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She fell in love with a woman in 1998. It meant nearly losing her kids

Nancy Fowler and her three children in 1991.
Nancy Fowler and her three children in 1991

Two experiences, separated by 24 years, stand out in Nancy Fowler’s mind when she thinks about same-sex marriage. First, there’s her own marriage to a woman, a union now codified in federal law under the Respect for Marriage Act signed earlier this month.

And then there was the moment in 1998, when Fowler’s divorce attorney told her that she would likely lose custody of her three young children because Missouri law considered her sexual orientation a mark against her — and potentially evidence that she was an unfit parent. At the time, sex between gay people, intimacy itself, was criminalized under the state’s now-repealed sodomy law.

“I was terrified I would lose custody of my children, and that they would lose me,” said Fowler, a former arts and culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio. “It's important for people to know that, by the skin of my teeth, I retained joint custody — because some things are going backward.”

Fowler’s experience in 1998 became the subject of a recent essay in the Huffington Post. Titled“Being Gay Made Me An Unfit Parent,” it describes Fowler's divorce from her husband and how Missouri laws at the time deemed him a fit parent automatically — because he was straight.

Nancy Fowler reflects on her essay "Being Gay Made Me An Unfit Parent"

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Fowler explained that she wanted to take her story public because she saw how modern legal protections are being targeted by a modern resurgence of discriminatory laws.

“With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, I think it's important to not be complacent in our thinking and to think, ‘Well, that could never happen again,’” she said. “We have to know our history in order to not repeat it.”

During her divorce in 1998, Fowler’s ex-husband eventually agreed to a joint custody agreement. But before that resolution, she had been forced to navigate depositions and accusations that her sexual orientation and relationship with a woman would harm her kids and lead to bullying.

Even after agreeing to joint custody, her relationship and orientation were treated as problems. The arrangement forbade her to live with a partner to whom she wasn’t married until her children were 18, effectively requiring her to live alone with her children for a decade. In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized gay sex by overturning Lawrence v. Texas, and, in 2015, the court legalized same-sex marriage.

In Fowler’s essay in the Huffington Post, she candidly detailed her first memories of feeling attracted to another woman and the wrenching decisions she made during her marriage to the father of her children.

Looking back on that time, Jamie Larson, Fowler’s daughter, observed that the national discussions over marriage equality often ignore the perspective of the children of those marriages.

“At the time, I had to think a lot about being gay or lesbian and what that meant,” said Larson, who was 12 during the divorce proceedings in 1998.

Her mother’s experiences changed her, too.

“It very much made me who I am today,” Larson said. “My mom was an excellent mom, we had so much love and support and structure ... and having a parent that has gone through a lot of challenges and revelations in her life, I think that's just allowed me to be more open and empathetic to other people as well. And use those challenges as ways to push myself forward and take risks and pursue my dreams as well.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."