*In the following two-part post, Vann and Chunate share their how they met, fell in love and how they adjusted to Vann’s gender identity. When sharing how they first met, please be aware that Chunate uses “he” pronouns even though Vann had not yet transitioned.
Chunate was working at a McDonald’s in Baltimore in 1997 when Vann walked in with a friend. Chunate hooked them up with some food, but had no idea that Vann would later become her wife and then her husband. At the time Vann had ever dated a woman and Chunate was somewhat accustom to loving women, however neither had a clue about gender identity. Vann simply remembered thinking Chunate was very pretty. They eventually developed a close friendship and August 15, 2014, marked their 10 year anniversary. Below they share how their relationship evolved:
Black Lesbian Love Lab: How did you two become friends?
Chunate: He lived directly down the street from me. [One day] we sat on the curb and talked and talked and talked from there we built a friendship. We would talk daily. I’d go to his house sit and vibe just get to know each other. And then he would pick my daughter up from the school bus for me because I had to go to work. We had a real good friendship.
Vann: She was living with her mom and I was living by myself. We talked a lot about everything.
Chunate: And then … he abandoned me. He started hanging out with some new people and when I wanted to hang around I was the high blower. I didn’t smoke like that. Trying to talk to someone on weed was not working. We kinda drifted apart. I knew I was a lesbian. I knew that I liked women … but I hadn’t pursued anyone just yet. I liked Vann. I did.
BL3: Vann, did you know the attraction was mutual?
Vann: I had no idea she was attracted to me, I really didn’t know what was going on. I knew that I had a caring for her, a protective feeling that I had. She had a friend that did her dirty …
Chunate: That was my first [woman]. The day after we [hooked up] she acted like it never happened. I told Vann.
Vann: I was mad (smiling). Cause I liked you I guess. Even now when I look at it, I hadn’t laid claim. We were doing this tango of a dance. Part of the reason I was getting high so often was because I was fighting an internal battle around what I now know as my gender identity.
Chunate: While he was figuring out what he was trying to do, I was moving on. I started dating a girl I met while working at a nursing home. By then I knew I was a full-fledged lesbian. I knew what I was and what I wanted but still at the time I was living with my daughter’s father. I was trying to please both.
BL3: What was going on with you Vann?
Vann: Mentally I couldn’t accept the fact that I liked women, period. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it too tough. I had to get okay with it somehow. I struggled with what that would mean for my family and whether God would approve of it but at the same time I would fantasize about being with women.
At that time I’m a professional with a background in social work and didn’t know what to do. I was not in the party scene. I worked in Mount Vernon [a gay neighborhood in Baltimore] but there were no black women there at the time. And I was not a lipstick lesbian so I didn’t even know what to do. When I was high, I thought I was approaching Chunate and coming onto her. I swore I was doing mad game and then she said that I wasn’t, that I was just staring at her.
Chunate: He thought he told me he liked me. We ended up deciding to go to our first Pride festival together. We got dressed up, went downtown after dinner and caught the bus. There was an understanding that it was date in Vann’s mind.
Vann: I felt jittery on the inside. My stomach was turning. It was the first time that I was going out with a girl. She smiled like a Cheshire cat so she knew she was being courted.
Vann: The first time I ever slept in a bed with her was in 1999.
BL3: What happened?
Chunate: Nothing, nothing, nothing.
Vann: I didn’t know what to do. It was at her mom’s house. It’s Chunate and I’m thinking, “Oh my God do I kiss her?” She’s like the apple of my eyes. I didn’t know what to do, I was just scared and so I did nothing. She was waiting for me to make the first move, I was stuck in park. I left that morning and went home.
Chunate: We didn’t see each other for another couple of years.
BL3: How did you two get back in touch?
Vann: Back in 1999 was the last time saw her. The next time I saw her was in 2002 when she was getting ready to have her second baby. We had no contact in that time. A mutual friend of ours had started keeping tabs on her and so was telling me she’s pregnant. Once we got connected, she had the baby … I started calling her and talking. We opened right back up and started talking again. I just started sharing with Chunate and appreciating her more.
BL3: You knew then you wanted to be with her?
Vann: My vision was clear and I started going over her house. Now she had [two girls]. I would visit her twice a week and we’d stay on the phone until 1 or 2 in the morning when the baby couldn’t sleep. I would bring her flowers and candy and was really learning how to date her. We weren’t together yet. We didn’t get together until January 2003. I [finally] asked her, “Do you want to date me?” We started dating in January 2003.
And then it was like now we go together. It felt like school. We didn’t live near one another but that was my girlfriend. Her mom didn’t know. My [roomate] didn’t know. She was a part of my schedule. I would sit with her and the children and just spend time helping out with the baby.
BL3: When did you come out?
Vann: Then we made a pact to come out to our parents in June 2003. I was going home [to Philadelphia] for Fathers’ Day weekend. She came out to her mother and I couldn’t do it. I did it from her house on the phone with my mom. My mom told me not to tell my father.
