Dr Lynne Harne on Lesbians and Child Custody
Helen Brown on Lesbian Self-Insemination
In the mid l970s lesbian mothers leaving heterosexual partners began to lose custody of their children. Lesbians were also attacked for seeking artificial insemination by donor.
Lynne Harne talks about how lesbians began to resist this legal discrimination and Helen Brown outlines her experience in the first lesbian self-insemination groupin the late l970s.
We know that some lesbians in first wave feminism who were in heterosexual marriages did have children. Vita Sackville West being one of the most famous. Others were adopting and bringing up children. Some women growing up in the l950s and 60s remember being looked after by ‘aunties’ who were clearly in retrospect lesbians, but kept quiet about it, because of attitudes towards lesbianism at the time.
By the mid- l930s the patriarchal backlash against lesbians had taken hold and they were increasingly being defined as sexually predatory.i Those who had any involvement with children such as ‘spinster’ teachers began to be viewed as lesbians and therefore a possible danger especially in single sex girls’ schools.
Lesbian teachers were pathologized by sexology and the spread of Freudian ideas and these attitudes continued post-war and into the l960s, where those working with children were forced to keep quiet about it for fear of losing their jobs.
Lesbian mothers and child custody
During the early l970s the emerging lesbian feminist liberation movement was enabling heterosexual women with children to leave their husbands or unmarried partners, become lesbians and live in lesbian only households.
Women who were lesbians prior to the Gay and Women’s Liberation movements, but had married and had children in order to conform to hegemonic heterosexual norms, also felt safe enough to declare their lesbianism and finally leave oppressive marriages. But during the mid l970s the fact that lesbians had and were bringing up children was considered a huge threat to the hetero-patriarchal order, in the family courts dealing with divorce and separation.
It has to be remembered that although lesbianism had never been made illegal in the UK, this was due to the patriarchal fear that if women knew about it they would desert men in droves! It is not surprising then that in the l970s, state institutions such as the family law courts still viewed lesbianism as deviant and perverse.
Lesbian mothers were regarded as likely to ‘corrupt’ children, and to threaten fathers ‘natural authority’ in the heterosexual nuclear family. Vengeful fathers who were left by women who became lesbians, felt their patriarchal right of sexual access to women was threatened and their paternal right of ownership of children in families was undermined. They contested custody of the children, on the grounds of mothers being lesbians and sometimes also for feminist activism.
This was in contrast to the treatment of heterosexual mothers in custody disputes who, since the early l970s usually kept custody of their children on divorce or separation. However, this practice was based on the assumption that heterosexual women would remarry and resume their subordinate and dependent position on another man, with the children coming under the authority and control of a stepfather.
The attitudes of the family courts towards lesbians are illustrated in two lesbian custody cases which began in l975 and were reported in l976. The first (Anon), reported in the Family Law Journal in l976, involved a case where the mother was living with her lesbian lover and was about the custody of a 5-year-old boy. The boy had lived with the mother and her lover for 2 years before the case came to court. This case illustrates many of the fears the family courts held at the time about lesbian influence on their childrenii
Children growing up to be lesbian or gay. The judge’s decision, based on that of two psychiatrists who had been called as expert witnesses for the father’s side, said this boy would be “blemished” by growing up in a lesbian household … in particular his “psycho-sexual development” would be affected through witnessing the mother and her lover sleeping in the same bed. In other words, it was felt he would probably grow up to be gay and in the view of the courts this was unacceptable. The fear that the children themselves would grow up to be homosexual was seen as one of the major negative influences of being raised by lesbians in the l970s.
Children not conforming to traditional sex roles and stereotypes. Another factor in the judgement was that he would “not grow up along strong normal masculine lines. “ In other words, he would not learn to dominate girls or play with traditional boy’s toys, such as guns and cars. The threat of lesbian mothers undermining ‘normal’ gendered roles is also a key aspect of later cases.
The shamefulness of being lesbian – lesbian mothers causing children to experience social stigma. The third aspect of the judgement stressed the shamefulness of being lesbian and that the child would also grow up to be ashamed and embarrassed by his mother. “He might grow up accepting her whilst not approving of her. It would mean the decay of society if people adopted that attitude.” Labelling lesbianism as ‘shameful’ and something which would cause children ‘extreme embarrassment and hurt’ was a strategy, which was felt to be unanswerable, as it was assumed that this attitude was shared by the general population.
Lesbian feminist activism. The second unreported appeal case (W v W) involved a lesbian mother with two daughters, twins aged 11. The mother had already lost custody of the girls in a lower court, but they were still living with her because the father had no alternative accommodation to offer. He wanted the girls to be put into care. His case was based on the mother’s lesbian activities and her attachment to the Women’s Liberation Movement.
