Girl meets girl. Girl falls in love with girl. Girl marries girl. Baby makes three. All in less than three years. Although some people might chalk this story up to a stereotype-driven view of lesbian relationships, Debbie DeBerry and Mariann DeLeon chalk it up to not taking themselves too seriously and embracing each other’s unique qualities. They are primed to juggle the demands of work and parenting with panache.
“Our lives will completely change, but it’ll be great.” DeBerry was all smiles and barely contained joy as she discussed the imminent birth of Jude, the son who is being carried by her partner DeLeon. At the time of this mid-March conversation, DeLeon is about a month away from giving birth and seems to have taken it all in stride.
“We’re very similar.” DeBerry said. “I’m very quirky and funny and I’m just a little weird. When I met her and got to know her, I finally felt normal.”
Relaxing on the sofa in the aqua-colored and mod-furnished living room of their new home in Travis Heights, DeBerry and DeLeon are open and full of enthusiasm about the family that they’re creating. They spoke about the process of deciding how to build their family – ask a close male friend, seek a donor or adopt. On or before April 18, they’ll welcome Jude into the world and into their lives. Throughout the interview, DeLeon , who seems to glow in the way that only a happy pregnant woman can, rubbed her tummy in response to Jude’s movements as he seemed to stretch and wiggle, eager to make his big debut.
“It’s starting to keep me up at night. But other than that, I feel great,” said DeLeon , noting that she cannot sleep on her back or stomach and must shift from side to side. “We’re both super- excited for him to just be here and be healthy and be at home.”
“We practiced putting the car seat in the car this morning,” said DeBerry .
DeLeon , former development director for Equality Texas, met DeBerry in August 2007 through her affiliation with the LGBT civil rights organization. “Debbie was a huge advocate when I worked there.”
DeLeon planned and executed many of the group’s special events, including the popular Merry Martini Mixer, while DeBerry was an avid volunteer, even more so after she met DeLeon. Although they hit it off immediately and began to spend more time together, they remained friends for a year after they first met.
“I was a donor and I volunteered,” said DeBerry. “I stuffed envelopes. Because of course, why not be there early? I love a good name tag!”
They’ve been together for just over two years now, although they didn’t go on their first official date until February 2009. Although DeLeon resigned from Equality Texas in January of last year, she remains involved with the advocacy group on a personal level as many of her close friends work with the organization. She hopes to become more involved on a political level when the state legislature is back in session.
“I would like to help with things like second-parent adoption and family issues,” said DeLeon. “We both would testify in the House, with our son, when he gets here. Debbie and I would be good advocates for LGBT families.”
Building On Diverse Backgrounds
Both women come from strong, supportive families. DeLeon was born in St. Petersburg, Florida, and most of her family lives in Miami. DeBerry grew up in McAllen and her family lives outside San Antonio.
DeBerry, who came to Austin from Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 1990 to attend St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, studied kinesiology, which is basically exercise physiology, at Texas Lutheran University. She completed her master’s degree in biomechanics at UT-Austin. Although she’d always been interested in the workings of the human body and in particular early child development, she didn’t want to be a professor or physical education teacher. Her first foray into the business world involved, of all possible things, owning and running a TCBY yogurt shop in Westlake. It’s the perfect embodiment of her particular quirkiness. The fact that she jumped into it headfirst is a testament to her drive and sense of humor.
Even so, DeBerry ’s work ethic meant she couldn’t just give up on this new business venture.
“I didn’t think about the fact that I’d be running the place and managing people,” DeBerry said, noting that the entire experience was a major crash course in business. “I had to learn on the fly. I did that for three years and it was around 80 or 90 hours a week.”
She went on to say that she had always been interested in real estate. She became a licensed real estate agent in October 2003 and got her broker’s license two years later. She enjoys helping other Austinites buy and sell houses, something she understands firsthand. “The first house I bought when I was not an agent I did wrong,” she said. “I bought the wrong house in the wrong area.”
DeBerry was fortunate to have a successful few years after entering the real estate business. Over the last year and a half, DeBerry’s interest has switched to remodeling houses, a focus with more family-friendly hours. That’s where she’s taken her company, DeBerry realty, which officially launched as her operating broker- age in January.
