Tyler Doustou enjoyed playing with his parents like any other two-year-old. He loved to play catch with the parent he called “Da-Da.” He was not shy about giving kisses to his mommy. But one day in 1993 his maternal grandmother, Kay Bottoms, sued for custody of Tyler, alleging that her daughter’s lesbianism made her an unfit parent.
Henrico County (Virginia) Circuit Court judge Buford M. Parsons Jr. concurred. He ruled that Sharon Bottoms was a criminal because she “admitted in this court that she is living in an active homosexual relationship,” an activity that violates Virginia’s laws against sodomy. Explaining his decision to grant custody of Tyler to Kay Bottoms, Parson wrote that “the mother’s conduct is illegal. . . . Her conduct is immoral and . . . renders her an unfit parent.” Sharon Bottoms was allowed visitation rights two days a week, but Tyler was not allowed in his mother’s home or to have any contact with his mother’s partner, April Wade.
Sharon Bottoms appealed the circuit court’s decision to the Virginia Court of Appeals. The three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that sexual orientation alone does not make a parent unfit. “The fact that a mother is a lesbian and has engaged in illegal sexual acts does not alone justify taking custody of a child from her and awarding the child to a nonparent,” wrote Sam W. Coleman III in the June 21, 1994, ruling. The court cited case after case in which a parent who had committed a crime was not deemed unfit unless the criminal activity harmed the child.
Kay Bottoms appealed the ruling to the Virginia Supreme Court. In a 4-3 decision on April 21, 1995, the court ruled that Sharon Bottoms was an unfit mother whose homosexual relationship would bring “social condemnation” upon her child. Justice A. Christian Compton wrote for the majority opinion, “Living daily under conditions stemming from active lesbianism practiced in the home . . . will inevitably affect the child’s relationship with its peers and with the community.” Kay Bottoms retained custody of her grandson.
Many conservative groups applauded the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision. These groups oppose gay parental rights, maintaining that homosexual parents can irretrievably influence a child to grow up to be gay or lesbian. Paul Cameron, chairman of the Family Research Institute in Colorado Springs, sur- veyed studies of children who were raised by gay or lesbian parents. He found that in adulthood, between 8 and 33 percent of the sons considered themselves to be gay or bisexual—a percentage well above the most recent national estimate that 1 to 2 percent of the general population is gay, lesbian, or bisexual.
Other opponents of gay families agree with the Virginia Supreme Court’s opinion that children of gay or lesbian parents face social condemnation. Jaki Edwards, who during her adolescence was raised by her lesbian mother, maintains that she was devastated by her mother’s lifestyle.
I realize that homosexuals feel they can give a child love and support that even many straight families can’t provide. But I’ve been there. I know the fingerpointing and the shame one carries. For years, you struggle with the thought that you might be a homosexual. People say “like mother, like daughter.” Most of us become promiscuous to prove we’re straight.
Edwards and other critics also question whether children who are raised by gay or lesbian parents will learn how to relate to members of the opposite sex. Edwards argues that the absence of an opposite-sex role model presents its own problems: “How will a man raised by two men know how to relate to a woman? A woman brought up like this doesn’t know how to emotionally connect with men. I had to struggle for years to believe a man could really love me.” Robert H. Knight, director of cultural studies at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., agrees, maintaining that these children miss out on seeing important relationships between men and women, mothers and fathers, and husbands and wives. Children need a parent of the same sex to learn their sexual identity, he contends, and a parent of the opposite sex to learn how to interact.
Gay-rights advocates, however, disagree with the gay-rights opponents’ assessment of gay parents and their families. Family-law experts argue that homosexuality cannot be so awful a crime that a gay or lesbian parent’s child should be taken away by the courts. They question the wisdom in such cases as the 1996 decision of the Escambia Circuit Court in Florida, which removed an eleven-year-old daughter from her lesbian mother and granted custody to her father, a heterosexual who had served nine years in prison for murdering his first wife. Columnist Carrie Nelle Moye asks:
What kind of convoluted thinking determines that a person who has committed the ultimate crime, murder, is a better parent than a child’s mother? Of course one would have to believe that the judge in this case would argue that murder is not the ultimate crime; it is at least second—perhaps further down?—than lesbianism.
The court’s action in this case, Moye maintains, seems to imply that although the father is a murderer, at least he is a heterosexual murderer. According to supporters of gay rights, such cases prove that gay parents are unfairly discriminated against.
Gay-rights advocates and mental health experts argue that the emotional and sexual development of children raised by gay or lesbian parents is not significantly different from that of children raised by heterosexual parents. According to Michael E. Lamb, chief of the section on social and emotional development at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, early studies that suggested gays and lesbians made poor parents were based on individual cases of troubled children “by researchers with an ax to grind.” Hannah Feldman, who lived with her lesbian mother between the ages of twelve and eighteen, asserts that her childhood was not much different than that of her friends who had heterosexual parents:
I resented my mom for the same reasons my friends resented theirs—for making rules and curfews; for not accepting report-card B’s; for grumping about the music I listened to, my reluctance to do dishes and how much time I spent on the phone. I loved her for the same reasons my friends loved their moms— for laughing with me, teaching me things, taking care of me when I was sick, understanding my various disappointments and frustrations.
Current research supports Feldman’s assessment of her life with a lesbian mother, Lamb contends. “What evidence there is suggests there are no particular developmental or emotional deficits for children raised by gay or lesbian parents. . . . These kids look OK.”
Gay and lesbian parents are raising between six and fourteen million children in at least four million households, according to the American Bar Association and other sources. The dispute over whether gay fathers and lesbian mothers are fit for custody of their children is becoming a key cause for gay-rights advocates. Gay Rights: Current Controversies examines the debates over what rights gays and lesbians should have, such as the right to marry and raise children, serve in the military, and be free of discrimination.