At the end of the case, the mother kept custody of the girls but only because the father and his new wife could not accommodate them. Her lover was ordered not to come to the house and have no contact with them. The mother was described as having “a dangerous influence” on the children as she was “obsessively wrapped up in the feminist cause”. The judge said, “it is quite obvious that the girls’ lives are highly abnormal and that it is only common sense to say that these children ought to have a more normal life in a more normal family among less vehemently minded people.”
Later cases which involved boy children focussed specifically on the supposed impact on the child’s ‘gender identity’ – (a concept which had only been invented by psychologists in the l950s This fear was based on the idea that boys might not realise they were the male sex (despite having male genitals) and would grow up to be ‘transvestites.’ Concerns about ‘gender identity’ were also linked, as they are now, to traditional gender roles and stereotypes, which the WLM was already challenging. The concern that girls brought up by lesbians would reject oppressive feminine roles and that boys would not be masculine enough were regarded as real threats to male supremacy.
Lesbian feminist resistance
At the beginning of the l970s some lesbians with children joined the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). However, since this organisation mostly reflected the interests of gay men, the issue was never discussed. By l973 most lesbians had left GLF and at the first lesbian conference in Canterbury in l974, lesbian mothers began to talk to each other about having children. The same year a new women’s liberation demand was formulated at a conference in Edinburgh. This stressed women’s right to determine their own sexuality and included an end to discrimination against lesbians.
Lesbian mothers at that time however got little support from other lesbians. For many women being lesbian meant they had freed themselves from the cultural imperative which defined women – that of being mothers. They assumed that it was lesbian mothers own fault if they had ‘chosen’ to have children. The fact that many lesbian mothers had not at the time felt they had made that ‘choice’ was not recognised. This meant that lesbian mothers had to begin to organise mainly on their own.
The group Action for Lesbian Parents (ALP) was set up in l976 as a support network and to share legal information. Solicitors were at the time advising women to keep quiet about their lesbianism when they left men, or, if this was impossible to seek out evidence that their children would grow up ‘normal.’ The group began to contact radical psychologists to produce research, as well as making contact with similar groups in the US who were using some initial research, to demonstrate this ‘normality.’ iii
Moreover, as other lesbians began to realise that lesbian mothers were being discriminated against specifically because of their sexuality, support for them increased in the lesbian feminist community. By the early l980s lesbian feminism had grown in strength. It became the dominant force in the WLM and was beginning to have a wider impact. The concept of ‘heterosexism’, for example was being used to challenge the assumption that only heterosexuality was normal.
In l982 the feminist legal organisation Rights of Women agreed to apply for funding from the Greater London Council (GLC) to set up the Lesbian Custody Project. This project would research legal discrimination against lesbian mothers and provide them with a legal advice service as well as developing a network of lawyers who could fight lesbian custody cases, using recent psychological research on lesbian mothers and their children to show their children were no different from others.
The Findings from the Research.
‘Normality’ is an extremely loaded concept since it reflects the dominant cultural values of the time. Having to prove their children were ‘normal’ was not only insulting but it created contradictions for lesbian mothers. This was because many were trying to challenge sexist and heterosexist values in bringing up their children.
Nevertheless, as the research demonstrated it was hard to challenge these cultural values, when they were reinforced in the social environment outside the household; for example in nurseries and schools. Also nearly all the children had continuing contact visits with their fathers. Thus, the initial comparative study between lesbian mother households and those of heterosexual single mothers found no significant difference between the two groups of children.
For example both groups demonstrated quite traditional gendered behaviour in their play activities. Perhaps more significantly in terms of the concerns of the courts, the research showed that children of lesbian mothers were no more likely to get teased or bullied at school than children growing up with single heterosexual mothers.
Later follow up research on the adult children from the original study found that there were more positive benefits growing up in a lesbian household, although these would not necessarily be viewed as such by judges. For example adult children of lesbian mothers were found to be proud of their mothers’ lesbian identity and young women in particular were more positive about their mothers’ lesbian partners, than girls who had grown up raised by heterosexual women with a new male partner.
Other research which looked at children of lesbians who had grown up in lesbian households from birth and without fathers (see below) found further positive benefits for children growing up in lesbian familiesiv
Challenging heteropatriarchal culture
From the early l980s onwards lesbian mothers and daughters often went on collective holidays together, for example at women only holiday centres and this meant that these girls could socialise with children of other lesbian mothers and therefore feel less isolated. Lesbian mothers were also confronting anti-lesbian attitudes in schools and demanding that primary schools had story books that addressed growing up in lesbian families.
