It's hard to distinguish Preston James Thompson's first birthday party from the hundreds of other kid-themed parties that happen every week at HippoHopp. Located off of the 1-85 access road between Clairmont and North Druid Hills roads, it's one of those full-service family entertainment centers that parents relish because everything's included under one roof: the indoor playground and inflatable bounce house, the balloons and paper party décor, the pepperoni pizza lunch and, most importantly, the cleanup.
Like most first birthdays, the real guests of honor are the two people who survived the first year of parenthood. Tonya Allen and Alana Thompson are no different. "I feel like somebody should be throwing us a party," Allen says as the family of three waits to be greeted inside.
Behind the front desk hang silhouette cutouts of HippoHopp, the dancing purple mascot with the snaggle-toothed smile. He looks like Barney's country cousin. The rest of the place is overrun with sock-footed toddlers occasionally crashing into the calves of slow-moving adults. Allen cradles a drooling Preston in one arm while soaking up the scene with the kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm typically reserved for HippoHopp's younger clientele. "Doesn't this just make you want to have a whole bunch of kids?" she says.
For Allen and Thompson, the process of having a son began almost from the moment they met four years ago in the office of Vision Church of Atlanta, an inclusive ministry in Grant Park where Thompson, 35, serves as an elder.
By the end of their first conversation they were already discussing children. What they weren't prepared for was the journey it would take to get there. Today Thompson refers to Preston as their "miracle baby" because he was born two months premature, weighing only 3 pounds 8 ounces. Allen, on the other hand, jokingly calls him their "$78 baby," referring to the price of the home insemination kit that she used to impregnate Thompson with donated sperm.
The state of Georgia, however, has another name for Preston's conception: illegal.
Artificial insemination conducted by anyone other than a licensed doctor or surgeon is a felony in Georgia, punishable by one to five years in prison. Like a lot of committed lesbian couples in the state, Allen and Thompson were unaware of the law at the time they conceived their son as domestic partners. After Preston was born and they brought him to church, Allen became an advocate for other couples almost by accident.
"Someone came up to me and was like, 'What was the process?'" Allen says. A couple of inquiries a month turned into a couple a week. "People kept calling my phone, so I just started setting up these little babymaking meetings at my house."
What started as a means to an end quickly became a mission. In 2013, Allen founded Stork Consulting, her informal effort to help educate other lesbian couples in their endeavors to start families.
She's always careful to advise clients of the law regarding at-home insemination when presenting the range of options. But because same-sex marriage still isn't recognized in this state, the biological barriers to parenthood have proven relatively easier for LGBT couples to scale than the institutional ones.
For many of the couples Allen consults, having a family means going up against the traditional ideals of the conservative black church, Georgia's anti-LGBT laws, and a cultural bias that criminalizes non-heteronormative behavior. But the idea of what constitutes a "normal" family — and who has the right to define that — is increasingly up for challenge in this country. Even in the red state of Georgia.
Preston, however, is proof that the human desire for family, to nurture a child and provide a loving household, does not discriminate based on sexual orientation.
"We want babies like you want babies," Allen says. "Your life is no different from mine. I just don't have a husband; I have a wife."
Allen and Thompson found their baby's daddy on Craigslist. They laugh about it now, but the desperation that drove them there wasn't particularly funny at the time.
For most lesbian couples who desire to have children outside of adoption or fostering, their options begin where alternatives for heterosexual couples usually end. In vitro fertilization and artificial insemination originated as processes to overcome infertility and other reproductive challenges faced by opposite-sex couples. As last resorts, they can be expensive and imposing.
Allen discovered that the sperm bank route could cost as little as $1,000-$3,000, although successful conception often requires multiple tries, which could quickly add up. The next option was to ask male friends, gay or straight, if they'd be willing to be sperm donors. Most decided it was "too close for comfort," Allen says.
While wading through known donor websites and Yahoo groups one day, she decided to place the Craigslist ad almost out of curiosity.
"I was already at the end of the rope in terms of trying to find someone to be a donor anyway," Allen says. "So what was it going to hurt?" She was shocked when she got hundreds of responses, ranging from the crazy to the sexually deviant. Most expressed interest in natural insemination, which meant they just wanted to have unprotected intercourse with strangers. "And those just weren't options for [us]," she says.
