The Alaska couple who changed Sen. Lisa Murkowski's mind about gay marriage lives in a modest Midtown house with dandelions in the lawn and paper hearts taped to the front door.
Vickie Green and Terri Huebler aren't activists. Ahead of everything else, they are mothers, crazy-busy like most of us, with demanding full-time jobs and demanding kids. Their four children -- Leo; 6; Allie, 8; Kelle, 9; and Mercedes, 11 -- have been in their lives for six years. Three years ago, Green adopted the siblings out of foster care.
Now, every moment outside of work is filled with grocery shopping, pediatrician appointments, report cards and laundry piles. Oh, the laundry piles. On top of all that is the work of helping the children overcome what they have been through, the scars they carry from years of instability. Some days the struggle of parenting makes them feel crazy. Other days, when their house is filled with happy noise, they remember the struggle is worth it.
The day I met them last week, their household consisted of two mothers, four children, one au pair, three dogs, three cats and one fish. (Their chinchilla, Homer, died the day before.) Huebler, a serious athlete who also works as a cardio-vascular technician at Providence Alaska Medical Center, was preparing for a competitive canoe race. The children were wrestling on the living room carpet and trying to talk their parents in to extra pudding. A dog wanted to be let in.
Their first brush with Lisa Murkowski was more than a year ago, Green said. Green, a longtime member of the Alaska National Guard who now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, was in Kenai making a presentation. Murkowski and a staffer were there. Green's screen saver had a silly picture of her kids on it. Murkowski's staffer Michelle Blackwell noticed it and started a conversation with her about parenting and adoption, Green said. Murkowski came over and joined in.
A few weeks later, Murkowski's office got in touch and asked Green to write her family's story. Green thought maybe the office was going to mention them in a newsletter. She wasn't sure if Murkowski knew they were same-sex parents. At that time, Murkowski wasn't on the record as a supporter of gay marriage. Green wasn't sure what the senator would think. Green spent most of her career in the military under the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy. That taught to keep her personal life quiet. Now, she remembers thinking she didn't have anything to lose.
"I decided I'm just going to lay it out," Green said. "I just kind of did it."
She wrote to the senator about how she and Huebler became parents. They decided to take the class to become foster parents, and a day after they finished, they got a call about two kids who needed help. Then they found out those kids had siblings. They saw first-hand a system overburdened with hundreds of children who needed stable homes. They went through a long line of social workers. Each one had to get up to speed on their kids' situations, often they soon burned out, unable to keep track of burgeoning case loads. She and Huebler showed up for hearings that went nowhere because the state wasn't prepared. Finally, the children came home with them for good. They thought they were going to adopt two, then it turned into four.
Green is the single adoptive parent, she told me, but that wasn't by choice. Had she and Huebler, partners of 10 years, been a married couple at the time of the adoption, then Huebler would be her children's legal parent as well. But Alaska has a constitutional ban on gay marriage, making that impossible. Navigating adoption laws, which don't provide a clear path for gay couples looking to adopt, is an expensive, complicated task. So, if something happens to Green, the children's status is uncertain. And because of the federal Defense Of Marriage Act, which denies benefits to gay partners of federal employees, Huebler wouldn't be entitled to Green's survivor benefits. (The Supreme Court Wednesday struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and a California ban on gay marriage. It's unclear, though, how those rulings will change things for gay couples in Alaska.)
A few weeks after Green wrote the letter, Murkowski's office called to thank her, she said. They also told her the senator had nominated them as "Angels in Adoption," an award to recognize adoptive parents. They were invited to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony. With the help of friends, a collection at St. Mary's Episcopal Church and a grant from the Human Rights Campaign, Green, Huebler and the children made the trip last fall. The experience was humbling, they said.
In Washington, they took the children to the Capitol and the White House.
"The biggest thing (for the kids) was having lunch with Sen. Murkowski," Green said.
They had a leisurely meal in the Senate dining room. The children were up to their usual rowdiness, but the senator seemed to enjoy their company. Months passed. Then, two Sundays ago, Green missed a call from an unfamilar number on her cell phone. She listened to the message. It was Lisa Murkowski. She played the message for Huebler. Then the senator called again. When Green answered, she said she had something she wanted to discuss.
"She said, you know, that she'd thought about it a lot and, she said, ... as we were talking (during their lunch in Washington, D. C.) all she could think of was what if somebody told her she wasn't allowed to love the person that she was in love with and she couldn't have the family that she had, her husband and sons," Green said.
"She said, 'I can't imagine going though that' and she said, 'I just, I don't, I can't see anybody not being able to love the person that they love.' "
Green isn't usually speechless, but this time she didn't know what to say, she said. Murkowski told Green that she was going to come out in favor of gay marriage. She said she wanted to tell the public that Green and Huebler had inspired her. The senator warned her that there might be implications. People might say unkind things.
"I just said something about the fear ... 'I know what the fear is like that you're coming out to say this, it's a huge step for you as a Republican senator,' " Green said. "She just kind of stopped me and said, 'This is nothing, this is nothing compared to what you all go through.'"
Roughly one in four gay couples in Alaska is raising children, according to the Williams Institute, which tracks gay demographics. That's the third-highest proportion of gay parents in any state. Alaska gay families have few legal protections. Adoption isn't easy. Anchorage recently voted not to extend an anti-discrimination provision to gays in employment and housing. Murkowski doesn't have the power to change those things, the women said. The women hope Murkowski's position might inspire other Republican lawmakers to support gay families.
After Murkowski made her statement -- she was the third Republican senator to come out in support of gay marriage -- the response from other politicians and the public was muted. Outside of anonymous comments on the Internet, it was mostly positive. More and more, it seems, most people understand that families like Green and Huebler's aren't much different than anybody else. They don't want more than what is fair.
"We're just a normal family," Green said and Huebler finished her sentence: "Trying to make it through the day."
Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.