My Father Once Tried to Take Me Away From My Mother Because She's Gay

For gay and lesbian parents in the 1970s, the fear of losing a child was real. Despite progress, that fear persists today in some places.
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On a hot summer morning in 1974, a few months after my parents' separation, my father came to visit my mother and me. He offered to take me for a walk. I was 10 months old.

"In retrospect, I should have thought it odd that he wanted me to give you a bath before the walk," my mother recalled. "I understood later that he wanted you clean for the journey."

I can imagine the scene outside Mom's rented, white clapboard house in Athens, Georgia: She handed me over to him. He looked down at me, recognizing himself in the shape of my chin and telling himself that what he was about to do was the right thing, the best thing for me. He lowered me into the stroller and headed for the sidewalk.

Hours went by. We didn't return. Apart from terror, my mother doesn't remember specifics from that part of the day. I assume this is a sign of panic and trauma. Did she tearfully wander the neighborhood, calling out for us?

***

My mother does remember looking in the mirror at age five and trying to comb her hair to look like her father's. She remembers the powerful crush she had on Miss Gunderson, her biology teacher in high school. And she remembers the frightening yearnings she felt for a college friend I'll refer to as Amy, though their relationship, while deep and emotional, was never physical. "We were in love but we couldn't call it that," she told me. "We didn't know what to call it. We had no vocabulary for it."

In 1968, fearing what was brewing inside her, and without a language for being gay, she decided to leave the country, and leave Amy. "I wanted to spend time with her more than anyone else, but I was overcome with shame and fear, fear of who I really was," she said. "The emotions I felt were overwhelming. I joined the Peace Corps to get away from those feelings, to stay frozen in time. It broke both of our hearts."

The Peace Corps took her to Malaysia, a place she still recalls fondly. In one of her stories, a headhunter from Borneo fell in love with her and requested a lock of her hair so he could concoct a love potion designed to win her affection. There's another one about being stalked by a tiger.

Also in pursuit -- for her hand in marriage -- were a captain from the English army, as well as an Indonesian police chief, whom she remembers having the kindest heart of all. But she couldn't see herself living in Malaysia for the rest of her life.

And there was my father, an American who worked in the Peace Corps office in the city of Penang. They had a brief chat there one afternoon. It was the first time Mom ever felt even the slightest twinge of attraction to a man. At 22, she was fully a product of her background: southern and conservative. "The feeling I felt for your father in that one moment felt right in a socially prescribed way, so I pursued it. It was a kind of relief, actually, to feel attracted to a man, even if just fleetingly. I knew my mother would approve."

They were married in Kuala Lumpur, assisted by a family of Australian tin miners.

I've seen a few pictures of my parents from that era. Brash and tan, my father smiles wide in one of them. He has a subtle under-bite and deep-set, drooping eyes -- features I inherited. He's standing shirtless in the jungle. My mother is beautiful and slim, with high cheekbones. She smiles a feminine smile straight out of the '60s, the one in countless advertisements from the era that seem to say, "This is my man and he will guide me into the future."

But that was not to be. Somewhere along the way, the woman in this picture, the daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel fighting in Vietnam, realized she would have to step out of the frame.

***

My mother and father returned to Athens in 1970. He began graduate school and she worked to support him. According to Mom, my father was devoted to his scientific research, a devotion that shaded into obsession.

Meanwhile, my mother found a community of women who helped her find a language for who she was. She was also influenced by the emerging gay rights movement, which was breaking into mainstream culture. In 1971, the National Organization for Women passed a resolution stating that lesbian concerns were a "legitimate cause for feminism." Meanwhile, in nearby Atlanta an underground newspaper called Great Speckled Bird was championing gay rights and announcing some of the city's, and the nation's, first gay pride marches.

Even so, Mom never directly came out to my father. According to her, much of it was unspoken and tacitly understood, as they lived in a time and place where homosexuality was unspeakable. After completing his first doctorate, my father accepted a job in his home state of Maryland. My mother refused to go, saying only that something was wrong with the marriage and she and I needed to stay in Athens.

Mom told me that while their relationship was strained for many reasons, her decision not to move with him to Maryland came down to the fact that she was gay. "Had I not been gay," she said, "I would have gone with him. I'd been taught that women suppressed their own needs for the wellbeing of their husbands and that in return, they'd be taken care of. But being gay pushed me beyond the limits of what I had been taught to do. It was nature. I couldn't ignore it."

***

The evening of the abduction, my father called from the airport in Greenville, South Carolina. He'd taken me across the state line, out of the jurisdiction of Georgia law enforcement. "His voice was calm, measured," Mom said. "He told me he was taking you to Maryland. Then, he hung up."