So she tried the reverse and searched for men who'd placed sperm donor ads. Allen quickly realized the conundrum for lesbian couples seeking known donors: "A man that's willing to give you his sperm and walk away with no strings attached probably ain't the man you want to be your baby daddy," she says. "But the man that is kind, educated, someone that you would want sperm from, probably isn't going to just walk away. And as a lesbian couple, we wanted our baby to be our baby. We wanted him to have two parents: mommy and mommy. Not momma, mommy, and daddy."
A quick scan for "sperm donors" under Craigslist's Atlanta ads shows how dire such a search can be. Of the 20 ads currently posted, about half are from potential male donors. Among them is a SWM seeking an African-American female to impregnate through intercourse; a "light skinned, green eyed" man who posted an ad after having "a dream last night that a woman was looking to have a child;" and even a dude in search of someone to advance his "royal bloodline." In his post, he claims to be the "16th direct grandson of Chaucer," in addition to having four kings and six queens in his Carolingian lineage. Oddly enough, he still happens to pass a couple of the preliminary standards. He isn't looking for coitus or parental rights. Most importantly, he's open to helping LGBT couples: "Gay straight or from the moon. It doesn't matter who you love," he writes, "it matters how you love."
The ad for Allen and Thompson's donor was far less eccentric. Beyond meeting the initial criteria, the donor emphasized that he was happily married. After having two kids, his wife had her tubes tied with his blessing. But because she knew he still desired to have more children, the wife suggested he find a lesbian couple to help, "who wouldn't bring any drama into their relationship, who wouldn't ask for anything, [and] who would sign the necessary paperwork," Allen says.
She set up a meeting with the donor and asked him to get tested for the full battery of STDs including HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, Allen began tracking Thompson's ovulation through a period tracker downloaded to her iPhone. Yes, there's an app for that. She synchronized everything to a science, taking care to set a date before, during, and immediately after ovulation for optimal results. After the donor provided her with his negative STD results, she set times and dates for sperm delivery: July 4, 6, and 8. Since they were using fresh sperm instead of the frozen and washed kind provided by sperm banks for optimal results, their donor traveled from his home state of Virginia to Atlanta for the process.
"He came over, he went to our second bedroom, we supplied him with lotion, a movie, a towel, and a sterile cup," Allen says. In the master bedroom, Allen stayed with Thompson, who was waiting on the bed with her hips elevated. "About five minutes later, [the donor] knocked on the door and said he had the supply. So I got it, walked him to the front door, let him out and went immediately into our bedroom."
Using the kind of needleless syringe available at most drug stores, Allen drew the semen out of the cup, found Thompson's cervix according to the diagram she'd pinned to the wall specifically for the occasion, and inseminated her wife. The three of them repeated the entire process two and four days later. By July 12, Thompson was spotting. By the 14th, her breasts were sore. On the 17th, the pregnancy test was positive. Baby Preston arrived seven and a half months later.
Though lesbian couples have been using artificial insemination as a means to motherhood for decades, "I didn't know anything about anything at the time," Allen, 32, says in hindsight. A New York Times piece once characterized the growing national trend as "a baby boom of unusual complexity." That was 25 years ago. For Allen, who'd grown up hiding her sexual orientation since age 14 in small-town Shelby, N.C., before moving to Winston-Salem and eventually Atlanta, the prospect of DIY artificial insemination opened up a whole new world.
Diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) in her early 20s, Allen had taught herself not to want kids because she was told having them was medically impossible. When Thompson expressed the desire to have her own child, "I didn't know what that meant," she says.
Part of her confusion had to do with their unspoken relationship roles. Though Thompson prefers the term "androgynous" to the stereotypical "stud," the bow ties and button-downs she wears to Sunday service stand in stark contrast to Allen's preference for high heels and formfitting dresses. As the less effeminate of the two, Thompson says other so-called studs questioned her about her decision to carry. The resulting hormonal changes Thompson faced during pregnancy compounded their role reversal.
"She still dressed like Alana," Allen says, "But she cried like Tonya, and she wanted to be held like Tonya. I had to figure out how to be Alana to her." Thompson, on the other hand, dismisses the dichotomy. "We're all still females," Thompson says. "It opened the doors for the studs to say, 'Hey, if she can have a baby, then I can have a baby."