Chunate: I told my mom I was a lesbian before and she acted like she didn’t know. I told her when I was dating my first “girlfriend” and she used to slam the door in our faces and call us dykes.
BL3: Did you come out to anyone else?
Vann: When my roommate asked me a couple months later if we were together, I said, yes. She said, “You’re going to make your mother sick.” At that time my mother had breast cancer. Then she said I needed to have my stuff out of her house by the next night. I ended up staying with Chunate and her mom. Her mother didn’t even know were dating then. And I wouldn’t have premarital sex.
Chunate: It was horrible. I understood not wanting to sleep together in my mom’s house. But my mom would be at work and there was nothing. Nothing. Not a damn thing.
BL3: You didn’t have sex before marriage?
Chunate: We didn’t get a sample of nothing before we jumped into this marriage. A friend of mine said, test it out. She said, what if you get married and the sex is not good?
Vann: I proposed to her in July 2003. We had been talking about getting married before we moved in together. We were only engaged for a year.
BL3: Did you get married locally?
Chunate: We were looking at going to Vermont to get married. Then someone suggested we go to Canada. I wanted a non-traditional citrine ring. Vann was not working at the time. We looked at another ring that was in the shape of a triangle. We talked about one day getting that ring.
Vann: What she didn’t know was I was getting it together and got her the citrine ring. I proposed to her at the National Harbor at night time. We were sitting on a bench and I got on my knees and all these people from the restaurant nearby were looking and clapping.
Chunate: I don’t know if I was embarrassed. I was shocked and happy at the same time. It was nice. Nobody had ever done anything like that for me before.
BL3: And so you lived happily ever after, right?
Vann: We moved in together on Super Bowl weekend in 2004 with the babies and we were still not having sex. At that time our relationship appeared healthy on the outside. I wasn’t connecting to her fully emotionally. I wasn’t intimate with her. I was coming from the standpoint of we’re going to do it. People said we shouldn’t move in together. Our parents didn’t support it. But we were determined to prove them wrong and show that black lesbians can love each other.
On our first Valentine’s Day together in our new place, we were at the table. I had taken our engagement rings because I always cleaned them. On Valentine’s Day, I told her I wanted to recommit to her to show her we were going to get married. When she looked at my hand she saw it was the other ring, the triangle ring! She went down the street to show her cousin.
Chunate: It was exciting. Then I knew, yeah he loves me now because nobody has this ring.
BL3: What was it like living together?
Chunate: At that time, I was just living. I felt neglected. At one point I was thinking of going back home. I came from the space where my mother gave me everything. She spoiled me. So for us to move into this apartment with no cable and barely a phone and barely furniture … I was feeling like, okay and I don’t know what to do here.
Vann: I had no idea she was feeling this way. I come from a space where I had two parents in the home. My father was the model I followed. I learned that it was my job to provide. You would think a woman would know what I woman wants but it is not always true. We were not emotionally connected. I would tell her what happened in the bed was not important but who are we went we get up. I felt sex clouds everything.
Her friends were telling her to leave. Then when we sent out notices about getting married, people looked like they were on board. But when we went to the party store to plan our engagement, people dropped off. We bought a couple bushels of crabs and whoever showed up showed up.
BL3: Why get married in Canada? Especially since at the time it wasn’t legal in Maryland or even Washington, D.C.
Vann: We know it was not recognized here, but we wanted a marriage license from somewhere legal.
We went sent in partial payment by money order to pay for the venue—Niagra at the Lake. She bought her dress off a catalog and I went to the mall and bought a suit and our daughters’ dresses. We arrived on Thursday, went to the town of Fort Erie, got our marriage license in Ontario, Canada and we were married at Niagra at the Lake in August 15, 2004.
Chunate: While we were driving to Canada, I was thinking, “He’s going to get me there and leave me at the altar.’ I thought, “Why does she want to marry me? Is this is a joke?”
Vann: I would never stand her up at the altar. But in actuality she was depressed. We came in with different expectations and thought it would be business as usual. I was in love with the idea of being married. When it came to the children, we were on the same page, but nothing else. So we made it to Canada.
Chunate: I was happy and excited when we got married. He was crying. He cried the whole way.
Vann: I was crying months before the wedding. Every time they played that R. Kelly Song, “Marry Me,” I would break down and cry. I ate, slept and breathed Chunate. I wanted to marry her. When we practiced the vows in front of the pastor, I cried.
Chunate: I don’t think I could express my happiness but I was. I was looking at him like this really happened, and to wake up the next day and to feel like you’re married to someone? Wow. We did it. We are married and it felt good.
Vann: And no, we didn’t finally have sex. I remember waking up and realizing both my wife and my cycle came.
Vann Milhouse leads the Maryland/Washington, D.C., chapter of Black Transmen, Inc.