When I came out as a lesbian in the late 1970s, lesbian mothers were demonised as the root of all evil. Their “unnatural acts” meant that if they entered a custody battle with a former partner, even if it were established that he was violent, they would rarely be awarded custody of their children.
It was very rare for lesbians to procreate in those days, although the turkey baster was occasionally dragged out of hibernation and used for self-insemination purposes. Buying sperm from a clinic or private source was unheard of. Women would call upon the services of gay male friends to make a donation to help create a lesbian family. They rarely asked even for visiting rights.
I recall one hilarious car journey up the motorway with a friend who was trying to get pregnant. She had arranged to meet the donor in a service station, and when he appeared from the loo with the sterilised pill bottle she ran to the ladies where she sat for 10 minutes in a cubicle with her legs in the air whilst desperate travellers knocked on the door.
It was a book about gay fatherhood that reportedly provided fuel for the Thatcher government’s section 28 legislation. Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin describes a few days in the life of Jenny, her father, Eric, and his boyfriend Martin who lives with them. In those days it was very hard to be accepted as same-sex parents, even within the gay community.
How things have changed. Now you can’t move at the school gates for lesbian and gay parents dropping off their offspring. Laws and policies on gay adoption and fostering have changed for the better, and reproduction in general has become commercialised and normalised.
More gay men are opting to use surrogacy as a means of reproducing, having had bad experiences of the fostering and adoption process. No one can deny that prejudice towards lesbian and gay applicants for adoption still exists, despite changes in the law, but the growing acceptance and popularity of the rent-a-womb industry has resulted in exploitation.
Increasing numbers of lesbians are also paying privately for sperm and IVF, and therefore clinics are making money out of a whole new demographic.
How did this happen? Lesbians used to say that one of the many advantages of not being heterosexual was not having to worry about unplanned pregnancy, or have the expectation of motherhood hanging over our heads. Is the reason so many gay people are reproducing that it makes us appear more “like them”?
There is still prejudice towards lesbian and gay parents today. Three years ago, a Civitas study claimed it found “rife gender confusion” among daughters of lesbian mothers, with the researcher saying: “The adoption agencies and ministers behind these reforms [to enable same-sex couples to adopt] are doing this to appease the gay rights lobby. It is possible children will be emotionally damaged. We just don’t know the consequences.”
Some gay men I have spoken to while researching my book have said that the reaction from even good liberal folk to the notion of them having children is one of suspicion and a lack of understanding. There are those who will assume that dark, ulterior motives are involved in the decision.
We do know the consequences of children being brought up by loving and stable lesbian and gay parents, because there are enough examples around for us to judge.
However, the fact remains that these days I regularly feel more judged and pitied for not having children than I do for being a lesbian. Several child-free friends say they feel the same. By normalizing the “gay family” are we not further entrenching the notion of “good” and “bad” lesbians and gay men? Will the fact that so many of us are tied down with nappies and childcare mean that we will forget to be activists and retreat further into our own selfish world? Or will creating more children brought up in alternative families result in a better world for all? Tell me what you think. After all, discussion breeds understanding.
• To fill out the survey that will inform Julie Bindel’s book Straight Expectations, go here if you identify as heterosexual, and here if you identify as other than heterosexual