Preparing for Our Family’s Future in TN

Jamie Cunningham & Courtney Seals • Knoxville, TN

This story was originally published in June 2014. The piece was written by Courtney Seals, a reflection on falling in love and building a family with her partner Jamie. 

My life with the love of my life, Jamie Cunningham, is a pretty typical love story: We met, we fell in love, we got married, and then we had a baby.

Except - of course - because of laws in Tennessee that deny the freedom to marry to same-sex couples like Jamie and me, we aren't married. And even if we were married, the state of Tennessee - the state where we are building our lives together and working toward a future, would not respect us as married.

I am from Georgia and Jamie is from Tennessee. We live in Knoxville, Tennessee with our seven-month-old daughter, Sophia. I work for a local hospital and Jamie works for the City of Knoxville. We're just a normal couple living our normal lives with our normal family. But laws in Tennessee tell us each and every day that we are not normal - that we are not deserving of the same freedoms as any other Tennessee couple.  

Jamie and I met in the summer of 2011 and instantly fell in love. I knew from the moment I saw her that I wanted to be with her - Jamie says she was certain shortly after we met, when I showed off my crabwalk for her in her kitchen. We immediately clicked: We're both silly people who just didn't make sense with anyone else - but together, we feel like we can conquer anything.

We are a family: But Tennessee doesn't allow us to solidify that family bond and access the legal security of a marriage license that would allow us to show the state that we are connected.

By the time we had shared "I love yous," we had also spent hours and hours discussing our dreams for the future. For both of us, one of those dreams was to raise a family. I moved from my home in Georgia to her home city of Knoxville, and not long after that, I asked Jamie to marry me. She said yes, and we decided to start trying to have a baby.

Jamie has always been a big planner - and as a lesbian couple, we knew that having a baby would take big time planning. We worked together very carefully to bring our daughter into this world - by February 2013, Jamie was pregnant and nine months later, in November, she gave birth to the love of our lives. Even with the extensive planning we invested into our future plans, life threw us a curve ball when I lost my job in August of 2013, just months before our daughter was due. We were completely ready and focused on bringing this child into the world - but the loss of my job was a road block, and over the next few months we just barely made ends meet.

We recovered from the hard times, supporting each other and continuing to keep the focus on Sophia. When we welcomed her into the world in November, the most important things in our life came into sharper focus: Sophia has opened both of us up to a completely new world and a type of love we never knew existed. Jamie was born to be a mother, and although I am not Sophia's biological mother, I love her just as much as I would if I did have biological ties to her.

Unfortunately, in Tennessee, Jamie and I cannot both be recognized as Sophia's mothers. Jamie is the only parent on her birth certificate - and I have no legal custody of our daughter. The person who is my world could be taken away from me if something were to happen to Jamie.

We are a family: But Tennessee doesn't allow us to solidify that family bond and access the legal security of a marriage license that would allow us to show the state that we are connected. A second-parent adoption would allow Jamie and me to protect our family - but when I lost my job, the money we had saved for the adoption was needed elsewhere.

Knoxville is where our family is - and it's where we want to continue building and raising our own family. Our support is right here in Knoxville.

If we were a different-sex couple, we wouldn't need to go through that process. We wouldn't have to worry about the thousands of dollars, invasive home visits, or background checks that gay and lesbian couples have to go through in order to adopt in Tennessee. We would both be able to be listed on Sophia's birth certificate from the very beginning. We would both be legally respected as her parents. We would be equally responsible as parents - equally recognized as family. 

We're often asked why we stay in Tennessee - why we don't just move to another state that respects our freedom to marry and right to adopt our child. But we shouldn’t have to pick up the life we have built here together. We love Knoxville, this little city that is progressive and accepting of our family on a cultural and social level. Knoxville is where our family is - and it's where we want to continue building and raising our own family. Our support is right here in Knoxville.

If families like ours were to leave Knoxville, we may never see the change that is so needed in states like Tennessee. It's important to be able to share our lives with the members of our community. It's important for the three of us to hold hands and make the case that we should be respected as a family in this state where we live. It's important to show people who aren't quite on board with the freedom to marry that we are no different than other neighbors, family members, and co-workers. 

It's time to end the discrimination that same-sex couples and families in Tennessee face on a daily basis: A growing percentage of Tennesseans are coming to understand that it's wrong to treat our family differently. Now, it's time for the Supreme Court to realize that Tennessee - and people across the United States - are ready for the freedom to marry.

It's time for my typical love story to become even more typical. The next time I tell my story, I want Jamie and I to be able to stand proudly and track our life journey together: We met, we fell in love, we had a baby, we got married - and we were treated the same as all other families in Tennessee. 

Photos by Alex Bee Photography