The Russell Family have been longtime members at the Morgan Family YMCA. Cathy Russell graciously shares their Pride story with YMCA staff, members, and the community at large.
Where to begin? It was 1989, I was just 23. The Berlin Wall had just come down, unifying Germany. Gas was a buck a gallon. My ex-partner had just left me for the landlady… no joke. And my mother had just passed away at the incredibly young age of 48, too young.
Growing up, she was the focus of my world. Our family of four, which included a sister six years older than me, grew up on South Hill, Puyallup, when Meridian Avenue had one lane going both directions, long before the area outgrew the local forests and wildlife. It was a sheltered life, though at the time I wasn’t aware. In our little nuclear family, the words “gay” or “homosexual” were never mentioned let alone discussed. The one exception I can vaguely recall was what I thought was a baseball term, as my father would get miffed whenever he mentioned “switch-hitters”. Later on, I figured it out and it wasn’t pleasant to see him in that view.
By the time I attended Gov. John R. Rogers High School, my parents had divorced, and my mother and I moved away from the only home I had ever known. My father was no longer a fixture in any portion of my life, having married the mother of one of my elementary bullies and life wasn’t much different with all of us in the same grade and school. In my junior year, I knew I wasn’t like everyone else, though I had no name to tag this odd feeling and no one really to ask or even know what to research in the public library… this was way before the internet. So I tried to play the part of a good girl, dating boys, going to proms… though there was always this nagging feeling that something wasn’t right for me but again I didn’t have any idea what. Looking back, I know who my first crush was, her being a fellow swim teammate; we both had joined Young Life. Go figure!
Graduation in 1984 came & went with little fanfare. My mother went on to marry the step-jerk from hell, who eyeballed me a bit too closely for my comfort and I quickly moved out on my own. Then my life and eyes were wide open to the world around me.
Fast forward to 1989, after mom passed, I had no family ties to speak of in town or even in state, nothing holding me here. All the memories were soiled, sad, & painful, not worth dredging up ever again. I had taken the ASVAB, the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery test and scored high, high enough to choose whatever location I wanted, with a focus in the medical field. I was just weeks away from taking my oath when one night a coworker of mine offered to take me out for drinks to break the doldrums of boredom in my life. It was the first time I had gone out since my life basically took a turn south. Then… my friend didn’t meet up, making the night a potential total bust.
But fate had other plans for me. At the local bar, The 733 downtown Tacoma, I sat down with my beer in hand, listening to the music and feeling just a bit vulnerable. Then a tap on my shoulder and I heard this:
“Can I buy you a beer?” The tall, tan, dark haired woman stood waiting for an answer to the simple question. I didn’t know what to say. I was literally tongue-tied. The crushing-look on her face pushed me past the awkwardness to reply.
“Well, I just bought one…” I held up the nearly full bottle, but then quickly added “but you can buy the next one.” And that’s all she wrote. To quote an old lesbian phrase - we moved in together on the second date! And we didn’t leave each other’s side for five years! Her name was Michele Russell, and she became the woman I would spend the rest of my life with.
If she was Norm from Cheers… then I was the bar fly on the wall, two totally different people, one an extrovert, the other-definitely an introvert. Everyone knew her name… literally. We had one major commonality though, I was not the only person to lose a parent that year as she had lost her father, age 50, two weeks prior to my own mother’s passing. The painful bond was instant.
In January of 1994, she got down on one knee in a room in our first house we had purchased together and asked for my hand in marriage. I didn’t blink. Of course I said yes. By December, we were ready to take the plunge. Picture the most “straight-wedding” ever: long, off-the-shoulder gowns for the four bridesmaids, full tux & tails for the groomsmen, in a church with my then-reconciled father walking me down the aisle and stepsisters as attendants, which later bit me in the ass and any relationship I had with them completely melted down. I didn’t look back.
