Karli Jones and Ashley Graham are both funny, confident, well-educated, beautiful women — and they’re also in love.
Jones, 26, and Graham, 30, made it official Aug. 16, when they tied the knot in front of family and friends in Killarney.
The wedding, which had a guest list of approximately 200 and took place at Jones’ family home on Killarney Lake, went off with two hitches, the obvious one and a bit of a gaffe.
“The wedding went really well,” Jones said yesterday after the couple returned from a honeymoon in Las Vegas. “We had one hiccup where (my younger sister) Jordanna was supposed to set out the marriage licence and she forgot, so there was an awkward pause that felt like five minutes, but other than that it was great.”
It was the typical small-town wedding with lots of dancing, some funny speeches and the occasional beverage.
Several guests commented on how beautiful the wedding was, particularly the vows, which the women took the time to write and personalize for each other.
The women, who are both pharmacists in Brandon, said married life feels similar, but every once in a while it hits them that they’re now hitched.
While you couldn’t wipe the smiles off their faces at the wedding, it hasn’t always been easy being gay, particularily in rural Manitoba where support networks are less prevalent than in major centres.
Graham, who’s from Carberry, didn’t come out until her third year of university, not long after ending a straight relationship that lasted more than seven years.
She remembers having an inkling she might be gay in high school, when a teacher said anecdotally that it is believed as much as 10 per cent of the population is gay. Looking around the room, she recalled a sense of loneliness dissipating with the knowledge that others might be going through similar experiences.
It was a confusing time as thoughts of “It’s not me. It can’t be me” were also met with relief that “I’m not the only one in the class,” she said.
Despite her emotions, Graham said for many years she suppressed being gay.
“At first I thought I had a choice and I could choose (to be straight),” she said. “Then I thought if I lived somewhere else or my life was different, I think I could be gay.”
External pressures and the fear of letting others down added to her burden. Graham contemplated living a straight life to protect the people she loved.
“Is it better to fake it? And not hurt him and these other people like my family? Or am I doing more harm by trying to fake it?” Graham said, speaking about the internal struggle she faced on a daily basis being in a straight relationship.
“I didn’t see a way out because I thought I was going to hurt a lot of people by coming out. I felt very trapped.”
When the relationship finally ended, Graham discussed how she was feeling with her ex-boyfriend, who suggested they not tell people about the breakup right away in order to give her some cover. The move would provide Graham some space and help her avoid some tough questions during a difficult time.
It’s something Graham is still thankful for, and her ex-boyfriend still remains a close friend.
The move also freed her up to pursue a woman in her class at the University of Manitoba whom she realized she had a crush on — and is now her wife.
Just one year earlier, Jones was going through her own struggles being gay.
While she knew she was attracted to women, she had yet to tell her family.
With a large, wonderfully boisterous family that includes three sisters, Jones said it was tough keeping them in the dark.
“The hardest thing was telling my family because I had started dating someone and I felt like I was lying all the time,” she said. “I was trying to hide it and it does feel like everything is a lie, especially when you’re close with your family.”
After confiding in her younger sister and getting nothing but love and support in return, Jones told her two older sisters, who were equally as happy for her.
Then at dinner one night, she just “blurted” it out to her parents.
“It was complete relief,” Jones said. “Coming out was so overwhelmingly positive for me. I don’t think I had one bad experience. Once my family and friends knew and they were OK with it, I knew that if other people weren’t, then they were going to have to deal with it because I have this big support group that loves me and is on my side.”
While Jones and Graham are private people and were initially reticent about an interview with the Brandon Sun, they decided to do it, believing it would be worth it if they could help someone who is going through a similar experience.
Growing up in small Westman communities exposed them to a level of homophobia that still exists today — where phrases such as “That’s gay” or “Quit being so gay” roll off lips as ordinary speak.
“I think every kid that grows up in a rural community hears people say homophobic things, whether they really mean it or not,” Jones said. “It’s part of people’s vocabulary to say derogatory things, and I don’t think there is a lot of thought or that it’s said with the intent of hurting anybody.”
While there have been some friends who struggled with the couple being gay, there have also been some incredible surprises along the way.
After posting the couple’s engagement announcement in the Killarney Guide, Jones’ minister from the United Church phoned and asked her if they would like her to perform the ceremony. The couple had already decided to have a justice of the peace for the wedding, but the gesture meant a lot.
At their wedding shower in Carberry, a family friend, a woman in her 80s, sewed their names together on a set of towels. Again, what seemed like a small gesture was important to the couple because it bridged generations, a gap in which gay marriage wasn’t necessarily as socially acceptable as it is today.
Through it all, they’ve both remained open and honest, leaning on each other for support.
“I’ve always found you can sit down and talk to people,” Jones said. “Some of my friends have been really opposed to it, and at the end of the day they didn’t change my mind and I know I didn’t change their mind, but we can be civil and agree to disagree.”
Coming out has also given them perspective. They now hope their story can help others in similar situations.
Jones said there is a big push for people to come out, and to come out sooner than later. While she believes it’s important, she said it’s crucial to do it on your own time.
“Don’t feel pressured to come out to family or people you don’t feel will be supportive,” Jones said, adding there are several resources available today that weren’t around less than a decade ago.
The golden rule of “think before you speak” also applies, she said.
Jones said she has friends whose families weren’t supportive initially but have since come around. While the wound has healed, it leaves a scar.
“Even if you’re unsure of it, don’t say anything negative because those things can be forgiven, but they can’t be taken back.”
It’s also incumbent on the person who is coming out to have compassion and understanding, too.
In some cases, friends and families have formed ideas about what your life will or should look like, Jones said. It’s not that they won’t be OK with you being gay, but it’s a change and in many cases a shock for them.
“It’s taken me a really long time to come to terms with everything and accept myself, so you have to give other people that time to come around, too,” Jones said.
And, in the end, Jones and Graham are still the same women they were before they ever fell in love and sealed it by walking down the aisle — funny, confident, well-educated and beautiful women, who found in each other what so many never fully realize.
“It’s such a small part of who we really are,” Jones said.
» Twitter: @CharlesTweed