What is it about new romance that captivates us? Supermarket checkout lanes are lined with cover photos of attractive, freshly minted couples. We even went through a phase of coming up with cute names for them, like TomKat and Brangelina.
Whatever the reason, public interest is undeniable. The dominance of hookup culture has made getting our “it couple” fix a bit harder as dating almost seems like a dated concept. Air Force Sergeant Kevin Hayes Jr., 34, remembers when he noticed the cultural shift from dating to hookups.
“When I came out in 2007, there were a lot of people dating, but around 2011-2012 things seemed to shift to nobody wanting anything serious.”
Hayes points to the apps as the reason. Launched in 2009, Grindr had really hit its stride by 2012, reaching 4 million users. And if dating is like cooking meals from scratch, the instant gratification of DoorDash is awfully convenient — and habit forming.
The relationships he did have, Hayes says, were unhealthy. Several cheated, and one was closeted. “I had written off dating. I was done.”
Someone else who prematurely retired from the dating scene was Army veteran Mike Lehmkuhle. The 29-year-old had been single for seven years, five of which had been at Fort Riley Army base near Manhattan, Kansas. “There was nobody there other than closeted gays and immature military guys,” he says.
Lehmkuhle relocated to St. Louis for work at the beginning of 2017 and shortly after accepted an invitation to join the St. Louis Crusaders rugby team. During his first game, he zeroed in on Hayes.
“I noticed him first,” Lehmkuhle says.
During the game Lehmkuhle got to the endzone, but didn’t place the ball on the ground, irritating Hayes. “You didn’t put the ball down,” Hayes exclaimed. “You scored, but it doesn’t count!”
But while packing up at the end of the game, Lehmkuhle overheard Hayes telling the teammate who brought him, “Hey, you need to make sure he comes back.”
Within a few days, Lehmkuhle found Hayes on the apps and messaged him. “I convinced him to have dinner with me, but he canceled!”
“Initially … I don’t know, I don’t know. He wants to have dinner with me, it’s weird. I kinda wanted to see how long it would be until he asked me again,” he says with a wink. “Also, I’d just joined the rugby team, and I didn’t want to date another teammate. You know, keep it professional. I didn’t know if there was a rule against it.”
And if those excuses weren’t enough, Hayes had more.
“I thought, ‘This kid doesn’t like me. I’m this six-foot-tall black guy. He probably likes twinks. He doesn’t know how to handle all this.”
The two began hanging out as friends and then as friends with benefits, but looming on the horizon was Hayes’ six-month deployment to Qatar.
“I don’t want to date you when I’m gone, because if you’re talking to someone else I’ll kill you,” Hayes joked at the time.
During the deployment the two texted a few times and Hayes urged Lehmkuhle to go out and see other people.
Lehmkuhle replied, “When you’re ready [for something serious] let me know.”
“I was deployed, and one month later Mike was dating someone! Pics of this guy all up on Facebook. It’s what I told him to do but still was a gut punch,” Hayes recalls.
In August 2018 Hayes returned from his deployment without telling anyone and made a surprise appearance at the Crusaders’ end-of-season party.
“Kevin showed up like nothing happened,” Lehmkuhle recalls. “And I was dumbfounded. Speechless.”
Hayes expected a big friendly greeting, but Lehmkuhle was in shock and kept his distance.
“He didn’t really greet me. Finally, I said ‘hi’ and he said ‘hey,’ then he got really drunk and went home.”
Lehmkuhle broke it off with his boyfriend a week or two later. “I was comparing him to how much fun I had with Kevin. Plus, the sex wasn’t working for me.”
Lehmkuhle and Hayes picked up where they left off, hanging out regularly, all without labeling their relationship.
After a really tough loss, the Crusaders were gathering at Just John, and it was announced that the game’s Man of the Match was Hayes. “I thought it was going to be Mike,” he says.
Lehmkuhle describes the moment it all became official. “Kevin ordered us two shots of Fireball and told me he thought I was going to be named Man of the Match. He then pulled me into him and said, ‘You were my man of the match. Would you be my boyfriend?’”
“It’s been fun,” Lehmkuhle says. “It’s like hanging out with your best friend and then sleeping with him.”
Lehmkuhle has found the LGBTQ community in St. Louis to be supportive of the new relationship and says he’s having a great time in his new city.
“I love living in St. Louis. I think it’s very underrated. We’re always finding something fun and new to do. There’s always something new to check out, some event or festival.”
It does appear a return to dating is catching on, which is something Hayes has noticed, even if he doesn’t take any credit. “A lot of my friends who were single for a significant amount of time have recently gotten into relationships, but I blame it on this polar vortex,” he laughs.
The Instagram-ready couple, together for just over a year, has made such a buzz in LGBTQ St. Louis that we decided to serve People Magazine realness with them on our cover.
Cute couple nicknames feel pretty 2012, but if you insist, how about Mikevin?