“I don’t want to just work and work,” DeBerry said. “I want to live. A slower life and really focusing on our family is where I am right now.”
DeLeon received her bachelor’s degree in English from UT- Austin and her master’s degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. After college, she left Austin to follow up with her own desire to give back, joining the Peace Corps for two years. She worked to finance and build a reproductive health clinic in the small eastern European country of Maldova. That experience taught her a lot of what she knows about nonprofit fundraising.
“I was able to raise something like $200,000 to build a center for women who had been returned from being trafficked,” she said.
DeLeon returned to Austin in 2007 to become the development director for Equality Texas, a statewide organization that advocates for the elimination of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression. Since she has worked in nonprofit fundraising for the last 10 years – five of those years with such LGBT civil rights organizations as Soulforce and the resource center of Dallas – is evident that DeLeon ’s passion for devoting herself to causes she believes in.
Since October, DeLeon has served as the development director for Green Doors, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent and help to end homelessness for those struggling to find affordable housing in central Texas. Green Doors addresses the lack of low-income housing in several ways: buying, repurposing and redeveloping rental properties for homeless people. Although the group currently owns 37 properties around Austin, housing about 230 people, DeLeon believes they can and will do more. “There are between 4,000 and 5,000 homeless people on any night living on the streets in Austin,” she said. While the group’s focus is on benefiting the homeless, its scope expands to benefit the environment as well by taking sustainability into consideration in its projects.
Taking Baby Steps
DeBerry will be the first to admit that she’s an off-the-beaten- path kind of lady. Yet she’s comfortable in her own skin, and in DeLeon she’s found a true partner in crime and fellow eccentric. Although DeBerry always wanted to have children, she said the timing was never right – until she met DeLeon . “Once I met Mariann and we got into a relationship, it suddenly felt right. Like this is exactly who I want to have kids with. I’d been looking at donors for probably six months, on and off. We casually brought it up to friends just to gauge reactions.”
“In any of the relationships that I’ve been in, there have been problems or I’ve been worried about it not lasting,” said DeLeon. “With Debbie I was able to say ‘this is the perfect relationship for me.’ you can expand your thinking from there.”
DeLeon said they considered asking some of their gay friends to be donors but decided against it after fully researching all the factors involved in knowing their donor personally. “I always thought that we would have a known donor. There’s quite a bit of legal complication in that,” DeLeon said, noting that they spent six to eight months searching for a donor. “Especially if the man doesn’t know what kind of relationship he wants to have with the baby. For both of us, our careers are still on the way up. We’re building our lives together and we didn’t want to have to consider his plan as well.”
DeBerry described the process of looking for donors, which meant tirelessly searching through biographical descriptions of potential sperm donors online, as being difficult. “It was depressing and awful – it’s like, how do you connect? How do you arbitrarily, randomly pick this person who you don’t have any connection with at all?”
Nevertheless, she eventually found a potential donor to whom she felt a connection. “I finally found this one guy who went to UT and was a big longhorns fan.”
“And they had the same haircut,” said DeLeon , giggling. “Yes, we both had fauxhawks at the time,” admitted DeBerry . The Web site where they found their donor was different from the others. It actually had photographs of the donors as adults, for instance, and also featured other personalized information.
“This one had several adult photos and a video of him answering questions,” DeBerry said. “It felt more intimate. Most of them you’re really just looking at statistics.”
“It also had personality features. so much of that is genetic,” said DeLeon . “Not only did he have some resemblance to Debbie, he also was smart and funny.”
One quote from the donor’s interview stood out for DeBerry and DeLeon. “He said that he is the glue that keeps his friends and family together. He’s the one who is always organizing things and reaching out,” DeBerry said. “I thought that was a really good trait. The idea of having a close family unit is very, very appealing. I showed one of our close friends some pictures of him and it turns out that one of our friends knew his wife at UT.”
Although the couple said the overall experience was smooth and that they faced little in the way of open discrimination, there were some bumps in the road. They met each step with a sense of humor.
