Mary Jo Risher in 1975 leaving the courtroom after losing custody of her son because she was a lesbian

History of LGBT Rights:The fight never stopped.

Mary Jo Risher leaving the courtroom after losing custody of her son, Dallas, Texas, 1975. AP Images.

The reasons judges gave for taking custody away from lesbian and gay parents revolved around the idea that a parent’s same-sex sexuality would harm their children. Judges often brought up the concern that the children of lesbian or gay parents would be socially ostracized. In one case, a New Jersey court denied Sandra Panzino custody of her two daughters in 1977 on the grounds that her children might suffer stigmatization. Even though Panzino was a Girl Scout troop leader, had been sole caretaker of the girls for seven years, was heralded as “a devoted mother” by school officials at the custody hearings, and had recently been forced to sue her ex-husband for back child support, she lost custody because of her sexual orientation. Judge Joseph Gruccio claimed that Panzino was “too dependent” on her daughters, and his decision discussed the dangers of social alienation and ridicule the girls might face as a result of her lesbianism if they remained with their mother.

This idea that the children of gay men and lesbians would suffer socially because of their parents, and that this opinion justified a denial of custody to lesbian and gay parents, was widespread. One conservative judge who declared in an article in a legal journal that lesbian mothers were to be “pitied more than condemned,” listed “criticism and ostracism by the community” as one of the reasons he cautioned against out lesbians having custody of their children. A Texas jury denied Mary Jo Risher custody of her nine-year-old son in a 1975 trial in which her seventeen-year-old son testified that he had suffered ridicule at the hands of his peers over his mother’s lesbianism.

In addition to the belief that the children of lesbians and gay men would suffer from stigma, judges were often convinced that gay men and lesbians were likely to molest their children. The supervised visits required in many court decisions were structured with these fears in mind. In the Nadler case, Judge Joseph Babich had remarked, “The Court — we are dealing with a four-year-old on the threshold of its development — just cannot take the chance that something untoward should happen to it.” In a speech given at Georgia State University in Atlanta soon after she lost custody of her son, Mary Jo Risher identified the myth that all gay people were “child molesters” as one of the cultural biases that she felt had influenced the jury in her case. Mary Jo Risher’s ex-husband’s attorney repeatedly asked her in court if she and her partner, Ann Foreman, performed any sexual acts in front of the children. Orange County social workers accused Cynthia Forcier, a Native American lesbian mother, of molesting her five-year-old daughter in a California custody case in which her lesbianism was also an issue. A doctor assumed that bruises in the girl’s pelvic area were indications of sexual molestation and not the result of being kicked by another child, as Forcier’s daughter claimed. The doctor and a social worker wrote to Orange County authorities declaring Forcier an unfit mother and linking the possible molestation with lesbianism. When an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled that Cynthia’s lesbianism would not be admissible against her in court, all charges were dropped.

— Daniel Winunwe Rivers, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II (2013), Ch. 3.