Carole J. Morton – “Transgressing the Patriarchy” (with audio)

Click below to hear Carole Morton reading “Transgressing the Patriarchy” at our Special Community Event on October 13, 2011:

carole-morton-transgressing-the-patriarchy by auntlute

Back in the ’70’s I considered myself a radical…a rebel with a cause. I was an angry member of an oppressed minority, and, I might say, a very, very angry one. I was (and still am) a lesbian. Also, I was (and still am) a mom.  The state of New York had the right to take my child from me. This is still true in many places. At that time I knew my ex-husband had no interest in being a single dad, so this gave me the risky sense of freedom to speak out for both myself and all the other lesbian mothers who were in danger of losing their children—solely on the basis of their sexual orientation.

I formed an organization, which I named Dykes & Tykes, and one arm of the organization was the East Coast Lesbian Mothers Defense Fund. We received letters from women all over the country, letters of desperation— they were losing their court battles and their children. We had only one solution to offer them…escape. There were absolutely no legal solutions available. We dyed their hair, their children’s hair; we gave them false papers and sent them to far off states, where we had safe houses and the promise of a new life. We were the lesbian under-ground railroad. We were few in number, but extremely committed.

I had decided to go to law school, thinking I could help create change through the courts. In 1976 I left New York to attend New College Law School in San Francisco. During my first year of law school I was hired by the National Lawyers Guild for a summer position back in New York City, along with 4 other lesbians, to write the first legal custody manual for lesbian, gay and bi-sexual parents. Once the manual was researched and written, we opened a clinic in midtown Manhattan to provide legal counseling to threatened gay/lesbian/bi-sexual parents.

It was there, in front of 16 volunteers, that I verbalized a wish I had absolutely no idea would ever come true. During one of the trainings with the clinic volunteers I received a call from a friend back in California. She told me that Jeanne Jullian (a lesbian mom in Oakland who had lost custody of her sons to her Italian ex-husband, and then won back custody of the younger one after a year long court battle) had just lost her younger son again, but this time because the father had kidnapped him and taken him to Italy. Feeling enraged, I said out loud in front of everyone, “I would give anything to go to Italy and kidnap her son back!”

Jeanne’s nightmare had started one evening three years earlier, when Jeanne’s ex-husband barged into her home in the middle of the night with his lawyer and a police officer and took the children from their sleeping beds. He charged his wife with being a lesbian—his only grounds to win custody. It was all he needed. Despite the myriad of people who testified on her behalf to being a good, kind, caring and responsible mother the courts sided with the heterosexual father. Jeanne immediately started an appeal. She begged, borrowed and worked long hours to pay for the costs of the trial she just lost and for the appeal. One year later Jeanne won back Johnny, now five years old. Her twelve-year-old said he wanted to stay with his dad, but Johnny said he wanted to be with his mom. When the judge announced his decision Jeanne was both relieved, and joyous—for all of two minutes. Her ex-husband’s attorney approached the bench and asked the judge for the passports for both boys, stating that the father wanted to visit his parents in Ravenna, Italy for the summer with both children. Jeanne’s attorney strongly contested, stating to the judge that if the father was allowed to take Johnny to Italy, he would not return him. The judge, without hesitation, ordered Jeanne to give the father both children’s passports. All that time, all that money, for naught. The courts were not fair, they were homophobic. It was a big wake up call for Jeanne. In the past two years she had gone from feeling hurt, to worried, to hopful and now—now, finally to angry. Up until this point she’d hoped the courts would be fair. She had been naïve. She learned the very, very hardest way how awful homophobia can be.

Within three months, what she told the judge was proven, he was not returning Johnny. Johnny was supposed to start kindergarten and Jeanne had gone out and bought the supplies he needed. They sat on her kitchen table like a nightmare staring her in the face. In an angry exchange of letters and telephone calls Jeanne was told outright that he planned to keep both sons in Ravenna, where they would be raised by their Italian grandparents while he worked. If Jeanne wanted to see her children she would need to travel to Italy.

Suffering the anguish of a woman deprived of her children, Jeanne plotted to get Johnny back. She hired a private investigator, at a cost of $6,500, to go to Italy and plan a way for Jeanne to come and kidnap her own child. After using $4,500 of the money, the investigator couldn’t even find out where the children went to school.

It took another year to raise more money, and then Jeanne went to Ravenna herself. Her plan was to bring Johnny back, but her plan was foiled when her former husband, somehow, found out about her intentions. She was placed on a plane back to the states. Devastated, she collapsed at Kennedy International Airport in New York and was rushed to the nearest hospital where she was placed in intensive care. While recovering in the hospital, Jeanne was told that she was the third woman that week to be brought into the hospital while on an international search for their children.