Of course, I have no recollection of the journey. I try to imagine myself sitting on his lap on the plane, doing what babies do. Did I give him much trouble? Did I need a diaper change mid-flight? How and what did he feed me?

Mom found out later that his mother had joined him on the trip to help with these and other logistics. The idea to take me had been hers and she'd persuaded my father to go along. She met him at the airport in Greenville and they traveled together to my father's boyhood home in Silver Spring, Maryland.

A friend in Athens put Mom in touch with a civil rights lawyer, whose advice to threaten my father's career was critical. "I called your father and told him I would make it known what he'd done, that I'd embarrass him professionally," she said. "That's what he cared about more than anything, his reputation."

***

For gay and lesbian fathers and mothers of that era, the threat of losing a child was very real. The loss came suddenly for my mother, but well into the 1980s it frequently happened via the courts. And while they're less common now, discriminatory rulings persist to this day in some states.

Christina Cash, publisher of the LGBT news outlet The GA Voice, recounted her partner's battle to win custody of her son in a Clayton County, Georgia courtroom in 1987. The case was widely publicized on TV and in local papers. "We proved that the child's father was an alcoholic -- he's an alcoholic to this day -- but that wasn't enough. We lost custody because we were gay. It superseded everything."

In Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II, Daniel Winunwe Rivers catalogs a litany of judicial arguments from the era for denial of custody. They read like an official handbook of homophobia: Gays are child molesters. Gays are felons afoul of sodomy laws. Children of gays will not learn proper gender roles and will end up gay themselves. Children of gays will endure undue shame and stigmatization.

Rivers adds that when custody or visitation was granted it was often predicated on the denial of fundamental rights:

In case after case, gay and lesbian parents were ordered to sign affidavits agreeing never to have their partners and children in their homes at the same time, to undergo regular psychiatric examinations testifying to their repudiation of their sexual orientation, and to halt all pro-gay rights activist work in order to maintain parental rights.

***

Mom's threat worked, apparently. My father quickly agreed to turn me over, and within days, she was on a plane to Maryland. Before she left, she met with her parents, who advised her not only to retrieve me but also to reconcile with my father. My grandmother had long suspected Mom was gay, but she exhorted her to save the marriage.

Now in her 80s and suffering from dementia, my grandmother still reminisces about my father. My guess is that her memories of him are indelible despite her flagging mind because they're bonded to powerful emotions. For her, the marriage of my mother and father represented the familiar and familial, an ideal of perfection, social conformity, and domestic bliss. These prototypes are her religion. She still stands by my alcoholic and deeply troubled grandfather, who died years ago.

When I phoned my grandmother recently, she could barely recall my name. But nearly 40 years on, she remembered my father's tall frame and handsomeness: "Your father was such a good man. He loved you," she added. Then, she asked, "Where do you live?"

***

My father picked up Mom at the airport in Maryland and drove her to his mother's house. "I walked in, looked her in the eyes, and said 'Where is my son?'," Mom told me. "Those were the only words spoken. They'd prepared a full nursery for you. I plucked you from the crib and walked out."

When I told her how courageous she'd been, Mom replied that she was only scared. "I guess courage is what fear looks like from afar," she said. "On the plane ride home, I cried the whole time with you on my lap. Even then, part of me wanted to give your father what he wanted, which was you, and me. He wanted both of us."

Back in Athens, Mom began to live in fuller recognition of who she was. But it would take years for her to come out completely.

As for me, just like any childhood, some of it was good (I was the batboy for her lesbian softball team) and some of it was bad (a teacher of mine caught wind of my family situation and isolated me from the other students for a time).

Eventually, my parents officially divorced and Mom changed our last names back to her maiden name. The judge asked my father to pay $150 a month in child support, which he paid only once. My mother didn't report it, suspecting that he would retaliate by attempting to take me back through legal or other means. Real or imagined, this is the fear she lived with.

Neither my father nor his mother made any more attempts to take me back. I can only assume my father turned to his work and tried to put us behind him. Perhaps his mother sensed who could care for me best. I can say from experience that my mom's love is powerful enough to melt a hole through any ideology.

Where is my father now? Somewhere. And everywhere in my imagination. I have no contact with him, nor do I know if he remembers our last days together. I suspect that he doesn't allow himself to remember, so I'll do it for him:

A man and woman stand in the driveway of a suburban brick home. The man asks to hold me one last time, and she hands me to him. A glance of recognition passes between the man and woman. It seems to say, we will live with this moment forever. Then, the woman extends her arms towards the man, and as all fathers must one day do, he lets me go.

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Joshua Gunn is a writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His work has appeared in Columbia, A Journal of Literature and Art and Poetry Northwest. He is the founder of Planet Nutshell, an animation studio.

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