Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Love Will Keep Us Together?

By Jay Hardwig

MARCH 22, 1999:  Bouncing briskly through the kitchen, the low whoop of imitated airplane engines spilling from his mouth, 2.5-year-old Bailey doesn't realize he's the object of so much attention. His biggest problems, at the moment anyway, are the aerodynamics of his toy airplane -- should it swoop or dive? -- and a football that's a little low on air. He doesn't know that, although they've never met, Warren Chisum thinks he's in grave danger. He doesn't know that Warren Chisum thinks his parents are unfit, and that the statewants to tell him that his safe and loving family isn't fit to be a family at all. If he just gets that football inflated, he thinks, everything will be all right. His parents aren't so sure.

In her highchair, pondering between the cheese crackers and the Cheerios at her disposal, 18-month-old Eva* isn't much aware of all the fuss either. From the looks of things, she's happy just to be there. If she knew as much, she'd be happy just to be alive: At four months, she was hospitalized with a spate of severe injuries received in her former home. A few months later, she came to Steph and Sherry's** home as a temporary foster placement. A broken child, traumatized by past abuse, Eva would sit on the floor and cry for hours, shrinking from any stranger who crossed her path. Things are looking up for her. She's doing much better now, healing both physically and psychologically, and taking a new interest in things around her. In a few weeks she'll be heading for a permanent adoptive home.

Steph and Sherry's house, a handsome two-story affair with a big backyard, is just like any other in this suburban Austin neighborhood: photos on the fridge, Big Wheels in the garage, bats and balls scattered on the lawn. The only visible difference is a small gay pride sticker on the window of the Suburban in the driveway; inside, however, the scenes of domestic tranquility are tempered by a deep fear. After 18 years together, and three as parents, partners Steph and Sherry are worried sick over the future of their family.

As lesbian parents, Steph and Sherry could be affected by the Chisum-Talton legislation in three ways. The first child at issue is their son Bailey. Conceived through donor insemination, Bailey is Sherry's natural child; their rights are safe, for the moment anyway. At significant cost and trouble, Steph has managed to adopt Bailey as her own, but if the house bills pass, her parental rights could be challenged by the state. In the event of Sherry's death, Bailey could be taken away from Steph, depending upon future interpretations of the law. The thought gives the couple chills. "Not only would he lose his first mother," Sherry says, "but his second mother. He would be removed from everything he's ever known, losing two moms instead of just losing one." The thought is not only hurtful, Sherry says, but horrifying. She tries not to think about it.

The legislation would also affect Steph and Sherry's future as foster parents. They decided to become foster parents on their son's first birthday as they glanced around a room piled high with gifts from friends and family. "Overwhelmed by the abundance" in their lives, and realizing how blessed they truly were, the couple decided to share their bounty with those less fortunate, and provide a safe place for a child in need. After months of training, interviews, and background checks, Steph and Sherry became licensed foster parents; shortly after that, Eva moved in. Now, eight months later, the little girl is ready to join her new adoptive family. Steph and Sherry would like to foster again, but are afraid that any child they accept would later be taken from their home. If Chisum's bill passes, they'll be barred from ever fostering again.

Finally, Steph and Sherry are worried for their godchild Ashli Garza. "Those are the kids we are fighting for," says Steph, "Bailey, and our future children; Eva, and out future foster children; and our godchild. Those bills could take every single one of those away from us."

An extended family (l-r): Nicole Garza, Ashli, Bailey, Sherry, Steph, and Noe
photograph by Jana Birchum

Among those who are worrying -- and rallying -- right alongside Steph and Sherry are longtime friends of the family Noe and Nicole Garza. Ashli Garza, (31*2), is their daughter. When time came for them to choose a legal guardian in the event of their deaths, they named Steph and Sherry. They did so, Nicole Garza reports, because Steph and Sherry were already family: Ashli had spent much of her first year at their house, coming over for day care when the Garzas went to work. (Sherry, 32, is a stay-at-home mom; Steph, 34, works as a technician in the semiconductor industry.) "They've been a part of Ashli's life since Ashli was just under four weeks old," says Garza. "They raised her for the first year ... They had as much influence and effect on her as I did." Not only was Ashli familiar with Steph and Sherry, but in their home, Nicole Garza saw a place that was "loving, spiritual, safe, and protective." Should anything happen to her and her husband, Garza says, "I feel 100% comfort knowing that [they]'d be there."

