Initially Jo Deutsch and Teresa Williams weren’t so keen on the idea of getting married in a place that was only reachable by driving through a wastewater and sewage treatment plant.
Then they thought about the symbolism: They’d trudged through plenty of muck in the 30 years it took to get to this point.
Teresa met Jo’s mother first. They were both part of a group driving from Miami to South Carolina for a National Organization for Women convention in 1980. When she needed someone to fetch her college-age daughter at the airport, Jo’s mom picked Teresa as the best driver of the bunch.
“I remember Jo was somebody I wanted to know,” says Teresa, who was a couple years older and in a relationship at the time. “I wanted to joke with her. I wanted to hang out. She was definitely friend-worthy from the get-go.”
On school breaks and after graduation from Smith College, Jo hung out with Teresa and her partner in Miami. Along with a few other women, they formed a tight-knit social circle, with most of their activities centered on NOW events.
Teresa had grown up in a small town in Northern Florida, raised by conservative Christians. As she began to realize during her late teens that she was a lesbian, she considered suicide. “I thought that was the only option,” she says. “It would be better for my family if I just didn’t exist.” Instead, she left Florida and hopscotched around the country for several years before landing in Miami.
Jo’s parents were progressive Jews, and her mother had taken up the feminist cause alongside her daughter in the 1970s. They reacted more openly when Jo came out, although there was still a period of warming up to the idea.
In 1982, Teresa and her partner broke up, although they remained friends. She began spending more time with Jo, who had delayed graduate school to help care for a seriously ill sister. By the spring of 1983, Teresa and Jo both had inklings that there could be something more than friendship between them.
“There was a strength and kind of salt of the earth thing about Teresa that I hadn’t ever seen in anybody,” says Jo, now 53. “There was just this solid, smart creativity. She was always thinking about what could be next, what could be interesting, and how to connect with different people.”
Teresa was increasingly drawn to Jo’s humor and spirit. “It was her ability to see life in a joyful way. It was just always a fun time with her, and it wasn’t necessarily fun situations,” says Teresa, now 56. “Even in those really challenging, hard times, there was something better with her.”
That Memorial Day weekend, they drove to a women’s music and comedy festival in Georgia. On the car ride, Teresa reached over and held Jo’s hand. By the end of the weekend, it was clear they’d be together — at least for the moment.
Jo was scheduled to leave for graduate school at George Washington University in the fall. Teresa decided to go along, if only to get a fresh start in a new city. The women agreed to rent a two-bedroom place in case their romance didn’t pan out.
But they quickly learned they could afford only a one-bedroom. So they moved into a basement apartment in Logan Circle, bought dishes and started “playing house.” Jo got her degree in public policy and, after a stint in engineering school, Teresa decided she wanted to help people more directly and became a massage therapist.
Soon they moved to a duplex in Northeast, and life in Washington — and life together — began to feel permanent. “At that time, it didn’t seem like a question,” Teresa remembers. “It was, ‘We’re here.’ It wasn’t, ‘Let’s talk about getting married,’ because there was no possibility of that.”
“It just never occurred to us that we weren’t going to be together,” Jo adds.
Before long, they were contemplating children. Teresa had wanted kids for as long as she could remember. Jo was more nervous about the finances and logistics. In 1987, they formed a discussion group called “Maybe Baby” with other lesbians in the area. Together they grappled with practical questions, including how to have children and philosophical issues, such as whether their kids would be at a disadvantage.
“Not believing it wasn’t possible — that was the big hurdle,” Teresa says. “Not thinking that somehow we weren’t good enough, that somehow the kids would have a really hard, challenged life.”
Buoyed by seeing several friends take the plunge and have kids, Jo and Teresa decided to go for it. In 1990, their son Jacob was born. Teresa gave birth in a Catholic hospital, and the day they were scheduled to be released, a religious counselor came in to speak with them. The women were worried she would condemn their way of life. Instead, she started crying. It turned out the woman’s daughter had recently come out to her.
“She thought she would never have grandchildren and her daughter would never experience the love of a family of her own,” Teresa says. And in Teresa and Jo, she saw the possibilities.
They had less positive experiences with the births of their next two children, Matthew and Beena. At one point, a homophobic anesthesiologist began proselytizing while Jo was in labor. And with each child, they had to file for second-parent adoptions so both women would be deemed full legal guardians.
“They came for home visits as if we were adopting strangers,” Teresa says. “We had to go through that indignity of having a stranger come into our home and declare us fit or not.”
But by the late 1990s, they were just busy parents of three, managing activity schedules and making family dinners.
“Sometimes people are like, ‘Gosh, you guys are phenomenal in what you did.’ But it’s like, this is our life,” says Jo, a lobbyist. “The kids have known nothing else. And people will say to them, ‘You’re extraordinary.’ But, you know, they wake up in the morning and go in the kitchen and make their breakfast and go to school.”
In 2003, when Massachusetts courts deemed same-sex marriage legal, Jo called Teresa, who was at the library with Beena, and asked if she’d like to get married. Teresa said yes, and they contemplated traveling to Massachusetts to tie the knot, but they knew it would mean nothing in Maryland, where they lived.
They became active in the fight to legalize same-sex marriage throughout the country. The family appeared in ad campaigns, all three children spoke publicly on the issue and Jo became the federal director of Freedom to Marry.
When Maryland voters elected to make same-sex marriage legal, the two women sat in their Cheverly living room and cried. Then they started planning.
On May 18, a week before the 30th anniversary of their trip to the Georgia women’s festival, they were married at Billingsley House in Upper Marlboro. Their 80 guests drove through the grounds of the wastewater plant before coming to perch overlooking the confluence of the Patuxent River and the Western Branch. Jacob, Matthew and Beena stood at the corners of a three-sided chuppah, smiling proudly as their parents exchanged vows.
It doesn’t feel like 30 years, Jo says, except when they stop to think about the “lifetime of memories” they’ve created.
“It would be really dishonest to say there haven’t been times when it was really challenging,” Teresa said after the wedding. “It’s not always perfect, but you’ve got to make it perfect. It’s just better together than not together.”