The Court Cases That Changed Our World

Many of the greatest strides in the fight for LGBT social justice and sexual liberation were the result of court cases, often involving accidental activists simply fighting for the right to live their lives like everybody else.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

August 22 2012 3:00 AM ET

Sharon Bottoms
Bottoms v. Bottoms

The landmark 1993 ruling by a Virginia judge that denied a lesbian custody of her biological son because her sexual orientation made her “unfit” as a parent focused national media attention on same-sex-headed families. The court battle was a crucial early test of legal equality and gay parents’ rights. In Bottoms v. Bottoms, custody of Tyler Doustou was awarded not to his mother, Sharon Bottoms, but to his grandmother, Kay Bottoms, who was “sickened” by the fact that her daughter was a lesbian and had had a commitment ceremony with another woman, April Wade. Numerous witnesses testified that Sharon, a grocery store cashier at the time, was a good mother; Sharon’s ex-husband, Dennis Doustou, even testified on her behalf, later telling reporters that Kay was “totally wrong” to take Tyler from his mother. Sharon also testified that her mother’s live-in boyfriend had molested her as a child.
 
Still, Judge Buford Parsons forced Sharon to explain on the witness stand what lesbians do in bed, and then Parsons ruled that Sharon was an unfit mother because she and Wade had oral sex, illegal in Virginia at the time. Sharon was given two days a week of visitation with Tyler, but he was not allowed in Sharon’s home and not allowed to have any contact with Wade, with whom he had already bonded.

The ruling galvanized gay activists — many of them lesbian moms like Sharon — who held stroll-ins (rallies with empty baby strollers) and protests in Virginia and outside the state. While Sharon became the unexpected poster child for gay custody issues, she wasn’t the first lesbian seeking custody of her child. In 1972, Camille Mitchell of San Jose, Calif., became the country’s first acknowledged lesbian to win custody of her children. The victory came in divorce proceedings against her husband of 15 years. Sharon’s case resonated, though, because of the ordinariness of Sharon and Wade, two working-class women who wanted the American dream more than they sought headlines and activist mantles.

A year later an appeals court ruled in Sharon’s favor, overturning Parsons’s verdict. Sadly, in 1995, the Virginia Supreme Court took on the case, ruling in favor of the grandmother, citing that Sharon and Wade’s relationship involved “fondling” and “oral sex” and concluding that “the record shows a mother who, although devoted to her son, refuses to subordinate her own desires and priorities to the child’s welfare.” The court also ruled that “living daily under conditions stemming from active lesbianism practiced in the home may impose a burden upon a child by reason of the ‘social condemnation’ attached to such an arrangement, which will inevitably afflict the child's relationships with its ‘peers and with the community at large.’”

Media attention around the case, though, helped move courts and advocates on lesbian custody issues. Bottoms’s story because a TV movie, Two Moms for Zachary, and though she never regained custody of her son (she was granted very limited visitation), there was significant movement on custody issues following the case. In 1970, in only 1% of contested cases involving the children of a lesbian and a straight husband was custody awarded to the gay parent.

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