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How ‘homophobia’ denied Sharon Bottoms custody of her son in the 1990s

Sharon Bottoms, who died recently at age 48, made headlines in the 1990s when she lost custody of her son to her mother, who argued that Bottoms' homosexuality made her an unfit parent. Judy Woodruff talks to Donald Butler, the attorney who represented Bottoms during her failed legal challenge, and Lambda Legal's Sharon McGowan about how Bottoms' courageous fight sparked a battle for gay rights.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we look back at the legal battle that became a flash point of the gay rights movement 25 years ago.

    Sharon Bottoms Mattes was at the center of a much-publicized child custody case in Virginia in the 1990s. But, unlike other custody disputes, her mother sued for custody, arguing that her daughter was unfit to parent because she was living with another woman.

    Bottoms Mattes died of cancer last month at her home in North Carolina. She was 48 years old.

    We start tonight with a conversation I recorded yesterday with Donald Butler, the attorney who represented Sharon Bottoms in her unsuccessful fight through several courts to maintain custody of her son.

    Donald Butler, thank you very much for joining us.

    First of all, how did you meet Sharon Bottoms?

  • Donald Butler:

    I was contacted by the ACLU to see if I would take up her case after she went to court by herself at the first level, and custody was awarded to her own mother.

    They contacted me. I was a divorce attorney, family law attorney at the time. And they were looking for somebody to represent her pro bono.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And she had not had any legal representation earlier.

    Why was her mother so determined to deny her custody of her own son?

  • Donald Butler:

    Homophobia is the only way I could explain it.

    It's a very deep emotion, homophobia. And I can only surmise that that's what drove her to take such drastic action.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So there were no other circumstances or factors of Sharon Bottoms' life that would have made her a — quote — "unfit mother"?

  • Donald Butler:

    No, there was a litany of things she testified about, trying to paint as dirty a picture of Sharon as she could.

    But these are not things that a mother would use to deprive her own child of custody of her child.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sharon Bottoms, I was reading about her in the last couple of days. She had dropped out of high school. She had, according to The Washington Post, a series of part-time jobs, including I guess mostly as a store clerk, they said.

    How did she deal with her own mother's opposition to what she wanted? Where did the strength come from?

  • Donald Butler:

    Well, she did gain a lot of support in the community, and there were people that were interested in her case.

    And, of course, she was interested in having her own son and having her own way of life.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How did she look on this legal fight?

  • Donald Butler:

    There was a lot of support in other parts of the state and other parts of the country.

    Where the support failed her was in the judicial system. The attitudes prevailing at the time were such that she didn't have much of a chance to start out with.

    As I counted back from the level that I got involved in, at the end, we had six justices in favor of her side of the case, six judges, and five against her. But, unfortunately, four of those against her were on the Supreme Court and constituted a majority of the seven.

    And it was their attitudes that prevailed to cause her to ultimately lose custody.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But she had to be determined enough to go through several levels of the court system. There had to be real determination on her part to get through this.

  • Donald Butler:

    There really did.

    She went through every level. The first level, she went without representation. Then we went through the next trial level, which was the circuit court, where there were witnesses testifying, where she had to listen to some of the descriptions of her conduct and had to defend herself.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I was just reading from some of the ruling, conduct that's illegal and immoral and — quote — "The child would be 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 an arrangement."

    It was a condemnation of its own.

  • Donald Butler:

    Yes.

    I never did figure out what active lesbianism was, but they seemed to like that language, and the term practiced, as though it were some sort of a religion, I suppose.

    Yes, but that was harsh language. And that's — the root of the whole issue is that society sits in judgment on this. And they presuppose that the child is going to suffer because of the stigma of living with his own parent who is living in a same-sex relationship.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you think Sharon Bottoms was affected by the ultimate ruling and losing custody of her son?

  • Donald Butler:

    I think it affected her greatly.

    I mean, you know, she was being judged and made to feel that she wasn't worthy by those people in power. She wanted to be with her child, and she wanted to have a relationship with her mother. So she was doubly impacted.

    This wasn't the state taking her child, although the state was complicit in it, but this was her own mother. And so one can only imagine what it feels like to have your mother do this to you, with the result being that you don't have a normal relationship with your own child, and you have very limited, structured visitation, as if you were some stranger.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Donald Butler, who was an attorney representing Sharon Bottoms in the early 1990s, thank you very much.

  • Donald Butler:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And joining us now is Sharon McGowan. She is the chief strategy officer and legal director of Lambda Legal.

    Sharon McGowan, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Sharon McGowan:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Could what happened to Sharon Bottoms happen today?

  • Sharon McGowan:

    For the most part, it's hard to say never, but most likely not.

    The conditions that we live in, in this country have changed in such significant ways, that the idea that some individual could come in and take a parent's child away from them because of their sexual orientation is really very, very unlikely at this point.

    We have not only sort of moved to a time where we have marriage equality, but it's also important to remember that, when Sharon Bottoms was going through this, her own relationships were deemed criminal under the law. And so for the ability for the state and for her own mother to deem her immoral and criminal is based on a set of laws that have since been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How is her case, what happened to her viewed in recent history, when you look at the gay rights movement?

  • Sharon McGowan:

    You know, Sharon's fight for her child, in many ways, is one of the most central things, when you think about defending yourself and your family.

    And, unfortunately, there are still many LGBT parents who need to continue to fight to preserve their relationships with their children. We have more protections now. We have the ability to protect our relationships through adoption, through marriage.

    But there are still many ways in which appearing before a hostile family court judge somewhere in the country could really put your relationship with your child in jeopardy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you mentioned, of course, the Supreme Court ruling. That's made a difference. But it hasn't changed everything, has it?

    You still have state laws, you still have other laws that stand in the way, that allow others to interfere with these relationships.

  • Sharon McGowan:

    Well, there is a significant amount of protection for same-sex marriages and for LGBT parents from outsiders coming in and trying to disrupt those family relationships.

    What we often see is, though, in the context of relationships that have broken down, you will see disputes between parents and a biological parent trying to dispute the right of the nonbiological same-sex parent to maintain that parenting relationship with their child.

    And so we will see from state to state a very different approach. And in some cases, you will see a recognition that either because the family was built in a very intentional way, that nonbiological parent will have very secure legal protections. And in other places, they are still treated as a total stranger to their own child.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But these have been hard-won protections; is that right?

  • Sharon McGowan:

    That's absolutely right.

    State by state, we have gone in and fought to make sure that we can have maximum protection for LGBT families.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, today — I read this — the obituary of Sharon Bottoms in The Washington Post on Sunday, and was reminded that it was just, as we said, 25 years ago that this happened, that she had to go through this.

    Here she was, a woman who had had to drop out of high school, had worked, and wasn't allowed to keep her own son. It's hard to believe that it was in such a recent part of American history.

  • Sharon McGowan:

    No, I think that's right.

    And it's a testament to sort of how much has changed and how much progress that we have made, and the courage of same-sex families and individuals like Sharon, who, at a time when the law really wasn't on their side, were willing to do whatever it took to try and defend their relationships with their own children.

    And so the world is a better place, a safer place for LGBT families in many, many parts of the country, but still there are lots of places where you cross state lines, and your rights become much more tenuous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In many ways, she's owed a debt of gratitude, isn't she?

  • Sharon McGowan:

    Absolutely, absolutely.

    Sharon's willingness to fight for her son in many ways is emblematic of the love and the courage that so many LGBT people have had to fight for their families. And it's because of her sacrifice we have been able to make the progress that we have made.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Sharon McGowan of Lambda Legal, thank you very much.

  • Sharon McGowan:

    Thank you.

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