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They tried to take custody of my son because I came out as gay. Here’s how I won.

We all get married for different reasons. For me, it was a rite of passage. I grew up knowing that one day I’d marry a man, live in a house with a white picket fence, a dog, a cat and 2.5 children. I worked hard to fit into that mold. And, I did. I married a man, we had a son together, and we stayed married for 13 years. 

I put on a good show and a happy face and most people thought my life was fine. But there was so much turmoil beneath the surface. And all of that boiled over after my mother died in May of 1996. My world was turned upside down and my life began to crumble away. Life changes in a heartbeat. You realize you’re not immortal. You start wondering what you’re going to do with your life. And that was my prompt. 

Seven months later, in early 1997, I came out as a lesbian and filed for divorce. 

Two Steps Forward, Four Steps Back

My divorce wasn’t finalized until 2005, and it was a very long, painful and expensive seven years. I think my ex and I litigated every single emotion there is to litigate in a divorce case. 

When I came out, and when I filed for divorce, all I wanted was honesty and to explain myself. It wasn’t fair to anyone to keep the marriage going. I wanted my ex and I to maintain a united front in co-parenting our son, to display to him the power of love and the ability to communicate and get past one another’s differences. Instead, things got ugly – fast. I was labeled a “sinner” for my sexuality. My husband said that I would try to turn our son gay, that I would give our son AIDS. The hatred and ignorance were ugly and had no limits, which cut deeply in so many ways.

I was concerned about our son and felt strongly that he should get counseling while my ex and I fought out the divorce. But my ex was adamantly against this. It felt like every two steps I took forward; he pulled our son back four. Our son was caught in the middle of all of it.

Related: Listen to The Hello Divorce Podcast, Episode 07: Special Considerations for Gay & Lesbian Divorces

Prior to our divorce, religion had played a large role in our lives for many years. Church was important to me, and I thought that being part of a larger religious community would help bring structure to my family. But the church we had joined led us down a very bizarre road. My husband bought into it; I did not. 

Both the church and my ex’s family fueled a lot of his fury and rage against me. They accused me of being a pot-smoking, drug-taking lesbian that shouldn’t be mothering my son. The courts drug tested me and of course, everything came back negative. And with that came the 730 custody evaluation, which required an evaluator from the court to visit me and my ex in our respective homes, to see the living conditions my ex and I provided emotionally and physically for our son. 

Facing the Custody Evaluation

I wasn’t worried about the custody evaluation, just a bit nervous not knowing what to expect.  I had decided that I wasn’t going to kowtow though. That was the one thing I was absolutely sure of.  This wasn’t going to be about my son becoming a bargaining chip (a thought that made me sick to my stomach). I didn’t want child support, I wasn’t out to ban my ex from seeing our son. I was going to keep my power, not defer to the evaluator. This was my home, my life, after all. 

I made sure the house was clean, but that’s the only way I prepared. I treated the evaluator as a guest in my home. My then and current partner, Susan, was also present, as was my son. I offered her a tour when she arrived. I offered her coffee, tea or water, as one would to a guest.

I answered her questions. I was polite, gracious and welcoming, and I didn’t blather: I listened, I answered the question she asked, and then I stopped talking. 

At one point during the visit, a new kitten we had in the home scratched my son. He screamed and it was quite startling. But I took him to the bathroom, disinfected the scratch and then he lay down and fell asleep on his bed. I knew the evaluator had questions, but by this point I felt he’d been through enough; I told the evaluator that I wouldn’t wake him up to put him through anything more. 

Making a Home

My son bounced back and forth between my house and his dad’s. He was 10 at the time, and kids are very intuitive. He played us both like a fiddle, moving frequently back and forth between our homes. This hurt. Every time he went to his dad’s house, his grandparents would tell him things like, “Don’t put your finger in the pickle jar, you’ll give us all AIDS,” and “Your mom is going to go to hell because she’s gay.” He heard all of that, and then he’d come to my house. I’d tell him: there is so much love in the world, there’s enough to go around. You can love your dad, your grandparents, me – you don’t have to pick sides. You can love everybody, and I will never, ever hold that against you. 

But, finally, after two years into the divorce proceedings there was so much moving around between homes that I finally asked my son to make a choice about where to live. He chose his dad. I thought He’s 13 now. He needs a male figure in his life, and I let him go because I thought it was the right thing. In hindsight, it’s my biggest regret. I wish I had never done that, that instead I had just kept him and told him no. I carry that with me to this day.

At one point, I had to go to the court system with an ex parte request (legalese for a request for temporary orders made by one party) to take custody of my son because his father had kicked him for not moving quick enough. There was so much drama. I just wanted to protect my son and deal with my life, with the loss of my mother, the end of my marriage and all the bitterness that it had brought. 

One of the most difficult parts of all of this was the way things ended, with such vitriol. I had known my husband for seven years before we married for thirteen years. I didn’t want to throw all of that away. Through the process, I clung to hope that maybe we could get through and be friends and co-parent. At one point, I even apologized to him, sincerely telling him that if I had known I was gay, I never would have done all of this. It took a traumatic event – the passing of my mom – for me to start to see my life more clearly.

In the end, my ex never really “won” custody and they were (thankfully) never successful in poisoning my son against me. And in the end, that’s what lost the court custody case for them: when the evaluator visited their home, my husband and his parents spewed ignorant venom about lesbians, me turning my son gay, and AIDS. Their ignorance was on full display. Maybe they thought they’d make headway, but in the end, it was their ignorance that brought them down. 

I know that I kept my son because I was honest. I had nothing to hide, and I had love in spades for him. 

Today, I’m Righting the Wrongs

Fifteen years later, I still relive my seven-year divorce story and custody battle a little bit each day. But I have channeled this pain and frustration into something positive: I’m the lead legal document assistant for Hello Divorce. I love this job, because I feel like I’m saving my clients pain, heartache and expense by helping them avoid the bitter, drawn-out divorce I had. I can empathize with them, because I’ve been in their shoes. I try to make their day a little bit better, to share an uplifting message that reminds them they’ll be okay and give them a little extra support. I end every email with “take care, and have a good day” because I think it’s important to end on a positive note. 

If you’re struggling right now in a divorce that won’t quit, through a painful custody battle, or suffering bigotry from your ex or others because of who you are: take heart. I am living proof that it will get better.

Now, take care and have a good day.

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