By Kate Conger
By Brian Rinker
By Rachel Swan
By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
"Look around you," says Ramona Gatto, sitting cross-legged in the middle of her sun-bathed living room, gesturing to the framed posters and full-color photographs lining the walls. "Does it look like I need to be famous?" The pictures all depict Gatto, usually in midpunch, just as her gloved fist contorts an opponent's face into agony. Several also immortalize the aftermath: Ramona "Bad Girl" Gatto, nine-time female kickboxing world champion, hefting another gold title belt. "I don't need 15 minutes of fame," continues Gatto, now 39, her fighting past still evident in the slight stammer that slurs some of her speech. "I had 15 years of fame, and I had it for something that was pretty spectacular -- being the best woman fighter in the world."
Now, she says, she's in the fight of her life, and she wants to make it clear that she's not in it for the publicity.
"I didn't go public with this story until a year ago," says Gatto, her brunette curls tumbling to a white tank top, baring a tattoo snaking around one sculpted bicep and a slender scar lacing the opposite shoulder. "And this is the way it went public: Katie Couric asked Marina on live television about the worst discrimination she'd suffered." Ramona nods at the couch and her 15-year-old daughter, Marina, a well-decorated spokesgirl for children of gay and lesbian parents, who volunteered her viewpoints to Couric during a Todayshow segment on alternative families. "Marina didn't plan to say it," Ramona adds. "She wasn't promptedto say it. She just said it."
Rocking gently back and forth on her living room floor, Ramona Gatto points to her daughter, a down-to-earth, amiable, straight young woman, and speaks forcefully: "Who she is today is very much a reflection of who she's been all along: class president of a very prestigious high school, varsity athlete in several sports, honor student, well-known activist. ... She's going to be an honorary marshal in the San Francisco Gay Pride Parade, she's been honored by the state Legislature -- you couldn't find a 15-year-old more accomplished than she is."
Or, it seems, more visible. Just the day before, a television crew was filming a new special about Marina's alternative family; she's also appeared on The Montel Williams Show and in a Nickelodeon special called My Family Is Different hosted by Rosie O'Donnell. By proclamation of Mayor Willie Brown, June 24 is now Marina Day in the city of San Francisco, in recognition of her role in the Pride Parade.
Ramona Gatto, too, has been in the press, talking up her kickboxing career in the national lesbian-interest magazine Curve -- opponents in the ring, she says in a February 2000 interview, are "faceless, shapeless things that must be destroyed" -- and telling the popular Web site Lesbianation.com: "I'm so proud that I'm able to change people's perspectives on gays and lesbians. I used to be unnerved and unsure about how [my sexuality] would come across. Now I don't think about it -- it's just who I am."
Indeed, lesbianism has been part of Gatto's public image for years, in no small part because of her daughter, who serves as an eager example of lesbian parenting success. And yet, for much of that time, Gatto has doggedly pursued a lawsuit against the San Mateo County district attorney, claiming he grievously violated her privacy by telling her ex-husband she was, in fact, a lesbian. The lawsuit has proved complex, costly, and embarrassing to almost everyone involved, but the backdrop is just as bizarre in its own right. A lesbian love triangle -- involving not one, but two female police officers who were lovers of Gatto -- exploded one morning at Gatto's home. The details of a subsequent police report eventually found their way to District Attorney Jim Fox, a close friend and Bible-study colleague of Timothy Gatto, Ramona's ex-husband and a county probation officer. When Timothy Gatto learned, without either Fox or himself seeing the police report, that his ex-wife was a lesbian consorting with clashing off-duty cops, he initiated a lengthy, painful custody battle over Marina, which Ramona won.
But she has since struck back, filing a lawsuit against Fox and the county that alleges her rights were violated by the district attorney's disclosure. A trial is tentatively scheduled for November.
Ramona Gatto has always been a fighter, she says, and she sees no reason why she can't win her latest battle. She insists her lawsuit is about abuse of power, discrimination against gays, and the right to privacy; it appears, though, to be at least as much about Ramona Gatto simply needing to fight back.
Timothy and Ramona Gatto met when she was attending San Mateo Junior College and got in trouble for throwing rocks at a window. Timothy Gatto became her probation officer, a position he still holds in San Mateo County, and although he was 35 and she was 19, they married in 1984. It was Timothy Gatto's second marriage; the first produced two boys from whom, court documents say, he remains estranged. (Timothy Gatto declined to comment for this story.) Marina was born in 1988, but the Gattos separated in 1996. In court documents, Ramona Gatto alleged physical abuse on the part of Timothy Gatto, which he denied, and they divorced in 1997. That, effectively, marked the end of meaningful contact between Marina and Timothy Gatto; as part of the divorce proceedings, he agreed he would have no visitation with Marina, and a family therapy and reunification program has long since fizzled. Marina, who has her mother's bushy auburn curls and friendly smile, says she has no interest in communicating with her father; he occasionally sends her letters, but she stamps them "return to sender" without opening the envelope. She says she considers Arzu Akkus-Gatto, Ramona's partner, to be her other parent.