By Mubarak Dahir
Donna Ellis’ fingerprints are all over the lives of her two little girls.
There she was, with her partner, holding the younger daughter at the girl’s baptism at Joy Metropolitan Community Church in Orlando.
For six years she coached the older girl’s little league team.
There are shoeboxes full of photographs and DVD’s of the stuff of family life: the dance recitals, a trip to Disney World, and of the younger girl, when she was just three years old, running through a gaggle of geese at the petting zoo.
And there is Ellis, eating the chocolate cake baked by a light bulb in the girls’ Easy-Bake oven, shooting baskets with the girls in the driveway.
These are the tangible memories of a mother raising her kids.
But Donna Ellis is no longer allowed to be with the children she spent nearly ten years mothering. In fact, she has not seen the two girls, the older one who is now 13 and the younger one who is now 7, for several years.
She has been denied any contact with the girls ever since she and her former partner, Rachel Burg, split in 2002.
In the eyes of Florida law, Burg has the power to keep Ellis from the girls, because Burg is the biological mother. Under Florida law, Ellis was never a parent to the kids she loved and helped raise for so long.
Florida is the only state that totally bans gay and lesbian people from adopting children.
But according to the Human Rights Campaign, only seven states, the District of Columbia and jurisdictions of 16 other states allow a gay or lesbian person to adopt the child of his or her same-sex partner.
A handful of states, such as California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington and Pennsylvania, have family law which recognizes the roles and rights of non-biological same-sex parents, and have granted those parents visitation rights after a break-up, even in cases when the children had not been adopted.
But the vast majority of non-biological parents in a same-sex relationship in this country could find themselves similarly shut out of their children’s lives after a break-up, just like Donna Ellis.
When Donna Ellis and Rachel Burg first met back in 1991, both women were working as pediatric nurses at the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children & Women in Orlando.
Burg was married and pregnant with her first child.
But soon after the first girl was born, Burg and her husband divorced.
Burg and Ellis fell in love.
In 1993, they moved in together. By 1995, they had purchased a plot of land together, and built a home in Orange County, Fla. They named each other as the beneficiaries in their wills. And they raised the little girl together, sharing the responsibilities, and joys, of motherhood.
After a few years, the two women decided they wanted to have another child, through artificial insemination. According to Ellis, they decided Burg would be the birth mother because Ellis had rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. It would be safer for both the child and the mother if Burg carried the pregnancy.
In 1998, Burg gave birth to a second little girl.
The two women gave the girl a hyphenated last name: Burg-Ellis.
In the nearly ten years that the two women shared their lives together, Ellis estimates she spent about $200,000 on the children.
Despite all this, in court depositions, Rachel Burg has insisted that Donna Ellis was never a mother to the children. Burg refers to Ellis as a “roommate.”
So Far, Florida courts have denied Donna Ellis any visitation with the children. The courts have also denied her any financial compensation for the ten years of time and money she put into raising the kids.
Ellis’ lawyer has appealed both decisions. But Ellis’ chances of winning either appeal are slim. Historically, the Florida courts have resisted recognizing “de facto” parents, even in cases where there was a biological link, like when grandparents and parents have fought over child custody.
Ellis has offered to pay child support in return for seeing her children again. But Burg has declined that, too.
In all the media attention this case has garnered, gay and lesbian activists and family law experts have repeatedly pointed to the fact that in most of America, gay and lesbian people still cannot adopt the children of their partners. No doubt this is a huge problem, and would have protected Donna Ellis.
Activists also say this case illustrates just why gay and lesbian couples need to be able to marry, and be recognized as families, like any other family.
I agree, and don’t dispute any of that.
But I also believe there is a component of the discussion here that has been missing from the debate: the need for gay and lesbian people to act responsibly and humanely during a break-up, particularly in the current political climate where we are collectively fighting for recognition of our relationships and for marriage rights.
If a couple cannot act decently toward one another during a break-up, they should at least act that way toward the kids. Depriving children of one of their parents is a devastating and cruel unfairness.
Going through a break-up is always emotional, and perhaps it is unrealistic to hope that gay and lesbian people would behave better than straight couples when such a thing happens.
But there is a particular ugliness when someone like Rachel Burg specifically uses anti-gay laws to her benefit. There is a deep hurt to all of us knowing that a lesbian uses state-sanctioned homophobia in a fight against her former partner, a woman she clearly once loved. I find it particularly repugnant when a gay or lesbian person uses anti-gay laws against another one of our own.
For now, Donna Ellis can only hold onto the photos and DVDs that fill 16 shoeboxes and a heavy heart with memories of her children.
She refuses to give up hope that, one day, she will once again be able to see the two daughters she loves so much.
But it’s so hard, Ellis told the Orlando Sentinel, because the girls “are still out there… but I can’t be a part of their lives.”