It was on a raw and rainy Sunday that I went out to meet with Shelley and Terri and their son Dominic, where I was introduced to their sunny world and found out how they got there.
Shelley: We met at a business thing, we were on a panel together at a conference.
Terri: At first I thought she was straight. She was wearing a dress and pearls.
Shelley: We all went out for drinks after the evening program, and I said to this group of people who I didn’t know very well, but who I was pretty comfortable with -- in education you could pretty much count on people at least being open to your being gay -- I said, “I guess I can put this back on my jacket now” -- and I put on a pin that I used to wear on my jacket that said: Nobody knows I’m a lesbian. I wore it because it made people smile. But I took it off when I was working.
Terri and I were sitting across from each other, and the other six people talked amongst themselves and Terri and I talked to each other and that’s kind of how it got started.
Terri: About a month later, Clinton was elected and it was the first time I had ever voted for a presidential candidate who won. I was so excited and so emboldened that I called her.
Shelley: And I thought she had a girlfriend; I think we both thought the other one had a girlfriend because you know how sometimes people seem desperate when they don’t have a partner? Neither one of us seemed that way. So she called me up to say: there’s this thing happening on Princeton’s campus and would you like to come?
I said, “Do you have a couch I can crash on?" because I didn’t know how late this thing was going to be. I know this sounds like a plan now, but I still didn’t know –
Terri: You still thought I had a girlfriend?
Shelley: I don’t know. I remember being surprised that there was only one toothbrush when I got to the apartment, so I really didn’t know. I was maybe starting to hope at that point, but I hadn’t gotten up the courage to say, “So what’s your deal anyway?” But the visit was great, and I came back just super excited.
Terri: And she slept on my couch.
Shelley: I did sleep on the couch, it’s true. So then I told all my friends about how great she was and she told all her friends about how great I was. You know how when you’re really falling in love, all your conversations just sort of come back to that person? And I was having a tough time impressing upon people how wonderful she was and what I remember is that when I would sort of rattle off all her fabulous attributes: she’s funny, she’s smart, she’s kind, she has this beautiful curly red hair, she has more books of poetry than I do -- that’s the thing that people were amazed at -- that she had more books of poetry than I do.
Terri: But we didn’t live together for quite a while, it was four years, driving back and forth between here and Philly, where Shelley lived.
Shelley: The decision for me to move up here was the difference between the laws in Jersey and Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, at the time that we were starting to think seriously about building a life together, if you had a couple in which one of the parents was the biological parent of the child, it was not possible for the second parent to adopt. It’s important to adopt because that way both people have a strong, legal connection and there is a huge history of gay and lesbian couples losing their children because someone decides that they are unfit to parent, like grandparents and other relatives swooping in.
Terri: I don’t think it was decided we were going to have a child quite yet. It was more just feeling like –
Shelley: – we don’t want to be someplace that’s that hostile –
Terri: We didn’t want to settle down in a place where the laws weren’t supportive and I actually knew somebody who had already been through the adoption process here in Princeton before we met.
Shelley: Probably the biggest difference between the child of a gay or lesbian couple and a straight couple is that every child of gay or lesbian parents is a wanted child, every single one, by definition.
Terri: Well, it certainly isn’t going to happen by accident!
Dominic was born in 2001, and we met in ’92. So we had a lot of time to go on great long vacations and we had a big chunk of time where we could just get to know each other and enjoy our life together, but I think you reach a certain age and you realize, okay, we’ve got to make a decision here. And I was probably less sure about being a parent than Shelley was at the beginning.
Shelley: People said, “Don’t you worry about the kind of situation you’ll be putting a child in, having them be the child of lesbian parents?” And I always felt like, well, we’re going to be awesome parents, so actually, No!
Terri: After we had Dominic and we decided we were going to buy a house, we made a very conscious decision to buy in Princeton, because we were far more confident about the response we would get here than some other towns; not that New Jersey is all that conservative, but we knew that we were a lot less likely to run into trouble here. So in a way, the anticipation and fear of difficulties shaped the decisions that we made, because we’ve experienced having people drive by and scream at us in other places and we were on a camping trip in British Columbia and our tent got stoned with us in it.
Shelley: We were in a camp ground and there were a bunch of Boy Scouts, in the middle of the night they started throwing stones at our tent; they actually tore the tent with the stones they threw. They were like 14 years old.
Terri: So I think we had the good fortune to be able to make a choice to live in a town like this; not everybody can afford to live in Princeton, but I had the university's mortgage program. So we chose a much smaller house than we might have, but we don’t regret it. I mean, there are other reasons we wanted to be in town, but that really was the deciding factor.
Shelley: People who are not gay or lesbian have a difficult time imagining that sense of constraint, and they feel that it’s unwarranted, or they want very much for it to be unwarranted on your part. Because they don’t feel it. It’s similar to the way white people respond to an African American’s story of struggle or prejudice or discrimination. A lot of times the instinctive response is, “Oh, I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way,” or “Gosh, I hope you know that that’s not really how our town really is.” People want so much for it not to be true that they immediately start to paper over it and deny its reality.
Terri: But we haven’t had any trouble – we haven’t had any problems with other kids' parents.
Shelley: There may be instances in which people are less likely to reach out to us because they’re not comfortable; there have been a few of those cases. But people in our birth class were bragging about the fact that there were lesbians in the class, it was so hip and groovy for them.
Terri: When I was in my teens and 20s, people didn’t even say the word “gay”. Shelley sometimes says, “You knew someone was gay if they were willing to say the word out loud.” Nobody wanted to. There were straight people who were really uncomfortable if you even said it in front of them.
Shelley: Things were much more secretive, and people were worried about how it would impact their jobs and some people are still living that way and there are certainly states that we’d never move to, because we would have to live that way again, but it’s gone all the way from that to now most people don’t even consciously think about it.
Terri: I think it’s very generational. I think the popular culture has opened up more space now. There are gay and lesbian characters on more than one television show.
Shelley: Back when LA Law was on the air, there was a kiss between CJ and Abbey and I guarantee you that there are many, many thousands of lesbians who, like me, have in their basement a VCR tape with that kiss on it. Because we were so hungry for any inkling, any little two minutes of reflection that our lived experience was a shared experience.
That hunger is hard to overstate. The thing that people sometimes don’t realize is that there are still huge numbers of people who are still feeling that hunger. That our ability to find community and make connections is in some ways, and to some people, still a luxury and there are still tons of people in little towns thinking, Am I the only one?
Zina Saunders 2014