Sharon Bottoms Mattes, a central figure in a prolonged court battle in the 1990s who lost custody of her son to her mother after Virginia courts ruled that she was “an unfit parent” because she was involved in a same-sex relationship, died Jan. 21 at her home in Richlands, North Carolina. She was 48.
Her family placed a death notice that was published in January in the Jacksonville (North Carolina) Daily News. According to Facebook posts by members of her family, the cause of death was cancer. Efforts to reach members of her family were unsuccessful.
In 1991, Mattes, then known as Sharon Bottoms, gave birth to a son, Tyler Doustou. By then, she was already divorced from the boy’s father, who was not involved in raising the child.
About a year later, Mattes and April Wade, a food-service worker, formed a household together near Richmond. Mattes’ mother, Kay Bottoms, later sought to gain custody of Tyler.
The bitter court battle – pitting mother against daughter and involving intimate and embarrassing details of their lives – played out in courtrooms for three years before it was ultimately decided by the Virginia Supreme Court.
The case was watched closely, as gay and lesbian activists sought to extend their parental rights. It was watched just as closely by conservative religious groups, who viewed it as “another step in the gradual degradation and deconstruction of American society,” as Walter Barbee, president of the Family Foundation, put it.
The Virginia branch of the American Civil Liberties Union handled much of Mattes’ legal defense. After a juvenile court judge ruled in favor of Kay Bottoms’ demand for custody, the case heard before Circuit Court Judge Buford Parsons Jr.
As the case developed, Mattes said her mother’s live-in boyfriend had subjected her to repeated sexual attacks, beginning when she was 12. Her mother said she was not aware of any sexual abuse.
After dropping out of high school, Mattes held a series of part-time jobs, mostly as a store clerk, and had a short-lived marriage. Her former husband, Dennis Doustou, testified in support of Mattes.
Under questioning, Mattes admitted that she and Wade occasionally kissed in Tyler’s presence and, in private, engaged in oral sex. At the time, oral sex was considered sodomy in Virginia and was classified as a felony, whether performed by straight couples, same-sex couples or anyone else. It was not decriminalized until 2014.
Parsons upheld the juvenile court’s decision, awarding custody of Tyler to Kay Bottoms, declaring in his decision that Mattes’ “conduct is illegal and immoral” and “renders her an unfit parent.”
Mattes was allowed to see her 2-year-old son from Monday morning to Tuesday night – but only if she did not take him to the home she shared with Wade, who had no visitation rights.
“It’s the kind of case that strikes terror in people’s hearts,” Liz Hendrickson, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said at the time. “It makes them wonder, ‘Could this happen to me?’ “
Because she could not afford a hotel room, Mattes met her son at a friend’s house.
“We hang out, go to the park. Lots of things,” she said.
She did interviews with People magazine, “Larry King Live” and “Geraldo.” Her mother, who lived in a mobile home in Spotsylvania County, went on Sally Jessy Raphael’s television show and said her daughter “was doing drugs, she partied, she wanted to have a good time . . . I have threatened her many times I was going to take him.”
In a 1993 interview with The Washington Post, Mattes said her son would fall to sleep only if she put his head on her stomach.
“I cried the first time he did it,” she said. “Do you think he knows it’s where he came from?”
In 1994, a Virginia Court of Appeals panel ruled unanimously that Mattes should have primary custody of her son.
“I’m not a hero,” she said at the time. “I’m just a mother trying to get her son back.”
Her legal victory was short-lived. Lawyers for her mother filed an appeal, during which the custody arrangement remained unchanged.
During later court hearings, the original juvenile court judge, William Boice, criticized Mattes and Wade for cooperating with the producers of a TV movie, “Two Mothers for Zachary,” which ultimately aired in 1996.
Mattes’ lawyer said she was not paid for the film.
In 1995, the case of Bottoms v. Bottoms reached the Virginia Supreme Court. In a 4-to-3 decision, the court determined that the “moral climate” in Mattes’ home made her “an unfit custodian at this time.”
Her mother was granted permanent custody of Tyler.
“Living daily under conditions stemming from active lesbianism practiced in the home,” Justice Christian Compton wrote, “may impose a burden upon a child by reason of the ‘social condemnation’ attached to such an arrangement.”
Conservative groups hailed the decision as a victory for traditional moral values. Gay rights groups were outraged.
“Not that long ago, there were courts that ruled that being lesbian, gay or bisexual meant you couldn’t be a parent to your own children,” James Esseks, an ACLU lawyer overseeing gay rights cases, said Saturday in an interview. “It is shocking to people today.”
In 1996, Mattes abandoned her legal fight. She gave no more interviews for the rest of her life.
Sharon Lynne Bottoms was born Feb. 20, 1970. Little is known of her early years in Virginia or what happened after her court battle ended in 1996.
According to Facebook posts, she married Bill Mattes in 2012. She was the co-owner of a kennel in North Carolina.
Her son, now 27, served in the military and lives in Virginia. He posted a tribute to his mother on Facebook.
In addition to her husband and son, survivors include her mother; her husband’s three children; a brother; and a grandson.
“We don’t regret this fight, but we feel it’s something we shouldn’t have to go through,” Mattes told the New York Times in 1995, in one of her final public statements. “I deserve my baby. I gave birth to him. I want him.”