Picture it: Two women in their early twenties, having found love in college, move from a conservative, close-minded town in Alabama, shedding their past and hoping to create some positive memories in a more progressive and open-minded city in Texas. Sound a bit like a Lifetime movie meets MTV reality flick? Think again.
This tale, although typical for many young gay people who come of age in less-than-hospitable small towns, is not maudlin like a lot of Lifetime fare. A few months short of their fifth anniversary as a couple, Lacey Fuell and Audrey Alexander are still fairly green, something that they both readily acknowledge with easygoing, eyes-wide-open smiles and lots of earnest talk about ful- filling goals, creating a life and finding happiness together.
At the heart of any decision to leave home is the desire to reinvent yourself, to strike out in a new direction, to leave your mark on a new city and come to realize your dreams. Both Fuell and Alexander arrived in Austin with big plans to find a home and find their place within a broader, more diverse and accepting community. Austin is more than just the city where they are building a life as a couple. Because both of them will finish their undergraduate studies next year, it’s also the beginning of long-term professional growth and all the possibilities inherent in that.
Even so, how does any young gay or lesbian couple find their way in a new city? The standard so-called rules of relationships aren’t always applicable. For couples like Fuell and Alexander, who were seeking a welcoming urban environment when they moved here, the question becomes: How will they build their own support systems in this new place?
“We don’t expect it to be perfect, we’ve been through a lot of stuff and put each other through stuff,” said Fuell, a native of Grant, Alabama, transferred from the University of Alabama while working toward a degree in psychology. “We compromise a lot: We’re polar opposites. I’m artistic. She’s creative, too, but also scientific.”
“I prefer audio books and Lacey loves to read,” Alexander, a Houston native, added.
Part of Fuell’s love of books and her push to excel in school was because all of it provided a welcome distraction, an escape, from the home life she had left behind.
“I don’t remember much. I’ve blocked a lot of it out, but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing,” she said, reflecting back on her early childhood.
At the age of 11, Fuell left the house where her parents lived with her brothers and went to live with her aunt and uncle in the town of Grant (pop. 896). Without going into detail (it’s a sensitive subject to this day), it’s sufficient to say that she left a very negative situation. Her Aunt Melissa and Uncle Mike adopted her, raised her as one of their own children, and supported her academic pursuits and the development of her strong work ethic. “I wanted to make them proud, to not regret bringing me into their household,” she said.
Even so, the environment was stifling. “Growing up in a small, religious Southern town where everybody knows your name and business was overwhelming at times,” said Fuell. Despite her academic and extracur- ricular achievements, she felt empty inside because she was trying to fit herself into other peoples’ concept of who she should be. “Looking back, I realize that there was enormous pressure on [my aunt and uncle] to raise me in a certain way and to make sure I didn’t go down the wrong road. I know my best interests were at heart.”
ALtHOuGH they didn’t know it at the time, Fuell and Alexander lived down the street from each other in Tuscaloosa when they were both attending the University of Alabama. It was Birmingham’s nightlife that brought them together. They met at the Yacht Club, one of only two gay bars in Birmingham, a few days after Valentine’s Day in 2007. Like many less-stratified gay scenes, the bar was a one-stop venue that offered drag queens, dancing, and a male stripping contest all in one night.
It was Fuell’s first gay club, and she’d just come out a few months beforehand. The two locked eyes in a way that both described as “intense.” Although they went to the club with separate friends, they ended up connecting later that night, when Alexander asked Fuell out to dinner. “We exchanged numbers and the next night I made dinner for us–pad thai–because she didn’t get off work un- til late,” Alexander said.
As someone who had lived in Los Angeles for six months to attend school at Chapman University in Orange, Alexander was more experienced, a go-getter, and she brought a big-city vibe to the table. She had had her own sexual awakening as a teenager. In 2000, when MTV’s The Real World was a newfangled concept, it featured one of the first lesbians on a nascent reality television show.
Seeing two girls kissing on television was mind- blowing for Alexander, who had heard the term “lesbian” before but just thought it was a derogatory word. From that point on, she read any articles she could find online, but she didn’t get the message that there was anything wrong with being gay until she attended St. Agnes High School, an all-girls school in Houston.
“When they started talking about how homosexuality was a sin and quoting the Bible, it was interesting, because most of the girls didn’t agree with it,” she said. As a sophomore, Alexander started a gay/straight al- liance at her school and referenced another pop cul- tural moment as being influential. “Queer as Folk–that show saved me in some ways,” she said, adding that she drew inspiration from the characters’ self-confident, come-what-may attitudes.
For Fuell, that confidence came from a support system that included her friends, in particular Chelsey. They met in ninth grade, bonded quickly and attended Snead Community College together. In May of 2003, Fuell, Chelsey and another friend were hanging out on a Saturday night and got into a car with some guys who didn’t know the area very well. The driver, going too fast, hit a sharp curve and overcorrected, causing the car to flip over more than once. Fuell escaped with a separated shoulder, and some cuts and bruises, but Chelsey, seated next to her in the backseat, split her head open, broke her ribs and collar bone and lost a lot of blood.
