Girls in Wonderland

Love, pure and simple but sadly not simple for all. There are unfortunately people who still need to defend their choices in love, need to fight for their right to love. Svea and Jenny were recently married when they met Dutch writers Philip Huff and Carolien Borgers in a Manhattan lunchroom to talk about love and freedom. Svea: ‘I think people kick gay teenagers out on the street out of ignorance, not hate.’ (Read the interview below)

Photography Chris Craymer Words Phillip Huff & Carolien Borgers Styling Linda Gümüs Gerritsen

We’re standing on the corner of Forsyth and Rivington on Manhattan’s Lower East Side watching as workers pave the streets. The air smells like hot tar. Svea Berlie and Jenny Rey just texted to tell us they’re running a few minutes late, that they can’t find a parking spot. ‘We’ll be right there! Xo’. The couple, 22 and 32 years old respectively, got married in upstate New York this past summer, the first summer same sex marriage was legal throughout the United States.

Even if we hadn’t known what they’d look like, there’s no chance we’d have missed them as they walk down Rivington: Svea is long-limbed, in a faded black Harley Davidson t-shirt and wearing her blonde hair in a tight bun. Jenny has tattooed arms, face hidden behind big glasses and a leather cap from which her perfectly coloured hair tumbles out. They look like a poster couple for a hip fashion brand.

And that’s exactly what they are. Svea and Jenny – with 36,000 followers on Instagram combined – were featured in this year’s & Other Stories summer campaign, the first time the brand used a same sex couple. We sit down in a small lunch place on Forsyth. It’s a sunny day in November. Both of them order avocado toast—one of them with bacon.

Jenny was born in Madrid, Spain, to Catholic parents. Her family moved to Miami, Florida when she was four years old. ‘We stopped in Jersey first ’cause we had family there, then we went down to Miami’.

Did you like growing up in Miami?
‘It was interesting.’

It’s big…
‘It’s huge. Everybody thinks Miami is southeast Miami and downtown, but it’s so much bigger than that’.

Svea, on the other hand, grew up in Wageningen, Bennekom, Ede, an area called Dutch Bible belt. ‘Everyone in my family are atheists.’ Aged ten, Svea ended up in Nijmegen, an old roman settlement and university city on the Waal, the biggest distributary branch of the River Rhine. ‘That’s what I consider my hometown. Well, actually that’s not fully true. New York is also home…’

“There’s no roof in New York. You can keep going and going and going.”

When her work as a model took her to Paris, Svea met a man who flew her to Miami for a few days, and then to New York City. ‘I fell in love with the city, not the man. I flew home after a month, packed my bags and said, ‘Mom, I’m going to make it work in New York somehow. After a few months I was finally making some money, which was good because I’d busted all my savings. So I stayed. I still love it…’

Why? We know a lot of people who hate New York. Maybe as many as those who love it…

‘It’s hard, it’s not an easy city but that’s what I like about it. Living in Holland is really very easy. Most of the Dutch models start off in Paris or London and they may fly off to the States for a few days… but they always come back.’

And Jenny, how did you end up here?
‘I was making a lot of money in Miami. I was very comfortable there: the weather is beautiful, I had a good job. I taught. But Miami also has a roof. And I’d hit that roof. So when I turned thirty, I knew I needed to get out. To try something new. So I packed my bags. There’s no roof in New York. You can keep going and going and going.’

 ‘I came out to my priest when I was thirteen. I told him I was having thoughts about women. He told me to “pray the gay away”. Imagine that! Here’s this man that I trusted since I was nine years old saying something so stupid… So I waited another two years before I told my parents.’

And what did your parents say?
Jenny: ‘They didn’t like it.’
Svea: ‘Well you always say your dad helped you…’
Jenny: ‘Well yeah, but he’s a man. He doesn’t want to think about his daughter having sex with another guy. So for him it was perfect, but he didn’t do anything about my mom kicking me out.’

