How One Trans Couple Found Love During the Pandemic. “Don’t Be Afraid to Love and to Let It In.”

by Darius McLean

I am Darius McLean and I’m from Newfield, New Jersey. 

About seven years ago I was working at the Mazzoni Center and the CHOP Gender Clinic. When I was working at Mazzoni Center and CHOP is kind of when I began my transition, and by transition, I mean I identify as trans masculine or a trans man. I was one of the facilitators there for the Littles. They’re about 4- to 12-year olds at the time. And the groups… there were multiple groups for families, and multiple facilitators. And one of the facilitators was Celena. Her and I had worked at Mazzoni Center together, but she was on the social service side and I was in the health center, so I’d only seen her in passing. 

And then one day when I was at CHOP, about seven years ago, we were talking for the first time and we decided to keep talking, and I offered to walk her to the trolley. So we got out of the building, ended up getting to the trolley at 38th and Spruce over near where the Wawa is, and we just kept talking and kept walking. And we ended up at 45th and Spruce, and decided to go to a coffee shop that I’d always gone to. 

I thought it was great hanging out with her. She was really funny, so when I went back to work that Monday, I asked a mutual friend if she was single and they were like “Yeah.” So I decided to ask her out for a brunch. And I was surprised she said yes. So we went to brunch and it was great, and we had a few other dates. We became really close friends, and at the time we were also just seeing other people and went our different ways. 

“It's just, like…I'm not a trans person, she's not a trans person with me. We're just people.”

So about six years later I was working at Einstein Hospital and just a little bit before that, Celena was made the executive director of the Office of LGBT Affairs, but she had been the director of empowerment programs in arts and culture at William Way Community Center. A few people had reached out to me asking me to apply for the job, and I’d known Celena and that she was in the role. So I reached out to her and asked if she’d be willing to talk to me about the job and what the expectations might be to see if I was actually interested. 

So we have this phone call, she gives me a great rundown of the job, the support, the team. Before the phone call ended, I had asked her if she was single, and she happened to be single. And then I asked if she was dating and her response was “Why? Who’s asking?” And I let her know that I was asking and that I was interested in going on a date with her. But this was also just smack in the middle of the pandemic. 

The first few dates started out as hangouts on the porch because we were making sure of keeping air between us. But we did things like we went on a horseback ride, we would take our bikes to Kelly Drive and go on bike rides. We would go roller skating. We did all kinds of things.

And she was definitely about me courting her like, to get a kiss, all of those things. Holding hands. It was really sweet and also nice to slow down, right? After having some dates and being able to spend more time together and closer time together, and finally being able to get a kiss, we decided that we would take a trip together to North Carolina to visit her family. And she was very much like “we are going to have our own rooms.” So we had our own rooms in an Airbnb and it was a nice trip.

She drove the whole way there and the whole way back. On the way back, she told me that I could fall asleep and that it was okay for me to go to sleep. And I did go to sleep and learned before I got home that I was not supposed to go to sleep. And when we got to my house, she dropped me off on the side front of the house and I asked if I could have a kiss, and she got in the car and pulled off. So we continued to go on dates and spend more time with each other and probably… I think it’s about a year later, I got to use a key to get in the house, and she had a key to my house. So I feel like it slowly progressed. I’d made the decision that this is who I wanted to be with and I decided that I was going to propose. 

So at William Way, we do a holiday meal on Christmas and Thanksgiving that Celena has done pretty much since she worked at Mazzoni Center and I’ve done since working at William Way. And once we got serious, she let me know that the holiday meals are part of our tradition together. We usually have volunteers for the holiday meal. So this year our family and friends were the volunteers, and her niece helped me out with the design, but I got 50 red roses and some rose petals and set up the ballroom with a pathway of rose petals and then a circle.

When she came in to the center that day to help volunteer, I was just like “we’ve got to go upstairs and get some things.” So then we get out of the elevator and there are people standing around, because everyone was kind of on each side of the elevator and all had a red rose, and they just start giving her these red roses. And she still kind of doesn’t get what’s going on. And the singers are singing this song in the background, and then she starts getting it and she’s just in tears and is like “What’s going on?” 

So I get down on one and I asked her if she will marry me. And she had a ring on her finger, so I was like “Uh, could you take the ring off?” So she takes it off and hurls it across the room, and you could hear it. And she said “yes.”

I’m excited to be starting this with her and to… and I love our story of how we met and how we’ve come together and the time that it took. Because I feel like that time and that growth, because it went from a friendship and it’s still… and I feel like that makes it where the friendship is valued most in a lot of ways. And I think it’s what’s allowed us and our love to grow. 

It’s just, like… I’m not a trans person, she’s not a trans person with me. We’re just people. We’re, like I said, Celena and Darius, and we get to love each other and to grow together and to experience things together.

Trust yourself, trust your heart. Don’t be afraid to love and to let it in because I honestly was in a moment where I could have easily had done that and I’m so happy, I’m sure as hell happy that I didn’t do that this time around. Because now I’ve got a fiance and I think she’s pretty bad.

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