I lost my children because I am gay; Emma Johnson talks to the woman who lost a custody battle due to her sexuality.
TO A mother, just the thought of losing custody of a child is the stuff of nightmares. To lose custody of them because the law thinks you are an unfit mother is almost impossible to comprehend.
But that was what a judge called Sandi Hughes as he removed her three daughters from her life.
Why was Sandi so unfit to bring up children? Because she was gay.
These days with gay marriages, gay characters in soaps and gay superstars like Elton John raising families, it is hard to imagine a woman being denied access to her children because of her sexual orientation.
But back in the 1960s things could not have been more different.
"The male judge told me I couldn't have custody of my daughters because I might influence them but I could have cutstody of my son," 67-year-old Sandi recalls. "I didn't want to split them up so I let them go with my ex-husband. It was the worst pain I have ever experienced."
Born in 1943 to a British white civil servant mother and a black American GI Sandi had hardly had the easiest start in life herself. Brought up in children's homes around Bristol she joined the WRENs aged just 17.
Despite saying she knew she was different, Sandi married her first boyfriend - a man she met in the Navy - a few months after they met and moved to Liverpool in 1963.
A family followed - three girls Dawn, Julie and Jackie and a boy Robbie. "I loved it, I had my own family for the first time," she remembers.
Then her husband came home from sea. The marriage only lasted two or three years after that. "I ended up walking out in the clothes I had on my back."
Sandi took a job working in The Lisbon - one of Liverpool's most famous gay venues.
"Working in the Lisbon I became aware that I was like the people I was working with. I became aware of what I was and that was a lesbian."
Sandi was just 28 when she applied for custody. "I was dealt with on the grounds that I was an unfit mother because I was gay. Being gay was still considered a crime; the police would go around clubs and people would be arrested."
Parted from her own, Sandi forged herself a new family in Liverpool's fledgling gay scene.
"Having had my own children taken away I felt a real need to nurture. People would come to me who needed help and I became like a mother to a lot of young teenage boys, boys who had been thrown out by their families because they were gay. I would take them in and let them stay at my house. They called me the Godmother," she laughs.
For Sandi Liverpool's gay scene has been a constant source of support over the past four decades. Never more so than when her son Robbie was diagnosed with cancer.
"I had started to get some regular contact with my family in the 80s. My husband realised what a mistake he had made," she says. "Robbie was diagnosed with cancer and given just six months to live. My friends got together and had a charity do at Cafe Berlin (on Bold Street) to raise money for me to take him on a holiday. He died in 1987."
Her friends on the gay scene also helped Sandi trace her birth father in America: "Sadly he died 10 months before I got there but I met his wife. He had told her all about me and she welcomed me in."
Now Sandi, who lives near Lark Lane, is preparing to say thank you to everyone who has been so kind to her over the years as she helps to relaunch Homomodo - one of the city's most famous gay nights - at Modo on Concert Square.
"People who know my story are appalled at the injustice. Lots of people have helped me in my life. This is my way of showing my appreciation."
Homomodo will take place once a month on Sundays from 7pm-1am and Sandi says it will offer people something different.
"Age Concern and the Armistice centre run an event called Silver Pride in Parr Street studios on Sunday afternoons and a lot of older gay people go there who don't like to go into town or be part of the club scene. They can go there and then come to Homomodo," Sandi explains.
As well as promoting the event, Sandi will be DJing. An accomplished film-maker she will also be showing some of the movies she has made chronicling Liverpool's gay scene.
Best of all, despite living as far away as Chicago, it looks like Sandi's daughters Dawn 47, Jackie 46 and Julie 43 are going to be among the guests.
"I have seen them a lot more often as they have got older," says Sandi. "It was hard at first but we are very close now."? Homomodo takes place at Modo Concert Square on Sunday, July 3 from 7pm. See www.modoliverpool.co.uk for more details
THANK YOU: Sandi Hughes is hosting Homomodo at Modo to say thanks for all the support she has received over the years from the city's gay scene