She’s basking in the joy of married life now, but for a long time, Chanel Hudson was afraid to date. Part of that was because she’d seen the kinds of guys her friends dealt with and it made her skeptical.
“I thought everybody was bad,” she tells ESSENCE. “I didn’t really look at relationships seriously. I was like, ‘This is never going to happen for me.'”
Another significant part of her apprehension came from the fact that Chanel is a trans woman. She was admittedly “terrified” at the thought of putting herself out there.
“I was afraid to date because I didn’t want to die,” she says. “I would literally sit at home and get panic attacks and anxiety attacks, because these trans murders were happening and were at the hands of Black men that they had sexual encounters with. They’re not apprehended. There’s no protest. There’s no march. And I just kept saying, ‘If this happens to me, who’s going to protest for me? Who’s going to fight for justice for me?'”
So when Chanel met Novian O’Connor, a cisgender heterosexual man, while checking out the dating app Plenty of Fish in 2015, she friend-zoned him. It was because of her fears, but also because he had a girlfriend at the time. Nevertheless, she remained in contact with him, becoming someone he could confide in, Novian becoming someone she genuinely enjoyed talking to.
“She cared about me,” Novian says. “She noticed every other person I was dealing with, it was more so, what can I do for them? She pointed out everything.”
After some time and building a strong friendship, their relationship became romantic. “He is my first boyfriend,” she says. “I tell people, he’s the first man that broke my heart. He’s also the first man to fix it.” Novian says he’d never dated a trans woman before, so the couple had to overcome great hurdles. In the beginning, those obstacles included infidelity, but Chanel says it was alway important to her to give him grace.
“I feel like we had to both go through that because he is a Black, straight man who lives in the world as a Black, straight man,” she says. “I’m a Black trans woman who lives in the world as a Black trans woman. You’re going to have to go through trial and error.”
“There’s no grace. There’s no empathy, and I tell people often, ‘We were biologically born men. We should be able to identify with the Black man more than anybody else, because it’s how we were raised,'” she adds. “The first 10, 15 years of our lives, we were raised the same way as these men were raised. So how is it so hard to comprehend the things that they’re going through? The psychological battles that they’re going through?”
No matter what they went through, they always remained friends, and that was what would bring them back together. Novian would eventually change his ways following a stint in jail, and realized how strong his feelings were for her. When Chanel, who at the time was an established publicist in entertainment, had an interview with Atlanta’s V-103 and WAOK stations in 2018, he came along and used those opportunities to make his feelings known.
“He surprised me on the interview by just telling people he was in love with me. And I was like, ‘I’ve never heard him say this before,'” she says.
It created a significant shift in their relationship, one that also came with their biggest hurdle. After people who knew Novian found out about what he said on the radio, and learned that Chanel was a trans woman, many in his life turned on him. “It wasn’t easy,” he says. Novian was isolated, including from seeing his young son for a year, because of his relationship with Chanel.
“When he got outed, I developed sleep insomnia,” she recalls. “I stayed up and watched him sleep because I was afraid he was going to commit suicide.”
“He lost every friend, every one,” she adds. “These are people he’s been friends with since high school. And in my mind, I’m like, ‘You haven’t changed.'”
While he lost those connections, the one he had with Chanel only grew stronger, and he decided that he wanted to marry her. He proposed to her in 2020 on a date close to her birthday. “I think it was much needed, with all we were going through,” he says.
That time of bliss was important, because shortly after, their wedding plans would be upended because of COVID. The venue they had in mind took their deposit but couldn’t hold the nuptials because of the virus. And just as a frustrated Chanel thought about simply going to the courthouse with Novian, a friend who works on VH1’s My Celebrity Dream Wedding reached out. The series involves three wedding planners for the stars who compete to throw celebrations for deserving couples.
“I was like, ‘Well, what makes me deserving?’ And she literally was like, ‘You will be the first Black trans woman to publicly get married to a straight man, Chanel. That’s deserving,'” she recalls.
The couple submitted a tape of themselves, and while Novian is more reserved and quiet, the casting director for the show found their energy together to be magnetic. They were cast and said “I do,” cameras and only a loyal group of family and friends present, on January 22, 2022 in Atlanta.
“It was such a euphoric moment,” she says. “And I didn’t know what was happening. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t see the venue before it happened. I did tell them what kind of color schemes I had, but they threw that all out the window, child. Getting my dress made, just certain stuff. But it was just, everything was euphoric. I literally felt like that was a dream.”
The wedding is set to air on My Celebrity Dream Wedding this summer on VH1. As they await sharing that moment, the couple are planning what’s next for them. They’ve both ventured into new careers, Chanel starting a production company while Novian steps into entrepreneurship with a unisex clothing line. They’ve also received other TV offers they’re mulling over since filming the show, and are simultaneously planning to start a family through surrogacy.
The next chapter of their lives, as husband and wife, will be their most joyous chapter yet, because after years of dealing with cruelty, Chanel for being a trans woman, and Novian for loving one, they’re ready to live openly and happily in their truth.
“Every room I go into, I lead with love, but I just made a decision. You just can’t care anymore. You have to just be your authentic self. And if people love you, they will love you. If they hate you, they will hate you,” Chanel says. “So I’m just leading with my authentic self, same with Novian. We’re just being our authentic selves. No sugarcoating, no lies, just who we are.”