“We were inseparable after that,” Fuell recalled. They were also grounded for a month, but allowed to see each other, and they both had to wear “horrible contraptions” to set their bones back in place. “The whole experience was awful–and we knew how lucky we were. Chelsey stayed super positive, which she always is. She’s an amazing person all around.”
Indeed, Chelsey and Fuell were roommates at the University of Alabama, and Chelsey’s family welcomed Fuell into their lives. Chelsey was also the first person that Fuell came out to. She credited Chelsey’s family with helping her out when times were tough and inspiring her with their openness as a family unit. It’s a characteristic that was lacking in her early childhood.
“They taught me how to build strong, loving relation- ships from scratch,” said Fuell. “Chelsey and her family had very strong connections with each other; everyone was independent in some ways, but not afraid to be dependent on others. They respected each other’s deci- sions, allowed for mistakes, and accepted everyone as they came.”
Alexander cited her family as mentors. Although her parents divorced in 2000, they remain good friends. Her father and stepmother rent a space at the W Ho- tel downtown, and her dad is teaching a course in the engineering school at UT this semester. “As I’ve grown and had reflective moments about our family dynamic, I realize literally the mountain of love on which we all stand,” she said, “and the view is beautiful.
“We were young and had no business moving across the country at that time,” said Fuell. Even so, once they decided to uproot themselves, the choice of Austin was clear: Alexander’s mother was already living here and they knew about the city’s laid-back vibe. They made the 12-hour journey across the South by car during a wicked thun- derstorm in January 2008 with their puppy, Lucy.
After working briefly at Katz’s, they’ve each settled into their respective paths of starting out. Fuell found a job as a part-time receptionist at BodyBusiness, a lo- cally owned fitness club. She described the environment as supportive, adding that healthy living is a cause dear to her heart. As a longtime reader, a dedicated writer, and someone who is passionate about language, she hopes to find her niche in the world of publishing. At L Style G Style, she enjoys research, editing and learning about every facet of the business–and is eager to move forward as the company expands. “Editing is where it’s at for me,” said Fuell, who will graduate with a dual degree in English and Psychology from Texas State in May.
“I love words, I love sentence structure, I proofread as I go through books.”
Their other focus, beyond getting to further explore all of the city’s culinary and cultural offerings and making time for each other in their busy schedules, is finding which area of the city’s extensive nonprofit commu- nity they fit into. Alexander, who enjoys biking around campus, has done some volunteer work with the Austin Yellow Bike Project, an all-volunteer group that aims to put bicycles on the streets by operating bike shops, teaching basic bike mechanics and maintenance, and acting as a local bike advocacy group. She is also a full- time student and will finish up at UT with a degree in geosystems engineering in December of 2012. After that, she plans to get her master’s degree in petroleum engineering.
Almost four years after she left Grant, and having only had a minimal amount of contact with her aunt, Fuell decided to go back for a surprise visit with her fam ily over Christmas 2009. She stayed at Chelsey’s house and visited for a few hours at her grandparents’ home on Christmas Day. According to Fuell, there was a lot of catching up, hugging and crying, but not much had changed. “There wasn’t any mention of me being gay, of Audrey or that I hadn’t seen anyone in almost four years,” she said, adding that she cried when she left. “It was a first step and that’s what mattered.”
They’re taking initial steps into the nonprofit community, too. Both are passionate about animal welfare, and they want to help build awareness about animal cruelty, find homes for abandoned animals, and increase fund- ing for no-kill shelters. Children’s education is another area of interest for them. “I would also love to become involved with the Texas Book Festival, especially the children’s books portion,” Fuell added.
After talking with these two young women, it’s clear that they’re both on the verge of great things. They haven’t forgotten that initial spark of their connection– staying up late and talking, too shy to kiss until the next morning–but they also have a healthy belief in the value of balance.
Beyond that, they have a realistic attitude about where they are, with an eye toward the future. “We re-evaluate goals every few months,” said Alexander. “How are you feeling? How are you changing? We’re constantly running the Norton Anti-Virus in our relationship.”
Although there was a time when all that Fuell wanted to do was fit into a mold and be a “normal or average person,” she’s much more comfortable in her own skin these days. Her new surroundings have helped to in- spire a new self-awareness. “Every little eccentricity about myself is a new opportunity and a new expansion to explore,” she said. “Austin was a big step for us indi- vidually and together.”
Both women have come to find that their own happiness depends on open communication and finding balance as they explore the city and its offerings. For Fuell, who spent a good part of her early life “hiding under a shell” or trying to fit into the expectations of others, living in Austin, and growing a life with Alexander, has been liberating.
“I hope for my family to meet Audrey one day, to see that I have this great love, this person who wants to explore life with me,” Fuell said. “I don’t know if happiness is something to be proud of, though I do think too many people live their lives thinking they are happy but not really knowing how to grasp it. Now that I have it, I’m never letting go.”