In 1976, the feminist magazine Spare Rib published an article on the plight of lesbian women who fought for custody of their children when they divorced. Without exception, these women lost. Custody was awarded to their ex-husbands on the grounds that it was not in children's best interests to be raised by lesbian mothers. It was argued that children who grew up with lesbian mothers would develop psychiatric disorders, would be ostracized by their peers and, most troubling of all to the courts, would grow up to be lesbian or gay themselves. The decision to award custody to heterosexual fathers in preference to lesbian mothers is particularly striking, as the custody of children following their parents’ divorce, at that time, was always granted to mothers unless their physical or mental health rendered them unfit as parents. These judgments, both in the UK and the USA, were made in the absence of research on what actually happens to children in lesbian mother families.
The Spare Rib article called for someone to conduct an objective study of the development of children in lesbian mother families. I volunteered. At that time, I was a young student of developmental psychology with an interest in women's issues and thought that this would be a novel and worth while topic for my Master's dissertation. Little did I know that I would still be researching this topic today! As attention turned from custody disputes to adoption by lesbian women, to access to assisted reproduction by lesbian women, to same-sex marriage, the same questions about the well-being of children arose, over and over again. These very same questions are now being asked about the children of gay fathers. In the intervening period, as a result of scientific advances in assisted reproductive technologies, other new family forms have emerged, including heterosexual parent families created through in vitro fertilization (IVF), donor insemination, egg donation, embryo donation and surrogacy.