Children of the revolution: The battle for equal rights for gay and lesbian parents goes on

When Grace Goodbean and Netty Redish noticed that one of the girls they were fostering never brought friends home from school, they decided to ask her whether it was because she was embarrassed that they were lesbians. "We were wondering," they asked her, "if you might not be inviting people home because of us." "Oh no," she said. "Everyone knows I'm fostered!"

Goodbeam believes it sums up young people's attitude to their gay parenting. "It hadn't entered her head that we might be talking about being lesbians. That was a complete non-issue for her."

And why should it be? "All the research is very consistent that children raised in gay and lesbian families aren't any different from other children in terms of psychological wellbeing and all aspects of their development, including gender development," says Susan Golombok, professor of family research and director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, and co-author of Growing Up in a Lesbian Family.

It's not just attitudes towards gay parenting that are changing. The last decade has seen fundamental legislative changes that have enabled more gay and lesbian people to parent and foster than ever before. "For instance, now a mother wouldn't lose custody simply on the grounds of sexual orientation and it's now possible in this country for same sex families to adopt children jointly," says Golombok.

The gay parenting scene is, however, still far from ideal. "When I started working in this field more than 30 years ago, there were assumptions about children being bullied, that the boys would be feminine and the girls would be masculine and that they would struggle with their own sexuality. And while all the evidence points to this not being the case, the same assumptions still come up today. Then it was around custodial issues; today it's around assisted reproduction."

She could not have chosen a hotter topic in the world of gay parenting. As it stands, the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act – which is currently being debated in parliament – has a requirement that fertility clinics consider a (potential) child's "need for a father". Equal opportunity campaigners believe it should be replaced with the phrase "supportive parenting." As it is, they say, single and lesbian women may be discriminated against. Those opposing the change, including many on the Conservative front bench, who insist on the phrase "supportive parenting and a father or a male role model."

In practice, most fertility clinics have, at least in the last few years, ignored the requirement. But the fact remains that eligibility criteria in the NHS still requires the presence of a man and a woman and if the Tory frontbenchers get their way, that will remain the case. The result is that some lesbians and single women have felt forced to take along a man, pretending that he'll father the child. Worse still, some decide to go to backstreet suppliers instead, many of which use unscreened sperm.

"And that's the consequence," says Ben Summerskill, chief executive of Stonewall. "These women will not not have children – they'll just have children through dangerous methods."

Not only does the sperm carry health risks, on account of the man not being screened – including for HIV – but women's basic requirements may be ignored, including their requirement for an ethnicity matching theirs.

"Also, where women use a regulated fertility clinic, any child conceived can access information about their biological father. Obviously, where women opt for an informal process, where sperm donors are usually anonymous, that doesn't happen."

There's a second issue in the bill with which Stonewall takes issue. "At the moment if, say, two women who want a child together via donor sperm, only the biological mother is the legal parent. The other partner has to adopt the child if they want any legal rights. There is a proposal that the bill eradicates that, bringing it in line with married couples who present to a clinic, where the husband – although not a biological parent – is given the right to become a legal parent," says Stonewall.

Stonewall believes the latter issue is a tidying-up exercise following the introduction of civil partnerships, while the first is about ensuring lesbians simply have equal rights to heterosexuals. But those opposing the changes say it is "hammering a nail into the coffin of the traditional family", to use Iain Duncan Smith's words. Could it be that this is an anti-gay argument dressed up as something else? Stonewall reports that many people think so, even some Conservative voters. "One on the front bench has said it has the sense of section 28 about it," says Summerskill.

Many gay and lesbian people wanting families turn to adoption. David Holmes, chief executive of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, reports that numbers have been fast increasing, particularly since 2002.

"The Adoption and Children Act 2002 was a key date because it enabled unmarried couples – both heterosexual and homosexual – to adopt jointly for the first time," he explains. "They'd always been able to adopt individually, but being able to do so jointly was essentially the state recognising the validity of these relationships. It also meant adoption agencies now can't discriminate against people because of their sexuality."

He admits that the picture is still mixed. "There is some excellent practice, but we're still not where we should be."

Once again, the assumptions that Golombok refers to come into play.

"Certainly, in the lead-up to 2002, there was a massive debate about whether outcomes would be worse for children brought up by same sex couples. But the reality is that children need families, and sexuality is secondary. If you have a couple of a nurse and a teacher and a child with disabilities – just for argument's sake – then the fact that this couple are same sex is a long way down the line in terms of relevance."

Malcolm Phillips, manager of Fosterline, the helpline for the Fostering Network, says it is increasingly recognised that single sex families can offer added value in some cases. "Some young people do not want to live with men or indeed women as their primary carers because of past experiences," he points out.

Nevertheless, he admits, in Scotland there are still some prohibitions and even in England, where there isn't and where there has never been a legislative ban on gay, lesbian or bisexual people fostering, "there was historic prejudice and confusion for many years and there is a remnant of that around."

That said, Fosterline now receives a very small number of calls from people who voice concerned about being excluded or discriminated against because of their sexuality.

"That is a massive change since the Eighties and Nineties," says Phillips.

'My son is very proud that he has two mummies'

Melissa Jo Smith and her partner have two children, aged four and 15 months.

We've encountered no prejudice locally. But we live in Peckham, south London, an area with a lot of lesbian parents, so nobody blinks an eye about it. The only time I've encountered disapproval is from some of my friends' parents. I was surprised how much I was hurt by that. But then again, they were suggesting that my children shouldn't exist, which is hurtful.

My son is very proud that he has two mummies. He talks happily in class about it. There may be some bullying in the future, I suppose, but only because children pick on anything different they can find. I wouldn't imagine it's greatly different from wearing glasses. Beyond that, I'm anticipating some element of an identity crisis, perhaps in his teenage years. All we can do is think about how we will approach such things and our feeling is that if you can instil your own sense of pride about who you are from a young age, that will go a long way.

We went to a clinic to use an unknown donor. We would ideally have used a known donor, so our children know about their father, but we didn't want anyone else directly involved in the upbringing of our children.

I have recently launched a service designed to help lesbian and gay people through the process of becoming parents, offering support. It started because so many people came to me for advice. There is so much to know and I found I was quite good at passing on research and information. For instance, lesbians are often treated as if we are infertile by the clinics, because that's what they're used to dealing with. So they push IVF very early in the treatment, whereas that's not always necessary. I encourage women to not to take fertility drugs if they don't need them.

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