Allen refers to her partner's "gold-star lesbian" status, meaning one who's never slept with a man, as another reason why getting pregnant the hetero way was a no-go. Plus, they're a monogamous couple in love, and having sex with someone else would have been tantamount to cheating.
The only option, as they saw it, was to find a healthy man willing to donate his sperm for free. That, too, would come with an unforeseen price.
The sperm donor agreements their donor signed are meant to protect both parties. But a January ruling in Kansas, where at-home artificial insemination is also illegal, has exposed how weak such agreements can be in a court of law.
Despite agreeing to terminate his parental rights and responsibilities, a Kansas man is being forced by his state to cough up child support after the same-sex couple he donated sperm to sought welfare assistance for the child. Because the same-sex couple didn't utilize the services of a physician for the artificial insemination, the judge ruled that the sperm donor wasn't entitled to the same legal protections afforded to those who lawfully give through a clinic.
The same thing could happen in Georgia.
It's part of the reason why Atlanta-based family law attorney Kathleen Womack strongly advises her LGBT clients to steer clear of at-home artificial insemination. While she doesn't know of any such cases that have ever been prosecuted in the state, most people considering it don't know it's illegal, she says. When she informs clients that it's a felony, she either doesn't hear back from them or "they rethink their strategy and decide to do it through a clinic."
Another legal protection comes in the form of second-parent adoption, which can enable both partners in a same-sex couple to establish parenthood over their child. Allen still remembers how powerless she was when Preston was born prematurely in the hospital.
"I've got a baby that's fighting for his life and a wife in the room that's cut open. And I'm not legally binded to either one of them; I can't make decisions for either one of these people. And I'm alone," she says. "Nobody in our circle or our community had had a baby, definitely not a preemie baby. It was so difficult."
But obtaining second-parent adoptions for LGBT couples is no cakewalk in Georgia. Even with a termination of parental rights from the donor, the process can be ambiguous from county to county and sometimes even judge to judge. In the end, the legal web in which same-sex couples find themselves entangled amounts to an LGBT tax.
"It costs a lot to be gay," says Womack, who offers estate planning to LGBT couples that covers wills and power of attorney to secure inheritance and health care directives for visitation and decision-making. "All that stuff that [heterosexuals] get free with [their] $50 marriage license, gay couples have to pay a lot of money for."
While there's currently no way around such prohibitive legalities, there are affordable and legal local resources to help couples become pregnant. The nonprofit Feminist Women's Health Center offers fertility and artificial insemination services via private donors supplied by sperm banks for a "far less expensive" price than for-profit clinics, according to Marketing and Communications Manager Jaime Chandra. The clinic started in the '80s to offer an alternative for single women and lesbian couples who "were having problems going to fertility clinics and getting treated because they didn't have a husband," Chandra says. "It was a very uncomfortable space."
Since the Supreme Court's historic decision in 2013 to strike down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), marriage equality may soon become the new normal around the nation. But the decision still concedes power to states, which puts Atlanta in a unique position. According to 2010 census numbers, metro Atlanta's gay population is the nation's fifth highest. Unlike the other four metropolitan areas — Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco/Bay Area, Chicago — Atlanta is the only one located in a state where same-sex marriage still isn't recognized. (Illinois will lift its ban this year.)
That puts LGBT couples in Atlanta in a peculiar squeeze, especially those wishing to start families. It generally means they will have to jump through more legal hoops and health care constraints, both of which cost.
That goes double for metro Atlanta's black same-sex population, which is the most significant in the nation. Despite their cultural stronghold here, those starting families face an especially unique set of statistical challenges, according to Angeliki Kastanis, a public policy researcher at UCLA's Williams Institute, who co-authored a nationwide study last October on African-American LGBT couples.
Based on the findings, it's significantly less likely for both partners in an African-American same-sex couple to have health insurance compared to their hetero counterparts. Allen and Thompson are confirmation. Allen is able to carry Preston on her health insurance because, as a federal employee, her job recognizes Preston as a child conceived within their same-sex domestic partnership. But she can't carry her partner Thompson, a self-employed owner of a commercial cleaning service by day, because their marriage hasn't been sanctioned in one of the 17 states where same-sex marriage is legal.
