GAY TIMES July 1997

New developments in fertility technology have naturally attracted the attention of gay people who want to become parents. It was once accepted as inevitable that gay male couples could not have children unless one of them had been in a previous heterosexual relationship and brought their kids with them, but that no longer applies. And Artificial Insemination by Donor (AID), surrogacy and a more sympathetic approach to adoption and fostering mean that parenting is far from being an impossible dream for lesbian or gay couples.

Last month the whole issue came to a head in the press when a judge allowed a woman who is living in a lesbian relationship to adopt an 11-year-old girl. The tabloids immediately became hysterical. “Uproar as judge lets lesbian adopt girl” roared The Sun, which unearthed “morals campaigner” Victoria Gillick to say that the decision had been “wicked and stupid”. The Daily Mail’s preferred bigot was the recently rejected “family values” fanatic, Dr Adrian Rodgers, who bleated: “It is a sign of cultural degeneracy.”

We needed to turn to the broadsheets for a more sensible and informed approach. The Times, for instance quoted Chris Barton, Professor of Family Law at Staffordshire University: “The ruling confirmed the effect of a Scottish decision last year, making clear that there was no legal bar to adoption on the grounds of sexual orientation.”

The Sun editorialised that if the law didn’t specify that parents must be heterosexual it ought to be changed. “When the Adoption Act was passed 20 years ago, it was surely not intended that children be handed to gays or lesbians.” The paper then went on to state quite categorically: “Parents are one man and one woman.”

Well, for The Sun’s information, a lot of people’s parents are not one man and one woman. And some of the children of those same-sex parents came forward to tell their stories. The Daily Mail tracked down Nicholas Hetherington, who was the first child to be born to a lesbian using artificial insemination in 1972. The Mail’s headline over the story says “He was Britain’s first baby born to lesbian parents. Today Nicholas is 25, divorced and uncertain of his own sexuality.”

It soon becomes clear, however, that Nicholas’s only real doubts about his sexuality are minor ones, the sort that just about everybody has at some stage. He experimented at school with other boys, but didn’t like it. He preferred girls and found them attractive. He even married one, although it didn’t work out (nothing sinister about that — ask the millions of other divorced heterosexuals). The headline gives the impression that Nicholas has been deeply damaged by his experiences in a lesbian household. His account of things shows this not to be the case: “The fact that my mother was gay and living in a gay relationship didn’t make me gay. What it did was give me an awareness of all aspects of life. It was a liberal upbringing and I became very open-minded about all situations. I was willing to accept anybody, warts and all.”

If only more young people could say that, the world would surely be a better place.

Not to be outdone, The Express interviewed another family, that of Ruby Harvey who is lesbian and has a daughter, Amanda, who is now 22. Amanda tells that she was bullied at school, and that her mother and her female lover were persecuted by neighbours. But they came through it and thrived. The Harvey family are happy, close and love each other dearly.

In The Independent, Andrew G Marshall wrote “In praise of lesbian mothers” and quoted Dr Fiona Tasker, a psychologist at Birkbeck College in London and author of I’m Growing up in A Lesbian Family — Effects on Child Development. Dr Tasker studied two groups of children whose parents had divorced: one raised by lesbian mothers, the other by single heterosexual mothers. She returned to her study sample after 14 years to see how they had developed as young adults. “Long-term mental health, family relationships, memories of school days and sexual identity were all tracked. We found there were no major differences between the two groups, although the young people raised by lesbians seemed to have a better relationship with their mother’s new girlfriend than the heterosexual group did with their stepfathers.”

Andrew G Marshall concludes that maybe heterosexuals are anxious about their own parenting skills and scapegoat lesbian parents “because it allows everybody else to feel better without having to change”.

But whatever positive images are projected in the features pages, it doesn’t seem to stop the hysteria in the news pages, as we saw over the next story — the “pickle jar” lesbian.

