Janis Hetherington was the first lesbian in Britain to conceive by artificial insemination. On the 40th anniversary of her son's conception, she talks about her pioneering family, sudden death and tabloid fury.
In a sleepy Oxfordshire village 40 years ago, Janis Hetherington and her partner Judy sat in their local pub with their farming neighbours and toasted the extraordinary thing they had just done. Earlier that day the couple had driven to a clinic in London. There, a doctor inseminated her with a syringe and told her to hold her feet up for while, before they sped back to Bicester for last orders.
Janis was the first lesbian in Britain to have a child by artificial insemination. The momentous event that four decades on continues to raise eyebrows, passed at the time without fanfare and headlines. "We had no reason to come forward," Janis says. Their GP was delighted and insisted she was treated like any other expectant mother and, in January 1972, aged 26, Janis gave birth to her son, Nick, with Judy at her side. The only sign of what might be to come was when the hospital matron put her in a side ward, saying the sight of two women having a child would upset other patients.
Those prejudices towards same-sex parents exploded on to the front pages in October 1977, after two tabloid reporters, posing as lesbians who wanted to conceive, "exposed" a clinic that offered female couples insemination. Several Tory MPs responded by calling for the practice to be banned, claiming children needed "normal" parents.
Janis decided to step into the limelight and take a stand. By then, the Hetheringtons were living a settled life in north London and the unusual circumstances of Nick's conception were known and accepted within their community. She rebuffed the critics, pointing out that her son was "perfectly normal, and very intelligent". For days, reporters camped outside their door. Nick and Janis then appeared in a BBC documentary followed by a US film by NBC.
The clouds of that media storm have circled the family, on and off, ever since. Janis is 65 now and looks the arch English eccentric as she sits on a sofa in the 18th-century house in Oxfordshire that she shares with her long-term partner. She says she was aware at the time of how momentous Nick's conception was. "Yes, I knew the responsibility I had – as his mother – and also if I blew it, I'd blow it for everyone else. Other women – gay friends – had said, 'Gosh, we didn't know that was possible. Perhaps we should think about it.'"
It was when Janis met Judy, aged 24, that she began to seriously want a child. Aware she was a lesbian since the age of four, she gallivanted through a sexually adventurous youth, but when she met Judy she was looking for a relationship and was surprised to find herself falling for a woman who was not only married but the mother of a five-year-old daughter, Lisa. Within a week, they decided to settle down. Judy had separated from her husband several years earlier. "It was because of Lisa – being a mother to her, more than anything, reminded me that I could have a child and I didn't have to have a man," she says.
Then it was just a matter of working out how. Forty years ago, artificial insemination in Britain was rare, unavailable on the NHS and carried a stigma even for heterosexual couples. But Janis had moved in permissive circles in Paris during her teens, working as a brothel-keeper. There she had heard about a couple who had become parents via insemination. It was 1962. "At 16, it didn't occur to me it was something I'd want to do, but obviously the germ was there and I could see how over the next 10 years that germ became very important to me," Janis says.
In London, Janis found a doctor willing to inseminate her. After getting the signed consent of two psychiatrists, the requirement at the time, she had to find a donor. "But I didn't want anyone that was going to have an influence over my life or that I would feel the necessity to have to ask for permission and share the child with," she says. The doctor asked if she would object to him being the donor. "He was quite a nice-looking chap. I said, 'Are you going to be terribly expensive?' And he said no. That was it. We agreed he'd have no involvement with the child whatsoever," she says.
"From his point of view, he was entering uncharted waters in terms of the ethics," she says. But because there was no intimate physical contact between them they felt it was fine.
For nine "idyllic" months after Nick was born, the couple settled into rural life with their two children. But tragically, it all fell apart when Judy died of a heart attack, aged only 30. Her death flung Janis into yet more uncharted waters when she became the first person in a same-sex relationship to fight for custody.
"I told Lisa I'd never let her go," Janis says. But within hours of Judy's death, it was apparent that being legally recognised as Judy's partner and Lisa's parent was going to be a struggle. When Judy died, a doctor told Janis he needed a "proper" next of kin to identify her body. At the funeral, Judy's aunt told Janis she'd never get custody of Lisa.
The ensuing court wrangles with Judy's estranged husband – who was not Lisa's biological father – involved proving he was not her father at a time when DNA testing and paternity cases were rarely heard in a courtroom. She also had to be assessed by a magistrate as to whether she was a "capable mother". "I cooked for him, put on brilliant displays. But I was a good mother. I wasn't conventional. I was honest with him. Motherhood is fighting. It's your most basic instinct. The one thing I wanted was to protect my babies and bring them up."
After two years of legal battles, Janis adopted Lisa.
Nick, now 39, left for America when he was 21 (he lives in New York) where he started a property business. He feels he has always known the facts of his conception because he was aware of the media interest in it from such a young age. "We were in this fishbowl. We were being investigated. Teachers, MPs, newspapers – anyone that had an interest in our life – were looking for it to fall apart," he says.
'I was very protective of Mummy and I felt my role was to say, 'Our family's normal and I'm straight.' But I think we've got to a place now where we should be able to say, 'Well, it wasn't normal. It was difficult.' We were the first family – but we don't need to be the spin-masters for this movement and community any more."
His childhood was far from ordinary, Nick says. "Mummy's in her 60s now but you take that va-va-voom she's got and get her in her 20s and 30s and it was a very open, wild upbringing. There were a lot of parties. She'd go to a gay club and come back with a bunch of people. There was dancing, music. Never drugs, but a lot of fun and exploring and experimenting."
At school he always had friends and encountered little prejudice towards his family set-up. But his unusual conception gave him a great sense of being alone. "If you're the only one, if you have something nobody else does, then you can't share those experiences with anyone. I felt misunderstood in some cases. There was a sense of wanting to be normal."
Nick was a precocious child, treated like an adult from an early age. "But it's a double-edged sword. You've got to let a kid be a kid. There were times when there was too much abandon."
Unsure where their boundaries lay, he tested them by having a fling with an older man he met at the Royal theatre, where he had started to act. He was 16, it was the mid-80s and, worried about Aids and her son's welfare, Janis "freaked out", he says. "She had always been very open and worried that she hadn't allowed me to be my own person. She wanted to take control of the situation and took me to the doctor; it was awfully embarrassing. She got the theatre involved. It was just horrible. It took me years to go back to her and say, 'I get why you did it but it's not the way I would have handled it.'"
Nick has now found a community he can share his childhood experiences with in New York by volunteering for an American charity, Colage, run by and for children, young people and adults with one or more lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender parents. "I always felt I was an outsider. I don't any more," he says. He has had a "fleeting but never overwhelming" curiosity about his biological father, whom he has never met.
Nick married his partner of more than a decade, Soo, earlier this year and would like a family of his own. Significantly, it will follow a more traditional model than his upbringing. "Until my mid-20s, monogamy was something I thought was boring. Then I met Soo. I wanted to have the experience of falling in love and being faithful to one woman. It's more important to me to honour that agreement with Soo than betray it. Maybe I feel I'm quite prudish compared with my mum."
Article: Saturday 4th June 2011 www.guardian.co.uk
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