Lesbians Madeleine Isaacson and Sandy Schuster Find 'Marriage' Happy but Hardly Untroubled

updated 07/09/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/09/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The couple met in church, sought approval for their relationship in the Bible and are raising six children in Edmonds, Wash., a quiet Seattle suburb. The TV goes off at 8:30. "We don't believe in drugs or drinking," says Sandra Schuster, 41. "We are really straight."

Her ex-husband, however, thinks otherwise. So does the ex-husband of Sandy's lesbian mate, Madeleine Isaacson, 37.

The women fell in love in 1970 and were divorced by Jim Schuster and Jerry Isaacson seven years ago. The men, who both remarried, have been trying to gain custody of their children, charging that they were living in an "unwholesome environment." But Superior Court Judge Norman Ackley, after listening to conflicting testimony from psychiatrists in 1974, ruled that "the mothers have shown stability, integrity and openness, despite their homosexuality." The women finally won the custody battle this February, and their ex-husbands' deadline for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court passed May 30.

Sandy Schuster knew from her high school days "that I attracted both males and females," but she had never had a lesbian affair until she met Isaacson. Madeleine had heard of "gays and homos and queers, but I didn't think anything about it. I remember in high school if you wore red on Thursday that meant you were queer, but I thought it meant offbeat." Both women had conventional childhoods and troubled marriages.

Raised in Seattle as the middle child and only daughter of two schoolteachers, Madeleine quit college and married Jerry Isaacson, a telephone company artist, at 20. They had two sons. In time she found "a total lack of communication with Jerry. He didn't want to talk about his feelings, ever. And I had some physical abuse from him. I blamed myself."

Sandy grew up in Southern California, where her father owned auto dealerships. She was a Navy nurse and Jim Schuster was an Army captain when they married in 1962, a year after she graduated from Stanford. He left the service and became a stockbroker; they settled in the West and had four children in five years. Sandy, too, says her husband was withdrawn. "I came from a warm and loving family where people hugged and my father could cry," she says. "With Jim, I'd say, 'I feel so alone,' and he'd say, 'I feel fine.' "

Both Madeleine and Sandy were brought up Episcopalian, but Sandy eventually turned to fundamentalism. When a weekend religious retreat failed to strengthen her marriage, Sandy prayed for guidance. She says her prayers led her to a Pentecostal church in Seattle, where she first saw Madeleine nine years ago.

"She was walking down the aisle. I remember looking up and seeing a light around her—like the light around Jesus in the picture in the living room," Sandy recalls. "I thought I was really freaking out." A week later they met; Maddy taught a Sunday school class that included Sandy's son Brad. "At first we got along like two porcupines," says Sandy. "But I remember thinking: 'She's mine.' " At a baby shower they finally had a long talk; later, during a church trip to Oregon, Madeleine confided, "I have some very different feelings welling up within me." Sandy recalls, "I darn near drove off the road."

Two days after the Oregon trip, Madeleine called Sandy to admit, "I love you and I want you," and found that saying it "wasn't scary. I didn't think about negative connotations. I was really excited. Needless to say, Sandy wasn't."

Sandy remembers, "I just about died. Then I came on like Joan of Arc." Citing Freud, Leviticus and St. Paul, "I told her those were abnormal and unnatural feelings. But I was really getting scared because I loved her too. So I went off to fast and pray." She also accepted Madeleine's challenge to find evidence of homosexuality in the Bible; to her surprise, Sandy found what she interpreted as a gay relationship between Jonathan and David in I Samuel Chapters 16-20 and II Samuel Chapter 1.

Their husbands did not suspect they had rivals but were grousing about the time the women were spending together. Then Madeleine and Sandy went to a church meeting in California in February 1971 and had their first sexual encounter during the trip. "I didn't really understand that spiritual and emotional satisfaction enhances sexual relations until I met Madeleine," says Sandy, though she insists her marital sex life had never been a problem.

The women had been hounded from their church, the Glad Tidings Tabernacle, even before they actually became lovers. Finally, in June 1971, they left their husbands, vowing a mutual commitment they call "a covenant with God," and fled to California with all the children. "We just threw the diaper pail and the sleeping bags and our clothes into the van and took off," says Madeleine. Their husbands, advised what was happening in a note from Sandy and a phone call from Madeleine en route, caught up with the women in Oceanside, Calif. Sandy's daughter Teresa "came screaming to us, saying someone was kidnapping the boys," Madeleine recalls. "We ran and they had taken Brad and both my boys." Sandy continues, "We followed them back to Seattle. The fathers had them for a month. That was the worst part."

Seattle courts awarded custody of the children to the women but at first ordered them to live apart. For the past five years, however, they have been allowed to be together. Madeleine is a part-time student in social work at Edmonds Community College. Sandy, who has a master's degree in psychosocial nursing, has worked at various hospitals and counsels private patients.

Neither woman assumes a male role in their relationship. "Some days I feel more masculine, other days I feel more feminine," Madeleine says. They insist they would never try to influence their children's sexual preferences.

"Sandy and I are stable, responsible people who love each other," says Madeleine. Adds Sandy: "We don't feel different. We are grateful God has given us each other and we want to share that with others."

Within the house, discipline is strict (occasionally enforced with a Ping-Pong paddle), and all the children have paper routes and household chores. The kids have also joined their mothers on TV—including the Phil Donahue show—to explain their life.

"As long as my mother is happy and the relationship isn't harming me, it's okay," says Brad Schuster. John Isaacson suggests, "Two homosexuals can handle the job just as well as a heterosexual family." Teresa Schuster finds it "hard to bring friends home unless they already know about my moms." Kids sometimes hassle them—two girls, jealous of Kristin's boyfriend, recently chided, "Your mom's a lezzie"—but, as Teresa says, "We try to ignore it. When that doesn't work, we pop them one."

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