Defining Safe: LGBTQ+ love stories

Cassidy Jackson and Kalen Luciano

CASSIDY JACKSON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Cassidy Jackson. Thanks for tuning in, and welcome to another episode of “Defining Safe.” For this week’s installment, we’re focusing on LGBTQ+ love stories. To start, I sat down with Alexis Reyes and Katherine Berman, fifth years and PhD candidates studying Interdisciplinary Biological Sciences. Alexis and Katherine’s one year anniversary passed this September 9th.

JACKSON: Can you talk about like the origin story of your relationship?

KATHERINE BERMAN: Yeah, it’s really funny. We met during PhD interviews like back…

ALEXIS REYES: …at a different institution…

BERMAN: …at a different school, yeah.

REYES: Katherine and I had both applied for this program at Cornell and got brought in to do an interview over the course of a couple of days. So that’s where we first, I guess, officially met. I don’t remember her.

BERMAN: But I remembered you, which is awesome and awkward. And then my lab moved to Northwestern. So when I got here, I met Alexis again, and I had a massive crush on her. So I would make all these excuses to see her. I started a collaboration with her lab and I would just come by and flirt with her. I was just making all of these professional excuses to spend more time with her. And I don’t think that she got the hint, and then we started talking over g-chat, and we shared a lot of personal, intimate information with each other, and then at one point, what was the joke? It was so awkward. Was it my birthday?

REYES: No, it was your housewarming, because you had just invited me to your housewarming party, and I was like, “Oh, should I get you a gift? Like a housewarming gift?”

BERMAN: And then I was like, “Oh, this is my chance!”

REYES: So her response was, “I only accept gifts in the form of food and sexual favors.” I was like, “I’m pretty sure that she’s hitting on me.” And I found it very awkward because at the time I didn’t feel the same way. And I was like…

BERMAN: You were in another relationship.

REYES: I was in a relationship with someone else.

BERMAN: And I didn’t know.

REYES: I didn’t want to call her out, ‘cause she didn’t know that I was in another relationship and I’m like, “She hasn’t done anything wrong.” So, I was like, “I’m just sort of gonna take a step back.”

BERMAN: And also, I picked up the hint, because after I said that, I think you didn’t respond for like two or three hours. I was like looking at g-chat like, “I f—-d up, didn’t I?” I feel like I avoided you for a while because I was like, “Swing and a miss, OK.”

JACKSON: Even though a romantic relationship was off the table, Alexis and Katherine continued to develop a friendship. Things quickly got complicated when Alexis developed feelings of her own by the end of that school year.

REYES: As I got to know her, I was like, “Actually, I really like her. I would like to date her.” The person that I was with, it was like a polyamorous relationship. So I was talking to her about it, and she wasn’t on board. It took me, I think, two months to kind of get to this point where I realized that I wasn’t really happy and it wasn’t the relationship that I wanted and that I very much wanted to be with Katherine. It pretty much took me to the summer to realize, “All right, I need to break this off.” Yeah, that summer was terrible.

JACKSON: How did it feel in those moments of you guys forming a relationship with each other?

BERMAN: Oh my gosh, I was at this point where I did a lot of like, I don’t know, sleeping around, self-harm type of things. Sleeping with a lot of different people and having one night stands can be a form of self-harm, and that’s something I definitely did in my early twenties. I made a decision maybe a year before you and I actually got together not to do that. That was bad behavior, and I should not do that anymore. I feel like us getting together is the fruition of me taking care of myself and having intimacy with someone, and I remember all those feelings and being like, “I’m like really safe now.”

JACKSON: When you reflect on how this year and a few months have been for you, what have been some noticeable highs?

BERMAN: I don’t know just moving in recently has been amazing.

REYES: It has been really great. Yeah, we’ve been living together for a month.

BERMAN: I wasn’t expecting it to be as nice. I was very anxious about it like, “We’re gonna have all these issues. We need to talk about this.”

REYES: I also had two cats that were moving with me. So like, that’s what I was most nervous about. How is she gonna deal with the cats?

BERMAN: I’m more of a dog person than a cat person, but I do enjoy cats.

