By People Staff
Updated January 19, 1976 12:00 PM

Mary Jo Risher, in the eyes of her friends, is an attentive and loving mother. But a Dallas jury of ten men and two women recently awarded custody of the former Sunday school teacher’s 9-year-old adopted son, Richard, to his father, Doug. The reason: Mrs. Risher is a lesbian.

Mary Jo, a 38-year-old nurse, collapsed in tears after the verdict was read and was comforted by her lover, Ann Foreman, with whom she has lived quietly for the past two years. The verdict went against a recent trend of awarding children to lesbian mothers—two previous suits in Los Angeles and Seattle were decided by judges, however, not juries. The decision was also a setback to the National Organization for Women, which had raised $1,000 for Mary Jo’s legal fees. She is a member of NOW and Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian organization.

The most damaging testimony at the trial came from Mary Jo’s 17-year-old son, James, who has lived with his father since last year. James testified that he moved out of his mother’s home because he was “ashamed of the way she is,” and his friends shunned him. (Richard did not testify because of his age.) Four years ago, during the Risher’s bitter divorce hearings, James testified against his father, describing a wife-beating episode in which Doug broke Mary Jo’s nose.

At the time of the 1971 divorce, Mary Jo was heterosexual and easily won custody of both sons. The case was reopened under a 1974 Texas law which allows a spouse to try to prove that there has been “a substantial change in circumstances” which affects a child’s care.

“I had no suspicion the boy’s mother was a lesbian,” maintains Doug, an aircraft mechanic for Braniff International, who remarried in 1972. “It hit me like a bomb.”

Doug and Mary Jo met when he was in the Air Force and she was a 19-year-old grad student in nursing in Arkansas. She was the daughter of an atomic bomb technician and a waitress. They married that year, 1957, and moved to Dallas. Mary Jo became chaplain of the Order of the Eastern Star and president of the Dallas County Council of PTAs. Two and a half years after the marriage ended, Mary Jo met another divorcée, Ann Foreman, “through mutual friends” and had her first homosexual experience. An assistant bank auditor, Ann had lived with two other women—for three and five years—before she and Mary Jo set up housekeeping in a four-bedroom townhouse in suburban Garland. Also living with them is Ann’s 11-year-old daughter, Judie Ann. “I was just fulfilling what I’d always known I had been,” says Mary Jo, who recalls that she first sensed her attraction to women at age “5 or 6.”

Mary Jo, who has earned a degree in business administration since her divorce, also has passed the time building furniture and a backyard patio, as well as swimming, fishing and hunting. “I’ve got my own high-powered rifle,” she beams.

Mary Jo plans to appeal, and, oddly enough, one man who hopes she wins is Ann’s ex-husband, Michael Foreman. He has been advised by a psychiatrist that his daughter is better off with her lesbian mother. “We were told that Judie Ann was probably a most unlikely candidate to become a homosexual,” Foreman says, “because she will have seen society’s disapproval of her mother and Mary Jo.”

“Doug Risher’s action,” Foreman adds, “opened up his children and my daughter to ridicule. He is not going to change the facts. All he did was make them public.”