Janis Hetherington – Part 4: "The custody battle"

Pony club meet with Sully the Setter

Pony club meet with Sully the Setter

Janis Hetherington was the first UK woman in an openly same-sex couple to be artificially inseminated… In this, the fourth part of her exclusive autobiographical series for Biscuit, Janis recalls the custody battle over her late lover’s child.

I look back over 40 years to that fateful day in September 1972 when my lover Judy just dropped down dead at the stupidly young age of 30. I write this piece on the day gay weddings become legal. I am feeling an envious pang and even a spark of anger that so much of my young life was lost in just fighting to keep my family unit whole whereas now condolences not condemnation would be in order. So I have changed the way I thought I might write those sad events to encompass those lost years and try and give myself the luxury of grieving this time round.

Whilst Judy’s body was still warm and her unseeing eyes still open the doctor was frantically phoning to verify that I was indeed “next of kin” and could identify her solidifying corpse. “Lesbian” was not a word in his vocabulary which he would normally use for such a purpose. Thankfully the plod were pals (much to the chagrin of those few who disapproved of us in our small village home) and were over in time to organise the dreaded body bag removal and pledge any assistance.

It wasn’t just that our rag trade business had given their wives extra pennies through their dress parties – they had a genuine rapport with Judy, who was in their words “a bit of a rough diamond”.

What should have been a day of celebration for the charity football match we’d organised to fund the village sports hall became a cold shower of realisation that suddenly my world was not acceptable. My family unit of Judy’s seven-year-old daughter (by a heterosexual liaison… and NOT the one she had with her separated husband) and our nine-month-old son (the product of artificial insemination) were not seen as in any way legitimate and we were outside the law.

My saving grace was the man I’d left to live with Judy and Judy’s business partner and her ex-lover who she’d left to be with me. Today, such complications would raise a few eyebrows but would hardly be treated with the vitriol I was subjected to over the following two years. A time when I even resented Judy for daring to die on me. Fuck! I was only 26 years old and left to cope with all this shit because she’d neglected to get divorced and stupidly  put her husband’s name on the birth certificate. She’d vowed to protect me from MY demons and instead I was beginning to hate the legacy she’d “gifted” me through her own bloody nightmares.

Proof that Judy’s ex-husband would not be considered a suitable guardian for her child seemed to me to lie in the following facts: her divorce would have gone through after less than two years (her legal separation was by the time of her death three years old); her daughter’s genetic material could be easily ascertained; and her ex-husband had not paid a penny in maintenance nor seen the child he suddenly claimed as his for six years. Perhaps most importantly I told myself that having been inseminated did not make me a freak but part of a process that has become accepted in many parts of the world.

Gee up! Nick on "Mare"

Gee up! Nick on “Mare”

Even before the funeral arrangements could be made (a minefield of explanations to the morticians) I was up in London fighting Lambeth Council for the right to continue trading at Waterloo Street Market. Passing on the license stipulated “next of kin” and they considered that this was NOT me since it was Judy’s name on the document.

Had it been our only livelihood I would have been up shit creek without a paddle but it brought in a healthy cash flow and garment turnover that enabled our boutique business to replenish with fresh stock every week. The case David Lee (my lawyer who was also my ex) bought against the council on my behalf helped change market law and now my rights of license would never be questioned.

At the cremation itself the full horror of what to expect was brought home when Judy’s adoptive family turned up (the person who had thought they would get their hands on the license had informed them of the funeral arrangements) despite having refused to accept her mad aberration and not having spoken to her since she’d revealed our relationship two years previously.

“Where’s Lisa? She’s not staying with you… She’s going back to her father… Where is she?”
“He is not her father and I can prove it, so please leave now…”
I was literally being pushed up against the chapel wall by a furious 40-something harridan, her daughter (who’d once worked for Judy) and a man Judy had accused of assaulting her as a child. Judy’s ex-partner Martin came to my rescue. They’d lived off him for years before Judy and I became lovers and he was more than aware what evil bastards they were.

Country squire Nick, aged two, on Frosty

Country squire Nick, aged two, on Frosty

Both David and he were Jewish and wealthy and although having been upset by us leaving them had respected that our love was greater than anything they could offer both in security and emotionally. They had also become great friends and business colleagues and both became my protectors and a haven during my turbulent times.