Because metro Atlanta's percentage of same-sex couples with children is second only to New York at 17 percent, and the majority of same-sex couples within the black community are female, it means a high percentage of same-sex couples in the metro area are enduring extremes to conceive and protect their families.
"A lot of the geographic data that we look at tends to suggest that a lot of same-sex couples in general that are raising children live in states with laws or legal environments that aren't supportive, or are kind of openly hostile toward LGBT individuals and their families," Kastanis says.
In Atlanta's case, members of the black LGBT community are drawn here for the same reasons as anyone else — a relatively low cost of living, jobs, good weather, and a strong black middle class — but living in Atlanta comes with a struggle their thriving hetero counterparts don't have to face.
Though the Georgia law that makes at-home artificial inseminations illegal wasn't intended to make it harder for lesbian couples to conceive, according to legal experts and marriage rights advocates, that's certainly the residual effect.
"The law is there to protect people," says Chandra, noting the increased risks of infection and potential for parental rights issues faced by those who do it themselves. "But it is always funny to me because you can go and have sex with somebody and [get pregnant and] that's completely legal."
Like same-sex marriage, the DIY procedure is legal in some states. And in other states, it seems to be loosely tied to the ever-increasing expansion of marriage equality rights. Last year, California legalized at-home insemination. Allen, for one, thinks it's time to revisit the law in Georgia.
"People do a lot worse things at home than try to make a baby," she says. "I do think the rule is outdated. I don't understand why it's against the law. If it's against the law because they want you to be safe, I don't think that's an issue anymore because women are very knowledgeable."
The Sunday following Preston's party, Allen's back in babymaking mode. She's hosting a consultation at her apartment for a couple who attended her son's party. A quick tour of Preston's bedroom reveals an open playpen on the floor filled with toys and a closet overflowing with yet-to-be-worn clothes. Neat rows of Johnson & Johnson's baby products line one shelf. Allen points to the audiobooks on another shelf. They're Danielle Steel novels read by men, "just to get him accustomed to a male voice," Allen says. They also make sure he has male role models, both gay and straight, in his life.
But even before his premature arrival, Allen and Thompson had trials to face. A prominent local pastor whom Thompson had known for years and supported through a personal ordeal sent a text to Thompson's phone one day rebuking her unborn child. "She just kinda cursed me to hell and told me that the next time she saw me it would be lying [in a casket] at my funeral," she says.
For Thompson, a preacher since age 9 who came out to her mother at age 18, it went against everything she believes about God. When she and Allen did end up seeing that pastor after Preston was born, Thompson couldn't believe it when the woman acted overjoyed to see their baby.
When President Barack Obama declared his support of same-sex marriage preceding his 2012 reelection, many prominent African-American ministers threatened to withdraw their support. It's a familiar refrain to those like Thompson and Allen who grew up in the church, forced to hide their sexuality or risk facing condemnation.
"The traditional black church is the biggest challenge for a black lesbian couple living in the South," Allen says. But she also understands Bible Belt conservatives who interpret the word of God literally. She just wishes they would interpret the whole Bible that way.
"Surely you're not telling me that you believe in one part of the Bible and not the other?" she says. "I can see where you get that interpretation. But if you keep flipping the pages, there is another one that says 'love' and 'don't judge.' So, I believe we can be in complete disagreement about the lifestyle and still be OK with each other and love each other. Because as Christians, that's what our commission is, to love one another and love God."
While gay-affirming ministries are growing even within the African-American church, the Vision Church to which Allen and Thompson and many of their friends belong prefers the term "inclusive." It's founder, Bishop O.C. Allen III (no relation to Tonya), also presides over the United Progressive Pentecostal Church Fellowship, of which Vision is a member church.
Two Sundays ago, Thompson preached a message in Bishop Allen's absence that could've easily applied to the struggles she and Allen have endured to become a family. It was a David vs. Goliath sermon about overcoming the obstacles in your life.
"Every giant must come down," she said, rattling off a list. "Finances. Health. Family. Hurt. Rejection. Lack of support. Feeling alone.
You are not alone."
