“People don’t believe us—especially the gays sometimes—that we met on IG and not a dating-centric app,” says Dr. Matthew Jordan Miller (or “Dr. Matt”) of his love story with Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, the dynamic Democrat who legislates on behalf of Pennsylvania’s 181st District and is currently campaigning for the US Senate. The activist-turned-politician first caught the then-PhD candidate’s eye about five years ago when an article about LGBTQ leaders to watch landed on Matt’s Instagram “Explore” page. Matt decided to do exactly that, liking a few of Malcolm’s pictures.
“I had never dated anyone so open and active in the LGBTQ+ space or who was an activist. Plus, he was cute,” says Matt. “I liked a bunch of his photos…then, sure enough, he did the same. I sent him a message telling him I’d like to get to know him, more or less. Nothing too heavy.”
“I started liking his pictures back and forth and ultimately he sent me a message which I didn’t see for like a week,” Malcolm recalls. “Meanwhile, I finally got the courage to message him, even though I had a number of friends saying I shouldn’t because he might be crazy...When I went to message him I saw he had messaged me and we started talking and we’ve really never stopped.”
That said, expectations were initially low, as the two were conversing from across the country, Malcolm in his “forever home” of Philadelphia and Matt in Los Angeles, where he was working toward his doctorate at the University of Southern California. While Malcolm recalls immediately thinking Matt was “beautiful,” after their first FaceTime conversation, “I was just blown away by how smart he was and how interested he was, specifically in Black culture.”
“He felt so familiar,” Matt says of Malcolm. “We had been FaceTiming until he fell asleep for almost five months since we were on different time zones, but texting all the time. He was very put-together. Such a Leo. A walking character of personality, a true theatre kid, and a sensitive person who rarely lets on to how much he’s got going on.”
But still, Matt initially held back when it came to meeting in person. “I had offered to come to LA to meet him and he was like ‘No, I’m not ready,’” Malcolm shares. “I was surprised because we’d been talking for months but he wasn’t ready to meet. After that, we didn’t talk for a couple of weeks. I was very upset. And lo and behold, he gave me a call, and he was like, ‘I was just being afraid. I’m being stupid. We need to meet up, but I’m playing hard to get.’ I said, ‘Well, we need to talk for a couple more months to make sure you’re not going to change your mind again.’”
The two ultimately agreed Matt would make his first trip to Philly, with Malcolm paying for the flight over and Matt purchasing his own return, “so like, you know, if it’s not a good situation in person or whatever, then you can fly back whenever you want,” Malcolm explains.
That doubt dissolved the moment he met Matt at the airport.
“I’m waiting at baggage claim for him and he came down the escalator and I just couldn’t believe it. And as soon as he walked over to me, I instantly kissed him and it just felt like he had been on a trip,” says Malcolm. “It felt like we’ve been together all this time and I was just picking him up from the airport. It didn’t feel like I was meeting him in person for the first time and so I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is happening.’”
The next few days solidified the relationship for Matt, as well. “He wanted to show me off as much as he showed me his whole world—his community, his job, his family, his volunteering, his unheated apartment—LOL. Everyone I met had this smirk, like, ‘Oh, so you’re the one he’s been talking about!’ It could have felt like pressure to some, but it let me know I was serious to him and I wasn’t some secret,” he says. “Coming from LA and having only recently came out as gay to my family a couple of years before, I was used to smoke and mirrors and mind games with folks who I dated. But [Malcolm’s] confidence coupled with vulnerability sold me.”
Still, long distance relationships are notoriously difficult to sustain. “It turned out living across the country from each other is really difficult, and I didn’t know how we were going to figure that out,” Malcolm admits. “I knew that I’d love this man in a way I’ve never loved anybody ever. And I was terrified that we weren’t gonna figure out how to be in the same place.”
Matt agrees that “figuring out a way to be in the same place and living out our unique purposes,” was a tremendous challenge. “Academia is notoriously unstable and can send you in the middle of nowhere. And politics is no crystal ladder, either,” he continues. “As a visual artist and writer, I was also really unsure about the art world in Philly—which is incredibly historic and vibrant—compared to where I was.”