When the legal documents came to say Judy’s ex-husband was indeed fighting me for custody we were ready and primed with our ammunition. Even if it meant bastardising Lisa first and making her a ward of court so the case could be heard in a more enlightened London rather than in unsophisticated Bristol (Judy’s marriage location) where I would have stood no chance.

The battle commenced just two months after I’d last kissed her face and would continue until Nicky was nearly two years old and Lisa nine. During that time I never allowed myself the simple pleasure of tears, terrified that a show of weakness would destroy me and wreck my chances of winning.

Today the blood tests would have been simple. Then it was a new science and only reliable when conducted in Oxford – and even then was suspect. Lisa sat in a small room whilst her blood was taken and I looked at the child I knew I might have to secret into a foreign country if it looked like going against me. So easy to breakdown. So impossible if I did.

Foreign country. It could have been France where Judy and I had bought a place just a month before she died. But even getting the deposit back from that transaction had been fraught with legal jargon so it would have to be with friends elsewhere… Holland or perhaps Spain. Anywhere we could all stay together.

The French farm that would have been

The French farm that would have been

Now a bit of documentary evidence and perhaps a couple of frowns but no long-drawn-out nightmarish sets of precedents to haggle over. After umpteen family division representations it was finally accepted that Lisa was not Judy’s ex-husband’s child. Since he was on the birth certificate he could still fight for her but not on legal aid. Since this was all about money anyway – he also being after half of everything I had (and bought with my own earnings) – he dumped it, not wanting to dig into his own meagre pockets. But I can still hear his words echoing down the tape recorder used by my private dick to nail his intentions: “That so-called woman can cry her way to my bank. You’ll see, we’ll  have her house this time next year.” That was a promise he’d given to the woman he married five weeks after Judy died and with whom he already had two children. Even then I had to battle to get Lisa dewarded into my custody and prove I was a fit mother. Had I not being able to do so both children would have been taken from me.

Had I wanted to harm Judy’s ex for what he put me through? You bet. And I certainly had enough contacts from my wild child days. However, I learned that fighting the law meant changing the law, which is why I admire those who made today so special for so many. So many who will never have to battle for the right to be called mother, wife or husband in a same-sex partnership.

So I can also say thank you now finally for letting me cry.

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Janis Hetherington

Outrageously, rebelliously outspoken. Sexually incontinent. Avid supporter of lost causes: ever hopeful they will be transformed, ever fearful that once they are they will become the monsters that trampled them. Janis is the author of "Love Lies Bleeding: Memoirs of a Sexual Revolutionary".

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4 Responses to Janis Hetherington – Part 4: "The custody battle"

  • Carol Demech says:

    Profoundly sad. You are indeed a courageous and strong woman. Sometimes, I laugh at the struggles of those who fought for gay marriage. They have no idea how difficult and almost insurmountable the challenges were for those of our age. Your story is one that needed to be told. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  • Lisa Fry says:

    Absolute disgrace that you promote this story! I am Lisa quoted in these stories my mother Judy deceased cannot speak she is long dead 42 years ago turned to ash! Do you know how harmful it is to my family to read this on Facebook! When will it ever end ……I have had enough … I am going to seek legal advice and stop my story my mothers story being used for others glory!

  • janis hetherington says:

    The pen will always be mightier than the sword. Judy wrote a letter with a pen that changed the concept of how my legal team could fight a Custody battle. Lisa, her daughter has every right to say she would have preferred this not to happen if that is what she is saying. I obeyed Judy’s wishes to fight the man on Lisa’s birth certificate who was NOT Lisa’s father. It must be an almost unbearable situation that these facts are portrayed if you are unaware of them. That was never the case. There was never any chance for privacy in our family. Not because of the Custody cases but because I was Inseminated all those years ago. Had Judy lived to enjoy the son she and I brought into the world with sperm donation and Lisa have benefitted from years with her real mother I am sure the animosity she feels would have never occurred. Having two unrelated step mothers to bring her up and a brother who was always in the limelight must have been a terrible burden. I have always been open about the pitfalls that we encountered .All of us.

  • Maria Irons says:

    Whilst I sympathise Lisa losing your mother at such an early age is heart wrenching I would say you were lucky so so lucky to have someone battle to gain custody of you, to love and care for you as Janis obviously did all those years ago. Your Mothers memory is not damaged or tarnished on the contrary her memory lives on through you and your family ,through Janis and through those who read her work.

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