Highschool Sweethearts Who’ve Overcome Homophobia

A.J.– The air is thick with Victoria Secret Perfume and the smell of burning flat ironed hair. Lockers are slamming, and Drake and Nicki Minaj are topping the noise from someone’s crappy speakers. I walk in with my newly cut bermuda shorts, authentic black vans, and a pink shirt with a taco saying “Hola” to a sushi roll responding “Konnichiwa.”

I see her for the first time.

She is sitting at the front of the classroom. Telephone curls, olive skin, tight green Aeropostale v-neck, and an even tighter choker. She’s flawless.

It was 2010, and we were cringy little middle schoolers. I was overly confident and a smartass. Deena was one of those nice people who also enjoyed being petty. We were good friends for about three years until we started dating our sophomore year of high school. Of course, we were in hetero denial about our relationship for the first six months.

We were the people who said, “It was just a phase.”

Thankfully, we figured it out.

We didn’t go to the same high school, but we still managed to do every corny couple high school thing: football games, state fair, senior skip day, prom, senior prank, and everything else. I honestly think it is hilarious that we are high school sweethearts.

Being with Deena was something I never expected, let alone meeting “the one” at age 13.

What Is Your Favorite Memory Together?

A.J.– It is hard to put one at the forefront when we have had many great memories. *Cue the rose-colored montage* There have been too many road trips, kitchen karaokes, Mario Kart races, and crowded couch naps to account for. If I had to pick one, I would say it was when Deena surprised me for my 20th birthday. This was the first time Deena planned something because I am usually the planner in the relationship.

She got us a tiny Airbnb by our favorite beach, and we made our way to the sand. You could smell the salt in the air. It was windy, and the sand seemed nearly white from the sun’s brightness. It was October, so there was no going in the water. We just sat on a blanket in the sand, eating whatever pre-packed food we made. With the lighting, you could perfectly see Deena’s long eyelashes.

After a while, we decided to get up and explore. We grabbed our longboards and cruised around the town. I felt a little accomplished because Deena was riding a longboard I had sanded down and redesigned with my own drawing for her. We passed by beach house after beach house and just soaked in all the time we had. I feel like we didn’t say much the whole trip, but everything was so content and simple.

When I have no work to do, this is how I feel sitting in the apartment with Deena. I have never really been a homebody, but our apartment is truly content and simple. I love just goofing off with Deena and talking about everything and nothing. Sometimes we do it in baby voices, sometimes with terrible British accents, and sometimes we talk like the little animal crossing characters. I know it’s outright disgusting, but to be honest, I don’t care. We are just two happy little ladies with our dramatic little fur babies enjoying each other’s company.

Deena– With AJ, it’s the simple things that create my favorite memories. Creating a space with A.J. has been one that genuinely sticks out to me. When we first moved in together, we had a handful of roommates for a couple of years. We decided it was finally time to create a space for just her and me as time went on. Our apartment is filled with beautiful art created by A.J., photos of our favorite moments with each other and our friends, framed ginkgo leaves (because I have an obsession), hung coffee bags to express our love for coffee, and all things kitties for our two fur babies.

What Has Been The Biggest Challenge You’ve Had To Overcome Together?

A.J.– As many other people, Deena and I grew up with a strong “family comes first” mentality. That idea has, and always will be, our biggest challenge. Deena’s mom did not let us see each other right out the gate. It was one of those worst-case scenario types. The longest we went without seeing each other was three months, even though we lived ten minutes apart. Her mom would drive around at 3 AM to see if Deena was at my house. She would go through texts and emails and throw away art pieces I gave Deena.

When Deena would come out to her, she wouldn’t accept it.

Then when Deena would be spending time with me, her mom would call her a liar for sneaking around.

Many of you probably have thoughts of simply cutting off your family if it’s that bad. Honestly, I feel like it is far more complicated in our respective cultures (hers being Palestinian and mine being Filipino). If you think that is what you need to do, do it.

But family culture is so heavily pushed on us that it is simply not an option, especially when you still live with them.

We are expected to respect our parents regardless of treatment. Of course, things are not all bad, and there is standing up for yourself. There is just plenty of pushback and expectation.

It took about three years for Deena to officially be out with her mom and five for her mom to recognize me as her girlfriend. I’m not saying things are all butterflies and rainbows, but it definitely got better. I believe Deena’s mom realized how pointless trying to separate us was and just accepted Deena, and it made their relationship way better. I am happy Deena’s mom made strides to get out of her comfort zone and give me a chance.

