When Aaron Capener moved into his grandmother’s Kingsport, Tenn., home in 2010, the eighth grader quickly became pals with Kayla Norton, a soft-spoken classmate who lived down the street.
“We were very close friends,” Aaron — who was designated female at birth but transitioned to male as an adult — tells PEOPLE for the Valentine’s Day special in this week’s issue.
“She was really sweet,” adds Aaron, now 26. “She was a calming presence. I felt so relaxed around her.”
The connection they built during those six months together would prove everlasting. After Aaron returned to Eugene, Oregon, to live with his dad during high school, he and Kayla bridged the distance with phone calls and social media. And when Aaron visited his grandma on summer vacations, he and Kayla would prioritize time together.
Meanwhile, Aaron — who grew up in a conservative Christian home — was harboring a painful secret: he had been struggling with his gender identity for years.
“I spent all of the seventh grade riding the bus to school, reading my Bible,” he says, “because I was so scared that I was going to go to hell for liking my first crush or for wanting to be happy.”
Aaron eventually told his family that he believed he was a lesbian — but they weren’t initially supportive and thought faith would change him.
“They would help me pray,” he recalls. “They would encourage me just to keep praying it away.”
Following years of introspection, Aaron embraced his truth at the age of 18: he was a transgender man. Then he came out in a candid Facebook post and immediately found support from Kayla.
“Kayla messaged me to let me know she had my back,” Aaron says. “She was a hundred percent supportive.”
Two years later, in 2016, Aaron moved back to Tennessee, and the two began hanging out again.
“I was nervous because I came back as Aaron,” he says.
But he quickly found that his bond with Kayla was the same. The two went to see holiday lights with her family, collaborated on DIY projects and began seeing each other every day.
Aaron tells PEOPLE they began “slowly dating,” and every once in a while, Kayla would hold Aaron’s hand during a scary movie.
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“Then one day, I got the courage to kiss her,” he says. “She kissed me back.”
The relationship got serious, and on Dec. 4, 2021, they said “I do” in front of 25 friends and family members.
“It was so perfect,” Aaron says. “She’s perfect.”
Now 27, Kayla credits their early friendship with forming a strong foundation for their marriage.
“I love his big heart,” she says. “I see him for who he is. Nothing else matters.”
Meanwhile, Aaron marvels at his wife’s unconditional love.
“I don’t know if there are many people who could love you as either gender,” says Aaron. “That’s a whole other level of unconditional.”
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Now Aaron and Kayla are focused on their next chapter as husband and wife. When they’re not keeping up with their three dogs, they’re busy renovating a home they bought last May and running Triton Visuals, a content creation company for LGBTQ businesses. And they’re hoping to soon start a family of their own.
It’s a happy life that Aaron shares on YouTube and TikTok because he had trouble finding other people like him while growing up — and he wants trans kids to know they aren’t alone.
“I thought that I was the only person that felt this way. I didn’t know there was a whole community,” Aaron says. “This journey is not the easiest. But they need positivity and hope and light.”
“I want them to know that it does get better, and that they are able to have a life of their own one day,” he adds. “That is possible.”