REYES: My cats are like the cutest cats, so…

BERMAN: They are very, very cute. But it’s been like nice ‘cause like, Alexis is on my side. We have the same goal. We’re trying to take care of this space that we call home.

REYES: It’s really nice to get home and relax with someone, or if we’re not heading home at the same time, like going home and knowing that there’s someone there that’ll be happy that you’re home.

JACKSON: Although Alexis and Katherine have enjoyed their year together, there have been lows, mostly attributed to their differences.

BERMAN: We do have different ways of coping. I have pretty intense anxiety, and that manifests itself in different ways. It’s always hard in every relationship, but I feel like we’re pretty good at being like, “This is my emotional state right now. It has nothing to do with you as a person but like, it’s more just like I am dealing with this. I’m trying to work forward and let’s do this together.”

REYES: The biggest fight we have gotten into was the fact that I do not appreciate or enjoy this certain song by someone that I can’t even remember the name of right now.

BERMAN: That is not our biggest fight. Our biggest fight was when you kept on walking me home and I was like, “Why are you doing this?” You were like, “I just want to spend more time with you.” And I’m like, “This isn’t an efficient use of your time.” Like, rather than appreciating the fact that she just wanted to spend a little bit more time with me, I’m like, “Alexis, you could be so much more.”

REYES: Yeah, she’s like, “You have cats that you need to go home and feed. Like, you didn’t have dinner, you need to relax before you go to sleep. Like why are you wasting your time?”

BERMAN: I’m projecting all of my stuff onto her, and she was like, “Dude. Don’t you want to spend time with me?” Like, now we can laugh about it. At the time, it was a big fight.

JACKSON: Katherine is a planner, and Alexis is very much the opposite. Looking back on that argument, they both attribute the disagreement to this key difference.

REYES: Yeah, Katherine is very much a planner, and I very much thrive on chaos. And those two things are pretty much because of how we grew up and who we grew up with. Like, I come from a very large family. And we also grew up with a lot of poverty and uncertainty, so things were just chaotic, and I had to adapt to it, and that became my normal and that’s where, now my comfort zone is.

BERMAN: And I’m like, “I need to see 15 steps ahead.” I’m constantly doing safety checks to like to make sure I’m okay with planning stuff and Alexis is like, “Why do you need this? This is unnecessary. Why do you need to plan your whole weekend?” You don’t understand I just need it, please.

JACKSON: Although Alexis and Katherine are fundamentally different, they’re following the same career path: becoming scientists.

BERMAN: It’s interesting dating another scientist. There are things that you just don’t have to explain. Every once in a while, you have a night where you’re just in lab really late. Or you’re having a very emotional response to data which is unscientific, but it just happens because we’re humans. No scientist is a robot. We don’t have to explain that type of thing. And we can also talk about our role as diversity in science, what it’s like being a STEM, non-cis, straight white dude.

JACKSON: Not fitting into the scientist stereotype has helped Alexis and Katherine get behind a common goal.

BERMAN: We just made a Google Calendar which also felt like a very emotional, big thing.

REYES: A shared Google Calendar.

BERMAN: Yeah, we have a shared Google Calendar, and it’s called “The Science Lesbian Power Couple Calendar.” And so we’ve been drawing a lot of power from that, like aspirational power of like, “Oh, yeah, like we’re gonna be the science lesbian power couple of biophysics or whatever. People will know “Oh they’re the SLPC.”

REYES: When we’re together, we activate our SLPC abilities.

BERMAN: Yeah, no one can harm us because we got SLPC power. In science, I know role models have been really important to me, seeing women, queer people and people who don’t match the stereotype of what it is to be a scientist like being, you know, these really high affluent, high achieving people. It’s always really beautiful to see. So I’ve always wanted to be that type of person for other people. And I feel like if we are the science lesbian power couple, people will feel that way about us. I feel like I had to bring up the Google Calendar.

REYES: Yeah, I mean, it was an amazing thing. Obviously, the name is amazing, because I came up with it. I didn’t tell her what I was going to name it.

BERMAN: I was like, “Oh my god, this is amazing.”

REYES: I originally named it the lesbian power couple calendar. She was like, “No, no, no we need to have ‘science’ in there because us as scientists is a big part of our identity.” And I was like, “You’re totally right.”

