This summer marks a big transition for Natalie Fox and Leah Nichols. Earlier this spring, they moved from Mobile, Alabama, where they had been living for nearly ten years, to New Orleans, Louisiana. A few weeks ago, Natalie started a new job at Tulane University doing adolescent HIV research, and in the coming days, Leah will be wrapping up her teaching job at a university in Alabama and joining her partner in their new home with their child Hayes, who turns two years old in July.
Alabama has always been home for Natalie and Leah. They grew up in two small Alabama communities - Natalie in York and Leah in Sumterville - about ten miles apart, and they both attended a small private school, where fewer than 30 students comprised each grade. Since the school was so small, it was easy to get to know everyone, even though Leah was three years older than Natalie, and their paths eventually crossed at a church youth group that they attended.
"During the summer after my senior year, I went to a church camp with the group, and Natalie and I became very close," Leah said. "We would stay up all night just talking ... and I guess this continued for forever!" The conversations they had, of course, evolved over time. "With that church group, we would write in journals to our future godly husbands - and we had a plan that one day we would live in a huge house (with our godly husbands) and be one happy family."
After Leah graduated from high school, she and Natalie parted ways, but they remained close friends, and four years later, when Leah graduated from college, she moved in with her best friend Natalie in an apartment in Mobile. "That was when our relationship really moved forward," Leah explained.
One night, Natalie wrote Leah a long letter, explaining that her feelings for Leah transcended friendship. "It just hit me one day like a ton of bricks," Natalie said. "I didn't just love her as my friend - I was in love with her. I thought about her all the time. And I just had to express my feelings for her." Natalie had been dating women for several years, but Leah had not - "I was still very involved in different religious organizations that had the mindset that being gay was wrong," Leah explained. Leah told Natalie she did not reciprocate her feelings. And while they remained close friends, Natalie's letter broke down a wall between the friends.
Natalie began dating a different woman, and this, Leah said, was really what prompted their romantic relationship. "I couldn't bear the thought of her not being in my life," Leah said. "I came home from work one day physically ill from the idea that someone was going to take her away from me. And that afternoon, I told her how I felt."
From that day forward, the women explained, their relationship was full of life, full of love, and expressed a commitment like no other they had ever felt before. "It was not like dating," Leah said. "It was like we were married that day - March 23, 2006. We had been best friends for six years, we meant so much to each other, we lived together, and we knew everything about each other."
Leah and Natalie saw their wonderful friendship blossom into a beautiful, fulfilling romance, and over the next few years, they supported each other through challenging trials, celebrated each other's achievements, and began to make a life together. On July 31, 2011, they welcomed a baby boy, Hayes Fox, into their lives. "Since I've been very young, I knew I wanted to be a mother," Leah said. "It never entered my mind that I wouldn't have children because I'm gay. It's been absolutely wonderful, and I feel more myself being a mother than I ever have in my life."
Natalie and Leah welcomed their son into their lives with joy nearly two years ago. But even as they celebrate the second birthday of their son and their 7th year in a committed relationship, Natalie and Leah do not have the freedom to marry in their old home of Alabama or their new home in Louisiana - and Natalie, who was not the birth mother to Hayes, continues to have no legal ties to her son. "Legally, I'm a stranger to Hayes," she said. "I can't even sign my name for his immunizations. I provide emotional and financial support, but it doesn't matter. I think it is crazy that I am one of his main caregivers, but on paper we are legal strangers."
"The freedom to marry would change everything for us," Natalie said. "We have a whole other person in the mix and a whole other person to think about." She and Leah must deal with seeing their relationship disrespected at every turn - in their old state and in their new state. For years, they even dealt with disrespect at the federal level: The so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denied legally married same-sex couples over 1,100 protections and responsibilities of marriage. In June 2013, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the central part of DOMA. Now, if Leah and Natalie were to marry in one of the 13 states where same-sex couples have the freedom to marry, they would have access to many of those protections and responsibilities of marriage.
"We're not recognized legally as a family," Leah said. "We love each other. We take care of each other. We support each other financially, emotionally, intellectually. We sacrifice for each other. We live together. We eat breakfast and dinner together. We do all of the things that many families do, but we are not a family in so many people's eyes."
The women hope that someday soon, they are able to marry in the state where they live and celebrate their love alongside their friends, family, and community. "Marriage would be a celebration of the commitment we share," Leah said. "Our commitment to each other would not change because of marriage, but we should be able to celebrate this commitment openly and with others in our lives."
They look forward to the day when they can publicly declare their love in a legal ceremony with their son Hayes. "Having Hayes really validated our relationship as marriage and family to my parents," Natalie said. "It's been great for them to be supportive of us and our family. If you would have asked me if that would have happened five years ago, I would have said not in a million years!"
As they make their own transition to living in the Big Easy, Leah and Natalie are hopeful to see the country continue its own movement on the freedom to marry. In the past several years, public support for marriage for same-sex couples has risen dramatically, and the landmark Supreme Court rulings signaled amazing steps forward.
Leah and Natalie know that their family deserves respect - and that the love, commitment, and devotion of all families should be treated equally. "We aspire to love each other and support each other," Leah said. "We aspire to be the best mothers we can be and give Hayes and our future children the best life possible. We aspire to show others that family can be made up in many ways. We aspire to show that all that really matters in family is a foundation of love and support for one another."