Last edited: January 01, 2005

One Good Mother to Another

Lesbian Mothers Fight for Custody of Children

The Progressive, November, 1993

By Minnie Bruce Pratt.

Brief Summary: The Virginia case of Sharon Bottoms is analyzed from the viewpoint of a lesbian mother who battled the same intolerance and legal obstacles in the 1970s.

In the New York Times photo, a young blonde woman sits staring, stunned. She holds up a large picture of her cherubic smiling little boy. At first this looks like a moment with which everyone sympathizes: a mother publicly grieving her child killed in a tragic accident or lost in a nightmare kidnapping. But in this photo, something jars slightly. There is no father next to the mother; her companion is a woman. The caption reads: "A Virginia court's decision to remove a child from his mother because of her lesbianism is stirring controversy. Sharon Bottoms, left, lost custody of her two-year-old son, Tyler Doustou, to her mother." At that moment, perhaps the reader's sympathy wanes or turns to animosity.

But I know her look. I've sat in that desolate place. I've had my children taken from my arms, and I've felt that my children were almost dead to me because I could not hold them or touch them.

I had two boys whom I saw emerge, bloody and beautiful, from my body. I nursed them at my breast. I bathed their perfect tiny bodies and changed their diapers. I spoon-fed them baby food spinach. I taught them how to tie their shoes. I rocked them through ear aches and bad dreams. I drove them to their first day in kindergarten.

Then, suddenly, when they were five and six, when I fell in love with another woman and left my marriage to live as a lesbian, the world looked at me and saw an unfit mother. Suddenly, my husband had legal grounds to take my children away from me and never let me see them again.

Like Bottoms, I was also a "somewhat immature and undisciplined, though loving, mother"--after all, we were both mothers at twenty-one, barely out of girlhood. Like Bottoms, I was an "irregular job holder"--finishing a Ph.D. in English literature. When I applied for teaching positions, the male interviewers would inquire, "How will you arrange child care? Are you planning to have more children? What will your husband do if we hire you?" And they never did.

But the standard for my being a "good mother" was not my parenting ability or financial stability. After all, my husband, a father at twenty-three and an unemployed graduate student, was no more mature in his role than I was in mine. No, I was considered a fit mother as long as I was married and loyal to the man who was my husband. As soon as I asserted my independence, as soon as I began a life in which I claimed the human right to form intimate social and sexual relations with whomever I chose, specifically with other women, I was seen to be a perverted, unnatural woman by my husband, my mother, the people of the town I lived in. and the legal system.

The letter from my husband's lawyer said he was seeking custody because of my "unorthodox ideas about the place of the father in the home"--my heresy consisted of disagreeing with the idea that men were superior to, and should govern, women.

Though more than fifteen years passed between my agony at losing my children and that of Sharon Bottoms, the issues remain the same. This is true despite the fact that I lost custody of my boys to my ex-husband, their biological father, while Sharon has, at least for now, lost her boy to her mother, the child's biological grandmother, who sued for custody. The reason for denying us our children was the same: simply because we were in lesbian relationships.

In the words of Judge Parsons, who ruled in Henrico County Circuit Court against Sharon: "The mother's conduct is illegal and immoral and renders her unfit to parent." Illegal because in Virginia (and more than twenty other states and the District of Columbia), sodomy--the "crime against nature" of lesbians and gay men--is still prohibited. And the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court, in Bowers v. Hardwick, actually stated in its majority opinion that it was maintaining the illegality of sodomy because that particular set of justices considered this kind of sex immoral, based on "traditional values."

Sharon Bottoms, as a lesbian in a committed relationship with another woman, is perceived as less fit to parent than her mother, whose live-in boyfriend for seventeen years was a man who, according to Sharon, sexually abused her twice a week during her teen years. Under the law and in the eyes of many people, Sharon's mother is more fit because she endorses heterosexuality as an institution and female subservience as a tradition, and presumably will pass these values along to her grandson. This arrangement is seen as being in the child's "best interests."

But should we not ask what kind of damage will be done to a boy if his sense of self depends on dominating another person? Should we not inquire about the immorality of teaching a child that love can only occur with state-sanctioned approval?

Much was made in the courtroom of the fact that Sharon's child calls her lover and partner "Dada." In most two-partner lesbian families, the children call one woman Mama or Mom or Mother, and the other woman some different maternal variation, or perhaps by her given name; often, these women lose custody of their children anyway. Certainly, Sharon could have been challenged for custody no matter what her child called April, Sharon's partner. But the word "Dada" evokes a truth about lesbian parenting that opponents violently condemn: Two women can raise children in a home together and challenge the very idea that gender roles, or gender expression, are irrevocably matched to biological gender.

Opponents of lesbian/gay parenting often present the "damage" to the child as a danger of him or her "becoming" gay. But this is only part of a larger fear that no matter what sexuality the child develops, the child might learn that rigid gender roles are not required. The child might learn the joy of possibility that comes when biological gender does not have to match socially mandated gender in jobs or thoughts or love.

Psychiatric specialists testified for Sharon by outlining studies that showed no noticeable difference between children reared in lesbian households and those reared in heterosexual ones. Nevertheless, Judge Parsons concurred with Sharon's mother that the child would be "mentally and physically harmed" by the lesbian relationship; he "stated there was a strong possibility the boy would carry "an intolerable burden" for "the rest of his life."

Sharon can see her child on Mondays and Tuesdays but not in her own home, and not in the presence of her lover. By my divorce settlement ("And lucky to get it!" my lawyer said), I was forbidden to have the boys in my home if I shared the house with any person; I could take them out of their home state only if we went to be with my mother, whom my husband had threatened to call as a character witness for him.

To see my boys, sometimes I drove round-trip on three-day weekends, fourteen hours nonstop there, fourteen hours nonstop back. The youngest boy wrote in his school journal how he wished he could be with me more; the oldest boy talked to me late at night, on long distance phone calls, about his depression, about how sometimes he just wanted to die.

I loved them, I called them, I saw them as much as I had time and money to do. We got through their baby years, pre-adolescence, and teens. When I finally asked the oldest, "What effect do you think my being a lesbian had on you?" he answered: "None. I think my personality was most shaped by not having you with me as a mother all those years, by having you taken away from me."

It is ironic that Sharon Bottoms's case was tried in Virginia, a state that enforced its law against racial intermarriage as late as 1967, until in Loving v. Virginia the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional all such laws. The determined political struggle of the African-American community, in the courts and in civil-rights battles in the streets, abolished a law that codified the prejudices of white Southerners.

When I fought for custody of my children in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as I struggled to live as a self-reliant woman, not dependent, not submissive, the tide of women's liberation was rising through the South. Women were beginning to challenge an economic system that uses the threat of competition between the sexes as a way to limit working people's wages, benefits, and job conditions.

Now, with cases like that of Sharon Bottoms, the gay and lesbian community is fighting to end other inhumane limits on how all of us can live and love. And now we have allies, like Sharon's ex-husband, Dennis Doustou, who asked to testify for her and who says, "Tyler means the world to her."

In 1976, when I went to a lawyer for help in my struggle for my children, he said to me, "This country is not ready for someone like you." Can we say now, in 1993, that we are ready for someone like Sharon Bottoms, just an ordinary woman, a part-time grocery clerk trying to raise a child on not enough money, but with the love and support of another woman who cares about both of them?

Let us declare, finally, that we are ready for this ordinary extraordinary woman who is saying to us, with her life, that to guarantee her right to be a lesbian and a mother is to take one more step toward liberation for all of us.

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