Lesbian mothers raising children in lesbian-headed households also had to worry about ex-husbands using their lesbianism to take custody of the children. In 1958, Vera Martin met and fell in love with Kay, a Japanese American woman who had come to the United States at the end of the Second World War after marrying an African American serviceman. Kay had two children, and Martin had a son and daughter. The families got along well and would spend time together on the weekends. R., Vera Martin’s teenage daughter, babysat for the other children when Kay and Martin wanted to go out together. Both women feared that the authorities or their ex-husbands would take custody of their children if they found out they were in a lesbian relationship. “We knew that we had to be careful,” Vera Martin remembers, “and keep the knowledge that we had kids very quiet … very quiet.” Kay worked as a prostitute to support her family, and the two women lived in fear that someone would report them to authorities, possibly even one of the other women with whom Kay worked, in order to remove competition. They also feared that their ex-husbands would simply take their children away directly if they found out they were lesbians. Martin was an African American woman and Kay was Japanese American, and as two lesbian mothers of color, they felt particularly threatened by the courts.
Lesbian mothers who had left previous heterosexual marriages during this era lived in constant fear of discovery and exposure. One night in 1959, when Vera Martin and Kay were at the If Club, a lesbian bar in Los Angeles, a heterosexually identified man who knew Martin’s ex-husband walked up, said hello to her, and left. Terrified, Martin turned to Kay and said, “That’s someone that knew me when my husband and I were together, and they are still in touch.” Kay understood the danger immediately and said, “I think we better get out of here.” Vera Martin thought the man would use the pay phone and that her ex-husband would show up at the club or later at one of their houses. She and Kay lived in terror afterwards and did not go out in public “for a long time.” When the two of them eventually went to a dance together, they asked two men to accompany them as cover.
As parents, lesbians and gay men had no legal protections or recognition of their co-parent relationships in the 1950s and 1960s. As it would in later decades, this jeopardized their ability to maintain communication with their partner’s children. After Kay died suddenly in the winter of 1959, Vera Martin wanted very badly to take Kay’s children into her home and raise them with her own, as Kay had told her children’s caretaker she wanted before she died. However, Kay’s ex-husband, who lived across the country and had been brutally abusive to Kay, came into town with his new wife and took the children. “Oh, I wanted those kids so bad. … I was crazy about them and they were crazy about me,” Martin recalled, but she had no chance of competing for custody of the two children against an intact heterosexual nuclear family. In the era before gay and lesbian liberation movements there was no chance of legal recognition for lesbian households with children. Martin despaired when Kay’s ex-husband held an auction to sell all of Kay’s belongings. She came up with one hundred dollars to buy Kay’s address book, a potentially dangerous item in the hands of her ex-husband. In 1963, Vera Martin then married a gay man and “slammed the closet door shut behind her,” because she heard rumors that her own ex-husband suspected that she was a lesbian, and she was afraid he might try to use that to obtain custody of T., her son and youngest child.
Daniel Winunwe Rivers, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, and Their Children in the United States since World War II (2013), Ch. 1.