BY: GRIFFIN NELSON, firstname.lastname@example.org
All are welcome here.
The declaration, printed atop rainbow bars, hangs zip-tied to a chain-link fence outside a modest farm home.
The two-story cottage occupies a tranquil setting surrounded by nature, uninterrupted by the rustle of modern life.
Nestled against the Wild Rice River outside Wahpeton, North Dakota, spring flooding caresses the backyard. A beaver living nearby has been marked as the scourge of the household, as it’s made a habit of gnawing at a treasured ash tree along the property line.
Apart from the seasonal high waters and buck-toothed vermin, the home provides an ideal sanctuary for Valerie Nelson and Diane Gira, who are happily married.
Yes, a married couple lives here.
Somehow. Beyond what, a little over a decade ago, they deemed possible—a married couple lives here.
All are welcome here.
The sign plays as a light-hearted warning that intolerance will not be tolerated, but acceptance will be received with open arms and a long bear hug.
This is not a story dripping with gossipy intrigue. This is a happy couple who fell unabashedly in love, stayed true to each other and themselves, raised a young man and made a little history along the way.
Oh, and they met the President of the United States.
Finding their Clarity
Valerie Nelson and Diane Gira met at Wahpeton’s local newspaper in 1975. Diane held a job laying out the daily paper.
Valerie, a student at MSUM, worked part-time for her father over the summer breaks back home. A friendship quickly blossomed.
At the time of their meeting, neither had been involved in a lesbian relationship. Diane dated men; Valerie identified as asexual. Both felt different.
“In the ‘70s, there was very little information readily available for any young people feeling anything other than straight,” Valerie said. “But when I met Diane, I knew.”
This revelation offered welcomed relief for two youths struggling to understand themselves.
“Once things started clicking with us,” Valerie said, “and things started happening, I was like ‘Hey!’ Now I know what I’ve been feeling since I was twelve years old!”
While they fell for each other fast, both were cautious when considering who to tell.
“We were in the closet, is what I would say, for awhile,” Valerie admitted. “Unless we were with someone we felt safe
“At some point, you just stop caring what other people think,” Diane said. “You become okay with yourself. If people don’t respect who you are, it’s not your struggle, it’s theirs.”
Valerie and Diane have been in a committed relationship going on 44 years.
Their own American Family
When they settled down together in the late ‘70s Valerie and Diane did what most couples do: they started working on making a family.
After a long struggle with a fertility specialist, Valerie was never able to become pregnant, and their dream of raising a child was threatened.
“I think if I was meant to get pregnant, the process would’ve gone smoother,” Valerie said. “I decided to put it into God’s hands.”
The pair started looking into adoption. That process was a circus in its own right.
North Dakota state adoption laws, plagued by vagueness and subjectivity, left LGBTQ couples in precarious positions.
“When lesbian couples wanted to adopt, they had to have two separate residences,” Diane recounted. “They couldn’t even live in the same house with the child.”
“With all that adversity, I think that’s why we call Madison our ‘miracle baby,’” Valerie said with a smile.
After months of prayer, Valerie and Diane found their resolution.
They joined the Fargo chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), where they met and grew close to Karen and Bill Paulson.
“We felt it was time to walk out of the closet and never go back in,” Valerie said.
The Paulsons’ youngest daughter, Tanya, had recently become pregnant.
After deliberations with the birth father, they decided it best to make an adoption plan for their baby.
Tanya brought up Valerie and Diane as a possible couple.
In a sudden six weeks, following a strenuous process including state background checks, a home study and reference letters, Valerie and Diane finally found their way to the family they’d always yearned for.
Friends in the Wahpeton community, who had consistently been supportive of their relationship, were surprised but excited for the couple.
“I think our neighbors were expecting a puppy when we said, ‘We have something to show you!’” Diane said.
Madison Nelson-Gira was born June 16, 1998. Two days later, Valerie and Diane became the first lesbian couple to adopt a baby, with no blood ties to the child, in the state of North Dakota.
“And life has never been the same since!”
Madison currently attends MSUM and is majoring in Broadcast Journalism and Photojournalism.
Battling your beliefs
Religion and homosexuality have clashed for millennia. In all facets of the media and walks of life, you find troubling acts of homophobia rooted in religion.
Just this year, a bill in Texas passed through the Senate allowing what some people call a “license to discriminate” against the LGBTQ community based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Regardless, Valerie and Diane continue to set the exclusivity aside and are steadfast Christians.
“We feel God calls us to help people understand.” Valerie said.
There have been brushes with bigotry.
Before Madison was born, Valerie and Diane were practicing Methodists, and a staple of their church community. They sang in the choir, hosted Sunday school, were on numerous committees, and were accepted by the congregation and the pastor, who Valerie called a, “loving, caring, accepting man.”
When he retired, however, the succeeding pastor was less open to Valerie and Diane’s way of life.
“He really didn’t have time for us,” Valerie said. “It felt like he was gently pushing us out of our community.”
After years of grappling with an uncomfortable faith environment, tensions reached a boiling point when it came time for Madison to be baptized.
The pastor refused to take part in the baptism, telling Valerie and Dian that because they were gay, they couldn’t provide a Christian home for Madison.
“We could handle it if he wanted to treat us poorly and unfairly,” Valerie said. “But when it came to treating our infant, beautiful baby boy like that, we couldn’t allow it.”
They left the church in search of a true faith home and found it at Faith Lutheran Church in Dwight, North Dakota, where they’ve comfortably attended for 20 years.
‘President of Progress’
In April of 2013, Valerie felt compelled to express her thanks to the first black president of the United States, Barack Obama.
“I never expected to hear back or anything,” Valerie said of the letter. “I just wanted him to know how much we appreciated what he was doing for equality.”
A month later, the phone rang at Valerie’s office desk.
It was the White House.
“Of course at first I couldn’t believe it,” Valerie said.
Somehow, her letter got through to President Obama and Valerie, Diane and Madison were invited to LGBT Pride Month Celebration at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.
After the necessary processing, the family hit the road two weeks later, on their way to Maryland.
“When you get invited to the White House, you say yes,” Diane said.
After a intimate conversation and photo opportunity, President Obama mentioned the family in the speech given at the ceremony.
“Love is what I saw in Valerie and Diane’s letter from North Dakota,” President Obama said.
“He did so much for us and our community. He used his words to build people up. He was and is a true leader,” Valerie said of President Obama’s rhetoric.
When Madison was a child, he would tell his parents when he grew up, he would become President and make it legal for his parents to marry.
They didn’t have to wait that long.
On August 1, 2013, gay marriage became legal in the state of Minnesota.
A year later, Valerie and Diane were married. September 5, 2014.
They had been together for 39 years to the day.
“We never entertained marriage as a possibility. We never believed we’d be able to have a child either.”
They now have both, and wouldn’t trade their hardships faced for anything else.
“Maybe it would’ve been easier for the rest of the world for us to find a man to marry,” Diane said. “It would’ve been completely alien to us.”
“When you love somebody, you’re not going to deny yourselves that love.”