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'There are lots of gay families out there'

Janis Hetherington was the first UK lesbian mother to be artificially inseminated. Hers is a story of courage, custody battles – and refusal to conform

Janis Hetherington sits with her back erect on a pink chaise, in a pink room. We are in the understated grandeur of her 17th-century longhouse in a sleepy town in Oxfordshire, which she shares with her long-term partner, Barbara. Her grey hair is wound in a tight plait and pinned to her head. With wide trousers, waistcoat, jaunty cravat and a hanky in her pocket she resembles a country gent about to go hunting.

More than 40 years ago, Janis was the first lesbian in the UK to undergo artificial insemination. For anyone else that might have been a daunting decision, fraught with fear of the potential repercussions and prejudice, but for Janis it was only one of several controversial decisions that have characterised her life.

Age hasn't calmed her wild ways; at 66, she's still a massive flirt. "If I were 20 years younger!" she cackles, patting my knee, with a Cheshire cat grin and saucer-wide eyes. To say Janis has a high sex drive is an understatement. In her youth, she was, "totally addicted to, if you like, sex. It was bliss." She says it with a Miranda-style primness, all Patricia Hodge plummy tones – but there's a Carry On whimsy to her saucy life story.

As a teenager, Janis was determined to explore her sexuality and she took a 25-year-old lover when she was just 15. "A lot of people would say she should be arrested," she says. "That's absolute rubbish. I mean, I was the one seducing her!"

At 16, she travelled to France, where she was recruited into a brothel and at just 18 moved back to London to start up a sex business of her own. During that time she was raped and became pregnant, but at seven months, she miscarried. By the age of 25, Janis felt she had "done everything" and the lifestyle had begun to wear her down; "it wasn't all a bed of roses" she says despondently. She began to long for stability, a partner – and a baby.

"She was scared and exhausted and she also felt trapped. She had this great, glamorous life but what she really needed was someone to love her for who she really was," says Nick, Janis's son.

Now 41, Nick is married, living in New York and is working on the screenplay of his mother's life. He's had uncomfortable conversations that a son might not normally have with his mother, but it's helped him to understand her. "I've become almost her biographer," he says.

In 1971, aged 25, Janis met Judy. Ten days later, they left London for Bicester, Oxfordshire, bringing Judy's five-year-old daughter, Lisa, with them. They settled down, ran a dress shop together and got involved in the local women's football team. They quickly decided to have a child.

The fertility doctor actually donated his own sperm for the insemination. "Whether it was fresh sperm or frozen I don't know ... but he disappeared with his assistant nurse who was quite pretty and he came back looking quite happy," says Janis with a giggle.

It was the 1970s and artificial insemination was virtually unheard of, but the community in Bicester was very supportive. "They were all looking forward to it. I used to go hunting with the guys and they would say, 'we'll set her with our spray' – they had this spray they used on the sows to set the sperm, but I said, 'you're not getting into my knickers thank you very much!'"

Nine months after Nick was born, Judy died of a heart attack, age 30. "I knew she was dying, because I could hear it – the death rattle, eyes sightless... we got her up on the bed and [a medic friend] started to resuscitate her... you could see her body filling with air... I just knew she was dead. I looked out the window and I felt her go past me and somehow I knew she was gone."

The attendant doctor refused to acknowledge Janis as the next of kin. "I said for fuck's sake, she's dead. She's my lover. That's my child we've had together. If you don't believe me get the fucking police."

A battle for custody of Lisa quickly ensued and lasted two years in which Janis had no time to grieve. "I was angry, absolutely angry. It was almost as if I had evolved as a butterfly and I was going back to being a caterpillar. I had nothing. I had no rights."

"I think in some ways Mummy never got over Judy's death and that was incredibly hard," says Nick. When Nick was two, Janis and Barbara became an item. "We were trying to find out who we were to each other and it was very difficult for Lisa, who had lost her mum... [Janis] is not the easiest mum to have, not because of her sexuality, but because of who she was ... but you strip away the layers and realise she is extremely vulnerable."

Janis and Barbara were always open with the children about how Nick had been conceived, although he wasn't fully aware of the life Janis had before he was born. Growing up, Lisa was lavished with presents and both children had a liberal upbringing.

Aside from a brief experimental fling at 16 with a man, Nick is straight and thoroughly conventional – although he says this was partly due to the pressure he felt to prove to the world he was normal. He is still close to both Barbara and Janis (whom he calls "Mummy and Mummy"), but Lisa moved to Australia to start a family and has just become a grandmother for the first time. Lisa doesn't speak to Janis or Barbara – although she and Nick often talk.

Janis is surprised there are still challenges to be met regarding sexuality today. "I can't understand why people are making such an issue about gay marriage and gay families now. Did they just think it would go away? I do feel totally in a time warp. It's like I am Doctor Who in that bloody telephone box and everything I represented 40 years ago – people have suddenly started to realise it. Why has it taken all this time?"

The issue of lesbian insemination has come to the forefront of the news agenda recently, as same-sex couples will be included in the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines on IVF treatment for the first time. The guidelines state those hoping to start a family should be treated according to the same criteria as heterosexual couples.

"'Alternative families' is almost a derogatory name," says Janis, "but now mainstream media are talking about them, perhaps Britain will wake up to the fact there are gay families out there. Besides, the story is not about me any more, the story is about my son, ask him."

I do: "It doesn't matter what sort of environment you grow up in, straight, bi or transgender, but that family has to be strong and if it's not strong it will be shitty and, certainly growing up, ours was not strong." Despite those early hurdles, Nick says they are now close. "I now have that unity [with my mother] and my sister has found that unity with her own family."

Janis says although the process of telling Nick her life story was "excruciating" she trusted him not to reject her, and he, in turn, felt it explained a lot. "I probably know more about her than anyone else on the planet. There were always a lot of holes that I couldn't figure out. I felt more filled out, more complete when I found out, because it's part of you, isn't it? And all those things you were mad about you sort of go, 'Ah, OK,' and she stops being your mum, in a way, and she is just a human."

'Love Lies Bleeding: Memoirs of a Sexual Revolutionary' by Janis Hetherington is available from Amazon