Their doctor, Mark Akin, told them that as recently as 20 years ago, lesbian couples had to get a psychiatric evaluation before they could have a baby. They chose akin based on recommendations from trusted friends who had also given birth under his care. Since then, they’ve suggested him to two other couples with great results: each couple got pregnant within four months. DeLeon and DeBerry settled on a lesbian-and-gay-owned donor bank called Growing Generations based in Los Angeles. DeLeon became pregnant after the second attempt.
“It’s scary, calling doctors, even though we’re in Austin,” DeBerry said. “We have to say, ‘We’re lesbians – are you okay with this?’”
“The sperm was the cheapest thing,” DeBerry exclaimed, noting that for a gay man to have a surrogate mother for his child, the cost can run upwards of $120,000, whereas the average a lesbian would spend is about $15,000. “The doctor’s fees and delivery fees are the biggest expense.”
Beyond that, a heterosexual outlook still dominates the industry. It’s something they experienced firsthand, although they recounted this story with laughter.
“The first time I was going to be inseminated – there’s a ripe and ready time and I was there – I called the doctor and it was a weekend. It was the on-call nurse and it wasn’t our nurse,” said DeLeon. “I’m like, ‘so, it’s time.’ she’s like, ‘do you have your sterile jar?’”
“She’s totally panicking ‘cause we don’t have a sterile jar.” “And I’m like, ‘What’s that for?’” “She says, ‘that’s so your husband has something to…’” “it’s like, check the chart, lady,” said DeBerry, laughing at the recollection. “Our sperm is in your freezer.”
“We bought five vials of sperm and I only used two of them,” said DeLeon. “We want the babies to be blood relatives, so we’re going to use up what we have left over.”
Although DeBerry would love to carry her partner’s baby, DeLeon insisted that it’s more important that the children are related. She also emphasized that the couple is taking steps to ensure that her family’s Cuban traditions are passed on and maintained.
“Their middle names are going to be from my family. Jude’s is Carlos, which is my grandfather’s name,” said DeLeon. “We’re also going to do bilingual education. And my parents are super- involved. I’ll teach him a lot about Cuba and our culture.”
DeLeon said that the hardest part was the weight gain. “I’ve had these really weird emotional ups and downs. Hormones. Just completely irrational, but Debbie’s so good about it.”
“Crazy!” laughed DeBerry .
“One morning we were both up and I was so happy. I was making some tea and Deb was looking at a yoga schedule on the computer. She was going to take a class. And I was like, ‘you’re gonna go where? Now?!’”
“She’s such a good pregnant woman,” DeBerry said. “I don’t think I’m going to be as good.”
“Yes, you are. You don’t have to sacrifice that much,” DeLeon said. “Alcohol and a few foods.”
“I just can’t wait to meet him,” DeBerry said, as she rubbed DeLeon ’s tummy.
Their Wacky Wedding adventure
Some couples want a very traditional wedding: a solemn recitation of vows in front of 500 close friends in a church or fancy ballroom; the couple decked out in tuxedos or dresses; throwing the bouquet, the first generally sappy dance and feeding one another expensive cake; a heartfelt toast during the reception. Others are more unconventional. This couple’s choice suited their personalities perfectly.
DeBerry and DeLeon ’s initial plan, which involved a trip west and state park-sightseeing in a rented RV – they’d already put a deposit down – had to be changed after California voters approved proposition 8, which restricted the definition of marriage to heterosexual couples, in November 2008. Instead, they went with a two-week, all-American road trip of the eastern United States between Christmas and New Year’s Day, tying the knot in Boston.
“Oh my god, it was so awesome,” DeBerry enthused. “We had a super funhouse wedding adventure tour! It was a two-week road trip.”
“We did the honeymoon first and then got married,” DeLeon said.
With stops in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Hot springs, Washington, D.C. and Niagara Falls, they had a very nontraditional wedding extravaganza. They married on Jan. 2 of last year at Boston’s liberty Hotel, which used to be, oddly enough, a jail. A fierce wind was blowing and there was a foot of snow on the ground outside, but everyone was cozy and teary eyed inside. Prior to that, they’d been blessed with unseasonably warm weather on their trip.
“We were literally sitting on the couch in the lobby,” said DeBerry. “It was totally casual and fun.”