For the next two years Jeanne worked at regaining her physical and emotional strength. Feeling the isolation and loneliness of a woman cut off from her children, she decided to open her home to a lesbian-identified fifteen year old from a foster care program. She then joined a support group for lesbian mothers of teenage children, a group I was a member of.

When I returned from my job at the National Lawyers Guild in New York I met and helped raise money for Jeanne. It was in 1981 when I was re-acquainted with Jeanne at the lesbian mothers group. Jeanne mentioned in the group that she was beginning to think again about getting Johnny back. My partner and I were already planning a trip to Europe for the summer. I was more than willing to help kidnap Johnny. After we returned home from the group I convinced my partner to participate and we called Jeanne to offer our total support.

We began to plan our escape route, meeting weekly in a small Mexican taqueria on 24th Street near Potrero Hill. We purchased roadmaps of Ravenna from a local map store and investigated the cost and practicality of hiring one of my partner’s friends to fly us across the Alps into Switzerland. We explored hiking across one of the mountain passes that separated the two countries. We even explored hiring a boat to Yugoslavia.

Feminist attorneys in Italy had already advised Jeanne that her U.S. court-decreed custody of Johnny would not be honored in Italy and that it would be very difficult to get past the border patrols. The police, Jeanne was told, would issue orders to arrest her at the border. Adding to the difficulties of our mission was the fact that Johnny’s protective Italian grandfather was the next door neighbor and close friend of Ravenna’s chief of police. In Ravenna, Jeanne would be watched like an eagle because of her earlier kidnapping attempt.

There was another important matter for Jeanne to consider. No matter how good a plan we conceived, it was useless unless Johnny still wanted to come back to the U.S. with her. From her telephone conversations with her children Jeanne thought she knew in advance that Johnny would want to return and that her older son, Mario, would want to stay. Johnny missed his mother terribly. He was often sick and wasn’t doing well in school. Mario, on the other hand, had adjusted well to Italy and was happy there. He had made many friends and was excelling in school. Johnny was just four when he was taken from his mother’s home, Mario was already nine.

Jeanne called her children and told them that she planned to visit with them in the summer. Her ex said that she would only be allowed to see the boys at the beach, under his and his parent’s watchful eyes. In mid-June she flew to Ravenna and took a room in a pensione near the beach. Each day, the family met in front of a little beach hut that sold drinks and rented beach umbrellas, to play cards and swim. Whenever she could, she would discreetly try to learn from her children what they would want in terms of going back to the U.S.

Jeanne spent two weeks on the beach with her children. When she was sure that Johnny wanted to go and Mario wanted to stay she called us and asked if we could come a week earlier. On July 20th my partner, my son and I drove from Zurich to Milano where we were met by Cata and Anita, two Italian lesbian-feminists who offered to help us in any way that they could. Two lesbian friends of theirs were vacationing in Sardinia and gave us their apartment to use. It was exciting to walk into an apartment in Italy and see walls covered with women-loving-women posters in a myriad of languages.

That night Jeanne called us from Ravenna, 400 miles east of Milano, to make arrangement to meet with my partner the next day. Because I was with my son, it would be too dangerous for me to chance getting arrested, and it was also necessary to have someone free to contact the lawyers, the press, family and friends should anything go wrong. I had a list of Italian, Swiss and American feminist attorneys and media people who were all willing to help.

We had rented a Renault 20TX with Swiss plates which my partner drove to Ravenna. She rendezvoused with Jeanne outside of town. They met briefly to choose the escape route. They went over the alibi in case they were stopped by the police. Jeanne gave her clothes for Johnny to wear and then left to meet her children at the beach. With a stopwatch in hand my partner clocked the time of various routes out of Ravenna. Timing was essential; especially considering the grandfather’s best friend was the chief of police.

That evening my partner drove to Jeanne’s pensione, pulled up in the back where Jeanne quietly tossed her luggage out of the window. She had paid for the pensione a week in advance, so that there would be no hassle if she split in a hurry.

At 9:00 am the next day my partner parked the Renault in the designated spot near the pine forest to await Jeanne and Johnny’s arrival—not knowing if would take hours, days or weeks. While my partner sat in the car reading the paper and keeping an eye on the rear view mirror, Jeanne met with her children and their father and grandparents at their regular spot near the beach hut. Anita, Cata and I waited anxiously by the phone in Milano. An energy circle met in both San Francisco and Oregon to send good vibes to the operation. Everyone waited.

