It's hard to distinguish Preston James Thompson's first birthday party from the hundreds of other kid-themed parties that happen every week at HippoHopp. Located off of the 1-85 access road between Clairmont and North Druid Hills roads, it's one of those full-service family entertainment centers that parents relish because everything's included under one roof: the indoor playground and inflatable bounce house, the balloons and paper party décor, the pepperoni pizza lunch and, most importantly, the cleanup.
Like most first birthdays, the real guests of honor are the two people who survived the first year of parenthood. Tonya Allen and Alana Thompson are no different. "I feel like somebody should be throwing us a party," Allen says as the family of three waits to be greeted inside.
Behind the front desk hang silhouette cutouts of HippoHopp, the dancing purple mascot with the snaggle-toothed smile. He looks like Barney's country cousin. The rest of the place is overrun with sock-footed toddlers occasionally crashing into the calves of slow-moving adults. Allen cradles a drooling Preston in one arm while soaking up the scene with the kind of wide-eyed enthusiasm typically reserved for HippoHopp's younger clientele. "Doesn't this just make you want to have a whole bunch of kids?" she says.
For Allen and Thompson, the process of having a son began almost from the moment they met four years ago in the office of Vision Church of Atlanta, an inclusive ministry in Grant Park where Thompson, 35, serves as an elder.
By the end of their first conversation they were already discussing children. What they weren't prepared for was the journey it would take to get there. Today Thompson refers to Preston as their "miracle baby" because he was born two months premature, weighing only 3 pounds 8 ounces. Allen, on the other hand, jokingly calls him their "$78 baby," referring to the price of the home insemination kit that she used to impregnate Thompson with donated sperm.
The state of Georgia, however, has another name for Preston's conception: illegal.
Artificial insemination conducted by anyone other than a licensed doctor or surgeon is a felony in Georgia, punishable by one to five years in prison. Like a lot of committed lesbian couples in the state, Allen and Thompson were unaware of the law at the time they conceived their son as domestic partners. After Preston was born and they brought him to church, Allen became an advocate for other couples almost by accident.
"Someone came up to me and was like, 'What was the process?'" Allen says. A couple of inquiries a month turned into a couple a week. "People kept calling my phone, so I just started setting up these little babymaking meetings at my house."
What started as a means to an end quickly became a mission. In 2013, Allen founded Stork Consulting, her informal effort to help educate other lesbian couples in their endeavors to start families.
She's always careful to advise clients of the law regarding at-home insemination when presenting the range of options. But because same-sex marriage still isn't recognized in this state, the biological barriers to parenthood have proven relatively easier for LGBT couples to scale than the institutional ones.
For many of the couples Allen consults, having a family means going up against the traditional ideals of the conservative black church, Georgia's anti-LGBT laws, and a cultural bias that criminalizes non-heteronormative behavior. But the idea of what constitutes a "normal" family — and who has the right to define that — is increasingly up for challenge in this country. Even in the red state of Georgia.
Preston, however, is proof that the human desire for family, to nurture a child and provide a loving household, does not discriminate based on sexual orientation.
"We want babies like you want babies," Allen says. "Your life is no different from mine. I just don't have a husband; I have a wife."
Allen and Thompson found their baby's daddy on Craigslist. They laugh about it now, but the desperation that drove them there wasn't particularly funny at the time.
For most lesbian couples who desire to have children outside of adoption or fostering, their options begin where alternatives for heterosexual couples usually end. In vitro fertilization and artificial insemination originated as processes to overcome infertility and other reproductive challenges faced by opposite-sex couples. As last resorts, they can be expensive and imposing.
Allen discovered that the sperm bank route could cost as little as $1,000-$3,000, although successful conception often requires multiple tries, which could quickly add up. The next option was to ask male friends, gay or straight, if they'd be willing to be sperm donors. Most decided it was "too close for comfort," Allen says.
While wading through known donor websites and Yahoo groups one day, she decided to place the Craigslist ad almost out of curiosity.