Everyone in Vinton marries their high school sweetheart. The small town tucked in Louisiana’s corner pocket has a population hovering just above 3,000. Marrying a classmate fresh out of high school is as expected as the train that whistles past the feed store every day at 3 p.m.
I thought I was different. And I was. I was gay, and whether I sat in the pews of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church or on the bleachers of Vinton Middle School, being gay made me an abomination. And my family came from the next town over, which due to small-town insulation, might as well have been a different country. The Vinton locals who’d lived there for generations never let me forget that I didn’t belong, that I wasn’t one of them.
I wasn’t feminine, and rumors about me being a lesbian started before I even questioned my sexuality. When I finally figured out what everyone already suspected, I shared my revelation with a couple of close friends. Word spread and I was outed at the tender age of 12, resulting in relentless bullying and depression. At the time, I thought the only way out of that town was in a coffin.
I only wanted what every other teenager wanted: to date. Feel butterflies during my first kiss, dance awkwardly at middle school dances, hold hands in the hallways, pass love notes in class. Eventually, I experienced some of that, but it came with stipulations. My friends alternated between banning me from sleeping over and making out with me, blocking my calls and giving me hickies. I was confused and heartbroken, but I thought this was the closest I’d ever get to a relationship: someone ashamed to kiss me anywhere but the dark.
Besides, same-sex marriage was illegal in every state except for Massachusetts, which was 1,500 miles away. If I found a girlfriend, what future did we have together? We couldn’t hold hands at the Friday night football games. Our relationship would be illegal in that town, that state, 98 percent of the country, and most of the world. I was doomed to keep loving in the dark.
Ninth grade rolled around, and by that time, my queerness was old news. I wasn’t well liked or anything, but most people left me alone. That spring, just before school let out for summer, another seemingly straight friend kissed me. I expected the usual routine: Don’t tell anyone; If you do my homework, I’ll kiss you again; this doesn’t mean I’m a lesbo or anything… Instead, she asked if we could date.
Britney and my relationship was fraught at first. Friends accosted me for “turning her gay” and accused her of playing with my emotions. Family deemed us a phase. The high school principal banned us from attending the homecoming dance together. So, we did the only thing we thought we could: We ran away.
I transferred for my remaining two years to a residential high school, where I lived in a dorm. Britney’s family moved out of town. We had a long-distance relationship for two years, which wasn’t easy at 17, and we broke up for four months during my junior year. Then we escaped to college together, becoming the first in our families to do so. Young love is one hell of a motivator.
During our sophomore year, we participated in a national student exchange program. We couldn’t afford to study abroad, so we chose the furthest place we could: Massachusetts, still one of only a handful of states allowing same-sex marriage. Thinking that this was our only chance, we married each other while there.
The ceremony was small. We walked to a park across from campus after taking our finals. Our gay-straight alliance adviser officiated and a handful of friends we’d made over the semester stood in attendance. We had no family members present, but our moms listened on speakerphone. Hours after our vows, we boarded an Amtrak back to Louisiana, where our marriage would no longer be legally binding or recognized. We were 19.
People ask us about our love story constantly and express awe at our fairytale romance. And it’s true, we overcame a lot to get to where we are. We don’t fit the usual high school sweetheart narrative. We’re a queer couple from the same small town and we’ve been together nearly 12 years. We were married before legalization and we watched the entire country, including our home state of Louisiana, pass marriage equality four years later, something I didn’t anticipate in my lifetime. That’s remarkable on its own.
But, let me reiterate: we got married at 19! After having been together since we were 15. We had very little life experience. We were from a town with a dating pool of like 100. We didn’t even know who we were yet when we decided to travel across the country and elope.
Getting married that young was dumb. Both of us now agree. When teen and early-20s couples come to us for advice on a lasting relationship, we tell them to break up and live life. I’ve been with the same person for half of my teens and most of my 20s. Through high school and college and graduate school and the workforce. Britney and I literally grew up together.
Despite the fact that things worked out for us, I don’t recommend marrying your high school sweetheart. Especially if you live in an isolated place that still isn’t as progressive as it should be. Especially if you’re queer and you think there’s no place for you, that no one could ever love you. Because you deserve the world and the world is waiting for you.
And if you’re stuck in your town because you don’t have the means or accessibility to leave, or if you love the place you were raised and can’t imagine living anywhere else, that’s OK too. Because if I could find love in Vinton, Louisiana, you can find love wherever you are. A lot of fellow classmates came out after high school and still live in town. We’re everywhere.
As for me, I got lucky. I’ve had my best friend by my side for every major milestone, who understands my hometown in the same way I do, whose family still lives a few blocks from mine which makes holidays a breeze, who has watched me change from a babyface babygay to a babyface butch babe. I married the first girl who made me feel loved and my wife married the first girl who made her feel seen. That’s somehow beautiful and devastating at the same time.
So no, I don’t recommend marrying your high school sweetheart, but I damn sure don’t regret marrying mine.