BERMAN: Oh, yeah. And then we were rearranging it to make sure that it made sense.

REYES: At one point, it was the “Lesbian Science Power Couple” and I’m like, “That sounds like we do science experiments on lesbians. That’s not okay.”

JACKSON: To wrap up, I asked Alexis and Katherine if they had anything else to add. Katherine had a message for young, queer people in STEM.

BERMAN: I want younger, queer people who are in STEM to know that you can find other queer people in STEM and have relationships, both friendships and romantic relationships, with them. And that’s why when I, like, I’ve made this conscious decision to be more out at work, which I wasn’t before we started dating. So I don’t know, I want people to know that we are together. We are happy. We’re working it out. We do experiments and we talk about them to each other, and then we also like, have this beautiful relationship that we’re working on.

KALEN LUCIANO: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Kalen Luciano. Our next story is about closeted love.

HAYLEY E. WALLENFELDT: One of our dates was to see the movie Wonder Woman with her two little cousins. And so the second we got to the theater, they just got up and like moved away from us. And it was really fun to see the movie. But I think what I remember so much about that date was every once in a while I’m like, “All right, is it the move? Am I going to go in to kiss her?” And then I’d go in, and then she’d kind of freeze up and I’m like, “Alright. It’s not the moment. It’s not the moment.” And I spent the entire movie doing that.

LUCIANO: Communications first-year Hayley E. Wallenfeldt met her first girlfriend at the end of junior year of high school. Even though they had different art classes, their classes shared the same room, which is when Hayley took the opportunity to befriend her.

WALLENFELDT: For high school, I was in charge of a lot of the design work for the theater. So I always tried to nab art students to come help me paint things. So I would go up to people in that class and I would go, “Hey, you guys are very talented. Could I snab you for some extracurricular hours to come paint some sets for the theater production? If you spend quite a few hours, you can get a free ticket to the show.” Wouldn’t that be fun?” So my first girlfriend ended up being one of those people that I nabbed, and I remember just having a moment of me saying something flirtatious to her, and then she said something flirtatious back, and I just went like, “Oh wait, actually, this is happening.” Like you can tell when it’s a straight person just jokingly flirting back, you know? And it was that first like, “Oh, this is genuine,” and it was really sweet.

LUCIANO: Now, Hayley had a crush on a girl who seemed to like her back, and at theater rehearsals, she actually showed up to help.

WALLENFELDT: While I was in charge of just the generic backdrop for it, I was also directing the show, so I am guilty of a few times like when my actors were on stage performing, and I really should have been focusing on them, I totally just glanced, and I was like, “Oh look, the pretty girl’s painting still. How lovely. Oh, my actors are doing something. I should focus on that.”

LUCIANO: From there, they went on a few dates that weren’t ever called dates. Usually, it’d be them and a friend or two, but eventually, Hayley worked up the courage to ask her out before the school year ended.

WALLENFELDT: Within the last two weeks, I was like, “I’m going to ask this girl out because by God, I’m going to ask a girl out. By God, she’s so cute. I have to ask her out before I turn 18. And then I’m a sad, lonely adult.” I had this brilliant idea based on a character from that show, Gravity Falls where she spent her entire summer trying to get people to go out with her. And in the first episode, she goes up to this boy with a check note, and she hands it to him and there’s boxes to check. And it’s like, “Will you go out with me?” And it just says “yes” or “definitely.” And she’s like, “Yes, I rigged it.” And so my brain went to, “Oh, yes, I’m going to rig this.” And so I left a note on her locker that said, “Will you go out with me: Yes or Absolutely?” And I was like, “I rigged it. She can’t say no. Perfect. Or if she does, she’ll just make her own box.” And then sometime during that day, she sent me like a Snapchat message where she checked both boxes and I had a girlfriend.

LUCIANO: And so they started going on dates that they now actually called dates.

WALLENFELDT: It was that cheesy perfect kind of summer date of just beach towels and cheesy cuddling on the beach kind of stuff. It’s not like I have a distinct moment by moment memory of it, but it’s sort of like a warm, fuzzy feeling. The only distinct memory I have from that is she really liked minions. I do not know why but minions were just — and I would tease her relentlessly — I was like, “They are little yellow butt plugs.” That is what they look like. Why do you find those entertaining?” I think just to spite me, you know, in a tongue in cheek way, that beach towel she brought with her was covered in minions. And I was like, “Ah, you had to do that, didn’t you?”

