‘Someone at school told me you’re gay.’ I couldn’t keep this secret any longer. I poured my heart out to her. I thought I’d lost my friend. Until my phone pinged. ‘I like you, too.’

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“I’m sitting in drama class in my final year of high school. It’s 2011. A girl walks in and in an instant, I feel my heart flutter with butterflies. She’s beautiful. It takes me a few classes to work up the courage to talk to her but as soon as I do, something magical happens. We become friends almost overnight. A few weeks pass and completely unexpectedly, to my horror, I fall head over heels in love with my new best friend. Her name is Senija.

Courtesy of Jex Sollis

I always knew I was gay. I had crushes before, but unlike any of my friends, they were never over boys. At the time we were living in a very small town in northern Queensland, Australia. Like many other small town communities, the residents were very openly homophobic and those in the LGBT+ community were in hiding. It was a close community where everyone was friends with everyone else and the town could keep no secrets.

My feelings for Senija continued to grow. I was too shy to tell her because I was afraid of her reaction and the possible destruction of our friendship. However, events would eventually set our relationship in motion. I soon felt ready and I came out to a different friend, in confidence. That day the community I had no trust in once again conformed to the stereotype of a small town, and by the end of that same day, the entire student body was aware of my sexual orientation. While being outed is something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, what terrified me the most was losing this incredible friendship I had with Senija over something I had no control of.

Courtesy of Jex Sollis

Senija messaged me later that night, ‘Someone at school told me you’re gay. They obviously had nothing better to do than spread rumors. Don’t worry about it, people just like to make stuff up.’

I remember staring at her message, feeling completely afraid. Regardless, I knew I had to tell her the truth. This was a secret I couldn’t bear to keep from her any longer. I had to tell her how I felt. So I replied and told her how I felt in a message that I almost couldn’t bring myself to send. I poured out my heart. I admitted not only that I was actually gay, but also my feelings for her. The wait for her reply did not feel like the minutes it was in reality. Instead it felt like hours. I remember my heart pounding and my palms sweating. In those few short moments every negative thought ran through my mind. I thought I had lost my friend. That was, until my phone pinged with her reply.

‘I like you, too.’

I was shocked. I had been outed by a friend I trusted, and strangers knew the secret I had gone to great lengths to keep hidden, but here was the girl I couldn’t stop thinking about telling me she liked me back. I was elated and giddy. From that point on, we were together and inseparable. It was in that moment I understood that love doesn’t discriminate, and gender doesn’t matter. When there’s a connection between two people, that’s what’s important. The anatomy between our legs or how we identify are just small irrelevant details in a much larger story.

Courtesy of Jex Sollis

We started sneaking around school at lunch breaks trying to find moments where we could be alone. For a while it was total bliss. We fell so deeply in love with each other and we were happy. It’s cliché, but it felt right – we were soul mates. We started sneaking hand written love letters into each other’s pockets throughout the day. When we would get home, we’d read them. We each had boxes stuffed full of love letters from each other. We had argued once – I told her I loved her infinity and she could never love me more.

‘Well, that’s obviously untrue. I love you infinity…and everything else!,’ she wrote back. So at the end of every letter from then on, we would sign off saying, ‘I love you, infinity and everything.’ It became our thing.

But there was one problem: our relationship had to be kept a secret. Senija’s religious family would never allow us to be together if we were found out. So we hid, for months, close to a year. The constant need to hide was degrading. Some people started to suspect our relationship and we were targeted by a few other kids at school. We were pelted with rocks while waiting for the bus. We were spat on. We were constantly called homophobic slurs, abominations, and disgusting. At one point the vice principal pulled us both out of class and threatened to tell Senija’s mother about us unless we stopped sitting together at lunch time. The school librarian also pulled Senija aside and said she needed to stop. I think that was the worst part.  Knowing that the teachers and mentors in our life hated us, too.

However, her mom soon found out, thus beginning a quick and horrific descent into heartbreak.  Almost immediately, Senija was pulled out of school and sent to live with her sister, a 10 hour drive away. A few weeks later, the remaining family joined her there. Senija’s phone was confiscated and her access to the internet was restricted. I barely had any contact with her. I knew they were treating her awfully – the brief contact I did get with her, she told me they no longer chose to speak with her or engage with her in a meaningful way. As time went on they chose to ignore her completely. Senija’s existence soon became school and only school as she was never allowed to leave the house for anything else. For five days a week we had a small communication window in the form of emails sent from a school computer.

Fortunately, Senija made friends quickly at her new school. One supported us immensely and when I finally was able to purchase a mobile phone for Senija, I mailed it to this friend and she passed this on. I remember hearing Senija’s voice that day. It evoked an incredibly overwhelming feeling. When I heard her speak, I cried. Three or four months had passed without hearing her voice. Within a few days the phone was discovered and confiscated by her family. This wouldn’t be the first time – it became a cycle. I’d buy a phone, send it, we’d get to speak for a week or two, only to have our communication once again revoked. At one point, Senija’s father crept into her bedroom while she slept, stole one of the many phones I’d sent her and smashed it into tiny little pieces. It was around this time that her father called my home phone and threatened me and my parents. It was terrifying.

