My High School Sweetheart: Violently In Love and In the Closet

Leah Johnson I LGBTQ Rights I Commentary I October 8th, 2015

I have openly and authentically shared so much of my life, but there's one major part of my life that I haven't shared. This experience has hurt me, changed me, and molded me. This shameful experience has helped me evolve and mature.

I hit her. We were 15 and 16 years old, and we were in love. After being together for almost a year, I found out that she cheated on me, lied to me, and humiliated me. I gave her the benefit of the doubt, and I listened. She convinced me that she would never do it again and that she would change. Then it happened again, and she was cheating consistently. I lashed out. I was immature, depressed, angry and closeted. I responded to emotional abuse with physical abuse. At 15 years old, I was in a cyclical, abusive, same-sex relationship.

"As an adult, I now know that retaliating with violence was not a resolution. In fact, our relationship became more complex."

It didn't start out this way. We were inseparable and passionate about each other. We were in love, but neither of us was out to our families. To the public, we were "best friends." When we met, neither of us disclosed our sexual orientation. Our conversations were harmless, but after a month and a half (very long in teenage years), Loyal sent me a text message, asking (in her way) my sexual orientation. I chuckled and thought, Okay, so now we're going to address this undeniable crush we have on each other. Reluctant to disclose my attraction, I dodged the question. I wasn't sure why Loyal was asking, and I didn't want to lose her friendship. I finally gained the courage to tell her I was into girls, because I thought she was too. She dropped the boyfriend bomb, and I was reluctant to continue our friendship. She finally told me she felt the same way I did, but she had never dated a girl before. She was nervous, had a boyfriend, but the flirty texts continued, and our AOL Instant Message statuses were cute, subliminal quotes and song lyrics. Within the next two weeks, Loyal sent me a text message asking if I would be her girlfriend, and I happily accepted.

A week into our relationship, my new girlfriend proved her loyalty. My Nana had died, and Loyal showed up with empathy and love in a way I had never experienced. Loyal showered me with passion, love, and acceptance, and our slow-moving relationship became deep very quickly. Like many teenage relationships, we ran into some problems. We faced issues, as I began traveling with my AAU basketball team. Loyal did not like me being around so many other girls, and trust issues surfaced. After that summer, things started to change with us. We were good one text message and bad the next.

Still closeted, we had made it through the first year. By this time, we were completely committed; our relationship got deeper, and our connection got stronger. I'll never forget this year of my life and our relationship. I learned she was consistently cheating on me, and I was blindsided by this level of betrayal. That's when the emotional abuse started, and shortly after, I retaliated.

Abuse is very cyclical, and you may feel trapped. People will tell you to leave and make you feel incompetent and weak for feeling weak. Abuse is not about love, and it is not a way to show love.

Why We Stayed

I stayed with Loyal, because I thought love was enough to keep a relationship going. Even through this emotional abuse, I never doubted that Loyal loved me the same way I loved her. Following that major event in our relationship, I became guarded, insecure, and extremely angry. As we continued through our relationship, Loyal continued to lie and cheat on me several times. I forgave her every time. I had faith in her-in us. I was being emotionally abused and controlled by her empty promises and cyclical cheating. I loved her so deeply, and she lied and cheated on me even after long nights of convincing me she would change. As a 16-year-old, my reaction to the emotional abuse was physical abuse. I was angry, depressed, disappointed, and I started lashing out. As an adult, I now know that retaliating with violence was not a resolution. In fact, our relationship became more complex.

After the first time I hit her, I felt weak, angry, and disappointed with myself. I thought, Who are you becoming, Leah? Loyal was mad at me, but she forgave me and continued our relationship. Another year went by, and our relationship continued in this cycle. She had her street credibility to worry about, while I had a basketball scholarship to worry about. I never wanted to lose Loyal, at least not her friendship. Loyal and I always told each other that no matter what happened, we would always be friends.

I had signed and accepted a full athletic scholarship to attend a college six hours away. A few weeks before I left for college, communication faded. For both of us, the distance was bitter sweet. We knew we needed time away from each other, but we did not want to be apart. I can never completely recall the official way we parted ways, but it was clear that we no longer dated, and we barely even spoke. I hated it, but I did everything I could to focus on what was ahead in my life.