What about you, Svea?
‘I would go to church once a year. I would make my mom take me for Christmas ‘cuz I loved the nativity scene. And when I first kissed a boy at 14, I told my Mom and she was like, “Have you ever kissed a girl?” I told her no and she said, “Well, try all of it’’. I was with guys mostly, but also with girls but this was Holland so it was all good. When I first started dating a girl I was 19 so when my parents met Jenny for the first time they looked at her personality rather than her sex’.

“My priest told me to “pray the gay away”. Imagine that!”

When and where did you meet?
Svea: ‘On her thirtieth birthday, three years ago.’
Jenny: ‘I had just moved here, I didn’t know a lot of people. So her’ — nods towards Svea — ‘ex-girlfriend was invited…’
Svea: ‘She was my girlfriend at the time.’
Jenny: ‘I had a girlfriend at the time, too.’

Makes for an interesting night…
Jenny: ‘Well, it wasn’t until Valentine’s Day that Svea told me she liked me. I had gone back to Miami for December and January, it was really cold, there were so many blizzards … it was horrible.’
Svea: ‘I had broken up with my girlfriend in January, Jenny had already done so after her birthday and we became very close friends very quickly… Then we went out on Valentine’s Day, we got wasted… to the point I don’t remember what happened, but Jenny tells me we took a cab home together and that I kept saying, ‘Wow, you’re so hot… You’re so hot.’ And Jenny was like —’
Jenny: ‘ — Oh my god, what’s happening? I never had anybody ever tell me how they felt. It was very new to me.’
Svea: ‘So the next day I got a text, “Yeah, I think we shouldn’t see each other for a while.’” So I panicked ‘cause I wanted her. And when I want something, I want it now. So a few days after Valentine’s Day I asked her out for brunch. It was a Monday. She said yes. So I had a black car pick her up at her place, pick me up, then we went to lunch… the whole car ride I think we were kind of awkward. I knew what was going on, but she didn’t. Lunch turned into dinner.’

“We didn’t kind of sleep together. We were sleeping together.”

What was going on in your mind?
Jenny: ‘I thought, if I do this, I want to do this ‘cause I like her and not sleep with her and never see her again. Also, she had just broken up with her ex and I didn’t want to get into that.’
Svea: ‘We spent the next few days together. I brought flowers to her job. Then her mom called that she needed surgery back in Miami. At this point we were good friends that were kind of sleeping together…’
Jenny: ‘We didn’t kind of sleep together. We were sleeping together.’
Svea: ‘So I came to Miami. As a friend. Nothing else. We had the most amazing time. No posts on Instagram. No talks with the parents. We kept it low key. We were just friends, y’know?’

Looking at you two now, and looking at the pictures of you, it seems you’re a very solid, open and proud couple. Are you tied together by your differences?
Jenny: ‘I’m Latin, I’m loud, I make lot of big gestures… Svea is quieter. She sits down for a talk.’ She laughs. ‘Latin people are not like that. I’m used to screaming and being loud. When I’m upset, I tend to overreact…’
Svea: ‘I’m used to it now. In the beginning I was like: “Are you kidding me? Fuck you too then” when she’d say things like we don’t belong together. But after an hour we calmed down, and she was like, “I didn’t mean that…”’
Jenny: ‘We say a lot of things we don’t mean, but it’s because… it’s the way me and my mom fight. We continue to egg each other on up to the point one of us realises “I’m going to piss you off more than you’re pissing me off”. Then we’ll take ten minutes and we’re fine again.’
So there’s no sorry?
Jenny: ‘No, we don’t apologise.’
Svea: ‘Every now and then when I get an apology out of her I pat myself on the shoulder and say, “You did good.”
What was it like to work together?
Svea: ‘Very natural. It’s funny, I started modelling, Jenny stayed herself. And that’s what they wanted, us in the moment. Jenny just grabs me or holds me… We did the Dutch Vogue and …’
So Jenny, are you a model?
‘No! What the fuck would I do?’ She laughs.
What do you mean?
‘A lot of the pictures we did for & Other stories, just like our wedding pictures, were all over the Internet, in magazines, on blogs. And you read the comments…’
Don’t ever read the comments. Jenny stops talking, the first time she loses the glide in her vocal stride. ‘So I might be neurotic and Latin, but what do you want from me? These comments, they’re disgusting. People saying things like, “Two women together can’t procreate”.’
Svea: ‘It’s true.’
Jenny: ‘There was a lot of stuff said that was pretty bad. But then I started seeing people come to our defence, people I’d never even met, and it was nice to see strangers standing up for us. Then teenagers started reaching out to us and asking for advice… and to be honest, I never saw myself as a gay advocate. But we get a lot off feedback. Mostly American people, but people from Mexico, too. We get a big Latin response… it’s almost like they look up to us.’
Do you like it?
Jenny: ‘I don’t think we like or dislike it. But we have to think about this. We are under a magnifying glass. We’re not famous, but we get recognised now.’
Svea: ‘We took a picture of us making out at this year’s Pride in Amsterdam in front of a big sign that said, “Choose Jesus” and put it on Instagram.’

