Some lesbians have always had babies: by their husbands, by male friends, by anonymous donor. Certainly, sexuality doesn’t seem to dampen what is dubiously known as the ‘maternal instinct’ for many. Gay men have been known to get broody too.
It was in the later part of the 1970s that lesbian parenting came into national prominence. At that time, lesbian mothers who had children in heterosexual relationships were very liable to lose their children if the fathers fought them for custody. Being a lesbian made them inherently unsuitable mothers, said judges. But many men were either more enlightened, or more reluctant to shoulder the responsibility, and as a result many lesbians went into new relationships with children from previous marriages.
One such was Babs Todd, who brought three children to her relationship with Jackie Forster. Together in 1972 they founded Sappho, a social group, and a monthly magazine to replace the old Arena 3.
At Sappho meetings they entertained many lesbians who wanted to have children and found a doctor who was prepared to offer Artificial Insemination by Donor [A.I.D.] although officially on the NHS it was only available to heterosexual married couples. A national tabloid newspaper got hold of this story, boiled with righteous indignation that lesbians were doing this while so many so-called ‘normal’ women were childless, and Jackie and the pioneering doctor were hung out to dry. It was not until the late 1990s that A.I.D. was made available on the NHS for unmarried women or same-sex couples.
However, the issue did not go away. By the 1980s more lesbians were having children than ever before but taking the matter into their own hands. Most commonly, a woman would find a close friend, often gay, and ask him to be the father of her child. In sensible arrangements, the rules of engagement were laid out carefully. Would there be intercourse, or use of a turkey baster? Would the father have a role to play in upbringing? Or support? Would the child be told who their father was, and if so, when? In other cases, it was more haphazard, with traumatic consequences.
It is nowadays axiomatic that anyone wanting to be a father will be subject to a battery of tests for medical conditions, including AIDS/HIV. In 1985-86 it was difficult for a gay man wanting to conceive with a lesbian woman to go along to his GP and talk the matter through, let alone arrange a hospital visit. There was a test for HIV antibodies, ELISA, but results were nothing like 100% accurate, and the test kit itself came with a health warning on the label, “It is inappropriate to use this test as a screen for AIDS, or as a screen for members of groups at increased risk for AIDS in the general population.”
In any case, you were reluctant to take a test which might be inaccurate, and even if accurate could offer no hope of treatment. So many couples were threshing around in a medical ad moral vacuum, caught between conflicting desires.
I was asked to father the child of a lesbian friend in 1986 and went to America for the purpose. Some of this experience is reflected in the play, but I must absolutely emphasise that this is not autobiographical.
Because it is an opera libretto, the story is simplified; the outcomes and the dynamics are changed. The piece needed a strong storyline to work within the structure Robert and I set ourselves, which life did not supply. In the libretto each parent has a partner, neither of whom really wants the child, though for different reasons. One scene however is lifted straight from life, which is the father, Perry’s, monologue as he is trying to ejaculate into a petri dish for Lou’s benefit.
One of the friends who went through a similar hoop commented on the “Brian Rixness of it all”. I think ‘The Masturbation Aria’ must be some kind of first, but I doubt it will become a staple of operatic recitals. I have also, particularly in the opening twenty minutes, tried to reflect the multiple meanings we give to babies and parenthood, and how those meanings reflect our ego and our inadequacies. Mini-Me lives on, despite our better intentions.
17 May 2020
Read the Script (Music to follow)
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