When I entered college, all of my time was consumed by basketball and school. After a few months on campus, when things were not what I imagined, I thought of one person: Loyal. I needed her to show up for me like she did when my Nana died-whenever I had a problem, like she always did. Despite the emotional and physical pain we inflicted, we showed up for each other. When either of us had a problem, we listened, supported each other and showered one another in unconditional love.

The last time I saw Loyal was in 2012, ironically one week before I was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I reached out to her, because I needed closure. We had this conversation at my best friend's house, which was even more ironic, because it was the last time I saw my best friend's mom (my second mother) alive. When we met, I choked. I didn't say much that I planned, but I was able to apologize for what I had done to her. Since then, I have resented myself, because I fell short of giving a proper apology. I haven't healed or forgiven myself for my behavior in that relationship. Because Loyal has a hard and tough exterior, I may never get to have that conversation, but it is always welcomed. Besides being in a relationship, Loyal and I were best friends. Losing a best friend is what hurt the most.

"Loyal and I were together for two years, and we were, for the most part, in the closet, particularly to adults. We had no support to healthily work through our issues, and we did not feel safe to seek help. So, we stayed silent."

Reflections Today

After eight years, I am finally ready to share this part of my story. I have felt so much shame because of these experiences. I've been afraid of the backlash for being the abuser in my relationship, but I need to forgive myself. I need to move on. Many people perceive IPV as only physical, but it can also be emotional and sexual. IPV affects over 25% of teenagers in the United States. As someone who was physically violent with a partner and experienced both emotional and physical abuse in relationships, we need open dialogue on these issues. In particular, we need to discuss the issues of abuse in teenage and young adult same-sex relationships.

Society tells us that boys should be disciplined if they hit girls, but the conversation around violence in lesbian relationships is different and essentially nonexistent. The notion is that girls can just fight each other. Our relationships are often sexualized, so abuse in lesbian relationships is often not considered IPV to those involved and/or to the public. This dismissal of real abuse is extremely harmful and sends unclear messages to youth. Loyal had more of a fluid gender identity (but more masculine presenting), and I am feminine presenting. Based on the rules of heteronormativity, me hitting Loyal may not be considered IPV. In addition, because Loyal is more masculine presenting, her cheating on me may be accepted and expected. We need to talk about this.

Loyal and I were together for two years, and we were, for the most part, in the closet, particularly to adults. We had no support to healthily work through our issues, and we did not feel safe to seek help. So, we stayed silent. We were 15- and 16-year-olds with no objective and mature perspective to help us sort through each layer of our experiences. What I want young people who find themselves in a similar situation to know is: you are not a bad person. You may feel shame for being a victim or for abusing someone you love. You may be disappointed in your partner and in yourself, but you are not bad people. Loyal is not a bad person. Abuse is about power and control, and when you and/or your partner lash out, you are attempting to gain or regain control of your relationship and of your life. Abuse is very cyclical, and you may feel trapped. People will tell you to leave and make you feel incompetent and weak for feeling weak. Abuse is not about love, and it is not a way to show love.

Although, my relationship ended in a way neither of us wanted, I took away essential lessons:

1. I now understand that I had to learn to love all aspects of myself before loving someone else.

2. I learned to always fight for true love by showing love, not with violence or any forms of abuse.

3. We forgave one another for abuse when we proved how much we cared for one another. We supported each other through deaths, family issues, and navigating adolescence, but "showing up" for your partner is not enough.

4. I understand what my boundaries and limits are in a relationship. I know how I need to be treated and how my partner should feel in order for both of us to feel whole in a relationship.

5. I learned to take the time I need to reflect, grieve, heal, and find closure.

6. Always be completely open and honest in any relationship. Communication and honesty are vehicles of trust in a relationship, and these are some ways that you show your partner how much you care for them.

7. Seeking external (professional) help does not mean you are weak or incapable. Seek help; you are not alone.

Eight years later, I am beginning to forgive myself. I am now a fierce intersectional advocate, and I believe it is so important to be completely authentic and transparent. This is the last piece of my puzzle that I have never shared with anyone, except my fiancé. Anyone who was a victim of IPV, I stand in solidarity with you. Anyone who has been the abuser in a relationship and has sought help and genuinely matured, I stand in solidarity with you. Anyone who is currently experiencing IPV on either side, I stand in solidarity with you, and I encourage you to seek help. I challenge everyone to start a conversation, create constructive dialogue, and raise awareness for intimate partner violence this month and all year long.

Originally posted at the Johnson-Register Alliance.