A gay dad wins custody 

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In the mid 1970s, as part of a bitter divorce proceeding, a Broad Ripple hairstylist named Van Kirby was awarded custody of his four biological children. This wasn't unusual just because a father (as opposed to a mom) had been awarded custody of his kids, this case was exceptional because Mr. Kirby happened to be gay.

Kirby decided to share his story in a short book he penned with NUVO Contributing Editor David Hoppe, On the Table by the Window: The Journey of a Gay Dad in Indiana, which also includes an epilogue written by the judge who awarded Kirby custody of his children, Judge Betty Barteau, the first female Superior Court Judge to serve in Marion County.

On the Table by the Window: The Journey of a Gay Dad in Indiana is available at hoosiergaydad.com, as well as through other usual suspects (Amazon, Barnes & Noble).
We spoke with Mr. Hoppe about his friend's tale.

NUVO: How did you connect with Van Kirby? What kind of role does a "with" co-author have; how does that work?

David Hoppe: Van had been cutting my hair for the better part of ten years when he told me about his story. He had made a couple of false starts previously and had some notes he asked me to read. He was interested in knowing if his was a story worth telling. When I had a look at the notes, it seemed to me that this was indeed a story worth telling. This led to an extended conversation culminating in Van's decision to proceed with the project.

His original intent was to create a legacy for his grand and great grandchildren. But once we were two or three chapters in, it started to become clear that this was a story that might have a broader audience and Van decided to publish.

As to co-authoring, I saw my role as a facilitator. Lots of people say they have stories to tell, but few are actually able to bring them to the page in a readable way. Van and I began by discussing his story at length. From there I was able to make a mutually agreeable outline, which served as a roadmap for a series of interviews. Those interviews are the stuff from which Van's book is made.

NUVO: It's a short, blunt book - it almost reads like a stream-of-consciousness oral history. Your call or Kirby's?

Hoppe: As I say, a mutual agreement. This is a memoir, and, as such, it seems to me the first rule is to reflect the author's voice and style of presentation. Van has spent his professional life standing behind a chair and conversing with his clients - telling stories. We wanted to capture this.

NUVO: The book's fairly graphic, and there are even a few moments in which the author's a victim of pedophilia. Was there a concern about reinforcing stereotypes - in other words, informing the mistaken notion that such contact somehow "made Kirby gay" or that homosexuality somehow goes hand-in-hand with victim-based philias?

Hoppe: The primary concern was to be true to events as Van recollected them. He makes no attempt to be an objective observer of his own life, nor does he claim to be the ultimate authority. The reader, I think, is presented with the story of a life, albeit a particularly complicated, conflicted and, at times, rather hectic life. That Van is content to let readers draw their own conclusions from his testimony seems to me be one of his book's strengths.

NUVO: Another concern: the mother in the story, Kirby's wife, Mary, is portrayed as a poor mom, even a drug addict - yet there's little sympathy for the fact that the woman's marriage was essentially a sham, and perhaps that pressure of "living a lie" contributed to her downward spiral. Did that worry you?

Hoppe: There's nothing new about two people marrying, having kids and then discovering a radical incompatibility, especially in those times when being gay was a cultural taboo. These situations do not necessarily result in the kind of neglect experienced by Van's kids after he and Mary broke up. What was worrying - alarming, really - was the degree of jeopardy the kids were exposed to. A judge, as we know, agreed.

NUVO: I was startled to see how pervasive traditional gender roles were as late as the mid-'70s in our Midwestern culture - e.g., "men don't cook". Did that surprise you? Similarly, a judge in open court - not Barteau - told Kirby his "kind" should be exterminated. Your reaction when you heard such things?

Hoppe: Well, I'm afraid we're rarely as enlightened as we think we are, whatever the decade. And when it comes to human sexuality and gender roles, we Americans have a lot to learn.

NUVO: What other aspects of the story startled you?

Hoppe: I think Van's story is really a great slice of Americana. It's a kind of secret history that many people are probably familiar with on some level. It's fascinating (and deplorable) to learn about the kind of parallel universe gay people had to create for themselves in a city like Indianapolis in the '50s and '60s. I think Van's perspective on these times is especially rich. And his childhood recollections regarding his sharecropper family in Kentucky would make Andy Griffith blush.

NUVO: Kirby never saw himself as a revolutionary - in fact, he admittedly didn't want to become part of what he called the "gay liberation movement." First, do you think that's a uniquely Hoosier perspective: "Don't make waves!" Secondly, is the book some way to make up for a lack of public activism on Kirby's part?

Hoppe: I don't find anything uniquely Hoosier about someone wanting to live the life they've chosen for themselves. That's really all I think Van wanted - to be himself, as best he could figure that out. As to Van's public activism, remember: he was the one who went to court to fight for custody of his kids when no one thought he could win; when men, regardless of their sexual orientation, rarely fought for custody.

NUVO: I find it fascinating that the judge who gave Kirby custody was female - I'd forgotten how rare that was in the '70s. She said the fact that Van might have been gay didn't even really register, he was simply just the better parent. I wonder how much her "outlier" status as a female judge in Indiana in the '70s helped her see beyond traditional parenting roles.

Hoppe: Yes. Judge Barteau is a story unto herself. It is amazing the stars aligned in such a way that she was the one to rule on Van's case. It's a great example of how personal experience can sometimes help to bring an otherwise calcified system to its senses.

NUVO: Jon Fox, Kirby's lawyer, called Mary's parenting abilities into question with the phrase, "Sows sometimes eat their young." Both Kirby and the judge mentioned this - it is a bit of a jaw dropper. What was your reaction when you heard it?

Hoppe: My jaw dropped, too. It is an indication of just how dire the kids' situation was that such a thing could be said in court without tilting the case to Van's disadvantage.

NUVO: I thought including the judge's epilogue really gave a tremendous perspective - it seemed critically important to the book, in fact - but it made me interested in hearing from the other players in this drama. Any chance of expanding this project in the future?

Hoppe: Since this began as a legacy project, our decision from the start was to place the emphasis on Van's voice and his version of events. If others wish for their sides to be heard, that will be up to them.

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  • Goodbye, Gunner
    Great article by Dan Wakefield about friendship. Thank you for sharing.

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