“’Every now and then when I get an apology out of her I pat myself on the shoulder and say, ‘You did good.’”

Do you feel like you have a responsibility?
Jenny: ‘Orlando hit home. I’d been to that club so often… There’s a party in Orlando every year, Girls in Wonderland, where we take over the city. Even people who have mixed feelings about the gay community come to speak out. Because the one place we could always feel safe and be ourselves was at the club… and to have someone come in and shoot up our brothers and our sisters…’
Svea: ‘It hurts.’
Jenny: ‘It’s the opposite of acceptance.’

I feel the personal is often more political for gay couples? Especially for men?
Jenny: ‘Women are more accepted than gay men because they’re considered more attractive and because it’s not a threat to men… When they look at two women they think it’s hot. But that doesn’t matter. Coming out is important, so being open about it might help people to come to accept us. Gay teenagers who are kicked out on the streets or killing themselves, it’s because of ignorance, not hate.’

Does that maybe force you to be a little more vocal about your private life than you’d necessarily want?

Svea: ‘It annoys me, it shouldn’t matter. I’m with the person I love. That’s what matters. People want to categorise, to make it all simpler, to put a label on it. But it’s not like that. A lot of people agree with this, but because they’re heterosexual or it doesn’t effect them they lean back and don’t get involved. Don’t feel they have to say anything. But that doesn’t help their cousin or sister coming out and being themselves. So I understand if you don’t want to say anything about it, but I think those kids really need people to talk.. The more people say, the more support they feel.’

“It annoys me, it shouldn’t matter. I’m with the person I love. That’s what matters.”

There’s an age difference between the two that sometimes makes for remarkable contradictions. When Svea was going to elementary school in Nijmegen, Jenny was in the army for two years. Her parents did not attend their wedding. They don’t even know they’re married. (Svea’s parents were sad to not meet their counterparts, but they understood Svea says.) ‘It’s the whole, “don’t ask don’t tell” approach of the US Army even though, to be fair, the military recently stopped this policy’.
Svea: ‘I asked her, “Are you sure you don’t want to tell?” But they’re her parents, she’ll tell them in her own time.’

Why did you join the military?
Jenny: ‘Because of September 11. This country has given me a lot and I thought that the army would be good for me. I liked the discipline. I still make my bed every morning. Orlando made me realise how grateful I am to be myself. People in the army are often hardcore republicans but there was a girl in my platoon who congratulated us on our marriage. She was really very happy for us. It made me believe there were more options than the ones we know we have. It even made me feel a little better about the future. ‘

So what does the future hold?
Svea: ‘The pictures were shot at a farm owned by a gay man with a Dutch father. He had blue eyes, light hair, wore clogs. There were little windmills… When we were there we kept saying how much we’d like to live there. We’re not done with the city yet but when the time comes…’
Jenny: ‘I love windmills. New York is great for grown ups but maybe less so for kids. I want to live in Holland at one point.’
Svea: ‘A bunch of land, two horses, chickens, a dog. Live a happy country life close to a city.’
Sounds like the upstate farmhouse…
Sea: ‘Yes, but in the Netherlands. We’ll bring a little bit of the US home with us…’

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