She traveled across the globe to meet a podcast host after falling in love her. Emma Gregory stumbled across Denise Warner’s podcast more or less by chance. It was 2006. Jemma, a student in Brisbane, Australia in her 20s, was looking for a LGBTQ+ listen on her “old school” chunky iPod. It was when Apple had just started promoting podcasts on iTunes like, way, way back in the day,” recalls Jemma.
I just typed in ‘lesbian’ into the search bar to see what came up, and their show was one of the first ones at the top. So I listened – and it was funny and just really relatable.” Jemma was hooked. When, at the end of the show, Denise and her co-host suggested listeners phone or email them with any questions, she decided to send a message.
Jemma didn’t think the hosts, based thousands of miles away in the US, would pay her email any attention. But when Denise saw Jemma’s message in her inbox, she was delighted.
In 2006, Denise was in her late 30s and had just started podcasting. She’d started up the project with her best friend, recording the show from her apartment in south Florida. We just wanted to share our girls’ night with the world and spotlight LGBT projects. “That was our goal.”
When Denise imagined her ideal listener, it was probably someone like Jemma – a person keen to listen to frank, funny and incisive discussions, and ready to propose questions and send in feedback.
But so far, most of Denise’s listener interactions had been disappointing, to say the least. We would say the phone number and then we would get all these awful call-ins that were men asking really dark or sexual questions, and we were like, ‘No, no, no, this is not what we want.
Click, hang up on him,” says Denise, miming hanging up on a phone call. “We just couldn’t get the engagement that we wanted.” That’s why Jemma’s email was like a light in the darkness. She came along, and it just snowballed – that was exactly what we were looking for.”
I found your podcast,” wrote Jemma in her first message. “I love it. I’m listening all the way from Brisbane, Australia.” Then, Jemma reeled off some fun questions – what kind of lunch pail did you carry when you were a kid? What’s your go-to meal? What was your favorite subject at school?
In the next episode, Denise and her co-host gave Jemma a shout-out and used her questions as a jumping off point for their conversation. The podcast was recorded live and Denise and her co-host usually ran a corresponding chat room during the recording.
Normally, the people would just kind of talk to each other in the chat room, not really pay attention to us,” says Denise. But Jemma’s fun questions seemed to shift that dynamic. Now they were so fully engaged, answering the questions and listening to our answers,” says Denise.
After the episode wrapped, Denise dropped Jemma an email, thanking her. That went so well,” she wrote. “Maybe you can send questions every week.” Jemma took Denise up on the offer – being involved in the podcast gave her a sense of community, and it was fun.
So started a pattern: Jemma would email questions across the Pacific, Denise would answer them on air. Soon, Jemma’s questions became a fixed segment. Sometimes she even appeared on air. And in between recordings, the two women would send each another messages.
“We had, for a solid two years, just back and forth weekly email exchanges,” recalls Jemma. “It wasn’t just the questions, it was, ‘This is what’s going on in my life’ – girlfriends at the time, and going out and having fun. So we built up a friendship for a few years before anything else, which was nice.”
“All these years went by, with her diligently sending in her questions and everything,” says Denise. “The chat room knew her, and we would have little flirty things on the air if she’d call in.”
Meeting in person
Time went on and Jemma took up a teaching position, which afforded her long summer vacations. In 2008, Jemma started planning a trip to the US with one of her close friends, with stop offs in New York and Los Angeles.
She wrote Denise an email detailing her plans. Maybe she could swing by Miami during the trip and they could meet at last?
Both Denise and Jemma were curious to meet in person. But while their podcast interactions were sometimes a little flirty, they didn’t really think anything romantic would happen between them. Denise was conscious she was a bit older than Jemma. And Jemma just figured Denise was a pal on the other side of the world, someone fun she could hang out with while she was in the US.
“In my mind, we were still firmly friends,” says Jemma.
When Jemma and her friend landed in Miami, Denise’s co-host picked them up from the airport. Then the trio headed directly to Denise’s workplace so they could catch Denise during her lunch break.
“I turned up and she – having had this wonderful online friendship – wouldn’t even give me eye contact,” recalls Jemma, who remembers being confused and a little hurt.
Denise says her uncharacteristic shyness was because she was internally panicking. The moment she met Jemma in person, the feelings that had been bubbling under the surface of their emails came to a head.
“I just was so afraid that she could see in my face that I was like, ‘Oh, wow. This will be great if this blossoms into something.’ I didn’t want it to come across that way, so I was trying to play it as cool as I possibly could,” recalls Denise.
Denise was concerned about making her feelings for Jemma obvious, in case they weren’t reciprocated.
Plus, even if they were, Denise was worried about the age gap, not to mention the ocean that usually separated them.
“There were a lot of obstacles that I was afraid of,” says Denise. “But one thing about being with someone younger is they’re fearless. She conquers every obstacle and makes it work – and I’m pretty sure by the time that four days were up, we were in it.”
Today, Denise and Jemma credit their early days of emailing for paving the way for a relationship that’s spanned 15 years and counting.
“It gave us the foundation of communication,” says Jemma of their pen pal period.
That foundation is especially important, because the couple “do have a lot of polar opposite parts of our personalities,” as Jemma puts it.
Denise says their differences are many: “I’m an instant stressor, I’m always anxiety ridden – and that Australian comes out where Jemma’s super chill, nothing rattles her. I’m a talker, she’s an analyzer. She listens and processes, and I keep going and going.”
But Denise and Jemma reckon these differences complement each other, balancing each other out. And importantly, there’s plenty they’re aligned on too.
“Both of us talk to our moms on a daily basis,” says Jemma. “We have a really similar sense of humor around a lot of things too – quite daft.”
Early on, when the couple shared their love story, they were told “that’s just the most romantic thing.”
In more recent years, Jemma’s shared the story with LGBTQ+ networks via her job, and she’s received a slightly different reaction. People think it’s romantic, sure, but they’re also shocked at some of the roadblocks Jemma and Denise experienced trying to make a gay relationship work across borders.
People don’t really have a memory of what it was like 10, 15, 20 years ago with the different laws and what could and couldn’t be done,” says Jemma. “So I get quite a lot of shock at how difficult it was for us to be in a long term relationship at that point.”
For both Jemma and Denise, thinking back on the early days of their romance and looking at where they are a moving, gratifying experience.
For Jemma, the takeaway is the importance of “saying yes to opportunities.”
Denise echoes this
“Take a chance,” she says. “I think you’ve got to be open to saying yes. If you had asked me in my 30s if I ever thought I’d be living in another country, I don’t know that I would have said yes. But I did it. I said yes. And I have a great life and a great wife.”
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