Since overseeing the conception of their son with Thompson by means of artificial insemination, Allen's new moniker as "the Babymaker" has steadily gained credibility within their segment of Atlanta's lesbian community. Over the past year or so, she's consulted about 20 couples.
Not only is she a one-stop shop of resourceful information and family planning, she's also able to share with them the joys and pains of the entire process. Before taking on new clients, she assesses their financial and relationship statuses to determine if they're suited for parenthood.
"Do you use a turkey baster?" Teretha Jiles asks. It's one of the main questions Allen gets from clients during their first consultations.
A reservist in the Army/National Guard, Jiles has just arrived from drill in full camouflage to join her partner Yesmeen Jarvis, who is already at Allen's apartment with her 11-year-old daughter from a previous heterosexual relationship.
The two of them sport similar close-cropped cuts — Jarvis' is dyed blond and Jiles' is her natural color. Allen starts the conversation by establishing what she calls a "non-judgment zone" before delving into their history. They discussed having their own children before taking a yearlong hiatus from their five-year relationship. When they reconciled two months ago, they picked up the conversation again.
"We talked about it," Jarvis says. "But we didn't know what to do or how to do it."
That's why Allen's willingness to share her experience has made her such a popular resource.
"Now that technology is the way it is, you can Google and learn more about it, but you've still got to find [the donor]," Allen says. "You may know about artificial insemination and tracking ovulation, but you've got to get the sperm, and how do you get it?"
For the most part, she tells them, their budget will determine their options. They're some of the same options she and Thompson considered two years ago, including IVF and sperm banks. She encourages them to sign up on knowndonorregistry.com; she suggests an LGBT-friendly family law attorney; she even explains in intimate detail the process of monitoring ovulation.
When Allen reaches this point in her consultations, she repeatedly emphasizes to clients that at-home artificial insemination is against the law in the state of Georgia.
"I have to say that," she stresses a third and then a fourth time. "But, there is a way to get it in there. And whatever way that you get it in there is your business; it's none of my business."
In the article "Opting into Motherhood" published more than a decade ago in the scholarly journal Gender & Society, author Gillian Dunne wrote about how lesbian co-parents who have children via artificial insemination are "blurring the boundaries and transforming the meaning of parenthood."
The country, and the state of Georgia, are approaching a similar tipping point. In the past three months, gay marriage bans have either been lifted or deemed unconstitutional in five states. The Southern stronghold of Texas joined those ranks last week, when its ban was struck down in federal district court. Two days prior, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed publicly pledged his backing of a new $1 million media campaign to drum up support for marriage equality in Georgia and throughout the South. Reed's announcement as a spokesperson for the campaign is a complete one-eighty from the personal beliefs he "wrestled" with on the issue while campaigning back in 2009. The Southerners for the Freedom to Marry campaign is backed by several LGBT rights organizations, including Georgia Equality, whose director Jeff Graham points to a statewide Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll published last September that shows a plurality of Georgians support gay marriage for the first time.
Even as the state of Georgia inches closer to recognizing same-sex marriage, the battle to loosen the restrictions regulating same-sex conception could just be beginning.
Until then, Allen will advocate for the day when her path to parenthood isn't viewed so radically. It may not be so far away.
A couple of months ago, Allen, Thompson, and Preston were being primed for a potential Atlanta-based reality show on the subject until producers determined there wasn't enough ongoing drama to sell networks on a weekly series. In other words, they were too normal.
The scene at Preston's HippoHopp party is a good illustration. After helping the birthday boy open his presents ranging from a fresh pair of baby Jordans to a bow tie, Thompson and Allen thanked their "village" of 20-plus well-wishers who'd supported them through their first full year as parents. But the expected climax — blowing out the candle on Preston's "Sesame Street"-themed cake — ended up being rather anti-climactic. At the head of the knee-high table, Preston sat in one mommy's lap donning a gold sparkling crown, while his other mother lit the lone candle. Before he could blow it out, he upchucked a solid stream of baby puke, barely missing the cake, the table, and Allen's lap. Without skipping a beat, Thompson waved out the candle and everyone clapped as if on cue.
Whether the kids and parents were applauding the culmination of the last 12 months or Preston's accurate aim in that split second, both were perfect examples of life's little miracles.
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