I finished high school and immediately moved to the same city that Senija was now living in. We had planned to meet up on a day where she had the afternoon free. I remember taking a train to the city and realizing it had been around 8 months since we last saw each other. As the train arrived on the platform, she was waiting for me. It was one of those moments you see in movies. The running towards each other, the hug and the tears. All my senses were focused on her alone, in that moment, she was all I could see. For the next few hours we spent a lovely afternoon wandering the city, but mostly we just couldn’t get enough of looking at each other. She held my hand tight and it was torture to let her go again and return home.

Courtesy of Jex Sollis

Once again, our spending time together was a closely guarded secret. But it became evident it we weren’t good at hiding. After her family found us out, again, I think they came to realize I wasn’t leaving Senija. I would follow her and fight for our love, no matter what. Eventually, Senija’s older sister asked to meet with me. It was a shock to both of us. I didn’t know what to expect and I was so nervous. This was someone who for the better part of 2 years had played an active role in keeping us apart, disapproved of our relationship and refused to even acknowledge us at all.

We all met at a café. I guess we hoped that being in public would help diffuse strong emotions. It didn’t work. I felt so much anger sitting in that booth. I was thinking of all the things she’d ever said or done to keep us apart or make Senija feel like she was less than a human being. In that moment I hated Senija’s sister. Unfortunately, hate breeds more hate. It had become so toxic that we were all drowning in it.

But then she took Senija’s hand, and started to cry. She said to me, ‘I love my little sister and we used to be so close. I don’t want it to be like this anymore.’

With that, my anger melted away. I realized how brave she was for coming to meet me, how much strength it would have taken to push through everything her family believed about being gay. How much her love for Senija had guided her to try, not only to understand, but to reach out. This was a new turning point. It paved a new path, not of hatred, but of forgiveness. I didn’t want Senija to hold onto anger or resentment or let my feelings taint their timid new beginning, so I made the difficult but ultimately right choice to forgive Senija’s sister and by extension, her family. However, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Like all great things, it took work and time. As years passed, the family’s acceptance of us grew.

Courtesy of Jex Sollis

On our fifth anniversary Senija and I went out to dinner. By this point we’d been living together for a couple of years. Afterwards, we walked along the beach, listening to the waves. I pulled out a handwritten letter, very much like the ones we used to write in school. I gave it to her. In it, I talked about how much her love means to me and how much we’ve overcome together. When she finished reading, I asked her to marry me. It didn’t matter to me that at this moment same sex marriage wasn’t legal in Australia. What mattered was that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. Of course, Senija was totally surprised. There was no hesitation in her answer. Her ‘yes’ was immediate, soon followed by embraced arms and mixed tears.

But I had something else to share, too.

‘One more thing,’ I told her, ‘I asked your mom and your sister if they are okay with it. They are.’

Senija then just started sobbing, almost hysterically. To know that her mother and sister, the family who had put her through so much, who kept us apart and tried to stop our relationship from continuing in the first place, now supported our future marriage, was overwhelming. Senija had her family back. The ones that mattered, anyway. Her father still doesn’t accept her, but he’s no longer part of the picture. Some people can change – love can overcome and win over time. But for others, they will always hold beliefs that harm and in that case it’s better to leave them behind. The rough patches we’ve gone through have been intense, difficult and painful. But overall, I’ve learned a very important lesson. Forgiveness can be hard. To allow yourself to acknowledge the wrongs of others and accept them, and consciously choose to move on takes a lot of strength.

But it takes even more strength to admit that you were wrong and choose love over hate. And that’s why now I count Senija’s family as close as my own, and admire and respect them for their openness to change and to grow.

Orange & Poppyseed Photography

We’ve been engaged for a few years now and we hope to marry soon. We’ve been waiting for it to become legal in Australia, and when that happened we were ecstatic. I’ve just started my own photography business recently and I was afraid to ever post publicly about our relationship – but I realized I never want to hide who we are again. The photos you see here are the ones we took for our 8th anniversary.

Orange & Poppyseed Photography
Orange & Poppyseed Photography

While writing this I was reminded of all the heartbreak and the horrible ways we were treated for being in love. But this was also an opportunity to educate on how incredibly strong love is ,and how it comes in all forms.

Hate breeds hate. When you lay that hate aside and extend love, you will receive love in return.

In our case, love wins. For everyone.”

Orange & Poppyseed Photography
Orange & Poppyseed Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jex Sollis of Brisbane, Australia. You can follow her photography work here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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