Taking a Stand for Marriage in TX

Cleo DeLeon & Nicole Dimetman • Austin, TX

This story was originally published in June 2014. Cleo and Nicole were plaintiffs in the legal case that brought the freedom to marry to Texas. 

For many years, Cleo DeLeon and Nicole Dimetman have been hearing the same thing from friends and acquaintances when they spoke about why they want the freedom to marry where they live, in Texas.

"Even from people who supported our relationship, we always heard two things," Nicole said. "We'd hear, ‘Don’t worry. It’ll happen in your lifetime.' And we'd also hear, ‘But you can get the legal documents to protect yourselves, even if you can’t get married.'  The implication was that marriage was merely a formality. It was no big deal." 

But just a few years ago, as Cleo prepared to give birth to their first child, the women were confronted directly with those common misconceptions about marriage - and they saw how dangerous those assumptions can be. 

Shortly after flying back to Texas from Massachusetts - where they got legally married on their 8th anniversary in 2009 - Cleo and Nicole began the process of having a baby. Once they got pregnant, they worked hard to make sure that they had all of the necessary paperwork to protect their baby and their relationship.

"We got married in Massachusetts because it was really important to us to be able to tell our children that we were as married as we could possibly be," Nicole said. "And since Texas doesn't recognize the marriage, we made sure to work out the paperwork, file the petitions, and get all of our ducks in a row so that I could legally adopt him as soon as he was born."

"We thought we were OK," Nicole said. "We were a little concerned - but no one thinks that the worst possible thing could happen to them."

When Cleo finally went into labor, the delivery process was a challenge. After hours of trying, the doctors took her in for an emergency C-section.

"There were about 30 minutes when both of us didn't know whether she - or the baby - were going to be totally OK," Nicole said. "If anything had happened to Cleo, I wouldn't have been able to make decisions for our son. If anything catastrophic had happened to her, he would have been an orphan. And that was after we did everything we possibly could to be seen as a family in Texas.'"

There are instances like this where you cannot just go and pay some attorney to fix it. And those instances vividly illustrate how vulnerable families like ours are.

"Nothing catastrophic happened," she continued. "Cleo turned out fine. Our son turned out fine. But for those 30 minutes, we were terrified. It could have gone the other way. There are instances like this where you cannot just go and pay some attorney to fix it. And those instances vividly illustrate how vulnerable families like ours are."

The only way they could have ensured total security, Nicole and Cleo know, would be for their home state to view them, indisputably, as a married couple, with all of the protections and responsibilities of straight couples.

The terror of those 30 minutes in the delivery room - 30 minutes where the holes in their well-meaning friends' claims that marriage equality wasn't a necessity became vividly clear - were part of why Nicole and Cleo signed on to a lawsuit aimed at striking down anti-marriage laws in Texas last summer. And this February, they rejoiced as their case - DeLeon v. Perry - inspired a federal judge to strike down those laws as unconstitutional.

Now, they're preparing for their case to be heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, which covers Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. A positive ruling could bring the freedom to marry not just to Texas - but to the entire 5th Circuit and, potentially, the entire United States.

"We want our son to grow up scratching his head trying to understand why his mothers had to fight for the freedom to marry," Nicole said. "We don't want him to ever experience that kind of discrimination where the default laws of your state don’t protect you."

Nicole and Cleo have been together for nearly 13 years. They didn't really become friends until Cleo rented out a room in the house where Nicole lived in San Antonio. The house was an old, quaint bungalow with a front porch surrounded by a wide, white picket fence, full of cozy furniture.

"We would sit out there most evenings and just talk and get to know each other," Nicole remembers. "And basically, within two months, I think we shared our entire life story - our entire worldview. The only thing I wanted to do when I woke up in the morning was sit out there and talk to Cleo."

Within two months, I think we shared our entire life story - our entire worldview. The only thing I wanted to do when I woke up in the morning was sit out there and talk to Cleo.

One night in 2001, Cleo encouraged Nicole to leave the porch and come country dancing with her at a gay bar in town.

"She made fun of me because I was raised in Texas and didn't know how to country dance," Nicole said. "So she started to teach me how to dance, and even without a single drink, the room started spinning on me. That was the moment I knew that this was the person I was going to spend the rest of my life with."

But before they could start their lives together, Cleo had to move out.

"I ended up moving out so that we could date each other," Cleo laughed. "And literally the day that I signed my lease, Nicole asked me to be her girlfriend, and I said yes."

Cleo was in the Texas National Guard at the time, and she was already scheduled to serve a two-week tour in the Middle East, in September 2001.

"I had already volunteered to go on a volunteer tour in Saudi Arabia. So I left almost immediately after we started dating - and then the buildings fell. They extended my tour beyond the two weeks - it was very stressful - and when I got back, all I could think about was getting back to Nicole."

She returned to Texas, and the relationship stuck: Cleo and Nicole were in love, and they were ready to build their lives together.

What makes us a good set of plaintiffs is that we're pretty unremarkable. We're just normal people trying to raise a family and work on our relationships under the laws that we're trying to deal with.

The years since 2001 have been a whirlwind for the women, involving a brief move to upstate New York for Nicole's graduate school program, and a career change for Cleo - after serving in the U.S. military for 10 years, she now works in clinical trials, developing oncology treatments.

And, of course, they watched last summer as the United States Supreme Court struck down the core of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act.

"I remember Cleo and I having a conversation about how the Windsor case was the case before the case that brings marriage equality to all 50 states," Nicole said. "Before we knew it, we were having conversations with the law firm where I used to work - Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld - and we were discussing whether we should be plaintiffs in a case challenging Texas' anti-gay constitutional amendment."

Along with co-plaintiffs Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss, an unmarried couple together for more than 20 years, Cleo, Nicole, and their attorneys - acting pro bono - filed the case. They won in February, and toward the end of the summer they'll make their case again at the 5th Circuit.

"We want a speedy resolution in our favor," Nicole said. "We want to push this issue forward and help our community. People are really engaged with this - we had a young girl share with us that she had a hard time coming out to her parents, and at one point became suicidal. She told us that if all of these cases had been happening at that time, she might not have been so hopeless. The difference that this movement is making is super powerful, and we're proud to be a part of it."

"Before we signed on as plaintiffs in this case, we reached out to Chuck Smith at Equality Texas, and we asked for his advice," Nicole explained. "He told us that this would be an adventure, for sure - and that it would take up a portion of our lives."

"I asked him if he would do it - and he said, 'Yes, but I'm crazy like that,'" Nicole said. And today, as she and Cleo continue working toward a future where no one in the United States - not their son, not the young girl who struggled with coming out, and not their fellow Texans building their lives in the Lonestar State, she remembered her response to Chuck: "I think we are, too."