Aurora Harris and Shala Russell are one of those couples whose love seems to radiate a light that warms everyone around them. That light was present from the day they met, and it shined through on their wedding day, which was a big to-do for a party of two.
Charleston, South Carolina, native Aurora, 33, is a regional director for Young Invincibles, a nonprofit organization mobilizing young people to create solutions for higher education, health care, jobs, and civic engagement. She received her bachelor’s degree in English from the College of Charleston.
Shala, a 33-year-old Houston native, works in cloud-based network security and received her bachelor’s in psychology from the University of Houston-Downtown. The couple now lives in downtown Houston.
They met on OkCupid in 2014. “I took her out to lunch and began having her volunteer at the Lesbian Health Initative, an organization I worked for at the time. She would hang out with me at events across the city and help me do community outreach to promote queer-friendly health fairs. I fell in love with her free spirit and creativity,” Aurora says. “Shala felt like home right after our first date. She is a free spirit and inspires me to live freely. We have been inseparable ever since.”
The feeling was beyond mutual. “When I first met Aurora, she just had this inner light in her that made me want to get to know her more,” Shala says. “Her smile and her eyes just twinkle—unlike anyone I’ve known before. And her laugh! Aurora is hilarious. Her name fits her so well. She really spreads light, and to know her is to love her.”
As queer feminists who didn’t come from families “with the healthiest romantic relationships,” neither Aurora not Shala thought marriage would ever be a possibility for them. “A year into dating, queer-rights activists won the fight for marriage equality. Suddenly, [the dream of] marrying the love of my life became a reality,” Aurora remembers. “The day we heard about Obergefell v. Hodges, I remember waving a huge Pride flag around during a celebration in Discovery Green with her, and dancing the night away at Pearl Bar. It opened up possibilities and pushed us to unpack our feelings around marriage as an institution, and what it means to us.”
This happy couple discovered that being queer and navigating who should propose to whom can be tricky. “We were always like, ‘We’re both pretty feminine, we both don’t like surprises, and we don’t like gendering things. We would say, ‘I love you. I want to be together for the rest of our lives,’” Aurora says. Shala would often casually ask Aurora to marry her, but Aurora thought she was joking.
In 2019, they decided to “intentionally ask each other and do the thing,” Aurora says. “We chose a special day and proposed to each other. We did one of our favorite dates—a picnic on the lawn of the Menil. We got our favorite snacks, a bottle of wine, and asked for each other’s hand in marriage.”
The couple then eloped on December 17, 2021, at the Oak Atelier. “Fall is Shala’s favorite season because she’s a native Houstonian. It’s when she loves the weather the most,” Aurora says. “One of Shala’s good friends, Lakeia Ferreira-Spady, another Black queer woman, officiated the ceremony. I really wanted a special day for just the two of us, and to eliminate the stress of planning a large event—although elopements are still, surprisingly, a bit stressful.”
When it came to choosing their wedding customs and traditions, the couple says they tried to leave out as much “patriarchy” as possible.
“We definitely left in ‘jumping the broom,’ for which a friend of ours decorated a broom. As Black queer women, not only was there a time we couldn’t get legally married due to our queerness, but also due to our Blackness. During slavery in the United States, enslaved people would jump over a broom to marry, since they could not be legally wed,” Aurora explains.
But they still wanted some elements of a traditional ceremony. “Dress for me, suit for her. I wanted everything but the people, the arch, and the bouquet.” They got their wish, but the event made both brides realize something about elopements. “This is a lot. I was a traditional bride in a lot of ways. The wedding day was so hectic. Elopements aren’t as simple as they look in photos. It’s still an event, and requires intention and more planning than you think,” Aurora says.
For their wedding vows, they danced and sang Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to one another. All of their vendors were women of color, queer, or queer allies. “Our florist, Karren Terrazas, is an out and proud bisexual who volunteers with trans-rights groups when she’s not making beautiful arrangements,” Aurora says.
Their wedding cake was strawberry-almond flavored. “A big one!” Aurora says. “For, like, 16 people. We had cake for days—for breakfast, for lunch. It was really good.”
And the readings for the ceremony were all from Black writers, including bell hooks and Nikki Giovanni. “We really added our own flair to it. I want people to see that you can make it however you want,” Shayla says. “You don’t have to follow a script,” Aurora adds.
Early on, the couple had considered simply going to the courthouse to get married. But, Aurora says, “I’m so glad we made the decision to elope. The pandemic taught us so much, including the importance of celebrating these things. People got so much joy from seeing our photos and seeing us celebrate our love out loud. I’m really against courthouse weddings now. People should really celebrate.”
This, she says, is especially true for queer couples and women of color. “Visibility is like chocolate. You can never have enough.”
This article appears in the March 2022 edition of OutSmart magazine.