While Steph and Sherry are listed in Nicole and Noe Garza's will as the legal guardians for Ashli in the event of the Garzas' death, all bets would be off in the wake of the Chisum bill; Ashli could conceivably become a ward of the state.

"Chisum has said in a debate that he thinks kids would be better off with the state -- that's my child [he's talking about]. How does he know? He's never met my kid, he's never met Steph and Sherry, he's never met me." She notes that even as Republican lawmakers push legislation to allow parents to choose their kids' schools, this bill would prevent parents from choosing their kids' homes. It galls her that Chisum calls his agenda a "Christian" one. She's a Christian too, she says, "but I believe that God loves all of us, and that we should love everybody." She sees little love in Chisum's bill. "If it passes, there are going to be a lot of children who are going to be hurt in a lot of ways. It just devastates me. I get so upset."

Like Nicole Garza, Mary Elizabeth Parker is concerned about the implications of these bills and what effect they will have on the children. As a private agency physical therapist who works primarily with young kids, she is intimately involved with their welfare. And few children have been better served, she maintains, than young Eva when she was in Steph and Sherry's home. As the physical therapist assigned to help Eva overcome some of her motor delays in the months following her placement, Parker has nothing but good things to say for her client's foster moms. Citing their genuine compassion, willingness to learn, and intuitive parenting skills, she reports that Eva was one of the quickest heals she has ever seen. "Very rarely do we see children play catch-up. Usually we see children improve, but to play catch-up is very rare. ... I think it was because she got everything that she needed in a nurturing and safe environment, which she had not had before."

In fact, Eva progressed ahead of schedule, allowing Parker to close her case before she had planned. Eva's motor skills are now age-appropriate, and while she is far from healed emotionally, Parker says she is "cautiously optimistic" about Eva's future. "I think that the nurturing that she's gotten with Sherry and Steph definitely stacks the cards in her favor."

"These are the kind of homes that these children need to go to," Parker argues. "If we had more families like them, we wouldn't have an overworked CPS system." And while she worries about the larger implications of the bill, calling it a "witch hunt" and an unconscionable waste of money, Parker says that her first concern is for the children.

"I'm not a gay rights activist," Parker explains. "I'm a child activist."

Were it a different issue, Steph and Sherry might be calmer; they freely acknowledge that extending full civil rights to gays and lesbians will take time. But since this legislation involves their children, and their rights to be parents to those children, they don't have the luxury of waiting for the political climate to change. Instead, Sherry says, they are angry, hurt, frustrated, and afraid. Steph remembers crying the first time she read the bill, just as Eva was starting to make significant strides under their care. "I was just crushed. That was probably the saddest I've ever been on this whole thing, and then you just get mad."

Sherry, Ashli, and Bailey
photograph by Jana Birchum

And while her manner is both civil and restrained, there can be no doubt that Steph is angry. "These bills are all about Warren Chisum and Robert Talton. It's all about their morals. ... Don't try to force your morals on me. Sherry and I came from a town of 2,000 people in northern Minnesota, a very small village. We know all about discrimination. We've been together for 18 years. We've been through everybody's discrimination, especially from our own families ... but we've all found a way to live together and still love each other. They're still our children's grandparents, but they keep their morals to themselves and we keep ours to ourselves. And we just don't need state representatives and lawmakers to be shoving their morals down our throats."

For the first time in their lives they have become activists, taking their private lives public in an effort to fight negative perceptions of their life together -- perceptions based on the ill-formed foundation of ignorance and distrust. In separate letters, they have invited Chisum, Talton, and Governor Bush to come to their house and see what a lesbian family really looks like, to educate themselves about what they fear so much. Their invitations have been declined.

"We're just like anybody else," Steph says. "We're just trying to do our best and raise our families, do what's right for them, and have very good children." She stops for a moment to hunt for a needle to inflate Bailey's football. He's itching to go romp around in the backyard. From the looks of things, Steph is too, but before she goes she has one more request for the lawmakers who will decide their fate.

"Please know us before you judge us," she says simply, "or pass a law that will destroy our future as a family."

Eva's name has been changed to protect her identity.

Steph and Sherry are referred to by their first names only to protect their privacy.

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