Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addressed the State of Michigan after a plan to kidnap her and other Michigan government officials was thwarted by state and federal law enforcement agencies. She started by saying thank you to law enforcement and FBI agents who participated in stopping this [...]
HOWELL – When Deb Hemgesberg and Ann Keyes talk about their family, they don’t limit themselves to blood relatives. In fact, when they say their home is open to family on Christmas Eve, they mean it’s open to friends, neighbors, families who use Ann’s day care services, disabled people Ann and Deb have given support to, and all of the other people who have touched their lives in one way or another throughout the years, many of whom bring a dish to pass. On Christmas Eve, Deb and Ann have what they call an open house with gift exchanges for the kids and chocolate fondue for all.
“Hardly anybody is excluded from the invitation,” said Deb. “We have an open door policy.”
Neighbors pop over before or after mass, they play board games and cards, the kids play with each other, Christmas music is played around the clock and the house is decorated accordingly. Some folks bring presents for Deb and Ann, though they discourage gifts. They just want people to come and have a good time. Their attitude is, “Please come and be part of our family.”
Deb and Ann, together since 1994, live in Howell with their two children, Sarah and Skyler, both of whom Deb gave birth to via artificial insemination.
Both women have issues with their immediate families in terms of support. Ann’s family is out of town and seldom makes the effort to travel to see her and the kids. Ann thinks some of her siblings have a hard time dealing with the fact that she is a lesbian. “At times they’re, ‘Oh it’s not a problem,'” she said. “But then they’ll make comments that don’t click like, ‘Oh you don’t understand, you’re not married.'”
Things changed somewhat when Deb and Ann had Skyler, their first child together. Deb had Sarah with her previous partner who was lost to cancer. “My siblings look at me a little bit differently,” said Ann. “They do look at me more now as a mom, where in the beginning Deb was the mom and I was just here.”
Deb’s mother and stepfather have grown more supportive over the years. Her mother no longer believes that Deb is going through a phase. “When my partner passed away I think they thought I would go back and try to date men again,” said Deb. “Well, then Ann came into my life.” Both her mother and stepfather come over for Christmas dinner and enjoy spending time with the kids.
None of Deb or Ann’s siblings came to their wedding, though Deb’s mother and stepfather and Ann’s mother did attend. The wedding took place in their home on Oct. 22, 1994.
“We said vows to each other that we wrote ourselves and we had our friends stand up for us, our two best friends. Sarah was there,” said Deb.
“You know, my sibs didn’t come to our wedding and so I think that’s their way of saying that they’re not supportive,” Ann said.
Both Ann and Deb worry that their children will be exposed to negative messages about their two-mom family. This is, in part, why the family does not practice any kind of organized religion. “I don’t want to take them to a church that’s going to turn around and tell them their family’s not okay,” said Deb. “That’s not how children should be raised. They should be raised believing that their families are a good and safe environment.”
Instead, they teach their kids the golden rule. “To do unto others as they would want done unto them and to treat people with respect and to go out of their way to be kind,” said Deb.
Although the community aspect of belonging to a church appeals to them, they don’t feel that is an option where they live. “There isn’t any religion in the community that we live in where we would be wholly welcomed,” said Deb. “And I have no desire to go and develop a community that’s an hour away from here because that defeats the purpose.”
Instead they have created their own community at home. At one point there was another two-mom family in Howell that Deb and Ann spent time with. “It was really validating to both of our families,” said Deb. Not only were the other parents lesbians, they shared a lot of Ann and Deb’s parenting values.
“We’re considered to be strict parents,” said Ann. “Sponge Bob doesn’t come in our house.”
They try to shield their kids from the hurtful messages of homophobia, but that isn’t their only worry. “I’m more concerned more about are they going to get exposed to drinking and drugs and violence and the guns,” said Ann.
Unfortunately, no matter how good Ann is as a parent, she is not legally recognized as such in Michigan. Since second-parent adoptions have been stopped in Michigan, Deb and Ann have few options. They’ve discussed trying guardianship papers but fear that they may have to involve a court. “We live in a very conservative community,” said Deb. “And I’m scared to try it because I don’t want them to come back and try to take the kids from us, too.”
Ann’s lack of legal rights has been a big obstacle. When Sarah was two years old she became very ill while in Ann’s care. Ann could not get hold of Deb. In the ambulance Ann was asked if she was Sarah’s mother. “I was caught in, ‘Well, not technically,'” she said.
At the hospital there was a question of whether or not Sarah would be treated because Ann was not her legal parent. “When they questioned whether they were going to treat her I wasn’t very patient and basically put a lady up against the wall,” said Ann. At this point Sarah had stopped breathing. “I just said, ‘Get it? It’s the 90’s, she’s got two moms. I’m not the one that gave birth.'”
Sarah was transferred from Howell to Ann Arbor for treatment and Deb caught up with them there. “Once we got to Ann Arbor there was more acceptance,” said Ann. “They looked at me as equal.”
Deb and Ann also experienced the reverse situation when Ann took Skyler to the hospital with a bloody ear. “I didn’t question,” said Ann. “I’m signing, I had my I.D., I had everything with me and they didn’t question that my name was different than his.”
Unfortunately when a worried Deb showed up at the hospital after Ann and Skyler had left, the hospital would not give her any information. “We’re not telling you anything, you’re not his mom,” they told her. Now they both have cell phones so they can communicate during emergencies, but they know that they aren’t immune from such scares in the future.
Although their family is maligned by those religious leaders and politicians who deny same-sex couples marriage rights under the guise of protecting children, Deb, Ann, Sarah, and Skyler can always count on the support of the people they’ve embraced as family, whether its their Christmas Eve open house or their more traditional Christmas Day.
“Any time we find that somebody doesn’t have a home or a family to go to we would just include them,” said Ann.
In addition, Deb and Ann “elf” people. They find a family that is in need and collect donations from friends and family. “We ring the door bell and leave it on their porch or patio. One mom was home when we elfed her and she helped us unload and she cried.” They gave the woman’s family food and new boots for her kids.
Both Deb and Ann believe what goes around comes around. “I believe that stuff comes back to you,” said Deb. “And it feels good to give to people. They turn around and they’re going to do it for somebody else and pretty soon you’ve got a whole community of people that are spending more energy caring about one another than caring about what they have or what they don’t have.”
Deb and Ann get a lot of their gifts from garage sales. Deb has become a personal expert in making second-hand things look brand new.
“Not all gifts need to come from the store,” said Ann. “Especially if you’re looking at spreading your dollar. If you are trying to show more support to other people it helps me emotionally if I know I can also pay the bills and spread support.”
Both Deb and Ann know that the people they have helped out over the years would be there for them in a heartbeat. They swap clothes and babysitting nights with their neighbors and friends. If someone needs a pair of dress shoes to wear to a wedding or funeral, they let them borrow a pair of Skyler’s. If Deb and Ann need a night away, they have plenty of people who would be more than happy to take care of their kids.
“All these things are what families do,” said Deb. “Our family is not necessarily related to us by blood. They’re the people who are there to support us, who are validating and affirming to us. It’s a very cyclical thing. What tends to happen is that people give what they can whether it’s their time, emotion, their money whatever. And those are the kinds of people we want to have in our lives and that’s how we developed our family.”