The Complications of Starting a Family
That same year in August, I was diagnosed with pre-cervical cancer, which required surgical procedures. Our hopes of someday having children were quickly extinguished and crushing. Chel, which became her name to me, was with me every step of the way. At this point, I worked in the hospital emergency department. I had seen first-hand what happened to my sisters and brothers in the LGBTQ+ community when they tried to accompany their partners/spouses; with no legal recourse, they were normally turned away, not allowed to come in. It tortured me to see this. When we married, I took Chel’s last name as my own, as I am a traditionalist in some views. However, I also knew, should I ever need to accompany her or vice versa, we needed that “cover” to keep us together, as I would play the part of sister… instead of wife.
Fast forward to late summer 2000, we were about to celebrate our 11th anniversary…and without telling the world, we had begun the process of starting our family. In January 2001, on a cold winter’s morning, we headed up to Virginia Mason in Seattle, to the reproductive program, after picking up our chosen donor sperm from Swedish Medical center and made our first attempt at getting pregnant, a simple cervical insertion and we were done. Now we just had to wait; only time would tell. We told no one what we were attempting to do, in our best efforts to deter any stress or negativity from outside sources. We waited… and waited. Nearing my birthday, the next month in February, I took an early morning pregnancy test while Chel slept… and it came out POSITIVE! We had done it on our first and only try! Again… it was fate.
Now with most couples that are expecting, you plan such things as the baby shower, putting together cribs, etc. However, there was a small glitch for us… well not really a small one. It was a rather glaring hole in the plan. As we were not “legally” married… how would Chel’s name get on the baby’s birth certificate? Answer: it couldn’t, not without what’s called in Washington State a Co-Parenting Adoption. We had to go through multiple visits from state assigned people, fill out questionnaires until our eyes crossed plus give a ton of personal information, wages, criminal histories, you name it. Again, something heterosexual couples don’t typically think twice about. Us…we had to plan it, just like we had “planned the pregnancy”.
9/11 came and went, with it taking what joy was in our world and placing it in a holding pattern. What kind of world was our baby coming into? My due date came fast in late October. My OB/GYN doc knew us well and expected Chel at my side every step of the way. Being overdue by 2 days… it was time to be induced. And on November 1, with Chel by my side in the surgical suite due to having to have an urgent C-section (due to my cervical scar tissue working against dilating), we welcomed our son, all 9+ pounds, nearly 2 feet long, with the simplest, softest cry. The hospital staff already knew me well and welcomed Chel every morning she woke up in the awkward recliner in my recovery room for all five days we were there. Not all gay couples have had that type of experience. It was a blessing for us. We were now a family and our world forever changed.
Raising a Son at the Y
Fast forward one last time, to 2004 when Austin, our son… it’s still great to say that… was just three years old. As an avid swimmer myself, it was important to me that he have swim lessons. However, there was only one place locally that offered them: the Morgan Family YMCA, just down the street from our home. I had heard from other gay couples and families about the discrimination they encountered at the Y, as an overall consensus. I was hesitant, a bit anxious at first, not knowing what to expect. However, our fears were completely unwarranted. We’ve been members ever since he was three, through his many swim lessons, his first Kids Night Out events, plus becoming a Day Camper at age five.
In his 6th grade year, 2013, we as a family finally became recognized as legal. Austin, the best man at our second wedding, walked me down the aisle, extremely proud of playing the role in this most important day for our family. Through middle school, he began to take part in the Youth Groups, led by someone I have to do a shout-out for - Don Brevik. Austin began to grow, become more independent, finding his own voice the more he took part in the programs. The Y supported him every step of the way, guiding him with their values, principals, and expectations. He went from Day camper to Day Camp CIT, or Counselor-in-training. Austin’s come full circle now, having graduated from high school, attending many PRC events, and continuing on to his freshman year of college plus having his first paying jobs at… you guessed it… the YMCA. He’s a very vocal advocate of equality and social justice, with him and me attending many rallies and support groups over the last year. He’s quite proud to have two moms and he never hesitates to tell anyone who asks.
Long story short: We’re a family, just like everyone else, paying taxes, planning for retirement, worrying about the environment, etc. Someday, it would be nice to just say “family” without any explanation of what type of family we are.
At the Y, we are just that: a family.