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 un-enthusiastic 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 lake 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 Tyler.”
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. Thai’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 docs Sharon miss most about her son? She smiles ruefully, then answers quietly, “The noise.”
STEPHANIE SLEWKA in Richmond