Couples Chronicles — Interview 33
Bonded Together as Friends
First published in December 1989
© 1999, Demian
Nancy Hugman, 35, and Sandy Stelter, 36, have been partners for 15 years. Nancy is a registered occupational therapist, working with the physically disabled, and Sandy manages a software testing group for a major legal publisher. Having fallen in love during the month of February, they celebrate their anniversary on Valentine’s Day. The couple own their home in Suisun, in Northern California.
How about some background?
Nancy: I was raised in New Braunfels, Texas, out in the country with my two sisters and a brother. We were Roman Catholic. My mother had converted because it made it easier to marry Daddy, but she encouraged us to choose whatever religion we wanted when we got old enough.
I really enjoyed going to Catholic school. The teachers were disciplined and taught good learning skills. I was teacher’s pet. I was in love with my fifth and sixth grade teacher, a beautiful 24-year-old nun.
Sandy: I was raised in Houston along with a younger brother and sister. We were very involved in the Episcopal Church and I’m glad I had that.
Are you now involved with religious activities?
Both: Oh, yes.
Nancy: We have been part of Diablo Valley Metropolitan Community Church in Concord for nine years. I’m a deacon and Sandy is treasurer.
How did you first meet?
Nancy: My mom was dropping me off at my new dorm at Texas Women’s University. At a distance, I mistook Sandy for this other person I had heard about. I told my mom that this lesbian was involved with the campus government. Then Sandy came over, shook my hand and said she was my suite-mate. My mother just about died.
Sandy: I was a senior and she was a sophomore. It used to be a senior dorm and I was highly irritated that sophomores were allowed in.
It was primarily an all women’s school and a lot of our friends were lesbians. Over that year we fell in love with each other, not realizing it was happening.
Had you any previous major relationships?
Nancy: Sandy and I brought each other out.
Was this your first recognition that you were lesbians?
Nancy: I knew I was different, and I had feminist ideas before learning about feminism. My best male friends in high school were gay, though we didn’t know that at the time.
I didn’t like girls. I thought of them as whiny, fickle, and not very deep or smart. At the women’s university, my first friend was a man. It was not until I fell in love with a woman that I thought, “Well, I guess women are O.K.”
By the time I moved to the new dorm, I was on the executive council of the Southern Baptist Student Union, having left Catholicism. I knew I could sit down with someone who was a drug addict and tell them why it was morally wrong, because they were destroying themselves. But I feared meeting lesbians who I knew I might be in contact with at the dorm. I had no idea how to tell them that loving someone was wrong.
Sandy: Through high school, I wasn’t the least bit interested in boys and was highly insulted if a boy came first over one of my friendships. I thought it was great being in an all women’s university because we had to do everything, and I wouldn’t have felt as supported if it was co-ed.
During my junior year, I found out that all these people I ran around with were lesbians. I wasn’t really aware of my sexual feelings until my senior year.
What did you first think of each other?
Sandy: My most vivid impression of her: she was always naked. I was shocked at how immodest she was. I would bring friends over to the dorm and when we’d walk in Nancy would be on the phone stark naked.
Nancy: I thought she was compulsively neat. After our first meeting with Mama, I offered Sandy a Dr. Pepper as a peace offering, not knowing that she was addicted to it. So that was a good move. In return, she showed me a bucket with scrub brushes and disinfectants and said, “You’re welcome to use this in the bathroom any time you want.”
I’ve mellowed her over the years. She does allow clutter now, sometimes.
Sandy: She didn’t have her clothes on because they were lying all over the room! But Nancy has learned to pick up after herself.
Any other differences?
Nancy: Sandy and I were viewed as being opposites. I was very conservative, religious, and would not touch a drop of liquor. Sandy did a lot of drinking and partying. There would be no reason to even talk to each other, much less become lovers. But we did.
She would come in drunk …
Sandy: Telling all my secrets now?!
Nancy: … and mooch food in the middle of the night. We would sit on my bed until early morning, me telling her there was a better way and about my relationship with God. I didn’t intend to convert this woman, but I really cared about her and she was on the path to destroying herself. Like a mother, I would never be completely comfortable until I knew she was safely in her bed.
Sandy, did you perceive yourself needing to be saved?
Sandy: No. Though I didn’t go to church at college, I was aware that God was in my life.
I really enjoyed college, but it was my last year and the thought of starting work for the rest of my life was really scary. That’s when I started drinking more heavily, not having done any drinking until my junior year.
Nancy was helping me through a lot of confusion that I didn’t realize I was in. I was just having fun, living like the others around me. She helped me see I needed some kind of direction and to care more about myself.
