Anything I am feeling is real and I owe it to myself to allow myself to express it.

When it comes to dating and love, I need to be with someone who knows exactly who I am and knows that who I am is what they want. If I feel like I have to dim my own light in order to be with a partner, then they just aren’t the right one for me.

I knew going on TV, I had to be the person I needed to see as a kid. What I needed to see is that being a man is not just about being stoic and “masculine.” Being a man means having the courage to be yourself despite opposition.

I decided that from day one whoever I was dating in the castle of 12 Dates of Christmas would get to see all of me. With stakes being so high and the time period being so short, there would be no time to waste.

Being open and vulnerable on a reality TV dating show

Corey Lay joins dinner after being revealed as one of Garrett's suitors on 12 Dates of Christmas
Corey Lay joins dinner after being revealed as one of Garrett’s suitors on 12 Dates of Christmas (Photo by HBO Max)

I was sitting in my hotel room in Salzburg, Austria after landing a few days prior and my producer gave me the good news: “Corey, tomorrow you go into the castle to meet your date!” I was ecstatic! Suddenly everything was real, and love was potentially at my fingertips. I went to bed that night determined to let this experience guide me with no limitations.

The next day, I arrived. Hair and makeup done. Outfit on. Now time to meet my date! There were three main leads looking for dates to bring home for the holidays. Then there were people like me looking to win the leads’ hearts. I was pretending to be his server while he had dinner with the other leads.

My first interaction with my date, after I revealed myself, went extremely well, and I was anxious to get some one-on-one date time. Luckily, the opportunity to talk alone came quickly after our group date for dinner.

It was just my date and I (with a few crew members) alone in a beautiful library. Sparks were flying, conversation was smooth, and before I knew it he kissed me! I assumed I’d be the first one to make a physical move, so I was completely caught off guard when he did. That kiss made me think, “Wow, this might just happen for me! Don’t hold yourself back and mess this up. Give him everything you have to give!”

What you don’t see while watching the show is the moments between scenes. If I wasn’t on camera filming, I was in my room inside of the castle, with no internet, television, or phones to distract me all I could do was to focus on how I would build my relationship and what type of connection I had. Being in my room definitely made my feelings feel even more heightened. Every hour I spent not with my date felt like an eternity. Any chance I had to reach out to him I jumped at the opportunity, which even lead to me crashing a date!

The rest of my journey through the castle was fueled by that one kiss. That kiss allowed me to completely let my walls down.

It’s easier than you might think to forget that there are cameras documenting your every move when your goal is to find love. Any time I was on a date I just focused on making eye contact and letting myself be affected. Letting my walls come down was a conscious choice I made in every interaction. I was able to feel a connection with my date and go all-in, hopeful that it would lead to a long-lasting relationship.

Instead, going all-in thankfully allowed me to quickly realize that person I was dating wasn’t the one for me.

The second I felt like my genuine emotions and feelings were dismissed as “needy” and me “wanting attention,” I knew the emotional empathy and support I need to feel in my life partner were not being met. Me being vulnerable from the beginning allowed me to make sure I was not wasting my time or my family’s time by introducing them to someone who was not right for me.

Despite the emotional rollercoaster I went through, I am thankful to myself for expressing it. Knowing that the person I was there to date couldn’t handle all that I am was what I needed to see. I ultimately saved myself—the real me was going to come out eventually—so why not sooner rather than later?

I encourage everyone out there to always say what you feel and express it. It will quickly let you see if the people you are spending your time around are in it for the long haul or not. Will they be there for you through thick and thin? You’ll never know if you don’t express the sides of you where you just let yourself go.

Stop worrying about being polished and proper. Instead, work on being true to who you are and go get what you deserve. Everything you feel is valid and true. No one should ever make you feel like it isn’t.

Spoiler alert for 12 Dates of Christmas: I don’t get the guy and I go home alone. But, the most important part of this journey was that I did not lose sight of myself and that I was as open and honest as possible. Me and the person I dated remain friends. We were not a long-term match for each other, but that’s okay.

Save yourself time by being upfront with who you are on day one! Your vulnerability will ultimately lead you to the person you are supposed to be with.

Through my experience on 12 Dates of Christmas I was able to show sides of myself that I know would mean the world to me if I were a gay Black kid growing up today. I needed to know that Black men are allowed to express their pain and emotion, just like everyone else. I wasn’t the belligerent angry person who was afraid to show I cared. Expressing pain can be uncomfortable while going through it, but you come out on the other side stronger than ever.

I left 12 Dates of Christmas determined to find my partner in the world that could embrace me.

What you see on 12 Dates of Christmas is exactly who I am. I am not one dimensional—I am fun, caring, empathetic, romantic, emotional, and so much more. You are too! Remember, all of the things that make you who you are, are not weaknesses. They’re strengths.

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About the author

  • Personal trainer Corey Lay (currently living in Seattle) works in the tech industry, and is an activist for LGBTQ+ rights, the Black community, and more. Through the series, he hopes to show the power of embracing vulnerability and encourage those watching to not be afraid of putting themselves out there.

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