PALM SPRINGS — Afternoon mail call at the Batey household. There was a medical statement addressed to Frank Batey, who died last month of AIDS; a letter of condolence from a congresswoman addressed to Brian Batey upon his father's death; and a clip from a Los Angeles newspaper with the headline: "The Troubled Childhood of Brian Batey."
Brian Batey grimaced.
"That's horrible," he said and tossed the clip aside.
Ever since Brian, now 16, was 11 years old, people have speculated on the damage done to him in the tumultuous custody battle between his fundamentalist Christian mother and his gay father.
Now that Brian has started speaking for himself, however, it's not so easy to cast him as a troubled victim. Out of what one judge called a "protracted tragedy," Brian has emerged determined to control his own life.
"I want to use this to my advantage if I can," he said.
Interested in Photography
Brian agrees to interviews--but asks that the photographer repay his time with free film. (He's interested in photography as a possible career).
He'll talk with movie people if they want to hear his story--not his dad's, not his mom's, not Craig Corbett's. (Corbett and Frank Batey lived together as lovers for 13 years. Brian has announced his intention to remain with Corbett, but because custody officially reverted to his mother upon his father's death, another round in the legal war may ensue.)
He has even dreamed up a plot for the inevitable Brian Batey movie: All the allegations about his father's life style turn out to be true--drugs, orgies, satanic worship. In the finale, Brian flees to his mother in San Diego and begins to study for the ministry.
The movie joke--for that's clearly what it is to Brian--was delivered between puffs of a cigarette as the teen-ager relaxed in white jeans and an In-N-Out Burger T-Shirt on the patio of the home he shares with Corbett. The grounds, set against a rugged mountainside, are like an arboretum, replete with exotic birds, cacti and palms.
Brian has his own room and his own bathroom in the downstairs of the split-level house. Showing off his room, he parodied what a reporter might write down: "Posters of rock stars and bikinied women."
Because Brian's mother and the fundamentalist groups who support her have asserted that Brian will "catch" homosexuality by living in his dead father's home, Brian assumes that people are curious about his sexual orientation.
"I love women," he said, as if the posters left any doubt.
It seems unlikely that Brian will leave Palm Springs if he has a choice. "I know all kinds of people here. This is home, you know."
But, nonetheless, he's thinking of filing for emancipated minor status, which would put him legally in charge of his own affairs. It's apparent that Brian feels he has been told what to do and where to live long enough.
Emancipation would be all right with Corbett, who puts up with smoking and other teen-age habits that he doesn't particularly like, because, he said, Frank Batey worked the last five years of his life so that Brian could have choices. That means something as major as deciding where he'll live, or something as minor as being able to say no when Corbett asks him to help scrape a neighbor's pool on a hot afternoon.
Corbett, whom Brian calls "Corb," said he doesn't think of himself as Brian's dad, now that his partner is dead. "His dad's his dad," he said. "Maybe I could be his co-dad."
"Co-dad the Barbarian," wisecracked Brian, who was sitting in on the conversation.
Although he said he has helped look after Brian since the youth was 4 years old, Corbett, who is in real estate, never exactly asked to be made sole guardian of the teen-ager.
"No one in his right mind would invite this," he said. "It's two loads of laundry a day, three meals a day. It's 'Corb, lend me 20 bucks.' "
Corbett, 49, doesn't have much patience with people who worry about Brian being exposed to a "homosexual environment."
"If cooking and cleaning and vacuuming and mowing the lawn and going to school and going to work is a homosexual environment, then I guess that's what it is," said Corbett, who said he has tested negative for AIDS.
Brian's best friend, 16-year-old Eric Scott, said Brian is simply freer in Palm Springs than he is with his mother. Every time he visits his mom in San Diego, Eric said, he returns unhappy. "It's obvious," he said, propping his tennis shoes on a patio table.
Eric said there has been no trouble at school over Brian's situation, except for one student who said: "Don't go to his house, his dad's a fag."
A Favorite Hangout
In fact, far from being an off-limits household, Brian's house through the years has been a favorite hangout for swimming, listening to music, playing with the animals and eating meals cooked by Corbett.
"Girls fall in love with this place," Brian said with the only trace of shyness he showed the entire afternoon.