Three years ago, Matt made the move to join Malcolm; the two now live in the heart of North Philly with their “attention-loving and nap-heavy” French bulldog, Cleopatra. As of this May, Dr. Matt is now also the first-ever Director of Justice x Belonging (JxB) at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design, where he leads initiatives and teaches, as well as supporting Malcolm’s Senate campaign in his off-hours.
The two also became engaged—twice. “Technically we both proposed, but Malcolm went first,” Matt explains.
“I proposed in July of 2020—we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, but you know, things are starting to open up,” says Malcolm “And there is this beautiful Japanese garden in Fairmount Park. And my birthday is at the end of July...Matt is also a photographer and I tell him I want to go to the Japanese garden on the day they open back up and have him take some birthday pictures.
“And as we’re there, I had gotten another photographer to take pictures of us as [Matt’s] taking pictures of me. And we’re doing different poses and I get down on one knee and that’s when Matt was like, ‘What are you doing? That’s not a pose.’ and I said, ‘I’m proposing’...It was a beautiful time and it ended up going viral.”
But the betrothal didn’t end there, since, as Malcolm says, “Matt can’t leave well enough alone and decided to rope my staff into a scheme to counter-propose and make me cry in public.”
“Back in February 2021, I surprised him with the help of a good friend who pretended we were just going on dog dates,” Matt explains. “On our walk back, I sprung it on him and ‘counter-proposed’ with a ring made of the same precious stone and designed by the same amazing Philly jeweler Henri David.”
“It was devious and beautiful, and I’m still incredibly happy about it. But I’ll also never forgive him,” Malcolm adds.
The two are hoping to marry within the year—though, as Malcolm notes, they have “very different ideas of what [their] wedding should be.” While Matt envisions a non-traditional party that’s “fashionable, foodie, [and] fun,” followed by a “verdant and tropical” honeymoon abroad, Malcolm would be more than happy with a “chill AF” ceremony. Like, super-chill.
“I mean, literally I could get married in our living room. And then, like, you know, binge-watch Netflix and we order in some fancy food,” he says. “I would invite no one except for my pastor and then I would probably ask her to leave after she finished marrying us.”
If their ceremonial styles seem indicative of how distinctly different the couple’s personalities are, it’s a study in contrasts they readily celebrate.
“We’ve learned that we do not have to become the same person to be in love...that’s a myth,” says Matt, who tellingly describes himself as Malcolm’s “other 100%” in his Twitter profile. “It is a union of two people, not a fusion into one. Love is also about allowing each other to change and evolve, especially when you’re young. I’ve learned that, despite my seriousness and studiousness, I’m actually more eccentric than [Malcolm] is. We always look like we’re going to two different places—I’m all glimmered out and he’s giving normcore or business casual. Rather than trying to make him dress like me, I do my thing. He does his.”
“I would say to folks, throw out the rulebook,” Malcolm adds. “So many of us learn a lot of what we know about love from Disney movies. And that is not most people’s life...I think we all have this idea in our head of what our partner will be or who our kids will be or what that job is. People get frustrated as opposed to counting themselves incredibly blessed and end up missing the beauty of something that was completely unexpected.”
The couple says communication, including learning each other’s love languages, is at the core of their compatibility. “Like, we literally talk about everything,” says Malcolm.
“Your ability to effectively communicate with one another—and we do—is crucial,” he continues. “You know, I often say—and I mean this seriously: I’ve had better fights with Matt than I’ve had dates with people. I think we fight very well...We fight well because you will fight.”
“We never let disagreements turn into excuses to destroy each other’s characters,” Matt adds. “We always tell friends who want to be in a relationship: ‘It’s not about how you [get along]. It’s about how you fight.’ If you can learn to absorb each other’s points of view and keep the respect, you’ll never get too low.”
As Malcolm notes, it’s about seeing the big picture—as well appreciating the nuances of partnership.
“Matt thinks about things very deeply. I think he has a way of really getting to the heart of something and understanding things on a maybe near-microscopic level,” he says. “[I love] the way he sort of engages the level of detail that he puts into everything he does. It really is beautiful to watch.
“I would just say that love is so precious; so precious. And having somebody who you can wake up every day with and want to see is a real gift,” Malcolm continues. “You know, Matt and I got through Trump and COVID together. We got through the death of my mother, the loss of three of his grandparents. Now we’ve gotten through all of that together, and he’s still the first person I want to see in the morning.”
You can read prior installments of “How We Do” here and here.