Back at the beach it was 10:00 am and Jeanne was playing a card game with her children, her ex and his parents. All of a sudden Johnny exploded, accusing his brother of cheating, and took off in anger.

Jeanne saw this as an opportunity, but had to play it cool. She waited a few minutes and then, sounding as casual as she could she said, “Maybe I should go look for him?” It was so natural that no one suspected anything. As she got up to leave Mario told his mother that she should check behind the water slide, a few hundred feet down the beach. Jeanne ran. She called after Johnny repeatedly, but got no answer. She felt herself falling into a panic. She started to run back to the hut but caught hold of herself, just then she heard Johnny calling, “Mama, Mama.”

To her amazement, Johnny was standing near to the pine forest, near the spot where the car was parked and waiting. She ran over to Johnny and trying to speak calmly, said, “Do you remember that we talked about you coming back to the U.S. with me? Do you still want to go?” He said, “Yes.” “If you come with me,” Jeanne said, “It means that you have to come with me right now, that you won’t be able to say goodbye to anyone. I have a friend with a car nearby, and if you want to come we have to go right now.” Johnny exclaimed, “Let’s go, Mama.”

Jeanne and Johnny darted towards the car. When my partner saw them in the rear view mirror she jumped out of the car and opened the back door. Jeanne and Johnny lunged onto the floor and they sped away. On the highway leading back to Milano she reached speeds of up to 120 mph—fast, but not that unusual on the Italian highway.

By 3:30 they reached Milano. I was sitting in the apartment reading when I heard the doorbell. When I opened the door it was my partner—alone. “What happened?” I gasped. She smiled, “They’re downstairs, I just wanted to make sure the apartment was safe.” I ran down, offering a celebratory hug, and helped with the luggage.

We gathered together and started making plans to get out of Italy. Jeanne thought about taking a train out of the country right then and there, but it was decided it was a bad idea. We knew she was a nervous wreck and shouldn’t be alone, and she was really too exhausted for such a trip. It was decided that we would stay in Milano for two days. Then it would be Friday, and we could leave for our trip across the border with the thousands of others who would be leaving Friday night for their weekend trips to the Alps. The rush hour, we figured, would give us the best chance of slipping through the border undetected. Because of the Swiss license plates the border guards would probably not stop the car to check passports.

In the two days we spent hiding out in Milano Johnny wrote a postcard to his father. “I’m going back to America with my mother,” he wrote in Italian. He was now eight years old, and could no longer speak English. Jeanne telephoned her friend in Ravenna, the one who owned the beach hut. Her friend told her that it took Johnny’s father and grandparents about 20 minutes before they realized that she had fled with Johnny. The grandfather called his friend, the chief of police, who called a judge in Rome to alert the border patrol.

We left Milano at 4:00 pm that Friday, Johnny in the backseat of the Renault, my partner driving and Jeanne in the front. Anita, Terry and I drove in Anita’s little Italian car. We stayed directly behind the Renault in case they were caught.

We chose the busiest border crossing, and, just as we expected, we ran into a three mile back up at the border. As we inched closer and closer we became more and more nervous. I could see Johnny playing with his cards in the back seat. He didn’t seem aware of the tension the rest of us were feeling.

A few hundred feet from the border station, the two lanes of cars merged into one. My partner saw an expensive Jaguar to her left. Thinking quickly, she waved the Jaguar to go in front of us. If the border guards are in the mood to stop a car they tend to stop Jaguars rather than Renaults. Sure enough, the guards stopped the Jaguar. My partner placed her large red Swiss passport in front of the two smaller blue American ones—and the Renault was waved through. We followed close behind without any problem.

We were ecstatic—but had to remain cool and calm so that we did not arouse suspicion. We drove about a mile before we felt it was safe to stop. The Swiss sky was dark and it was raining heavily. We saw a vacant parking lot and pulled into the center of it. Hardly able to contain ourselves, we flung open the doors and grabbed each other—jumping up and down and hugging and kissing one another. “We did it, we did it!” Wet and tired, we said our thanks and goodbyes to Anita and jumped into the Renault. We spent the night at my partner’s parent’s house in Zug, and Jeanne and Johnny boarded a train to England the next morning.  It wasn’t long before Jeanne and Johnny were safely back in San Francisco, and that the wish I had voiced five years earlier to go to Italy and kidnap Johnny had come true.

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