Transgender mother tells of challenges to parental rights

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Transgender parent and advocate Jessica Lynn speaks in front of pictures of two of her sons. (Photo by Blake Thorkelson)

Transgender parents face special challenges in America’s legal system, parent and activist Jessica Lynn told a Yale Law School audience Dec. 1. Lynn discussed the challenges she faced in the Texas court system as she fought a multi-year legal battle for custody of her youngest son.

Visiting law professor Douglas NeJaime, an expert on family law and law and sexuality, opened the event by explaining that child custody decisions generally are based on the best interests of the child, and the gender or sexual orientation of the parents does not play a role in court decisions. But transgender parents are now facing the same legal barriers that gay, lesbian, and bisexual parents faced a couple of decades ago, NeJaime said.

Lynn told the student audience about her childhood and her adult life leading to her gender transition in 2009. Born Jeffrey Alan Butterworth in 1965, even as a child Lynn wanted to be a girl. She channeled internal anxiety about her gender identity into an intense focus on sports and art. “When I was on the soccer field, I wasn’t thinking about this,” she said.

In 1982, Lynn came out as transgender for the first time, to a girlfriend who was killed in a car accident three years later. Lynn later married another woman and had three sons. After the couple divorced, in 2007 a judge granted Lynn full custody of the children. Two years later, shortly before transitioning, Lynn came out as transgender to her two older sons, who were supportive.

Lynn’s ex-wife then successfully fought for full custody of their youngest son, who had been living with her in Texas. Lynn’s countersuit took more than three years. In the end, the Texas court terminated her parental rights — because of what it termed her “dangerous lifestyle” — and removed her name from the youngest child’s birth certificate.

In 2015 Lynn began to speak out, telling the story of her life and legal journey to draw attention to the unique problems transgender parents face in family law. She travels the country speaking to universities, including others in the Ivy League, and youth groups.

The event was sponsored by OutLaws (Yale Law School’s LGBTQ+ association) with GALA (Yale’s LGBT alumni association), OutPatient (Schools of Nursing and Medicine), ActOUT (School of Drama), and AMP (School of Drama).

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