The story of Valerie, Stephanie, and their children
Meet Valerie and Stephanie LaBonte of Troy, Alabama through conversations with them both before and after the federal district court in Alabama held that the state’s ban on marriage for same-sex couples was unconstitutional. Marriage equality coming to Alabama has enabled Valerie and Stephanie’s family finally to be able to live together as a family.
29 January 29 2014 - Alabama State Law Still Bans Same-Sex Couples From Marriage
Valerie LaBonte and Stephanie Johnson
Valerie: Stephanie and I live in the small town of Troy, Alabama in Pike County which is in the southern part of the state. It’s a very conservative part of Alabama. We met in 2010 and fell in love soon thereafter. But because we couldn’t get married in Alabama, we had to go to New York City to get married in 2013. Getting married was amazing. And it was the first time either of us had been to New York.
Stephanie: Our wedding was a profound experience for us – being able to unite together in love and commit ourselves legally to one another. We were each so excited to have found and married the person we wanted to spend the rest of our life with. We got married at the courthouse in Manhattan, and we found it overwhelming how affirmed and accepted we felt as a lesbian couple by all the city officials and everyone else there. However, we were also saddened that none of our family and friends, except for a dear friend from Alabama who had moved to New Jersey, were able be there to share the joy with us because it was so far away. And a cloud hung over us. We would be returning to our home state that would not recognize our marriage.
Valerie: Stephanie and I are raising four children together. We each were married to men previously, and we each have two children from those marriages. My two children have a wonderful relationship with Stephanie. They’ve known Stephanie for over four years and they love her. The only problem is on Mother’s Day they have so much stuff to make!
Stephanie: Unfortunately, my twin boys who I bring to our family don’t even know that Valerie and I love each other, are together, and are married -- because Alabama refuses to recognize us as married. The joint custody arrangement I have with my former husband contains what’s called a “paramour” clause, which states the following:
“Neither party shall have a person of romantic interest to whom the party is not married staying overnight while the children are in their custody or control. A violation of these provisions shall lead to forfeiture of their rights.”
The paramour clause doesn’t cause any problems for my former husband because he can marry another woman. However, Alabama law does not recognize my marriage to Valerie. Therefore, Valerie and I cannot stay together under one roof when I have the kids. Even though we’re legally married, we have to maintain two separate households. We have not even told my two boys that we are married because we fear that my former husband could go to court to challenge my custody given Alabama’s discriminatory law. The cost of maintaining two separate households with two separate rents adds up quickly, but the hardest part truly comes from my boys not knowing we are a family, that they are completely oblivious to any love between Valerie and me, and they are missing out on a huge part of my life. I struggle daily with teaching my boys to embrace the differences in others and to be honest, all while I am hiding who I truly am and who I love from them.
Valerie: The situation is very painful for all of us. One time, I came over to Stephanie’s house to pick up our vacuum cleaner, and one of her sons asked me “What are you doing here?” First, I was upset with him, but I reminded myself quickly that he did not understand who I was – that I was married to their mom and I was their stepmother. I have helped the boys with their homework and participated in their discipline, but they did not respect me as a parent – they just wonder why their mom’s friend is doing this. I want to tell them I’m doing things for them because I love them as one of their moms, but I can’t and it really hurts.
Stephanie: Valerie and I are really active in our church, and we’re well respected at our jobs and in other ways. I work in internal staffing for an internet technology firm, as well as run a portion of our nationwide college hire program. Valerie works for the same company in internal and external recruiting. Valerie is a veteran of the Iraq War, having served a year at Al Asad Air Base in 2003-2004, while also serving on missions through both Fallujah and Baghdad. I am the treasurer and fundraising chair for the Pike County Boys and Girls Club, and I am also on their board of directors. We also designed and volunteer at our church’s monthly food ministry that donates literally over a ton of food to local families in need every month. Yet the state of Alabama won’t respect us as the married couple we are and prohibits us and our four children from being a family.
9 February 2015 – Update - Marriage Equality Comes to Alabama
Valerie and Stephanie LaBonte
Valerie and Stephanie: We are indescribably overjoyed at the Supreme Court's decision to deny the stay and our marriage is now recognized in Alabama!
Valerie: Today, we filed with the state as a married couple to have Stephanie’s last name changed to mine so that we will share a family name, LaBonte. It's such a relief to finally feel like the law is on our side. Now we feel more secure knowing that the law recognizes us as a family and that Stephanie can't lose custody of her boys just because of our relationship.”
21 February 2015 – Update
Valerie and Stephanie LaBonte
Valerie: A few days ago, we told Stephanie’s boys that we are married, and they had no problem receiving the news and were happy to learn that we were married. We are so happy and grateful that Stephanie’s boys finally know we are a family. We’ll finally be able to live under one roof together. We’ll be able to do all the things that other families take for granted.
Stephanie: I also had coffee with my former husband a few days ago. He told me that he understood and respected the ruling from the court and acknowledged that Valerie and I are married. He said he would do nothing to get in the way of us living together as one household. We also talked about how we would handle talking to the kids when the subject of my marriage to Valerie came up. We agreed that we would tell them that he and I believed different things about who should be able to marry, but above all we agreed that we would never say anything negative about each other to our children.
4 March 2015 - Update - Alabama Supreme Court upholds state ban on marriage for same-sex couples and orders Probate Judges to stop issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples
Valerie and Stephanie LaBonte
Valerie: We are really upset by the Alabama Supreme Court's decision yesterday. We are so thankful we are already married, but we certainly don’t feel the same security we felt on February 9th. It was very short-lived. We’re so frustrated at the amount of confusion the decision is going to cause within the state. Just once we would like to wake up and not feel like the very foundation of our family, that we’ve now been permitted to build, could crumble at any moment.
A ruling from SCOTUS will make things much better here, but people who are against equality are already pushing a bill that would allow a lot of people to discriminate based on sexual orientation. We will keep standing up for our family and with other LGBT people.
PHOTO CREDITS: Couple photo was taken by couples' friend in Manhattan during their wedding week. Stephanie is on the left, Valerie on the right.