Each fall the last few annual Pride festivals are held around the United States. As a lifelong fan of celebrating the luscious lives and liveliness of my friends, I always look forward to October's Atlanta Pride, when my best gays fly in from around the country and I get to channel my inner "Anastasia Beaverhausen." It's a bawdy time, but in between all the flash and fun, there are the sober reminders of how far gay people in our society have come and how far they have yet to go to achieve full equality.
While there are plenty of stirring keynote speakers and miles of advocacy booths to keep the community rallied on the hot issues of the day, I am particularly moved by the personal stories shared among friends at the hot restaurants around town. This year I was introduced to Sylina Buehne, a woman who emanates an aura of serenity and self-possession that a drama queen like me can only envy. It is easy to assume she lives a perfectly charmed life, but nothing could be further from the truth.
For the last eight years Sylina has been locked in a pitched battle with her ex-husband for custody of their three children. She is well-educated and gainfully employed, and despite having drained $500,000 of her personal net worth to engage in this fight, she can support her family. She has submitted to every alcohol and drug test, no matter how invasive, as well as a battery of psychological tests and financial reviews. Not one shred of evidence has been revealed to challenge Sylina's fitness as a parent. Nevertheless, she is denied her children simply because she is openly gay and dares to practice the spirituality of her Native American heritage.
Even though our nation's military recently elevated an openly gay woman to the rank of general officer in a ceremony attended by her spouse, the bigotry of a dwindling minority of Americans remains entrenched in our courts and state legislatures. Children no longer play "cowboys and Indians" in our backyards, but the racism against indigenous Americans is palpable when it comes to parenting matters. Indeed, we are far from a "post-racial" America.
It could be easy to brush off Sylina's complaints as the whining of just another desperate housewife who didn't get her way, except that the issues at the heart of Buehne v. Buehne in Virginia speak to very large civil rights and constitutional matters. The judge in this case has allowed Sylina to suffer multiple day-long sessions of cross examination of her gay life, as if she spent every day in a rainbow-soaked sapphic orgy. For the record, Sylina has been in a long-term monogamous relationship.
The family court judge also permitted Sylina to be interrogated on her occasional participation in a sacred Native American sweat lodge ceremony -- a day of fasting and prayer -- as if it were a peyote-drenched magic carpet ride. One wonders if the judge likewise views Yom Kippur as an aberrant practice. She was also questioned at length about the burning of sage, as if it were any different from the use of incense in High Mass each week at every Catholic church in the world.
That the absurdity of this rank discrimination is so evident makes it all the more tragic, so I wondered if this experience is unique to Sylina, or if this is a common experience for people like her. I reached out to Jennifer Chrisler, executive director of the Family Equality Council, and Tom Bluewolf, a Creek elder, for some answers. Chrisler cited the landmark 1993 case Bottoms v. Bottoms, in which the Virginia Court of Appeals decided, "The fact that a mother is a lesbian ... does not alone justify taking custody of a child from her." One would think this should sway the court in Sylina's favor. "The sad truth is there are no protections for LGBT people in many states around nondiscrimination, around legal standing as parents," said Chrisler. "Bias and discrimination exist in the places and institutions that are supposed to be the most neutral, such as probate and family courts, where they are supposed to look at what is the best for the kids."
Bluewolf similarly cited the 1978 Native American Religious Freedom Act, a federal law and joint act of Congress that guaranteed people the freedom to openly practice and worship according to Native American traditions and "required polices of all governmental agencies to eliminate interference with the free exercise of Native religion based on the First Amendment." The law of the land could not be clearer on this point, so I asked him if it is too Pollyannaish to believe that the judge in Sylina's case has acted illegally by permitting her religious practices to be used as evidence against her parental fitness. "The U.S. goes all over the world preaching democracy and freedom and Christianity; they talk about the human family or the family of man, but I do think the condescension and superstitions about other people's lifestyles is pervasive," said Bluewolf. "You narrow this down under the microscope of a courtroom, and you have people in position acquiesce to fear and greed."
As if fighting this discrimination and bias weren't troubling enough, Sylina now has to fight her own attorneys, who are threatening to halt proceedings if they are not paid $15,000 before they walk into court in two weeks. The timing is dire, because Oct. 29 will be the first time during the entire eight-year battle that Sylina's children will finally get to express their desires in this matter. Friends of Sylina have set up a fundraising effort administered by My Advocate Center of Atlanta, Ga., to help her meet this deadline.
Family Equality Council offers reports that show 30 years of research that prove that children have the same positive outcomes whether they are parented by straight or gay parents. Despite this overwhelming evidence, plus a rising public majority in favor of gay rights, the inchoate evolution of our courts reflects a need for more forceful constitutional oversight and civil rights legislation. "The reality is that there are many, many loving moms and dads who are desperate to be reunited with their kids and who are embroiled in these drawn-out custody disputes," said Chrisler. "It's takes a huge emotional toll on the parents, but most importantly on the children. They are the innocent victims in this."