Oklahoma Custody Battle Could Set Dangerous Precedent for LGBTQ Parental Rights

This story was originally published in The 19th.

For the first two years of her son’s life, Kris Williams read him the book “Love You Forever” before bedtime most nights. Every Saturday, she took him to the park.

In the middle of the pandemic, Williams cut out the cardboard babies on the front of diaper boxes and set them around the house — imaginary friends for W. when he couldn’t safely socialize. To protect his privacy, the 19th has kept his first initial a secret.

Two years after their son’s birth, Williams and her wife, Rebekah Wilson, had started to split.

The split was nasty, Williams said, but she wasn’t prepped for the news she would receive at the couple’s divorce hearing in Oklahoma City last January.

Williams and Wilson, who are legally married, decided to have W. together. Wilson carried the baby. Within 15 minutes of the hearing beginning, Lynne McGuire, Oklahoma County District Court Judge, declared that Williams had not adopted her child and she was not his legal mother. Williams was ordered struck from W.’s birth certificate. In her place would go the couple’s sperm donor, who was now petitioning for custody.

“My body instantly started shaking,” Williams said. “I mean pure terror, as a queer person, to be erased.”

Williams has filed a motion for reconsideration of her case, which is scheduled to be heard on June 1st. Hanna Roberts, an ACLU attorney, stated that if the case goes to the appellate court, then the ACLU of Oklahoma will step in. Wilson and her lawyer refused multiple requests to interview.

Williams’ case represents a nightmare scenario for many LGBTQ+ parents, who still lack the same rights granted to their heterosexual peers through marriage.

“The concern is if Kris loses, that’s going to set some pretty bad precedent in the state of Oklahoma, and possibly beyond,” Roberts said. “I think that this is just the first time that there has been such an adverse ruling that is so contrary to equal protection. It’s gotten the attention because same sex-couples get divorced all the time.”

Williams says that Harlan Vaughn, a paternity site member, was found by Williams and that Williams and Williams agreed that he would be involved from afar. W. was born August 8, 2019. They named him after Williams’ uncle, she said.

When the couple separated, Williams said that Vaughn moved to Oklahoma City, where he and Wilson — W. in tow — moved in together. Williams claimed that W. last saw her in November, after Wilson and Williams failed to reach an agreement on how to divide the holidays. Vaughn did no respond to requests for comment.

The divorce was ugly. Wilson was granted an emergency victim protective orders on December 2. According to the order, Wilson claims that Williams assaulted her. Williams denies all of this. In January, Williams’ name was taken off of the birth certificate. The judge did not mention any allegations of abuse in his decision.

Though parental laws vary from state-to-state, legal experts say Williams’ battle to maintain custody of her son could be a test case for Oklahoma and the nation seven years after the Supreme Court granted marriage equality nationwide.

After 2015’s federal grant of marriage equality, queer legal organizations fought a series to secure marriage rights for LGBTQ+ couples. This included parental rights through marriage. In 2015, two non-gestational parents — those who did not give birth — in Arkansas were not listed on their children’s birth certificates. Pavan v. Smith was a case that reached the Supreme Court. The court ruled that states cannot treat queer couples differently from heterosexual ones. According to the ruling, straight couples who had conceived together in marriage were presumed parents of the child. Queer parents should be granted that same right.

Senior counsel at Lambda Legal Karen Loewy notes that the decision had a profound effect on marriage and parental rights.

“The courts pretty uniformly have found the presumption to apply, have limited the ability of birth moms to try and rebut the presumption of parentage for their same-sex spouse who they’re in the midst of divorcing, and have recognized that children born to married same-sex couples have two parents in both of the spouses,” Loewy said.

Loewy said that Oklahoma does not recognize the existence of a parent listed on a birth certificates as granting parentage. The laws state-to-state regarding birth certificate laws are different. Although courts have generally granted parental rights for spouses regardless of biological connection, there have been exceptions.

Wilson has repeatedly posted about the case on Facebook. Wilson has posted numerous updates on Facebook, including text and video, alleging that Williams abused Wilson during their marriage. Williams disputes this claim. She acknowledges that she “spoke ugly” towards the end of their relationship.

“We all have our moments, but to say I’m abusive…” Williams trailed off.

Wilson claims that she is not motivated to undermine LGBTQ+ parental rights in her social media posts. She says her goal is not to harm W., but to protect her from any perceived harm. W. was not harmed by Williams, as Williams is not mentioned online or in the protective orders paperwork. directly.)

“I will use any legal strategy I need to use, unapologetically,” she wrote on March 9.

Nancy Polikoff is a professor emerita at American University College of Law. She is an expert on LGBTQ+ family law. She says queer legal experts, fearing cases like Williams’, have warned clients to get confirmatory adoptions while case law in states catches up to federal marriage rights.

“Nobody wants to do it because it costs money and because it’s offensive to have to adopt your own child, but it is the guarantee that that parent-child relationship can be recognized anywhere, even if you move to the most homophobic possible state,” Polikoff said.