Sara Wheeler’s life has become a contradiction.
Once a proud lesbian, she’s now a pariah in the gay community.
Once in a committed relationship with a female partner, she’s rethinking her sexuality.
And now she’s doing something she once would have considered unthinkable — arguing that gays don’t have the legal right to adopt children.
Wheeler is coming to grips with the fact that she’s become an outcast for taking this step in a custody fight for her child. But she says that isn’t what her fight is about: "It’s about motherly rights."
Wheeler, 36, and her partner, Missy, decided to start a family together and share the Wheeler last name. In 2000, Sara Wheeler gave birth to a son, Gavin, through artificial insemination. Two years later, they decided Missy Wheeler should adopt the child and legally become his second parent.
Georgia law doesn’t specifically say whether gay parents can adopt a child, so the decision was up to a judge in the Atlanta area’s DeKalb County. After an adoption investigator determined that both partners wanted it, the judge cleared the request.
The couple’s relationship later soured. Missy Wheeler wouldn’t comment for this story, but her attorney, Nora Bushfield, said Sara became involved with someone else and wouldn’t let Missy and Gavin see each other.
Sara Wheeler acknowledged the other relationship, saying "regardless of my action, it doesn’t make me a bad mother."
Sara and Missy Wheeler had split by July 2004, and Missy was fighting for joint custody of the boy.
The two sides do agree about one thing: The case is about a mother’s rights.
"Everybody seems to forget we’re not talking about lesbian rights," Missy Wheeler’s attorney says. "We’re talking about a child who’s been bonded with a mother."
Sara Wheeler made the legal argument that, since nothing in Georgia law specifically allowed gay adoption, the adoption should be tossed out.
Her first lawyers warned her the case could set gay rights back a century.
She hired a new attorney and asked the DeKalb County court to toss the adoption that she had previously pushed for, claiming it should never have been approved because it runs afoul of state law.
News of the tactic whipped up Atlanta’s gay community, one of the largest in the South. Lambda Legal, a gay rights group, made a legal filing with the Georgia Supreme Court supporting Missy Wheeler. "There’s something about this case that’s just tragic," said Greg Nevins, a lawyer for the group.
Laura Douglas-Brown, editor of Southern Voice, the city’s main gay newspaper, penned a column accusing Sara Wheeler of "self-hating."
"We owe it to each other not to lash out in ways that damage the entire gay community," she wrote. "Your own family may be destroyed, but don’t destroy ours, too."
Sara said she felt like she had no choice.
"I’m not doing anything else a mother wouldn’t do to fight for her son," she said. "Some people may think it’s the unthinkable, but if they were put in my shoes, they’d do the same thing."
It didn’t go so well. Her lawsuit seeking to throw out the adoption was rejected by the DeKalb County judge and then the state Court of Appeals.
Then the Georgia Supreme Court, in a 4-3 vote in February, declined to hear the case. Only months earlier the court had upheld the state’s constitutional ban on gay marriage, which Georgia voters overwhelmingly approved in 2004.
Justice George H. Carley, who voted with the minority in the gay adoption case, declared he was "at a loss to comprehend" why the court refused to consider a case of such "great concern, gravity and public importance."
Sara Wheeler is asking the state Supreme Court to reconsider her case. Such a request rarely succeeds, but the narrow vote gives her hope that one justice might be swayed.
"There’s nothing that states this is an acceptable adoption," she said. "If Georgia wants to allow it, it needs to make proper laws."
As the legal motions flew back and forth, the two women established a workable routine. The 7-year-old boy goes to Missy Wheeler’s place every other weekend and on Tuesday nights. The rest of the time Sara Wheeler ferries him to karate practice, plays tag with him outside her apartment and takes him out for pizza every Friday.
The case has taken a toll on Sara.
Aside from a few gay friends, she has turned away from the gay community. She no longer dates, and doesn’t go to gay clubs or events any more. She said she is rethinking whether she is still a lesbian or whether she should abandon dating for good.
"I just don’t feel comfortable in that scene," she says. "I’m just trying to figure it all out."
She knows she’s seen as a betrayer; but in a sense, she feels she was the one betrayed.
"Before I’m anything — gay or lesbian — I’m a mother," she says. "And the most important thing is to make sure my son has a relationship with his biological mother."