Gay couple fights to adopt son
Colette White wasn't allowed in the courtroom when a judge approved adoption papers for the 12-year-old boy she considers her son.
So she stood, crying, outside the door.
She was no longer "family."
Colette, a U.S. Navy veteran, and her partner, Katrina White, a Seabee for 15 years, had been trying to adopt James for the better part of a year.
Though they were married, they had already been rejected once. And since that day in November, the pair had waited and worried and fought.
They had -- have -- loved James, Katrina's biological nephew, even before he came into their lives July 1, 2014. But Katrina couldn't even add him to her health-insurance plan.
While the rest of Mississippi has been fighting over LGBT rights, the Whites were waging their own fight for something deemed illegal until a federal judge's ruling last week: To adopt a son.
In this state -- the last state that explicitly banned adoption by same-sex couples -- adoption is easier for a single woman than a gay couple. So they divorced.
"It felt so unfair that we had to undo something so sacred," Colette said. "To me marriage is the most sacred thing.
"What we had to go through just to give him a good home."
Gaining a son
Katrina and Colette White joined the Navy when "Don't ask, don't tell" was still in effect.
They met while serving in the same battalion in 2010, started dating two years later, and married in New York on Nov. 26, 2013. The Navy is supposed to grant up to seven days for weddings, but Colette's commanding officer had her redo paperwork five times before granting her only a day. She used personal leave.
A year later, they took in Katrina's nephew James.
He was 10 years old when they picked him up July 1, 2014, from New York, where he lived with his father, his father's girlfriend and four siblings.
The two women had offered to keep him in Mississippi for the school year, a way for him to leave a situation that was making the boy act out.
They replaced his wardrobe, which was filled with too-short pants and shoes two sizes too small. They bought him toys because he hadn't been allowed to bring any with him. And after his father told them he didn't want James back, he ended up staying.
"I don't want to say he dropped into our lap because he's been a Godsend," Katrina said. "But we weren't expecting it."
James arrived just as Colette left the Navy after six years. She and Katrina were used to caring for only each other, and some animals. Colette was adjusting to civilian life, going back to college. Katrina still is on active duty.
When James arrived, he had to unlearn a lot of bad habits and gain some good ones. It was overwhelming, both women said. But worth it.
"He needed attention, structure and love," Katrina said. "We could give him those three things, those things came easy."
James came around. He plays football and baseball. He's an almost straight-A student. At home, he's normally polite and he likes reading -- especially baseball books and fantasy series -- going to Katrina's woodworking shop and helping Colette with her horses.
Last summer, the Whites began the adoption process.
"We didn't want anyone to take him away from us," Katrina said. "This is where he wanted to stay. We wanted him to stay."
The legal process
Katrina and Colette had guardianship but not legal custody of James. They had trouble registering him for school. He didn't have access to Katrina's military benefits.
And there was always the chance his father could demand James return to New York. Or that his mother -- last seen in South Carolina some four years ago -- could resurface.
They went to court Nov. 4, 2015. The judge dismissed the case. She just granted temporary custody, leaving the family in a sort of limbo.
Temporary custody left the door open for one of his biological parents to take James back. And it still didn't allow James to receive health insurance through the Navy. For an active boy playing football, those costs began to add up.
The Whites restarted the process. They filled out the paperwork again. They gave their lawyer money again. They again ran ads again in the newspaper to announce the pending adoption should his mother want to intervene.
But first they did one more thing they hoped would allow James to be theirs forever.
On Feb. 2, they got a divorce.
'Something so sacred'
Colette and Katrina have been caught up in the national wave of anti-LGBT legislation, backlash and court cases.
When U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III, of the southern District of Mississippi, overturned Mississippi's ban on same-sex adoption last week, the Whites reacted with mixed emotions.
The news was good for the LGBT community. But for them, it came too late.
It came after they legalized their divorce. After Colette had to give up Katrina's military benefits and after she had to give up any legal rights to James.
"Why am I having to give up so much?" Colette asked. "We have a loving home, we work hard, we provide for our family. We're a normal family like anyone else."
Katrina added, "It's frustrating, aggravating, but there's nothing to do but follow the process."
"It's put us through misery," Colette said.
Less than a week later, Gov. Phil Bryant signed into law HB 1523, allowing public and private individuals and businesses to cite their religious beliefs in refusing services to LGBT people.
Katrina said she's been asked to leave businesses before. Both women have had negative comments hurled at them. They can live with both of those things, they said.
Unless it happens around James.
"A week ago, the judge overturned the ban on gay adoptions; gay marriage was legalized last summer. It gave a feeling that Mississippi was coming around," Katrina said. "Then he signed this bill. It's like a step back, like we're back in the '60s."
On Wednesday night, James was nervous.
"I've had it better here than anywhere else," he said.
In Gulfport, he has a collection of books and a handmade wood bed that Katrina assembled herself.
"He's a spoiled little puke now," Katrina said, laughing. "He has the best of everything here."
On one wall in the living room is a collection of three frames, made by Colette, that read "He's our boy" and have photos of James. His football photos hang in the hall.
One reads "James White." His name is still officially James Ricky Collins but he's eager to change it to James Anthony White -- White for his new family and Anthony for a close family friend of Colette and Katrina and the male figure in his life.
The family had the photos taken when they thought the adoption would go through in November. Without knowing the outcome of Thursday's hearing, they haven't been able to distribute the photos to anyone.
On Thursday morning, Katrina and Colette waited at the Harrison County courthouse for their adoption hearing. James was at school.
When it was their turn, only Katrina could go into the courtroom with their attorney.
Colette walked away to dry tears, then stood outside the courtroom with her hand on the door.
Katrina eventually came out with good news.
"It's just overwhelming," Colette said. "After everything we've been through. He's ours. No one can take him away from us."
At home, the pair waited for James to return from school. Colette had made a small sign that read "You are" on the first page on the next page, "Ours forever."
The three hugged for a long time.
"It was well worth the wait," Katrina said.