She looked at me deeper than just my fun-loving facade and saw the more serious person underneath. That’s what bonded us together as friends, and we were definitely friends before we became lovers. We’ve had a few rough years and it’s been the development of our friendship that has helped keep us together.
What kind of problems have you encountered?
Nancy: Sandy, along with being compulsively clean, was a very structured, controlling person. I easily gave her my power. I wouldn’t be blamed for anything as long as “Sandy told me to …”
By our fourth year, I got melted into her. My way of coping was to start acting like her, rather than discovering who I was. The last time I behaved like this was when I was 11.
I told Sandy she better get therapy and change, or our relationship wasn’t going to make it. So she got therapy, started to change and it scared the hell out of me. Then I ran to a therapist, shocked that Sandy was expecting me to take responsibility for my life. I still go to therapy every six weeks for a check-up.
The bottom line for us became co-dependency. I used to be indecisive, sniveling, whiny and afraid to go anywhere by myself. Sandy was always perfectly willing to take the reins. It’s the kind of thing that attracted us to each other, besides the love, and we worked just fine for 11 years.
Then I wanted to get a sense of me and what I was capable of. I became a deacon and that was something Sandy couldn’t do (I knew I was called to do that). It was scary for both of us, for me to go to meetings without her.
I remember the first time I went to a class and drove home at night by myself. It felt like the entire freeway was going to eat me up. I had never done that by myself and I was 32.
Sandy: Well, she has night-blindness.
Nancy: But we always used that as an excuse for her leading the way. I found out that I was perfectly capable. It took a lot of trial and error for both of us. A lot of fights, loving and prayer.
What kept us together was our faith. The faith that love will continue.
Did you consider leaving the relationship?
Nancy: I almost left. The day before I was to walk into my own apartment for a trial separation, last August 1988, I herniated a back disk and became totally dependent.
I was confined to the house for four months, so I had time to define myself. Then, when I could go back to work, I realized I could grow and be healthy within this relationship.
I went to a twelve-step program, not because of substance abuse, but because we were in a co-dependant relationship and it taught me a lot.
It’s so scary to look at changing a relationship that has lasted so long. You think, “Gee, when we finish changing, will we even like each other any more?”
And it is so worth it. I wouldn’t go back to the way I was for anything in the world.
Sandy: I like her much better this way. It’s a shared relationship at this point, instead of me taking responsibility for all the decisions and her taking on all the feelings. This huge burden was lifted off my shoulders.
Nancy: I was robbing her of the opportunity to feel a large range of emotions.
Do your families of origin support your relationship?
Sandy: During the summer after our school year together, our relationship became known to our parents. There was this whole hullabaloo, family conferences and all kinds of horrible shit.
We decided to stay together, then I ended up breaking us apart for about four months. We left it in God’s hands. We were very confused and didn’t know what we wanted.
In February 1976, God very clearly said, “You can go back to Nancy now.” So, I announced that to my family.
After spending a weekend together, I told my parents that we were a couple and intended to stay that way. My parents said, “Well, there’s the door. You come back when this is all over with.”
I didn’t see my parents, brother and sister for eight years. I would run into them every once in a while, but didn’t actually sit down and talk to them until we moved out here.
Nancy: Her mother would call occasionally to say things like, “Your father’s had a heart attack, don’t go to see him, it’s all your fault.”
Sandy: They never welcomed Nancy into their home. They’ve been here once, asking that Nancy not be here. We agreed only because it was the first time in so many years that we had seen each other. Nancy left a lunch for them, and they were real appreciative of that.
They are concerned about how Nancy’s back is and stuff like that — they are mellowing — but the line is, “We love the sinner, but hate the sin.”
I sat down with my blood family two years ago at Thanksgiving for the first time in 12 years, and I’ve had some contact with my sister and brother.
Nancy: Sandy’s brother and sister-in-law welcome me into their home and treat me like family.
Sandy: Nancy’s family didn’t want me on their property for five years. Now, I’m part of the Hugman family, which is really neat! Two of Nancy’s sisters live in California and we spend a lot of time with them and their families.
The whole family was out this past summer for a big reunion. I’m one of the in-laws.
Nancy: When my parents found out about our relationship, and all hell broke loose, they disowned me. But that lasted only a couple of weeks at most. They were really desperate and didn’t know what to do. When they figured that disowning wouldn’t make me give up Sandy, they took me back.
Though they wish we didn’t have this relationship, they do like Sandy and sometimes my mother will act like she’s beginning to accept it.
Sandy: She spent two weeks out here last year when Nancy messed up her back. She got to see our life together; to see the love we have for each other and how we deal with stress. I think that made a difference.
Nancy: The greatest transition I’ve seen was a month ago when I talked to my mom about our wanting to adopt children. She sincerely said two things that threw me.
