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 Today show segment on alternative families. "Marina didn't plan to say it," Ramona adds. "She wasn't prompted to 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.
Timothy Gatto's interest in his daughter renewed, however, when an old friend of his, San Mateo County District Attorney Jim Fox, told him about a disturbance at his ex-wife's home involving two off-duty female cops -- both lovers of Ramona Gatto. Fox found out about the incident -- although he didn't read the actual police report -- from Assistant District Attorney Morley Pitt. The Gattos, when they were still married, occasionally attended Bible-study sessions hosted by Fox at his home. In July 1999, when Fox told his co-parishioner the salacious story of the lesbian love triangle, Timothy Gatto sued anew for custody of his daughter. In numerous court documents, Timothy Gatto -- who allegedly tried to glean further information about the incident by eavesdropping on police communications -- says he initiated the custody battle solely out of concern for Marina's safety in the presence of confrontational off-duty cops. "If it would have been a heterosexual relationship, it would have been the same thing," he testified in court documents.