by Ruth Mahaney
Cut, no. 19, December 1978, p. 6
Finally we have a film I am proud to recommend to anyone, gay or straight, for what it says about lesbianism. IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF THE CHILDREN is a series of portraits of lesbian mothers and their children. They discuss their lives, their relationships with each other, and the problems and benefits of being or having a lesbian mother. The point comes through very strongly that lesbian mothers are very much like other mothers: they worry when their children are sick and make endless peanut butter sandwiches.
We see mothers and children in their homes, playing together, unpacking groceries, and interacting with each other. We hear of the struggles of women and their children to be allowed to live together. And of the struggles of the children in a world that finds their mothers unacceptable. One child's best friend is no longer allowed to see her because her mother is a lesbian. Another tells his mother that he had been afraid to tell his friends, but that now they all think it's fine that his mother is a lesbian. One of the highlights is a gathering of the children in which they discuss their mothers: "How has your mother changed since she became a lesbian?" "She's a lot happier …" and themselves: "I know about more things than other kids."
We are experiencing a nationwide attack against gay people, especially whenever gays have contact with children. This visual testimony to the very beautiful relationships that exist between lesbians and children is a powerful weapon against that attack.
The motivation for making the film was the constant problems lesbians are having in child custody fights. There is a tremendous need for "respectable" court testimony on behalf of lesbian mothers. The quality of a lesbian's mothering is under constant scrutiny. The threat of losing her children is very real to any mother who is a lesbian. Anyone can challenge her custody, and, until recently, no known lesbian had been granted custody by the courts. Lesbian mothers are forced to stay in the closet, or placate ex-husbands, parents, and welfare workers, or take the risk of losing their kids. This reality keeps women from speaking out very strongly against the status quo or from being very open about being gay. It's no coincidence that many other women fear the loss of the custody of their kids: women who go to prison, disabled women, women on welfare. The state has the power to judge any of us "unfit mothers."
So the film was to be a tool for use in court to defend us, to show that lesbians are good mothers, are close to and good to their kids, and are real people "like anyone else." The main difference is that lesbians have to deal with discrimination because they are lesbians. The film makes all these points quit well. But it walks a fine line here. On the one hand we are asking the courts to ignore our lesbianism as a factor in custody of our children; we are no different from other mothers. Yet many of us feel that our lesbianism makes us stronger and happier and quite different from other women. The film will probably not please the courts because it shows too many positive images of lesbianism, thus becoming a threat. Yet it may leave lesbian audiences dissatisfied, wanting even more positive statements. I am pleased that the filmmakers did not compromise too much in the interest of acceptance by the judicial system.
IN THE BEST INTERESTS OFTHE CHILDREN could be very useful for a woman before she herself goes to court. It validates her and renews her confidence in her own mothering, which the world is constantly trying to undermine. It's also a valuable resource for the children of lesbian mothers. Recently, a 13-year old daughter of a lesbian told me that the film helped her know what to expect when she went to court over her own custody. I never realized how much our children need support. The film shows other children in similar situations, teaches them something about the courts, and encourages them to be proud of who they are and who their mothers are.
The film has some real flaws. It doesn't discuss a movement of lesbians. Each woman (or couple) seems isolated in her life. You get very little sense of the large community of lesbians and of the power of that community when we organize together. There could be several reasons. The experience of lesbian mothers in court has shown that any time a women attempts to link her case with a larger struggle or even publicize her case, the judge will "punish her." (Jeanne Jullion was admonished by the judge for making a political case of her custody and denied custody of her sons. ) Thus, in making a film for use in courts, an emphasis on the political nature of the struggle might not be a good idea. But if the film is to serve lesbian mothers, then a sense of our collective strength and the power of our movement is crucial.
One other reason for the individual portrayal may be that, in fact, lesbian mothers have felt isolated from the lesbian community. We have not been quick to help with childcare and have even barred children from some activities. We, as a community, have played into the false stereotype that lesbians do not have children. I think the film has a wonderful effect on this problem. You fall in love with the children and come away with a strong determination to have children in your life, not just to "help out a sister" but to learn and benefit from a real relationship with a child. I for one am incredibly impressed with the children we are raising. It gives me a strong optimism for the future of a revolution. I want to be a part of this important and political work. And any film that encourages good political work is well worth the trouble.
I became aware of another problem with the film when I saw it a second time with a largely straight leftist audience. Those of us who live in a supportive, largely gay community forget how the rest of the world views lesbianism. I was surprised to find that my friends and I (the only gay people there) laughed in places in the film when no one else did. For example, when one child writes a beautiful note to her mom thanking the mother for all she has taught her, she ends it with,
I loved it. But it played into the stereotypes that even straight leftists have of us: unstable, hopping from one woman to the next. Another example was pointed out to me later. In the film Jimmy tries to show that the judge is not really interested in the child's best interest:
One woman in the audience complained that the boy doesn't like men. He has no positive male models. It made me realize with what different eyes we see things and what a hard job it is to educate people who are filled with heterosexist stereotypes and lies.
The film accomplished another important thing. It shows women of different races, which helps to destroy the stereotype that gayness is a white petit bourgeois trip. But it is difficult to determine the class of the women in the film. Since the focus is on their children and their lesbianism, they don't discuss their jobs or their survival techniques. One could assume that especially the white women are all middle class. I think the film should be clearer in showing that this is not true.
The film is well worth seeing. I am indebted to the three women who made it end the women who are in it. It is a real service to the gay community in improving our politics about children and to the straight community in improving their politics around the gay issue. And it supports the women and children who suffer the oppression brought against lesbian mothers. Whether it wins any court cases remains to be seen, but it is a film well worth the effort in any case, and a film no one should miss.
1. In the subsequent trial, Jullion won back the custody of her youngest son. However, in July 1978 her former husband kidnapped this younger son and took both boys to his home in Italy.