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RISHER V. RISHER

Amelia De Luna-Owsley
Mary Jo Risher.
In 1975 Mary Jo Risher lost custody of her nine-year-old son to her ex-husband Douglas Risher. The case brought national attention to the issue of child custody and the sexual orientation of a parent. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

RISHER V. RISHER. On December 23, 1975, in Dallas, Texas, a jury ruled in favor of Douglas L. Risher, Jr., regarding the custody of nine-year-old Richard Calvin Risher, the son of divorced couple Douglas L. Risher, Jr., and Mary Jo Risher. This court case brought national attention to the issue of child custody and the sexual orientation of a parent. 

The Rishers divorced in 1971, and Mary Jo Risher received custody of their two sons—Jimmy Risher and his younger brother Richard. The father, Douglas Risher, Jr., filed a suit during 1974 in Domestic Relations Court No. 4 to gain custody of his youngest son by arguing that “material and substantial change of conditions” occurred in Mary Jo Risher’s home. The conditions referred to Mary Jo Risher’s relationship with her partner of two years, Ann Foreman. Their older son, seventeen-year-old Jimmy, had left his mother’s household and returned to live with his father before the case was litigated. Despite testimony from Foreman’s ex-husband and his wife, and Robert Dain and Dolores Dyer, two psychologists who interviewed Richard Risher while assessing how children react to living with homosexual caregivers, the jury voted 10–2 to award custody of Richard Risher to Douglas Risher, Jr. Some jurors cited that the older brother’s testimony against his mother had been instrumental in their decision. 

Risher v. Risher became one of the earliest jury trials involving a homosexual parent losing custody of their child because of their sexuality. Even though Mike McCurley, Douglas Risher’s lawyer, stated that “no juror found she (Mrs. Risher) was a poor mother because she was a lesbian. . .they found she was a poor mother who just happened to be a lesbian,” members of the LGBTQ+ community considered the case discriminatory. The National Organization for Women (NOW) supported Mary Jo Risher throughout the legal battle and adopted a resolution to assist her financially. Martha Dickey,  president of the NOW Dallas chapter, considered the case a feminist issue and raised doubts that custody would have come into question if Mary Jo Risher was a heterosexual. 

On January 4, 1977, the Fifth Court of Civil Appeals rejected Mary Jo Risher’s appeal for “lack of jurisdiction,” and stated that her lawyers had not filed the appeal bond within the thirty-day deadline. Due to the court case, Mary Jo Risher and Ann Foreman became “reluctant symbols” of the lesbian community. The couple participated in a national media tour sponsored by supporters. Touring raised awareness about the case and provided financial support to the couple at the expense of their privacy. Throughout Risher v. Risher, Mary Jo Risher and Foreman participated in rallies and appeared on television shows, such as Consenting Adults and The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. The couple toured during the “Save Our Children” campaign, a response to a 1977 Dade County, Florida, anti-discriminatory ordinance that protected people based on their sexual orientation. The campaign referenced LGBTQ+ stereotypes about members of that community harming children. When asked about “Save Our Children” during an interview, Mary Jo Risher and Foreman opposed the campaign and argued that they were trying to save their children from being taken away. Ultimately, all of Mary Jo Risher’s appeals failed, but the book she co-authored with Gifford Guy Gibson, By Her Own Admission: A Lesbian Mother’s Fight to Keep Her Son (1977), and the subsequent 1978 television movie, A Question of Love, contained some of the earliest positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ individuals in mainstream media.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Carlos A. Ball, The Right to Be Parents: LGBT Families and the Transformation of Parenthood (New York: New York University Press, 2012). Dallas Morning News, December 21, 24, 1975; January 21, 1976; December 3, 1976. Gifford Guy Gibson and Mary Jo Risher, By Her Own Admission: A Lesbian Mother's Fight to Keep Her Son (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1977). Daniel Winunwe Rivers, Radical Relations: Lesbian Mothers, Gay Fathers, & Their Children in the United States since World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

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Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Amelia De Luna-Owsley, "RISHER V. RISHER," accessed December 15, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jrr05.

Uploaded on July 26, 2018. Modified on July 31, 2018. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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