Texas man, separated by family from partner of 34 years, hopes for reunion

Jim Heath (left) and Lon Watts, in a 2011 photo taken a Heath's nursing home.Courtesy Lon Watts

Jim Heath (left) and Lon Watts, in a 2011 photo taken a Heath's nursing home.
Courtesy Lon Watts

STROUD, Okla. — A Texas man is speaking out after being separated since 2011 from his partner of more than three decades, in hopes that other gay couples will learn from his ordeal and take the legal steps necessary to prevent hostile interference from others.

Jim Heath and Lon Watts shared 34 years together, and instead of enjoying their golden years in retirement, they have been forcibly ripped apart, first by illness and then by family members.

In the summer of 2011, an emergency trip to the hospital by Heath resulted in a family conflict that eventually left Watts without his partner, the home they had shared together, and even the ability to see Heath, who is suffering from Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Jim Heath (left) and Lon Watts, in a 2011 photo taken at Heath’s nursing home.
Photos courtesy Lon Watts

Speaking from his mother’s home in Stroud, Okla., on Wednesday, Watts, 54, told LGBTQ Nation that the problems began in late 2005 when he noticed that Heath looked lost, was often forgetful, and spoke about past events as though they had just recently occurred.

In early 2006, Heath, 65, was first diagnosed as suffering from Early-onset Alzheimer’s, and Watts became his primary caregiver.

Because their native Texas passed a state constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions in 2005, the couple was left without legal protections. However, Watts said that in 2004, they had legal power of attorney and wills drawn up as a means to have some limited legal protections.

On July 15, 2011, when Heath was hospitalized for swelling and other medical complications, Watts said that Heath’s sister — Carolyn Heath Franks — accused him of neglect and had him removed from the hospital.

According to Watts, when he returned the next day, nurses told him that he was trespassing and was again removed by hospital security.

Watts said he was then served with a “no trespass order” and was barred from visiting Heath. Later that month, Franks filed for, and was awarded, guardianship of her brother, which had the effect of legally disenfranchising him from Heath, said Watts.

After a hearing by a local judge, and with input from the Texas Adult Protective Services Agency, Heath was removed from the couple’s Pittsburg, Texas, home and sent to a full-time nursing facility about three miles away. Watts said that at first he was allowed to visit Heath, and then without warning he was served another “no trespass order” barring him from the nursing facility, and any contact with his partner.

According to Watts, the couple first met in 1979 at the Metropolitan Community Church in Houston, and had moved to Pittsburg, located about 115 miles east of Dallas, in 2000, as it was Heath’s hometown and he wanted to be closer to family.

Franks had purchased the couple’s home with the understanding that they would be responsible for the mortgage, homeowner’s expenses, and upkeep. Watts claimed that it was acknowledged that the men were a gay couple by family and friends, but as he told LGBTQ Nation, “We didn’t fly a rainbow flag or call a lot of attention to ourselves.”

Watts said that he didn’t have any problems with Franks until the July 2011 hospital incident.

He said the relationship became uglier when, after attending a church service in memory of 9/11, Franks — who attended the same church and was an organist there — stormed out of the service. Watts said that he was subsequently served with yet another “no trespass order,” this time from the church barring him from attending services.

In October 2011, Watts was served with an eviction notice from Franks, ordering him to vacate the couple’s home that she had originally purchased.

Watts said he contested the eviction, but ultimately lost the case on Valentine’s Day 2012. Within weeks, Watts moved back to his mother’s home in Stroud, Okla.

Watts said that not long after he returned to Oklahoma, he was arrested and charged with vandalism to his former residence, although he said Franks later dropped the charges in late May.

Alone and frustrated, Watts has spent the last year with nowhere to turn.

Watts said he is now sharing his ordeal after reading the stories of other gay and lesbian couples who had experienced similar circumstances. He said he has been emboldened by the gaining public acceptance of same-sex relationships, and felt it was time to tell his story.

His goal, he told LGBTQ Nation, is to get Heath back, relocate him to Stroud, and spend their remaining years together as they had intended.

Watts posted his story to Facebook earlier this week, and not long after, was contacted by Austin attorney Dax Garvin, who has offered to represent him pro bono to see if any legal action could be taken to help Watts achieve his goal.

Garvin told LGBTQ Nation that he has spoken with Watts and has made arrangements to review his case.

“Jim and I had a blessed life,” Watts said, “I just want him home. He knows me, he loves me, there’s no reason he should be there alone.”

Franks was contacted by LGBTQ Nation on Wednesday and refused to comment for this story.

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