Crossing the Road for Rights
Danielle & Jennifer Hounshell • Johnson City, TN
This story was originally published in March 2015.
In the heart of two small twin cities, straddling the primary road, State Street, a sign triumphantly declares, "Bristol: A Good Place to Live."
The sign represents the official state border separating Bristol, Virginia, from Bristol, Tennessee.
When Danielle and Jennifer Hounshell decided to hire a photographer to get maternity portraits done anticipating the birth of their second child, they realized quickly that the Bristol sign, just thirty minutes from their home in Johnson City, Tennessee, was the most fitting backdrop for their family. For same-sex couples like them, only one side of that sign is truly, perfectly "a good place to live."
That's because Jennifer and Danielle - who married in Connecticut in 2009 and have been together for coming up on a decade - now live in Tennessee, where they have built a life with their daughter Kieran. At home, they are not legally respected as a family, a result of a constitutional amendment in Tennessee that denies the freedom to marry to same-sex couples and prohibits respect for marriages legally performed in other states. The Bristol sign, which stretches from Tennessee to Virginia, where same-sex couples are free to marry, is a perfect demonstration of how arbitrary anti-marriage laws are, summing up the reality that same-sex couples like Jennifer and Danielle can lose and gain respect for their marriage simply by crossing the road.
"We knew we could take regular maternity photos, or we could make a statement," Danielle explained. "The separation in the picture is representative of how we aren't a family in Tennessee."
"This photo speaks to where we are in life," Jennifer said. "We are on this cusp: If we cross into Virginia, we are a married couple and legally recognized as a family. But where we are right now, we're considered strangers."
The women are excited for the arrival of their second child, who they will name Shay. But in preparing for Shay's arrival, Jennifer and Danielle have become more aware than ever of the impact of Tennessee's discriminatory law.
Jennifer and Danielle know that if they have the baby within the state of Tennessee, only Jennifer will be named a legal parent on Shay's birth certificate. Just a few years ago, when they delivered Kieran, Jennifer and Danielle were listed on the birth certificate together, without question.
The couple is so concerned about the implications of Tennessee's laws - and the insecurities that they inherently provoke - that they will deliver Shay in Virginia, where their families live.
We are on this cusp: If we cross into Virginia, we are a married couple and legally recognized as a family. But where we are right now, we're considered strangers.
Jennifer goes on maternity leave on May 1, and shortly after she will temporarily stay with her parents in Virginia, close to their hospital.
"We want to be assured that we will be in Virginia," Jennifer said. And even then, they know the fight isn't over. "One of the issues is that even if you're both on the birth certificate, the state of Tennessee can ignore that birth certificate. We need the added protections of a second parent adoption, which is expensive. And the second parent adoption speaks nothing to your legal ties to your spouse."
"In Tennessee, there is no Jennifer and I," Danielle explained. "When our second child comes, it's really just Jennifer, Kieran and Shay on an island. I have no legal rights to them."
They explained how the anti-marriage constitutional amendment - the very reality that same-sex couples do not have the freedom to marry in Tennessee - impacts the entire community, reflective in daily instances of subtle discrimination or uncomfortable, unwelcoming feelings in their community. But Jennifer and Danielle are determined to change their community - and they know that part of that comes from sharing the story of their family.
In Tennessee, there is no Jennifer and I. When our second child comes, it's really just Jennifer, Kieran and Shay on an island. I have no legal rights to them.
"My grandfather helped to end segregation at a local college in Virginia, and he was well respected as a black man in a white neighborhood," Danielle explained. “I felt we had an opportunity while living here to show people that same-sex families are no different than other families."
"I don't need strangers to respect what I do nor approve," Jennifer added. "But I would like to live my life without restriction. To live free is beautiful. And it's hard to live free when you have a thumb pressed against you at all times."
At the core of it, that's why Jennifer and Danielle wanted to capture this image underneath the Bristol sign.
"You can't unsee this image. It may start to have you think differently about whether same-sex couples should have rights," Jennifer said. "This just shows what happens when you cross the street - people in love are being separated. This is what these laws do."
Maternity Photography by Sean Trent