In May 2011, Emily Falcon and Jennifer Merola witnessed a historic step forward for gay and lesbian individuals in Delaware when they watched Governor Jack Markell sign a civil union bill, which had passed out of the state legislature the month prior, into law. Now, same-sex couples in Delaware would be permitted to join together in civil union and receive many of the protections and responsibilities that marriage provides.
As they watched the Governor add his signature to the landmark piece of legislation, Emily and Jennifer smiled, reflecting on how the law would positively impact them and taking comfort in the fact that after so much hard work from community advocates, their state was finally taking a step forward.
Emily and Jen were closely following the efforts of Equality Delaware, the leading organization working toward dignity, safety, and equality for all people in Delaware, during the civil union campaign. Emily had previously been involved in the efforts to help to pass a sexual orientation-inclusive non-discrimination law in 2009, after nearly a decade of campaigning.
"I was thrilled to see the civil union law pass because I knew how long it had taken Delaware to pass the non-discrimination bill," Emily said. "It was so nice to see such quick progress on another major milestone in the state."
Emily and Jennifer had even greater reason to be excited when Gov. Markell signed the civil union law: Emily was trying to get pregnant, with help from a fertility specialist, and they knew that with a civil union, their expanded family would have many of the essential protections they needed to be secure.
Emily and Jennifer were among the first same-sex couples in Delaware to join together in civil union after the law took effect in January 2012. They had a beautiful ceremony on January 14 - "before Emily got too pregnant," Jennifer joked - and on April 21, 2012, they became the proud parents of triplets. After a year of struggling to get pregnant through insemination - a struggle that included five failed attempts and exploratory surgery - the women finally welcomed three healthy children - two sons and a daughter - into the world.
The couple is grateful for the efforts of Equality Delaware and others in working toward the passage of the civil union law. But while they celebrate that enormous step forward, they know that their family deserves the full respect that comes with the freedom to marry.
"If you really do want to create equality, you can't create separate institutions and say they're equal," Emily said. "For gay people to have to take a separate route is saying that the way we love is different."
The women say that raising their children has strengthened their feeling that Delawareans need the freedom to marry.
"Having kids brings into focus the reality that our children will soon be saying, 'Why is my family different?,'" Emily said. "If our relationship was given the same respect and dignity that other relationships are given, then there would no longer be something to explain. It shouldn't be a hindrance for a child to have gay parents - we want our kids to grow up with the sense that their family is just as valued and respected as other families."
"There are so many ways that a family can take shape," Jennifer added. "For a government to say that one type is more powerful than the other is divisive."
The women said that their path to falling in love and raising a family is similar to many other couples' stories. They met in the summer of 2007, and their friendship quickly blossomed into a healthy, fulfilling relationship. "We had an instant connection," Jennifer explained. "We would talk and laugh with each other for hours."
"We both try to look at the positive in the world - that was true when we met, and it's only gotten better," Emily added. "That positive outlook was really what drew me to Jen: She looks at everything with a smile, and she makes the best of it. That's what made me want to spend the rest of my life with her."
In July 2009, after two years of dating - and a few months of living together - the women took a vacation to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, where they privately exchanged vows as a way to recognize their commitment to each other.
They moved to Middletown, DE and bought a house there, ready to begin the next phase of their lives together. They looked forward to raising children in Delaware.
Now, with a civil union in hand, and three wonderful children, Emily and Jennifer just want their state to fully respect their family by extending the freedom to marry to them and other same-sex couples.
"We love just like any other person loves," Emily said. "We shouldn't have to show extraordinary acts of love and affection or attempts to be a family in order to get the respect afforded to straight couples and their families. We're not extraordinary, but we deserve equality in spite of that - or perhaps because of that."