These things take time, and I knew I wanted to be with Deena long-term, so it was worth the wait. Of course, we have had a slew of other family matters try to bring us down. But at the end of the day, we make each other happy and support one another. No one outside of our relationship can define or judge us. Plus, we have so many other people in our circle rooting for us, and we could not be more grateful.

Deena– The most significant challenge we’ve overcome is battling homophobia from my family.

At the beginning of our relationship, my mom fought with all her might to stop us from being in a relationship. It was probably the most challenging time of my life – but I knew that my love for A.J. was bigger than the homophobia we faced. At the beginning of our relationship, we had to go months without seeing each other. Unfortunately, we continue to have struggles with my family. However, eight years later, we are still in love and continuing to grow together.

Tell Us Your Favorite Thing About One Another.

A.J.– Waking up in our home next to Deena is everything I ever wanted. The sun is shining through the windows, our cat is leaving footprints on the blanket, and the other is snuggling close, purring. Deena does her morning routine, which is laying in bed on her phone being “muni-muni,” a Tagalog term used to describe being in thought. Still, my family adapted to a kind of morning laziness.

After keeping her trapped with the abundance of pillows, she finally makes it out and gets up to make us coffee. In our tiny apartment, you can hear everything from the kitchen. The tea kettle is heating up, and Deena is carefully scooping coffee into the Moka pot. There is a craft that goes into each cup and pour. She brings back my favorite mug embellished with a black cat resembling our own cat, Bonsai. She grants me the warmest coffee with the cutest scrunched-nose smile. And everything just feels at peace.

I also love taking Deena to family events. The moment they see me, they are already asking about Deena even though she is a few steps behind me. They greet her with smiles and hugs and say something in Tagalog to her, and she nods, then asks me what they are saying. Then, the next time, she knows and greets them formally in the same way. She calls my dad “Tay,” meaning “dad” in Tagalog, and he responds by calling her his “curly daughter” because of her iconic curls. She is just as goofy and helpful with all my aunties and cousins and she makes Arabic tea for my grandparents and converses and jokes with them.

I am totally gushing over Deena because she is what makes a home a home. Whether we are visiting family or just with our cats, Deena makes everything so cozy. Trust me, our life is not some hallmark movie either. Deena’s love and warmth is my favorite thing about her.

Deena– My favorite thing about A.J. is her genuine thoughtfulness. There is so much thought behind A.J.’s actions – through our relationship and in life. She is a beautiful artist, and one of her ways of showing her love is through her pieces. Every piece A.J. has created for me has such beautiful meaning and thought behind it. If you get a piece of art from A.J., consider yourself lucky.

What’s In The Future For You Both?

A.J.– It’s 7 AM on a chilly December morning, and we get back from our gyms. Deena is already in the shower, and I am scrolling on my phone, getting notified about an email. My eyes light up. I just received my first acceptance into dental school, a lifelong dream of mine, and I am screaming.

Meanwhile, Deena is panicking in the shower, thinking I saw a cockroach (her being the cockroach killer in the relationship). Thankfully, it wasn’t a cockroach. I got into freaking dental school. So I am running over to her in dream-like slow motion. “I GOT IN, I GOT IN!” I rip the shower curtains open, Deena is in full shock, and we hug and go weak in the knees.

This acceptance will dramatically change our lives, and we both know it. We are ugly crying it out with the shower still running over our heads. But we don’t care, we are just so exhilarated and grateful for the opportunity. We couldn’t have been happier.

So next, we will be moving to Chapel Hill, NC. A college town with a granola town meets a small city vibe. I will be attending UNC’Adams School of Dentistry for the next four years, but I won’t be the only one going through a milestone in my career. Deena will soon finish all her credentials to be a practicing dietitian. Our future will be career-heavy, but it isn’t anything we haven’t prepared for. I am excited that we have invested in ourselves by going to college and getting an education. We have lots of thanks going to our family members, friends, and mentors that brought us to this point. We hope to make another cozy little home for our kitties and make more memories being closer to our friends and family in the Raleigh area. 

Is There Anything Else That You Would Like To Add?

A.J.– Since we practically grew up together, our relationship has changed tremendously. Eight years is a long time, and the difference in maturity from a 16-year-olds relationship to a relationship that is just entering college, to even now, is drastic. However, I am very grateful we were patient and understanding enough to get through the growing pains. I know that not staying in our comfort zones and learning to communicate is why we have stayed together after all these years. 

Neither of us grew up in the easiest of situations, and so there were plenty of moments where we had to ask ourselves, “What does a good relationship look like?” We got it wrong over and over. Those mistakes, however, pushed us to reflect on ourselves. Thankfully, we both actually practiced being better to each other.

Photography by Mady Noel

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