The hotel’s bar was called Clink, as in toasting with your glass and also closing the door to a jail cell. All the staff members had serial numbers on their shirts. DeBerry pointed out that the rooms at the hotel were modern and gorgeous.
“We went to the Dollywood Stampede for dinner and a show,” DeBerry said, noting that the kitsch factor, complete with a four-story picture of Dolly Parton on the wall at the entrance, made the experience a blast. “I’m pretty sure we were the only lesbians.”
In Washington, D.C., they toured the National Mall, went to the Smithsonian and visited the Holocaust Museum. They stuck mostly to the Canadian side of the border at Niagara Falls, checking out a number of different wineries in the quaint, artsy town with cobblestone roads.
“The falls are spectacular. They shine different colored lights on the falls every night,” said DeLeon. “We stayed in a hotel with a view. You could open the window and hear them.”
The couple explained that they’re a textbook case for why same-sex marriage is important and why the government’s imprimatur on their relationship is relevant.
“I was so teary. It made it different,” said DeBerry. “It was very reaffirming for our relationship. I felt different afterward.”
“It’s a piece of paper with an emblem on it,” said DeLeon, “but it really does feel different. Like our relationship is legitimate.”
As a symbol of their commitment, the couple wear matching silver wedding bands. Each ring is really three, soldered together and containing small diamonds with their wedding date engraved on the inside. In her own twist, each woman has a ring tattooed on the front of her ring finger.
Mapping Out Their Future
During a tour of Jude’s nursery, painted yellow and with a colorful, whimsical mural on one wall depicting a cute white rabbit over a hat with a banner bearing the phrase “life is full of surprises,” their enthusiasm and anticipation was palpable. They relished showing off a big closet full of the adorable clothes they’ve purchased or received as gifts, including OshKosh B’Gosh overalls, a Star Wars t-shirt, tiny puma sneakers and several cute, striped polos. The room has a changing area, of course, and a Fisher price cradle n’ swing. The moment that DeLeon gives birth can’t come soon enough.
Although they definitely want to have a daughter as well, they will probably wait a year before they have another child. They’ve also toyed with the idea of adopting a child. They seem eager to take on the role of parents, and DeBerry noted that their respective biological clocks are ticking.
“She’s very rational and kind of a linear thinker. So I’ve had some episodes of being very emotional and scared,” said DeLeon. “She gives me complete security in knowing that everything is going to be okay. But she’s also very nurturing. She’s looking forward to staying home with the baby.”
“When one of us needs to be ‘on’ and provide the reassurance, then we step up and do it,” said DeBerry.
Since DeBerry works mostly from home, she plans on logging plenty of time with Jude when he comes into the world. “I’m really excited about spending a lot of time with him.”
“I think we can teach him how to respect women,” DeLeon said. “We’ll surround him with good men who can help teach him about things that we just don’t have experience with. We have some very good gay male friends, and of course, our dads.”
The couple plans to emphasize outdoor activities and being creative with what Jude finds in nature, rather than plopping him in front of the television. They’re also in the midst of remodeling their three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in Travis Heights, to which they moved in November.
“We’ve talked about the delivery day,” said DeLeon. “I will instinctively deliver the baby.”
Without missing a beat, DeBerry said jokingly, “and I will pass out.”
They hired a doula for the emotional and physical support of DeLeon in case DeBerry actually does pass out.
Beyond talking about bringing Jude into the world and growing their family, the two discuss going into business together in the future.
“At some point, we’d like to begin rehabbing rental properties for needy people,” said DeLeon, “to combine my social services side with her business savvy.”
Whether it’s a professional project, creative endeavor or family- oriented matter, the couple’s success is based on mutual understanding, candor and shared values.
“One of the big things that’s really important to us is open communication. There wasn’t that in either of our families. if you were sad, you were sad. You didn’t talk about it or show that you were hurt,” DeBerry said. “Just being able to really create the kind of family that we want is definitely about respect. Respecting ourselves and each other and people outside of our family. I can’t wait to see Mariann as a mom.”
“And I can’t wait to see Debbie,” said DeLeon.
“We’re excited,” DeBerry said. “For us, it’s documenting one of the most important memories in our lives.”