Fighting for Tyler: A Lesbian Loses Her Son - To Her Own Mother
People Weekly, September 27, 1993
By Bill Hewitt
Brief Summary: Sharon Bottoms lost custody of her two-year-old son, Tyler, after
her mother filed for custody based on the idea that Sharon, a lesbian, was unfit to be a
parent. The judge agreed with the grandmother's petition, but Bottoms plans to appeal the
Sharon Bottoms readily admits she wasn't always the best mother to her 2-year-old son,
Tyler Doustou. Twice she smacked him so hard she left red marks on his rear end. She also
cursed in front of him, and the first word he ever uttered was a four-letter vulgarity.
Divorced for a year, Sharon, 23, lived off welfare and her income from a part-time
cashier's job at a supermarket in Richmond, Va. Sharon insists that she was trying --
successfully -- to improve her parenting. But the one thing she couldn't see changing was
the fact that she is a lesbian. "I don't think it's anybody's business what I do
behind closed doors," she says.
Sharon's mother, Kay Bottoms, 42, disagrees. Last March she sued for custody of Tyler
on the grounds that Sharon's sexual orientation made her an unfit mother. On Sept. 7,
circuit court judge Buford M. Parsons Jr., declaring Sharon's conduct "immoral,"
awarded sole custody to Kay. While heterosexual husbands and wives have sued for custody
when divorcing their homosexual spouses, the Bottoms case is one of the few in which
another family member has squared off against a gay birth parent. Not surprisingly, gay
activists feared the well-publicized ruling could trigger widespread challenges to the
rights of homosexuals to raise their own children. "It's the kind of case that
strikes terror in people's hearts," said Liz Hendrickson, executive director of the
National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco. "It makes them wonder, `Could
this happen to me?' "
Actually the battle between Sharon and Kay Bottoms seems to involve far more than the
issue of sexual orientation. Growing up, Sharon lived with her mother, who works as a
nanny, her mother's boyfriend and a brother. According to Sharon's court testimony, the
boyfriend sexually molested her hundreds of times over the years. Kay's lawyer denies such
abuse ever took place. In any case, Sharon dropped out of high school at 18 and soon
afterward married Dennis Doustou, now 22. Within months the couple had split up, but by
that time Sharon was pregnant. "I don't know why I got married," she says.
For the first few months after the baby was born, Sharon stayed with her mother. Later
she moved in with one friend, then another. On Memorial Day 1992, Sharon went to a picnic.
There she met April Wade, now 27, who worked for a catering company. Sharon had long
wondered if she might be a lesbian. Back in junior high, she says, "I had more
crushes on girls than I had on guys." She and April soon began dating, and last
September they moved in together, sharing their apartment with Tyler. A month later they
were solemnly pledging lifelong commitment to each other.
According to Sharon, Kay was unenthusiastic about the relationship but seemed resigned.
Sharon says her mother told her, "I don't care how you live your lives." At that
point, Tyler was spending a great deal of time with his grandmother, mainly because Sharon
felt overwhelmed by the burden of motherhood. Soon after exchanging informal vows with
April, though, Sharon began to feel that she should make a better effort to take care of
Tyler. "I needed to give Tyler more love," she says. "He'd cry, and I'd get
mad and yell."
Thus, last January, Sharon told Kay that she would be seeing less of Tyler. Her mother,
says Sharon, "threw a fit." In March, Kay asked the local family court for
custody and got it. At the recent circuit court appeal hearing, Kay's lawyer, Richard
Ryder, tried to portray Sharon and April as immature and indifferent parents whose
relationship would be detrimental to Tyler. Under cross-examination, Sharon acknowledged
that she and April -- whom Tyler calls "Addle" -- had kissed and gently caressed
each other in front of the boy. Moreover, says Ryder, "Sharon never looked after
A team of court-appointed psychologists, however, found that Tyler had suffered no ill
effects from being around his mother and April. And Dennis Doustou, who gave up custody of
Tyler when he was divorced from Sharon in 1992, came forward to defend his ex-wife and
offer a pointed assessment of his former mother-in-law. "The woman is
cold-hearted," he told one reporter. "It's no reason to take a child from his
mother. That's totally wrong." For now, Kay takes Tyler with her when she goes to her
baby-sitting job. Sharon, who is planning an appeal, has visitation rights two days a
week, with the stipulation that April not have any contact with the child. What does
Sharon miss most about her son? She smiles ruefully, then answers quietly, "The
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