LUCIANO: But over the summer, the dates were few and far between.

WALLENFELDT: She had really conservative immigrant parents, so she didn’t really go outside a lot. And that was kind of hard. It took me almost a year later for it to like hit me that something that was so stressful in that relationship was there was the knowledge in the back of my head that because she was in the closet to her family, if they found out we were dating, they would take her away from me, and I couldn’t see her.

LUCIANO: Even when they were together, Hayley felt the effects of her girlfriend’s parents’ homophobia.

WALLENFELDT: I feel like she had a lot of internalized homophobia. It took her a really long time to be comfortable holding my hand, kissing me on the cheek. We didn’t really ever kiss on the lips for the amount of time we were dating, and after a while I was kind of like, “I can’t tell if you’re not — I just don’t think you’re ready,” and that was sort of the end of it. But at the same time, it was absolutely wonderful.

LUCIANO: By the beginning of her senior year though, Hayley had been dealing with these problems for many months and finally decided to let them out.

WALLENFELDT: It was the week of homecoming, and I distinctly remember I had it planned out that I was going to be like, “Hey, wanna let’s go talk and get our coffee and sit down.” Then when I found her she was with her group of friends and they were all really happy and giggling. And they were like, “Oh, can you take a photo?” Because, you know like, the cheesy photography boyfriend? I just was the cheesy photography boyfriend. And then she’s like, “Oh, did you want to talk? And I was just like, “Oh no, she is so happy right now. I cannot ruin this moment for her. That would be awful.” So I ended up just going, “No, you know what, let’s just talk about it tomorrow. Don’t worry about it. No sweat. I have to get going to paint a set anyway.” And I went to work. And I remember like an hour or so later, I got a text from her that was like, “Are you breaking up with me?” And I thought, “Oh no, what do I do?” Because I refuse to be that person that breaks up with someone over text because that’s just not the way to go. I waited until I got home. And then I went on a walk. And then I called her. And then I told her how wonderful she was and how absolutely grateful I was for all the time we spent together. But that I just didn’t think at that moment, we were a right fit to be together romantically. But if she wanted, I’d still love to have her in my life. And it was a very emotional little moment for the two of us, but the thing, I think, really helped was after kind of a moment of silence, I remember her telling me, “Hey, is it okay if I still send you pictures of my drawings?” And I just went, “Of course, I would love to.” And I remember I hung up, and then I called my best friend. And then I just started bawling my eyes out. Even if you still love someone, but you know, it’s just not right anymore. It’s always hard to let go.

LUCIANO: Hayley and her ex were still friends, but after a break up, it felt different. They kept in touch, but they didn’t hang out like they used to until they tried out for the same dance group.

WALLENFELDT: I found out she was trying out and so I texted her. I was like, “Hey, are you okay if I try out, too? If you say, ‘No, I don’t want you here,’ I totally get it.” And she was so cool. She was like, “Nah, man. Hell yeah, let’s be in a dance club together.” So my amazing ex-girlfriend helped me learn all the moves, so I have many fond memories of after, you know, relationship done, but she and I practicing the dance in the school hallway during our lunch period together.

LUCIANO: A year later, Hayley looks back on the memories of their relationship fondly.

WALLENFELDT: It was one of the most genuine happinesses I had at that point in my life. And it’s something that I look back on and I’m always happy about, and I have all of the drawings she gave me saved in a scrapbook. And for my birthday she gave me a hedgehog. And that hedgehog is in my dorm room, and I brought it to college with me, and I still adore it. And the last time we hung out before going off to school, we gave each other cheesy little goodbye gifts. So she had a thing for fish, so I gave her a necklace that was a glass beaded fish. And she gave me a little box of scented paper roses. And those are on my desk, and every once in a while I look at them and I’m just like, “She gave those to me.”

LUCIANO: Thanks for listening. I’m Kalen Luciano, and this is Defining Safe. See you next time.