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Lesbian Mother, Sharon Bottoms, Loses Custody of Son

Bottoms and Wade

Sharon Bottoms (left) with her partner April Wade and a picture of Sharon's son Tyler. Credit ML

When Sharon Bottoms lost custody of her son in the Virginia courts in 1993, she wasn’t the first gay or lesbian parent to do so; as a matter of fact a previous Virginia Supreme Court decision was key in her own loss of custody. She, unfortunately, wasn’t the last gay or lesbian parent to lose custody in Virginia either. The case was, however, one of the first where a gay or lesbian parent’s real name was used publicly in wide ranging media coverage.

In 1993, Sharon Bottoms, a 23 year old lesbian mother from the Richmond area gained local, state and national attention when she lost custody of her 2 year old son Tyler to Kay Bottoms, Sharon’s mother. The case went through several levels of the state courts, and ultimately, in 1995, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the initial Henrico County Court ruling granting Kay Bottoms custody. The Henrico County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in March 1993 had ruled that “her (Sharon’s) homosexual conduct was immoral and illegal and ‘renders her an unfit parent.’ “ The case was appealed to the Circuit Court of Virginia.

Circuit Court Judge Buford M. Parsons upheld the Henrico Court decision, based in part on the 1985 Virginia Supreme Court case Roe v. Roe that awarded custody of a daughter to her mother because the fathers “continuous exposure of his nine-year-old daughter to his immoral and illicit homosexual relationship rendered him an unfit and improper custodian.” The Roe v Roe decision went on to point out that the father’s relationship was a class 6 felony because of the Virginia sodomy laws and that living in such an environment placed an “intolerable burden” on the child. In the appeals court, Judge Parsons did compel Sharon, on the stand, to state what lesbians did in bed, against her own interests which should have been protected by the 5th Amendment.[1] The ACLU represented Sharon Bottoms in this appeal, and Kent Willis, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the ACLU said that “It almost sets it up as if a stranger could walk into court, and say ‘The people down the street are lesbians and they have a child. I’m a better parent, and, therefore, I want custody.”

OUT! Richmond and Virginians for Justice both issued statement in protest of the Court of Appeals Ruling. OUT! Richmond organized a “stroll-in” and rally in support of Bottoms at the Virginia Supreme Court Building. A group of supporters chanted and carried signs and some of the protestors symbolically pushed empty baby strollers.[2] Activists pointed out Sharon Bottoms had testified that her mother's live-in male lover sexually molested her for five years when she was a child. Yet the judge sent Tyler to that home, not hers.[3]

The case galvanized the Richmond community, with this case being a focal point of Pride in 1993. Beth Marschak also talked about how the community came together to support Bottoms and her partner April Wade. There were various fundraisers that organizations like Richmond Lesbian Feminists (RLF) and LWOC (Lesbian Women of Color) in the local bars, and money was donated through RLF and Pride.

The ACLU continued the appeals process and in June of 1994, the Virginia Court of Appeals awarded custody of Tyler to Sharon Bottoms. Their opinion written by Judge Sam W. Coleman, stated that the trial court had “abused its discretion” and that there was no evidence that Sharon Bottoms was an unfit parent or that her relationship with April Wade was detrimental to Tyler’s well-being. In fact, the Court of Appeals stated that the evidence showed that Sharon Bottoms was “a fit and nurturing parent who has adequately provided and cared for her son…” Kay Bottoms appealed this decision to the Virginia Supreme Court, and the reunion of Sharon and Tyler was delayed indefinitely until the Virginia Supreme Court decided whether to hear the case.

The Virginia Supreme Court did hear the case in April of 1995, and ultimately decided in the grandmother’s favor. The Virginia Supreme Court found that the best interests of the child would be to remain with the grandmother. The mother’s lesbian relationship was only one factor, but it was a factor in this decision. There were dissenting opinions and the decision can be found at http://www.danpinello.com/Bottoms.htm. Other factors considered were the fact that Sharon Bottoms had dropped out of high school, had difficulty maintaining employment and had lived with a number of men before she met April Wade; Kay Bottoms herself never graduated high and lived with a man for 17 years, only asking him to move out when she sued for custody of Tyler and who Sharon had accused of sexually abusing her for 5 years.[4]

This case was a strong statement from the Virginia courts in regards to rights of lesbians and gay men. Despite the fact that Virginia’s sodomy laws or “crimes against nature” law was rendered unconstitutional by the 2003 US Supreme Court decision in Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, it is still on the books. Virginia has made progress but the 2006 Marshall-Newman Amendment to the state constitution established one of the most restrictive anti-gay legal environments in the United States.

References

  1. John Freeman and Keith Maranger “Richmond lesbian denied custody of child: Sharon Bottoms loses son to her mother due to ‘lesbianism’ “ Our Own Community Press, October 1993.
  2. John Freeman and Keith Maranger “Richmond lesbian denied custody of child: Sharon Bottoms loses son to her mother due to ‘lesbianism’ “ Our Own Community Press, October 1993.
  3. http://holysmoke.org/sdhok/fem014.htm, accessed 4/30/10.
  4. http://www.danpinello.com/Bottoms.htm, accessed 4/30/10.