Lisa Whiting inseminated herself using sperm donated by a friend and has given birth to a baby girl. She and her partner, Dawn, are now being pursued by the Child Support Agency, which is demanding that they name the father or have their benefits cut. If they had been inseminated by a registered fertility clinic, the CSA would have had no jurisdiction over them, but because they couldn’t afford it and did it themselves, they could lose 40 per cent of their income.

The tabloids were particularly interested in the vessel in which the sperm had been collected, the aforementioned pickle jar. Day after day these lesbians were vilified and commented upon. “Must we pay lesbians to conceive by pickle jar?” asked the sensitive and kindly Richard Littlejohn in The Daily Mail. He said that “Nothing will prevent lesbians having babies provided they can find a willing donor. And if they can support them financially, then it’s none of our business. But when two able-bodied women decide to milk the system to fund their selfish indulgences it becomes our business.”

If Mr Littlejohn had stuck to this “let’s end the dependency culture” argument it might have been tolerable, but his seething hatred for homosexuals is barely concealed, and this turned into just another opportunity to give us a kicking.

No sooner had the “pickle jar” lesbians been disposed of than a male gay couple, Chris Joyce and Russell Conlon, suddenly found themselves splashed all over the papers. They work for the gay parenting group called Happy Families, and had given an interview to the Today programme on Radio 4. This was then picked up by the newspapers who quickly stripped the men of their dignity, and turned the story to their advantage. “A sickening story to shock Britain” said The Sun. “The gay couple who claim the right to share a baby” was The Daily Mail’s headline.

Russell and Chris have, according to the papers, been seeking a lesbian couple — one of whom would act as a surrogate mother for them. “When the child is born they want it to live with them for half the week and with the lesbians for the other half,” reported the Mail.

The couple both have disabilities and both are unemployed and on benefits. They have already applied to adopt a child, but have been turned down — Russell says on the grounds that they are gay, although the council insists it is because of their disabilities and the fact that they are living on state support.

Russell Conlon is quoted as saying: “It is our God-given right to be parents and have children. We have a lot of love and experience to give.” And it is at this stage that the professional moralism enter the fray. Child-rearing is not the arena for social experimentation, they say. And children are not status symbols to be acquired like the latest model motor car.

“Nobody has the right to be a parent,” said The Sun. “It is a precious gift. But surely nature never intended homosexuals to father and raise children? The two gays who are searching for a lesbian surrogate mother are making a mockery of parenthood… Being loving and caring is not enough — parents must be able to teach by example. Men who share a bed are a bad example.”

This idea of the “right” to parenthood was explored in a letter to The Guardian from Andrea Marks who said: “Parenthood is not a right… It is abhorrent to envisage children as vehicles to gratify our desire for love and respect. Quite the opposite: it is our duty and privilege to love and respect our children. Nothing must interfere with that – certainly not the selfish needs of those who see parenting as a right rather than a responsibility.”

But I can’t get my head round this one. Surely it is The Sun that has no “right” to tell anyone that they can’t be a parent, and surely Andrea Marks has no “right” to chastise gay people for wanting children. How can you love and respect your children until you’ve got them? Russell and Chris may not be the gay community’s dream representatives in the battle for gay parenting, but they are human beings, and who exactly is going to decide who is worthy of being a parent and who isn’t? Dr Adrian Rodgers, perhaps? Or maybe the editor of The Sun?

Lots of us were born into poverty but have turned out to be reasonable human beings because we were loved and nurtured. Material privilege is no guarantee of successful parenting — look at the Queen and her family! Dysfunctional or what?

Simon Jenkins summed it all up in The Times: “Those opposed to advances in assisted pregnancy maintain that their interest lies ‘with the child’. This is usually an excuse for intrusive, repressive and reactionary interference in personal freedom. Governments cannot make children happy. All they can do is ease the path to happiness for miserable parents. Science offers help to thousands for whom children have been an unattainable blessing. The only immorality is to stand in their way.”

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