However dealing with the health services was more problematic, as health professionals had been trained to regard lesbianism as a neurotic illness and often blamed mothers when their children had health problems.
By the second half of the l980s lesbian mothers were in general winning custody cases and this no doubt can be put down to the research, as well as a broader changes in social attitudes. Nevertheless, during the period l975-l986 many lesbians did lose custody of their children and often did not even see them until they were much older.
This was because many vengeful fathers slandered mothers to their children an encouraged them to refuse access visits. Another shocking aspect was that fathers who fought legal disputes against lesbian mothers to gain child custody included socialist men from the ‘new left’. These men also used heterosexual socialist feminist partners to give anti-lesbian testimony in the courts.
Lesbians choosing to have children and the ‘lesbian baby boom.’
By the late l970s there were lesbians who were choosing to have children through artificial or self-insemination. This meant the sperm donor would be anonymous and there would be no legal father around to contest custody, or to directly control mothers. In l978 the London Evening News got a heterosexual journalist to pose as a lesbian seeking artificial insemination by donor at a private clinic, seeking the support of lesbian groups to do this.
The paper then published an anti-lesbian expose about lesbians having children through this means. Action for Lesbian Parents organised a sit-in at the newspaper’s offices and demanded the right to reply. Pro-lesbian slogans appeared in Parliament Square, at the Law Courts, and outside the offices of the British Medical Association.
Other lesbians set up self-help insemination groups using groups of gay men as donors. Women would support each other by going to collect the sperm, thus keeping the name of the donor anonymous. An account of such a group is given below. However, for some lesbian feminists, lesbians choosing to have children remained controversial and their continued to be debates about the ‘lesbian baby boom.’
Lesbians who wanted to adopt children had a far harder time. This was due to the fact that social workers like health workers had been trained to see lesbianism as a mental illness, as it was defined as such until the Mental Health Act, 1983!
By the early l990s it also became possible for lesbian partners to obtain legal shared custody with biological mothers (Harne and Rights of Women, l997). But all these changes had involved ongoing political struggle by lesbian mothers – a struggle which has now largely become lost. By the mid-l990s lesbian parenting had become accepted as a ‘life-style’ which could be assimilated into mainstream culture and which no longer posed a threat to the dominant heteropatriarchy.
On being part of a lesbian self-insemination group
I was one of a group of women who set up a feminist self-insemination group in London in the late l970s. I was part of the group as support for my partner – I was already pregnant but my partner wasn’t getting pregnant and was very depressed – we thought there had to be a better collective way and put an ad in the London Women’s Liberation Newsletter to meet other lesbians who wanted to get pregnant.
The group met regularly and carried out loads of research about self-insemination. This was about the same time there was the big scandal in the Evening News – a front page headline about a Dr Strangelove, in a private clinic who did artificial insemination for lesbians – A friendship group of gay men read it and wondered what they could do to support lesbians who wanted children – so the two groups got together and stayed together till everyone was pregnant.
Then some of us stayed together even longer, meeting regularly to discuss childcare and mothering issues – a source of great support – we are all still in contact. There were challenges to us wanting children. I had one discussion with a woman who said I was betraying the lesbian cause – she also said that mothers couldn’t help fuck up their children and it wasn’t fair to bring children into the world. Also there was quite a lot of bad feeling about what if the children were boys. I had no sympathy for this view – I felt that women had been punished for centuries for giving birth to girls and I wasn’t going to accept being punished now for giving birth to boys.
But the support we were offered was far greater than the criticism. – ever since the children were tiny other lesbians wanted to get involved-e.g. we lived in a shared house and the others in the house took responsibility to share different nights – we had a shared crèche with 2 other children and mothers and then they went to a community nursery- We were always able to work and combine childcare.We did have hassle to get acceptance at the school and the health services couldn’t accept that our children had two mothers and no fathers. Also because one child was disabled we had to hassle for further support for him.
i Alison Oram (l989)’ Embittered, sexless or homosexual, Attacks on spinster teachers l919-l939’ in Lesbian History Group(eds) Not a Passing Phase. (London. Women’s Press)
ii Ii Rights of Women Lesbian Custody Group (l986) ‘Lesbian Mothers’ Legal Handbook’. (London, Women’s Press)
iii Sue Allen and Lynne Harne (l988) ‘Lesbian Mothers – the fight for child custody,’ in (ed Cant and Hemmings) Radical Records. Thirty Years of Lesbian and Gay History. (London, Routledge)
iv Lynne Harne and Rights of Women (l997) Valued Families – The Lesbian Mothers Legal Handbook, (London, Women’s Press).