One was “You know, Nancy, if I could, I would have one for you.” The other thing she said was — and she’s never been religious — “Don’t give up darlin’, because you know that God is on your side.” It made me feel so good.
I was concerned that a potential child be accepted into my family and she’s ready with open arms. She said “any child of yours is my grandchild.”
Do you co-own your house?
Sandy: We put everything we can into joint tenancy. We both have wills naming each other as beneficiary and have drawn powers of attorney.
Have you executed a relationship agreement?
Sandy: We’ve talked about it.
Nancy: We always tell everybody else they should.
Sandy: But we never did one and I don’t think we will.
What do you see as the future of your relationship?
Sandy: Whoever can get out of the house after we’ve been together for 68 years is welcome to go.
Nancy: That’s our verbal contract. So far, we’ve done 15 of the 68.
Where do your plans for children fit in?
Nancy: We looked into adoption, but just this past month the state started requiring inter-country agencies to prohibit adoptions if one person is living in an “intimate” relationship and they are not legally married. Gay couples previously could adopt if one of them did the adoption as a single parent.
Sandy: It’s so hard to adopt a kid from the U.S.
Nancy: So that closed a lot of doors. I was going to have a baby, except that I hurt my back and I just can’t carry one. Finally, Sandy said, “You know? It would solve a whole lot of red tape if I just got pregnant.” I was blown away!
Sandy: I have never been the least bit interested in giving birth, but I have come to the conclusion that this is the only way we would be able to have a child. The spirit is not thrilled about it, but the body is willing.
Have you cared for children before?
Sandy: Yes. Joey, a two-year-old, and his mom Nita lived with us for about a year. We got wrapped up in this kid’s life, thoroughly enjoyed having him and learned a lot.
Nancy: However, it’s totally different raising someone else’s child. You have to make sure they don’t bond too much with you. Also, the mother was a drug addict and alcoholic and it was real hard on us.
Would you consider foster care?
Nancy: After dealing with Joey, no. Nita disappeared for four months then came back and said, “I’m taking my kid now.” I’m not going to go through that again. We want a child who is ours; that nobody can take away.
Sandy: And with foster care you get kids who have problems.
Nancy: We called it Band-Aid parenting with Joey.
Sandy: A child would mean a lot of change in our life, which currently revolves around church and work. To make that big of a commitment means giving up a lot of things we do now, so the child better be mine.
Have you found good resources for considering children?
Nancy: In the Berkeley area there is a really good series of classes called Lesbians Choosing Children, sponsored by the Lyon-Martin Clinic. They informed us of our legal status and how to go about getting a sperm donor. There are also support groups for pregnant lesbians and their spouses.
We’ve been in contact with the National Center for Lesbian Rights. They also were very helpful and supportive.
What do you feel about each other these days?
Nancy: I find myself falling more and more in love with Sandy every day. It boggles my brain because I’ve come out of this horrible time when I was wondering if I could ever love her again. And I do love Sandy tremendously. Having a loving relationship is the best thing that could ever happen to me.
Now, we have a much more healthy relationship, a good relationship to bring a child into.
Sandy: It’s only out of my love for Nancy that I am willing to have a child. It’s not a need on my part to bear a kid. Also, it’s not like “Oh gee, we’re kind of bored with each other, let’s bring a third party into this relationship.” That’s not our intent.
We want to raise a child and this is the fastest (we’re hoping) and the best way to bring a child into our lives. We are hoping for insemination within a couple of weeks.
Insemination by what method?
Sandy: We think that it’s psychologically best for the child that it be a known donor. Because it takes a woman of my age longer to conceive, we have opted for fresh sperm, as opposed to frozen. Our big problem was finding a medical person who will oversee the insemination. In California, if the procedure is looked at as a medical one, then the donor has no parental rights.
Nancy: But if the donor directly gives you the sperm, then the donor has all parental rights. As long as the little jar goes through the hands of a doctor — even if the doctor doesn’t do the insemination — it’s a medical rather than parental issue.
With lesbians or gay men, pregnancy is an intensely thought out and extremely bureaucratic process. You have to cover all bases and leave a trail of documents to make sure that you are seen as parents. When we finally do it, by God, we know what we are doing. We can’t, like heterosexual couples, just “accidentally” get pregnant and be legally protected.
It’s a darn shame that we have to spend so much money on securing the legality of our relationship, instead of on raising the child. It’s a crime.
Sandy: Not only does the contract protect us, it also protects our donor from any kind of financial burden.
We spent a month talking with him about a child. He’s been a good friend of ours for a long time and will see this child a lot, but there is a line that we must all draw regarding his interaction with this child. He and his lover have also spent a good deal of time talking about this.
Is he gay?
Nancy: Yes, and he is beautiful. He has a good set of genes on him.